Killing Ganon. Saving Princess Peach. De-throning a king. Farming. You all know these things well if you play video games. They are part of a story. They are the things you do because of how the narrative has driven you through the game. Do you recognize good narrative design? Maybe, but maybe not. One thing I do know, though, is that you can definitely recognize pitiful narrative design.

"Narrative Design" is a term that is actually quite new within the gaming industry. As a student studying game design with focus on narrative design, I wanted to bring a new perspective of what narrative design is with this article. Within, I will cover the facts of narrative design, the signs of well-done narrative design, and share some of my favorite narrative-driven games.

What is Narrative Design?

It is quite common for someone unfamiliar with this term to deem it as "writing," when it is so much more than that. Narrative design is, in its most simple form, creating game cohesion. A narrative designer must be fluent in English, code, lead design, level design, and art. Now, when I say "fluent," I don’t mean you have to have all of these skills, but what you must have is the ability to communicate with the people that do have these skills. Why, you ask? Because of the word "cohesion," it is imperative to know all parts of the game. Narrative design entails intertwining story, level design, quests, user-interface, load screens, character development, dialogue, art assets, sound, and many more miniscule things. Essentially, their job is to create the most amount of immersion possible. In the book Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing, Jay Posey explains the role of narrative designer quite well by saying the following:

"[…] if narrative is 'the story the game tells' Narrative Design is the creation of that story and the design of the mechanics through which the story is told. That is, Narrative Design encompasses not only the story itself but also how the story is communicated to players and how other game features support and immerse the player within the game world."

Posey also elaborates on how narrative designers are the compilation of a writer and a designer. An example he provides is the difference between how a designer and a narrative designer would look at a save-game feature; the designer has to make sure it functions properly, while the narrative designer must make sure the way it is presented to the player is cohesive with the game itself.

How is Narrative Design Accomplished?

The most common ways to implement narrative design are displayed in the classics most people are used to. Things like audio, well-written character dialogue, journals, narrators, loading screens, and side-kicks go a long way to convey story to the player without breaking immersion — this, of course, being the main goal to think about in narrative design.

Environmental Storytelling

There are many different ways to amp up the level of narrative design within a game. One way, which happens to be my favorite, is called "environmental storytelling." This is the most subtle way to provide back story without actually using dialogue or any other written word. Amnesia is a perfect example of environmental storytelling. You are not given much to go on in the beginning of the game, so you must observe your surroundings to gather more information about the situation at hand.

Emergent Narrative

Another type of narrative design (this is a fun one) is called "emergent narrative." This type of narrative is enjoyable because the player makes their own story. This is not done through writing or by making a story up, but by simply playing the game. Two wonderful examples of games which have emergent narrative are Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft. Just by doing things within the world, the player creates their own story. Maybe you decide to dig a huge hole in Minecraft, and you fall into a pit of enemies which you must defeat before finding your way out. It could even be as simple as making your own house or getting some dwarves so drunk that they decide to have an axe-throwing competition. This type of storytelling is great because it’s unexpected and always different. It is variation like this that keeps players engaged and immersed within the game.

Other Techniques

There are many well-known and standard ways of conveying narrative. Things such as character dialogue, books, journals, and NPCs are just a few examples. These are all storytelling devices, though, and in order to be clear, cohesion is necessary throughout the entire game. The start menu should carry the same fonts as the in-game fonts and be stylized with the era of the game. One great UI that I have noticed is the one in Borderlands; to keep the player immersed, the menus are holograms that the main character stands in front of. In Skyrim, the loading screens give you random facts about the world of Skyrim as well as 3D models of certain people, objects, or places. To save your game in Okami, Issun tells the player to look into the mirror to record their memories. The mirrors had a small myth about them as well, which made even saving completely cohesive with the game play. It is simple things like this that make good games into great ones.

My Personal Favorites

I heartily enjoy narrative design in games, so I will share with you a few of my favorite games as well as why the narrative struck the right chords with me.

Bastion: My favorite part about Bastion is the over-world narrative from the old gentleman. There is zero dialogue from the main character, but as he moves through the world, the narrator describes what he is doing and the story is subtly conveyed in this way. When you pick up artifacts throughout your adventures, you may talk to different people about the same artifact and each person will tell you a different story. This slowly sheds light on how the characters think, on their back-stories, or even on the back-story of the world of Bastion itself.

Dragon Age: Origins: This story has great narrative and is conveyed mostly through NPC interaction and decision-making. There’s nothing like making your own choices in a game, and BioWare really utilized that by allowing you to ask your party members questions and go on side quests to learn more about them and Ferelden.

Journey: This game is a fantastic example of well-done environmental storytelling. No speaking occurs within the game, so you are using the surroundings from your journey throughout the desert to figure out what happened to your people. The art, music, and simplicity drive the narrative home in an intense fashion that you wouldn’t expect from this title.

In Closing

I leave you with those games as recommendations, and I hope that you may have a chance to try them out. All of them are definitely worth the time and the money. Next time you play a game, you should study the narrative design that’s going on while you play. Not only will it cause you to understand why a game is good, but it will also keep you in tune with the reasons why you are attracted to certain types of games. There is a plethora of ways to implement narrative design; whichever one you prefer is entirely up to you.


Source: IGDA. Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing. Wellesley, MA: A K Peters, Ltd., 2008.