Are you an amateur narrative designer? Or are you thinking of starting down that path? Good. That’s the first step toward a career filled with creativity, writing, and connections with some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet.
But before you dive in, it’s important to get your feel wet first. There are some guidelines that will help you on your journey, even 30 years into your career. Think of these guidelines as “things to live by” for narrative designers. Do these, avoid others, and watch your network, portfolio, and wallet grow.
You might be wondering who I am to tell you about narrative design. Clearly, I’m working more along the marketing/journalism side of the industry these days, but yes, I’ve done narrative design as well. And as someone who’s been in the trenches, I can give you these gems of advice:
- Use your knowledge of fiction. Any English classes you ever took will come in handy here.
- Read. A lot. Read fiction primarily, but don’t limit yourself. Nonfiction can help as well.
- Stay on top of the latest gaming news. What games are doing well? Which characters are being praised?
- Study characters. What makes them likable? What makes them unique? Anything that doesn’t work?
- Practice writing dialogue. Practice makes perfect.
- Write short stories. If you can carry and develop a plot throughout the course of 5-10 pages, and incorporate good dialogue, you have a new sample for your portfolio.
- Provide a chance for narrative options like in Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls. Players like to feel like they have control over what their character is saying. It helps them connect with the characters, and feel like they’re a part of the story. Much like with design, you want to create the illusion of control to nourish that relationship.
- If scripted and set without options, ensure to provide story progression. Don’t add dialogue for the sake of adding dialogue. Add it when there’s something to be said, something that will lead to another part in the story. Or, in the very least, add value through comedy. For instance, remember the guards in Skyrim ran around asking you about stolen sweet rolls and telling you about arrows in their knees? Not only was it funny, it also added to the ambiance. Skyrim came alive.
While it’s nice to know the things to keep in mind, and strive to incorporate in your projects, it’s the don’ts that really determine whether someone will work with you again, or hire someone else. It might be unfair, but it’s what you do wrong that sticks out in people’s minds above all else. Try to increase your chances of success by avoiding these common mistakes:
- Don’t opt for lengthy narrative without any option to back out of it. People hate that. They don’t want to have to stand still and listen when there’s plenty of loot to be had!
- Don’t overlap narrative (when two NPC’s talk at the same time). This is not really your fault, since it’s more about timing in Unity, or whatever game engine you’re using. Even still, it’s your job to go through the game for pacing. While you’re doing that, determining the pace of dialogue, make sure any potential complications are noted to your team.
- Don’t expect dialogue to be easy to write. A good writer knows how to delve inside the minds of their characters, each unique, with their own emotions and ways of perceiving the world around them. Channel your characters, and step outside of your own distinct voice.
- Don’t stick to stereotypes. Some of the most beloved characters in video games, like Joel from The Last of Us, are unique, with their own stamp on characterization. Avoid writing another Lara Croft. It’s been done, move on.
Wait, Why Does This Matter?
At this point, you’re probably looking at all these do’s and don’ts of narrative, wondering why it all really matters. Can’t you just write some dialogue to go with the story, and call it a day? Well, sure, but it probably won’t be the best dialogue out there. And it might make it difficult to land more work. More than that, you have to remember that unless you’re a solo developer, you’re working with other people on the same project. That means you have to pull your weight, or else you make their work less than playable. And trust me, their work is generally amazing and will make you feel less than adequate. Rise above, meet their level. You can do it!
As if that’s not enough, remember that little thing called a portfolio? You want to fill it with examples that will make people comfortable hiring you. If you fill it with high quality content that showcases what you’re capable of, you’re more likely to land better paying work.
Any Helpful Resources?
Absolutely! The following resources are both video game narrative design focused, and writing focused. It is a big mistake to only seek writing advice from other narrative designers. The difference between a great writer and a terrible one is that the former seeks transferable skills. Skills make you marketable in this economy. Being able to learn about all forms of writing can greatly improve your ability to write credible dialogue.
- Tj’s first-hand blog on all things narrative design.
- Get In Media has interesting articles on getting into the industry, like this gem of an article with narrative designer Chris Avellone. He’s worked on Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, etc.
- Fun fact: I’ve written about the writing and publishing industry for years too. Read up on the writing process, or writer’s resources.
Good luck out there and happy writing!