What is Narrative Design?
To many outside the industry, narrative design is a somewhat mysterious area of videogame development. To clarify the role of the narrative designer, Ubisoft News spoke with four industry veterans from Ubisoft and beyond.
Inari Bourguenolle originally studied art history and applied foreign languages, and now works as a narrative designer on an unannounced project at Ubisoft Ivory Tower. Florent Maurin, CEO of The Pixel Hunt studio (creators of Bury Me, My Love and Inua, a Story in Ice and Time), is a former journalist who works on project scenarios and game design. Sarah Beaulieu, associate narrative director on the Assassin’s Creed franchise, originally worked as a script reader, scrip doctor, theater scriptwriter, and director, and holds a master’s degree in interactive writing and transmedia storytelling.
How would you define the term “narrative designer?” What does the role mean to you?
Inari Bourguenolle: The term narrative design emerged in 2006. Five years later, Monolith posted a job offer with the same title, and in 2013, Microsoft officially coined the term.
Even if narrative design has always existed, the concept was only formalized at that point, and its scope is still not fully defined today. In fact, many game writers now call themselves narrative designers. And smaller studios that can't afford to hire one person for each position solve the issue by merging both under the title “narrative designer.” This in turn feeds into the confusion, and tends to complicate things for people like me.
What are some of the daily tasks and challenges that narrative designers face?
JC: The game designer's job is to iterate. They create a game rule and iterate on it to enhance it. But alongside this process, the teams working on the UI, sound design, or narrative must adapt to these regular changes. These modifications can occur up until the very last stage of a game's development. In the past, I've had to change part of my work to adjust to game-design iterations. But there is another type of challenge: at Ubisoft, players can explore games in open worlds, where they can do whatever they want.
What are some of the most stubborn misconceptions that still persist about narrative design?
I think narrative design is about directing, whereas game writing is about the script. When these scriptwriters joined the gaming industry, some of them called themselves narrative designers, despite having no experience in the design aspect of the job. I think this led to a lot of confusion.
SB: There is an ongoing misconception, particularly among people who have a TV or movie background and want to start a new career in videogames: they think that being a narrative designer is the same as being a writer. For instance, I was asked what the difference between a blockbuster film and a AAA videogame was; this shows that some people think that the narrative structure is comparable. In fact, it seems to me that many people still think that a game’s narrative is only expressed in cutscenes.
What are some of the ways that narrative designers collaborate with other teams when working on a game?
JC: In some online games, such as The Division, narrative spaces and character voiceovers can be harder to implement, because players will often be chatting among themselves or attacked by enemies. For narrative design to be optimal, it’s important to work with everyone involved in the game's development.
SB: Ideally, the narrative designer will be involved from the start of the creation process, because just like the game designer, their job is to make sure that the game mechanics and the narrative are working together well, in order to avoid the infamous ludonarrative dissonance.
What advice would you give readers interested in pursuing a career in narrative design?
IB: When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students during the very first lesson that game design represents 9% of job offers, and that 5 to 10% of these 9% were linked to narrative design. I always tell people to spend at least one year at university studying a subject that interests them before they join a specialized school, not only to learn how to work independently, but also because game design and narrative design draw on general knowledge quite a lot.
Above all, narrative design mustn't be considered a career just because you feel you’re not good enough at game design, art, or programming.
Dec 18, 2021 at 05:18