Some notes on narrative design

This morning I reviewed some student projects at the Ecole Bellecour here in Lyon, from a narrative design point of view. This meant listening to small teams as they presented their ideas for their projects, then giving them feedback and suggesting things they could do. In some ways, this is the most fun part of the concept phase, but with neither the investment nor the effort of fleshing it out and making it work.

I am a big believer in learning by teaching. When I explain something to others, I am forced to express it as simply and clearly as I can. And so I want to capture here some of the things I’ve learned by trying to help students.

Teaching the player

The player will need learn how your game and your world work. This applies to the mechanics as well as to the story. This is not just something that happens in the beginning, in some kind of dedicated tutorial phase, but all through the game. So you need to think about how you are going to introduce characters, convey backstory, etc., knowing that players will skip texts and cut-scenes, and that showing is better than telling.

In fact, you can even flip things around. Instead of saying “how will I convey this information to the player”, start with the constraints and try to come up with a story that can be conveyed within those constraints. Don’t be afraid of stereotypes: embrace them and use them well.

And remember that you can leave things open and explain them later, or even not at all.

The fictional and the mechanical

Make sure the logic of your fictional world matches the logic of your mechanics. Or rather, that your gameplay can cash the check your world has written.

Diegesis

Think about what is a convention in your game, meaning something you want the player to just accept as is, and what is diegetic, meaning something that is part of the fictional world you are trying to evoke in the player’s head. (‘Diegetic’, as used here, comes from sound design. The song from a radio inside a movie is diegetic, the song that is playing without any source is a convention of the movie medium.)

You may have things on the mechanical side of your game that you can make diegetic. By doing so, you give meaning to these elements, and you can combine them with other elements on the fictional side, making them contribute more to the player’s experience.

(I was particularly excited about a suggestion I made along these lines for one of the projects, and the students seemed to like it as well.)

Interactivity

Think about how you can make what happens on the fictional side change depending on the player’s actions. This is how you give meaning to what the player does.

Expression

What are you trying to express with your game? It doesn’t have to be directly in the game, it can be in the subtext.