Slides and post-mortem for my GDC 2015 talk on narrative design

Here (12.8 MB PDF) are the slides from my GDC 2015 talk on narrative design. The black slides are my notes, which roughly resemble what I actually said. I have removed the bonus slide showing Verena Riedl – you had to be there :) (Or you can watch it on the vault eventually.)

And here they are embedded:

Inspired by Liz England, here is a little post-mortem of the talk.

This was strictly speaking not my first time as a speaker at GDC. Back in 2000, together with Mark Barrett, I moderated a round table on creating emotional involvement in interactive entertainment. In 2008 I gave a talk on being a producer at GDC Europe, the last time before it moved from France to Germany. But this was my first talk at GDC in San Francisco, and certainly the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to.

It went well. The preparations went well, the actual speaking went well from my side, and I’ve only had positive reactions so far, including quite a few people coming up to me during the rest of the conference to tell me they had enjoyed my talk.

This was the third presentation I’ve given since December, the other ones being my talk at ENJMIN on the dark side of game development that I’ve briefly mentioned here and here, and a quick talk about storytelling in games I gave over Skype to Nathan Sturtevant’s game capstone class. I feel I’ve learned a lot from giving these three talks, more so than from previous ones, so here are some unordered observations.


Passion counts. This was first pointed out to me by Jean-Michel Blottière after a lecture I gave to ENJMIN students in 2011. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that the students could feel when I was excited about a subject and when I wasn’t. This didn’t really sink in until I gave my talk on the dark side of game development, which I was quite passionate about. I exposed myself a lot more than I usually do, and showed more vulnerability. The only honest way I could think of to talk about topics like impostor syndrome, depression, sexism, etc. was to say how I experienced them (or not, in the case of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia) and how I felt about them. And it lead to very positive reactions.

I am not quite sure which conclusion to draw from this, except perhaps to pay attention to my own excitement levels while writing and practicing talks.


The first practice run sucks. I knew this and you probably know this. It’s the same when iterating in any creative endeavor. But, again, it didn’t sink in until I did the first practice run of my dark side talk in a hotel room in Angoulême (yes, just a few days before the talk). It sucked, but this time I knew it would suck, and I watched my talk improve every time I practiced it. My edits started off big (changing the approach, changing the structure, cutting out huge sections) and then grew smaller and smaller. I think I practiced it 3 or 4 times. For my GDC talk, the process was a bit different, because:


Preparation begins way before the first practice run. This may also sound obvious, in a “Picasso lifetime story” kind of way. Obviously I am excited about storytelling in games and know something about it, but it has not been my full-time job for quite a while. I changed that by convincing several game development schools I could do workshops on narrative design. That forced me to pay more attention to the subject again, to re-read books, and to try and express my thoughts. The latter is one of the huge advantages of learning by teaching. The Skype talk I gave to Nathan Sturtevant’s students was before I had done any practice runs for my GDC talk, but it forced me to express some ideas in ways that turned out to be extremely useful later. I will give some more examples of how key early preparation was below.


Talk submissions are a sales process. This is not meant to sound cynical: a lot of things are sales processes. What I mean is that there is a gap between me feeling excited about a subject, which happens a lot, and convincing someone else who is at best only mildly interested in my good fortune that my talk will be a great addition to their conference program. Which leads me to the next thing I learned:


Outlining had a bigger impact on my GDC talk than anything else. I have submitted GDC talk proposals for the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2012 GDCs. That’s just for the main GDC. Probably every time the submission website said something like “you can optionally upload additional materials so the advisory board better understands your talk”. And I never did so, including for this year’s GDC. But the narrative summit has a two-stage process, and the second stage involves close contact with someone from the advisory board, in my case Mary Demarle. In her first email to me, she wrote:

“I’d like to talk to you a bit more about your submission; there were no documents or files attached to it, so it’s difficult for the board to get a solid sense of what you plan to talk about in the 25 minutes allotted. However, we all agree that the subject of how best to get writers and designers collaborating is an important one.”

I wonder how many of my other proposals were not accepted because I didn’t send an outline and didn’t explain my talk clearly enough… There are a ton of factors that go into making a conference program, so it’s not a guarantee for approval, but I now feel stupid for not having sent outlines before.

And there was another huge advantage. I exchanged some emails with Mary about the subject of my talk, then I iterated a couple of times on an outline with her. That gave me a rock solid base to start from. Once I heard that my proposal had been accepted and I had to start working on the “real” preparation, I noticed I was a lot less stressed than I have been for other talks. In fact, I think I mostly ignored it until February.

I also sent the outline or described my talk to a lot of people. Even the shortest feedback was valuable because it showed me what people took away from it, what they thought I was saying, and that allowed me to tweak the structure and wording. This is one reason why the first section of my talk contains some definitions, which I had written  for the Skype talk, and honed afterwards based on confusion I noticed.


Rehearsals. The GDC people sent me a link to this article by Chris Hecker on how to give good presentations. His key points are 1. rehearse a lot, and 2. rehearse in front of a live audience. The article also contains advice from Chris Crawford. Chris doesn’t rehearse in front of a live audience but he rehearses up to 30 times(!). I think I rehearsed 5 times or so, and that helped a lot. One rehearsal was in a hotel room in front of a live audience, consisting of my wife Andy and our good friends Verena and Sebastian. That made me remove some problematic slides and add game titles to all of my full-screen game screenshots.

One weird thing I did in mid-February was a practice run in my head, just mentally talking to an audience, then writing down the outline of that, then comparing it to my original outline. It was very close.


Talking to the advisory board is not cheating. I only learned this in 2005. Last year I bounced the idea for this talk off of Richard Dansky. He said that in principle it might be something that fit the summit, but also gently reminded me that most of the narrative summit attendees are writers (which I, perhaps naïvely, hadn’t realized – I’ve always gone there as a game designer). That helped me make sure the talk fit well. Again, early preparation.


I am a big fan of presenter notes, meaning the feature many presentation apps have, including Keynote, PowerPoint, and Deckset, which allows you to add notes that are just for you and that are shown on your laptop’s screen while you’re presenting. I tend to basically write out what I am going to say in the presenter notes. I did that for my GDC talk as well, except during some slides (e.g. 40 and 42) what I said was more elaborate than what I wrote down. I am not quite sure why this is – some bits come natural, I guess, but they are not necessarily bits that I rehearsed a lot. Perhaps these are just things I’ve already said a lot outside presentations i.e. I’m passionate about them.


Related to this: I like to support my transitions in my slides and my presenter notes. It’s usually not difficult to have a topic on screen and talk about it – what I find harder is stringing those together into a coherent structure. So those are the bits I tend to be more literal about, to make the presentation flow better. I am not sure why. E.g. “Here is an example” on slide 44. I think I have two approaches to slides: either I set the transition up for myself, or I trust that I can make the mental switch when I see the new slide, and can avoid making the transition seem jarring. Rehearsals help with this too.


Using Deckset worked well. Not perfect, but well. I felt it was a bit risky to not use PowerPoint or Keynote for my GDC talk, but I also knew I’d be able to re-do all the slides in either of those tools if I needed to. And being able to write all of my slides in Markdown in the text editor of my choice meant I could write and modify drafts a lot faster. And unlike Reveal.js, which I used in 2013, I could have presenter notes. I found I could use Remote Buddy to add remote control (which I then ended up not using, see below).

Deckset’s (and Markdown’s) limitations meant I couldn’t spend time tweaking the exact positions of text blocks (good) but also that there were certain things that were just not possible. That’s why the presenter notes are centered and white on black… and also why I needed Verena’s help to put the game titles on the game screenshots using Photoshop: I couldn’t find a way to do it with Deckset.


The speaker rehearsal room was nice. GDC has speaker rehearsal rooms which you can reserve and where you can rehearse your talk in an actual GDC room with actual A/V tech managed by an actual A/V person. I did that just before my talk. Then I hooked up my laptop in the real room and it didn’t work! I had to reboot my laptop, and then RemoteBuddy wasn’t loaded, so I couldn’t use the remote. But I didn’t have a lot of space to pace around in anyway, so using the keyboard was no problem.


Feeling your entire presentation is worthless during preparation is normal. It’s normal for any creative process in fact. For me, additionally, I had no idea whether people would be interested in hearing what is arguably a design trick I came up with in the 90s. I could think of a thousand reasons why they wouldn’t be! But I just trusted the advisory board, and it ended up fine.


In the end I felt as if I didn’t spend as much time (“at least 30 hours”) on this talk as I should have done, but when I read all this back I probably did, it’s just that a lot of it didn’t feel like actual talk preparation. It was a great experience, I learned a lot both about storytelling in games and about communicating, and I hope I can do it again sometime.


Update: I’ve added the slides as an embedded widget. I also just realized that having done some teaching has made me more aware of how one can try and convey something effectively, and that made me approach the outline differently (not that I consider myself a great teacher, but I definitely learned from the process). I tried to explain a pretty esoteric point, one that I had known for over 15 years. I don’t know if one year ago I would have front-loaded the talk with examples the way I did.