Narrative Design

Iron Finish

Iron Fish
Not Marvel's Iron Fist, go away.

My first attempt at actually writing a game instead of making fun of them resulted in Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries, which was released back in 2013. Not a lot of my work ended up in the final product, since the team went in a different direction late in the process. Then, at the end of last year, I was offered another chance to write a game by my former compatriots over at BeefJack. The work ended up ballooning from two months to nearly a year, but that gave me more time to work with some amazing people, not in the least Nina, a close friend I managed to bring in as a writing partner.

Now the game has been released on Steam! If you want to give it a play and then write a scathing satirical script on it, please do. I deserve no less. Below the jump you'll find the latest trailer and a look back at the project.

From deconstructing narratives to designing one

 The Red Hood Diaries. Not narrated by David Duchovny (sadly).
Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries. Not narrated by David Duchovny (sadly).

It appears I've been running this little blog for four years this month. Please join me in a celebratory nod as a distraction from the recent lack of updates. At least I have a series of valid excuses this time. I've spent a month in America! I've moved house! And pretty much the most exciting development of all: I can actually call myself a narrative designer now! For the last two months, I've been working closely with the Antwerp-based studio GriN on a game called Woolfe. It's an episodic platformer/brawler set in the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, but with that customary dark twist thrown in. I'm currently in charge of finetuning an already established story foundation and writing dialogue and voice-over elements. The first trailer is below the jump.

BAFTA Games Writing Panel

Fine, you try captioning this one.
Fine, you try captioning this one.
On October 26th, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) invited four games writers and narrative designers for a small panel on the theory and practicality of writing for games. Since I was visiting a friend in Wales at the time, I was unable to attend myself. Fortunately, I managed to sneak a recorder on an unwitting attendee, and she captured the entire panel for me. If this unwitting attendee whose name may or may not be Nina is reading this, you have my eternal gratitude. So while this is an indirect account of the panel, I hope to offer a short but thorough recap here. Read on to find out about the improper use of cutscenes, the challenges presented by a silent protagonist, and why a games writer is like a feng shui guy.

Eurogamer Expo 2010

E3's lesser known cousin, E2.
E3's lesser known cousin, E2.
I am currently located in Belgium, which has a relatively small game development community (focused more on games for portable phones and social networking sites). Besides my efforts to expand my experience locally (like this), I've recently been travelling abroad to places that play a larger role in the game industry. One such excursion led me to both attend and volunteer at this year's Eurogamer Expo in London. It was a marvellous experience and a definite recommendation for anyone trying to break into the business, whichever aspect thereof is one's focus.

Story and gameplay

Who needs character development when there are EXPLOSIONS!
Who needs character development when there are EXPLOSIONS!
There’s a great deal of articles floating around which deal with the gap between story and gameplay and the efforts made to bridge it. Having assimilated quite a few of them, I’d like to see if I can't synthesise a common denominator to build on. The main point of contention which returns pretty much everywhere is the diametrical opposition of what story and gameplay want to do. The authors of this article mention that “a game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning, while a game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player”. Henry Jenkins confirms that opposition in this publication, which opens with a selection of quotes illustrating the different approaches to games: “Ludologists want to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play, while the Narratologists are interested in studying games alongside other storytelling media”.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

After 18 seasons, David Caruso just had retractable sunglasses grafted onto his face.
After 18 seasons, David Caruso just had retractable sunglasses grafted onto his face.
Some new information regarding the third entry in the Deus Ex series has recently surfaced. Eschewing the standard tradition of naming sequels, the game is now called Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I don't have to tell you how much I love the first game, so my interest is more than piqued. With regards to Deus Ex: Invisible War, many fans of the original would like to pretend that it doesn't exist. The Deus Ex: HR developers jokingly do the same, as mentioned in this article: "Going back to the original was very, very important. We all started playing [Deus Ex] thoroughly, and then somebody voluntarily played the second one, just to make sure".

Global Game Jam 2010

 not me, not me, me, not me.
From left to right: not me, not me, me, not me.
I was a participant in this year’s Global Game Jam (GGJ), which is an annual event organised simultaneously by many countries. It marked the second time that Belgium participated, and this year’s attendance of 40 more than tripled that of last year. GGJ’s goal is to create a functional game based on a single theme in a timespan of 48 hours (this year the theme was “deception”). At first I was somewhat daunted as the room slowly filled up with programmers and 2D/3D artists. Introducing myself as an aspiring Narrative Designer elicited some worries in a “getting-picked-last-at-gym” sort of way, but fortunately enough I was quick to glom onto a team in which all necessary skills were accounted for.

Rethinking "No Russian"

When this gun goes up, you guys are so dead.
When this gun goes up, you guys are so dead.
Note: this post does not mean I wholeheartedly condone Modern Warfare 2's linear narrative structure because I choose to work inside its confines. It's simply an interesting exercise to write within a predetermined framework, something game writers unfortunately have to do entirely too much. I recently reread Tom Francis' brilliant reimagining of BioShock's ending, and it got me thinking about my previous post which detailed my views on Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level. My main complaint was how the linear narrative of Modern Warfare 2 isn't suited for such a set piece, yet it was limited to just that: a complaint. Everybody can point out problems, but only a few go that extra mile and come up with a solution. So I aim to provide an answer to the narrative problem presented by the "No Russian" level.

Opt-in depth

I'm not crying. My biomechanical eyes are leaking servo fluid.
I'm not crying. My biomechanical eyes are leaking servo fluid.
Note: this post was first made on the official forum of the Narrative Designer's Network. I'm reproducing it here with a few minor edits, because it nicely sums up my views on game narratives and flows into the point I made in my previous post. Be warned, it's a long one. [This post is about] the depth of a narrative in a game and how the concept of choice factors into that (I also branched out to characters on a whim). This argument is predominantly geared towards action games, partly because this is the genre I play the most. But since it is also a genre in which story plays a large role, I do not feel I am constraining my points. Throughout this piece, I draw examples from Half-Life 2, Deus Ex and Mirror’s Edge, so there are some spoilers for those who have not yet played these games.

What is Narrative Design?

Since this blog focuses primarily on the theory and practice of Narrative Design, it might be helpful to first explain exactly what that is. The term was first coined by Stephen E. Dinehart, who is a "transmedia designer, writer, artist, and Narrative Design evangelist". Having worked on games as diverse as Company Of Heroes, Warhammer 40,000 and Constantine, he certainly has the professional experience to back up his convictions. Stephen has recently founded the Narrative Designer's Network, a community for burgeoning and established Narrative Designers. A post made there goes a long way to explaining what it is a Narrative Designer does exactly, but looking beyond the responsibilities of the specific function, I'm going to delve into the overarching concept of Narrative Design.