Narrative Designer (How to Kickstart Your Career) (2023)

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Have you ever poured hours upon hours into a game like Final Fantasy VII, hanging onto every scrap of a story to see what happens?

(Spoiler for a 20-year-old game)…

Avenging Aeris, stopping the evil Sephiroth, and finding out about the true origins of our favorite spiky-haired protagonist, Cloud Strife. Once Sephiroth flew down and impaled Aeris on his katana, I knew two things:

  1. I had to stop him, and
  2. I had to keep playing for this phenomenal storyline.

The game possessed a gripping story that made you care about multiple aspects of the game as a whole. So, what sets it apart from other games? What was the structure it followed?

You may want to partake in this process, becoming a narrative designer yourself. But what are the steps involved? Does it take a while to become one? Are there specialized forms of education to do this?

Patience, padawan; there will be myriad answers in this overlook of the career path of a narrative designer.

Table of Contents:

What Is Game Narrative?

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A game narrative is a multitude of things in a game to drive plot and storyline: dialogue, atmosphere, and more.

Overall, these aspects are meant to heavily draw the player into the story, raising the stakes and developing bonds between players and these characters like Cloud and Sephiroth.

The game narrative in Final Fantasy VII pulled off these facets to the point where you were all at once scared, angry, sad, inspired, and adventurous.

Successful game narratives leave a lasting impact on the gamer and the gaming world.

Think of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. The very first level, the tutorial dungeon, has the main character along for an atmospheric, deep storyline involving Emperor Uriel Septim fleeing from assassins through an underground system of caverns and dungeons.

Gradually, the player is made privy to bits and pieces of the storyline. By the end of the tutorial, the player cares what happens to the emperor, despite only knowing him for under an hour.

That is some great narrative gameplay.

Even games like the acclaimed and addictive Deus Ex involves some seriously solid game narrative. On the first level alone, you get a real sense of what the stakes are in this game. You are tasked with stopping a guerilla terrorist group, the NSF, from taking over Liberty Island. They have set up a base there and are wreaking havoc upon anyone attempting to stop them.

You have different ways to approach this scenario: do you go in guns blazing? Or do you take a more silent approach, never letting the NSF know you are even there? This alone is narrative design.

Regardless of the approach, you will encounter small groups of terrorists milling about, waiting for conflict. You will hear them talk to each other about the current situation, pulling the player into their world.

These simple snippets of ambient dialogue, (that a player could easily miss), are some of the most important aspects of game narratives.

By the end of the mission, you have a firm grasp on what is going on in this dystopian future New York City: terrorists, plagues, seedy government organizations, and even the Illuminati.

That’s perfect narrative game design.

Education

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That is all well and good, but how do you begin your prospective career in game narrative design?

There are multiple courses in game-related fields, as well as creative writing classes, majors, and more. You can partake in more specialized courses, namely for game writing, or you can utilize a straightforward education in something like literature or the aforementioned creative writing.

Here is where I will list some great options for the budding writer. First, I will offer more specific courses, followed by universities and colleges.

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Coursera

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Coursera is a site that offers a ton of different online classes for everyone to take advantage of. For the curious game writer, this is a great option if you do not want to find yourself in debt up to your eyeballs.

This course is aptly titled ‘Story and Narrative Development for Video Games’. The instructor, Dariush Derakhshani, is a veteran of animation, SFX, and computer graphics. His resume should reassure anyone skeptical about any of these courses that you will be taught by someone who has made their bones in the business.

This course is comprehensively outlined on the site, going week by week on what students will be engaging in.

For example, week 2 tackles game story structure:

“In this week, we will draw a parallel between last week’s discussion on rising action and how that relates to gameplay. Looking at a pair of contemporary games, we’ll learn how to identify story structure and themes of rising action, just like we would with traditional stories and movies. Lastly, we’ll evaluate the role that primary and secondary characters come to play in the unveiling of a game’s story and discuss the importance of understanding how these games present their stories in the actual gameplay.”

This is a solid option for those:

  • who are degree holders and want to supplement their CV for future possible careers, and
  • those who are on a tight budget.

Now, for accredited schools. These are schools ranked best for creative writing programs and undergraduate degrees.

Columbia University

Location: New York, New York

The famous Columbia University in downtown Manhattan is one of the best, comprehensive creative writing undergraduate degrees you can get. You can make it through the entire degree without taking a literature class if that is more your style.

This university’s creative writing workshop and the program have been involved with some writing greats like Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. If you can afford it and can provide the top grades required to break through into their 6% acceptance rate, you will have no better chance of getting a narrative education.

Princeton University

Location: Princeton, New Jersey

Now here’s a shocker, Princeton’s acceptance rate is a little higher—6.5%! Okay, okay, so maybe it isn’t exactly easy, but it is worth it!

To be fair, it’s an Ivy League school after all.

This university’s degree is more geared towards those who are more interested in short stories and poetry. There are in-depth writing programs that have been graced by the presence of Pulitzer Prize winners and other great authors.

Emerson College

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

With an acceptance rate of nearly 50%, getting into Emerson with some solid grades is a little more realistic than the previous schools. However, the higher acceptance rate, the program offered at Emerson is no less impressive than Columbia and Princeton.

Like the others, Emerson was home to many famous literature giants and offers an impressive BFA program in creative writing.

University of Iowa

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

This is a valuable writers’ residency program at Iowa’s writers’ workshop. Alumni from this program include some literature greats: Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Penn Warren, and Philip Roth; a veritable who’s who in influential writers of the 20th century.

University of Michigan

Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan

The writing program at the University of Michigan is titled the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and has been visited by prolific authors and essayists.

What Happens After You Get Your Degree?

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The ultimate question for anyone who has just graduated from any form of school. It can seem scary, intimidating, and a little exciting. Now that you have your appropriate degree from one of these institutions, here is a little guidance for you.

Apply for jobs or go freelance

This is pretty straightforward and a little insultingly obvious, but you need to apply.

You should create your routine every day of applying to different writing gigs. This can be supplemented by starting a minor side project of being a freelancer.

It will also build up your portfolio. Although maybe not as steady as you would like, building a portfolio is crucial to breaking into the game writing business. Which brings us to the next step.

Build your portfolio

Building your portfolio is basically how the world will see you as a writer. By delivering consistent, detailed work to different clients, you can build up your credibility in the business.

Practice, practice, practice

Sorry to tell you but that fancy degree or certification won’t mean squat if you don’t hone your writing skills constantly. You could have the best resume concerning education, but if your writing is rusty, you might be in for a rude awakening.

You also should read a lot.

It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you get into the groove of reading the written word. From sappy romance books to classical literature, it doesn’t really matter.

As Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin states when asked how to become a successful author:

The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you’re trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers…. Every writer has something to teach you, for good or ill. (And yes, you can learn from bad books as well as good ones — what not to do)

Pay and Salary

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According to PayScale, the average salary for a game writer is $67,500; not too shabby, especially for coming up with some badass storylines to captivate players.

This salary is based on certain factors and is not universal to everyone getting into the field. You need to consider the following:

  • your level of education,
  • years in the business, and
  • the city you are working in.

A lot of the big bucks may reside in the big cities rather than somewhere like Topeka, Kansas. Just something to consider.

How Do You Write a Video Game Story?

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The ultimate question! It seems easy when you are playing games with impressive stories. Character A interacts with Character B, etc. etc.

Oh, how wrong you are!

There is a lot to consider in writing a video game story. Below is an outline of some of the very basic steps for you to follow.

These aren’t set in stone; it depends on what you experience in the writers’ room that will determine the order or time spent on certain steps.

What type of game is it?

The first thing you should determine is what genre you would want to be working with.

Is your story going to be better suited for RPGs? Something like Skyrim? Or maybe it is something that fits in more with an action/adventure or FPS games.

Either way, you need to set this boundary and place this bedrock that will eventually become your game’s story. Don’t think that you even need to follow these genres as standalone genres. Feel free to mix them up, creating hybrids. A game like Deus Ex is part FPS, RPG, and action/adventure.

Perhaps you can find your niche that will fit your unique story by combining these genres.

Outline

Any good story starts its infancy in the outline. An outline of anything helps map out everything that will happen at a glance.

You do not need to put every plot point you want to include, like twists and turns, but very basically start with the bare bones of the story you wish to convey to gamers.

If your game is a more ‘point A to point B’ type, then the outline might prove to be easier than a game that has a ton of choices and multiple endings.

Overall, don’t skimp on providing story details, as having an excess of story material is more helpful than having too few elements.

World Building

My favorite part of fiction, the world-building is exactly that: building your game world.

As a reader of fantasy novels like Game of Thrones, the map provided for readers in the front of the book can be extremely fascinating and satisfying. The author conjures up a world in which the story takes place, adding places and times to better convey the story.

Luckily for the game writer, players don’t have to imagine this fictional world, as gamers will actively experience it firsthand. We can admire the massive scale and sheer ambition of a world like that of the Witcher games; a medieval-inspired fantasy world, blending historical fiction as well as high fantasy.

This can be one of the most fun areas of creating a game’s narrative and story. Will it take place on Earth? If so, when? Or is it an entirely different universe like the Final Fantasy games? It’s entirely up to you!

The Characters

The very people and creatures who carry out the game’s story, the characters are arguably the most important part of the game.

If you want people to connect to your game’s narrative, you better make sure your characters are relatable, sympathetic, villainous, calculating, captivating, and more. Nobody wants a supremely unlikeable protagonist, right? And no one could “hate” a likable antagonist, either.

Why go through the motions of the story when you don’t care about the main character? Who cares if they are injured emotionally or physically if they are expendable in your mind?

Many RPGs are in the unique position of allowing the player to form their character, defined through their actions and interactions with other NPCs and aspects of the world. And as always, everyone loves a good villain you love to hate!

Create, Flow & Start Writing!

Now that you made your world and created your characters, how will the story unfold?

Make sure you have proper pacing, as well.

A game like Rise of the Tomb Raider has great pacing. Interspersed between hardcore action, exploration, and story, the game does a decent job of balancing all three, never emphasizing one entirely over the other.

How Do You Write a Game Narrative?

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Writing the game narrative is a little more detailed: things that blend things, tying them up for the gamer to experience in a nice, neat little package.

For example, in Mass Effect, you have your base single-player campaign with the video game story. But you experience so much from the off-time you will experience when not completing the story. Whether this is through muttered ambient dialogue, side quests, and detail-rich worlds, the narrative is what fills in the cracks left by anything else in development.

Creating things like quests, NPCs, and other ephemera. These are your bread and butter of the game narrative. To do these things, consider all of the steps to writing a video game listed above. Creating them involves all steps in one way or another and can prove invaluable while creating quest items and likable NPCs.

What Games Have the Best Narrative Design?

Now, I consulted my brain trust to compile a list of the top 5 best game narratives. I will explain various aspects as to why these games shine above others, and what gamers think of them.

Deus Ex


The original Deus Ex, released in 2000, brought an interactive narrative story that threw the players into a dark, (literally and figuratively), a dystopian future world where the Illuminati is real, FEMA is a front for an evil council, and cybernetics are a regular part of human life.

Even if you boot the game up today, you can easily be enveloped in a depressing, but a captivating world where it seems like anything is possible, for good or ill. Narrative aspects of this game are superb: you play as agent JC Denton as he tries to uncover a global conspiracy, mostly involving the origins of a violent plague that is suspiciously infecting only the world’s poor.

Dialogues that were meant as asides and computer terminals that include story-rich elements are the name of the game here. It pulls the player in, encouraging but not forcing the player to engage with these elements.

The choice the payer has is heavily emphasized, giving them a great narrative experience where you will be shocked at the twists and turns of the storyline.

BioShock


Everyone’s favorite spiritual successor to System Shock 2, BioShock has one of the best narrative storylines ever made for games.

Entering the underwater dystopia of Andrew Ryan’s Rapture for the first time, (especially not knowing why it failed as a city), was terrifying. Not to mention the player’s first encounter with a Big Daddy, The game is littered with great world-building and designed to have the player feel immersed.

To supplement this, the game world is littered with audio logs explaining bits of the story not available to the player.

These have excellent audio and characters, pulling you into the twisted, dark underbelly of a utopia gone wrong.

Dragon Age: Origins


This is a game near and dear to my heart. As the player, you are thrown into a completely new fantasy world, filled with thousands of years of backstory already written and played out before you begin your quest.

This game goes all out with supplementing their story with extra bits like quests, codex entries and captivating backstories for even the most minor of characters.

The high fantasy setting is rife with potential for some solid fantasy roleplaying, and it delivers. The side quests have you going to dark dungeons, cairns that have been abandoned for centuries, and facing off against fearsome drakes and dragons that will test your mettle as a gamer.

Spec Ops: The Line


This extremely gruesome and grim third-person shooter involves some of the most harrowing, depressing narrative design I have experienced in gaming.

But it just works.

You play as a soldier in search of a lost general in Dubai, much like the plot of the film Apocalypse Now. While fighting through hordes of soldiers, the player realizes that the main character is undergoing stress and aspects of PTSD. Things further unravel by turning the entire shooter genre on its head by saying you aren’t a hero; you’re just blindly following orders and you have no agency.

This was revolutionary, as this game was released in the grip of a string of Call of Duty releases. In Call of Duty, you play as the intrepid, always right, a brave soldier who is saving the world single-handedly. In this game, the narrative and pacing unfold beautifully to give the player a rude awakening, but one that is poignant and effective.

Mass Effect


BioWare’s famous space opera Mass Effect includes some seriously great story-driven narratives. Saving the world is great and all, but like Dragon Age: Origins, the world of Mass Effect is our universe, but fleshed out impressively.

You will take up side quests that will have you warping to new, uncharted worlds, and interacting with rogues, pirates, and killer robots. You have the choice to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character, and it allows the player to choose a lot of different options.

Regardless of the controversial ending of the third entry, the first Mass Effect opened the door to a new era of great narrative gameplay.

Conclusion

With these tools, guidance, and examples, I hope that this clears up any possible confusion you may have regarding becoming a narrative designer. The career path, although not without its difficulties, can prove extremely fruitful for those who are dedicated to the craft.

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