In this column, GamesHub shines a spotlight on the highlights, skills and specificities of different game development careers. This week: What does a narrative designer actually do?
Videogames are made in a myriad of different ways, by a myriad of different people with different skills. From experimental artistic games to billion-dollar corporations, it takes a huge range of different skills and different people to make games as we know them!
However, the public image of what a game developer does has remained stagnant. In our new weekly column, we wanted to shed some light on what working in games looks like outside of programming and lead design roles.
This week, we spoke with Brooke Maggs about the role of a narrative designer in game development.
Maggs has had an impressive career to date. She’s had a hand in the narrative design of a number of beloved Australian independent games – including The Gardens Between, Paperbark, and Florence – as well as international titles like Psychonauts 2.
Most significantly, she was part of the narrative design team at the storied Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment, working on the critically acclaimed Control. Maggs is currently a Senior Narrative Designer at Remedy working on unannounced projects.
GamesHub: In your own words, what does a Narrative Designer do?
Narrative in games is the context for why players are doing things, the world in which they’re doing them, and why they’re important to do. Narrative designers, then, work at the intersection of two streams, the craft of storytelling and game design. We design elements of the game that allow players to interact with the story (think dialogue systems and narrative items), and we collaborate with many disciplines to deliver a cohesive story experience.
There are, roughly speaking, two types of narrative design, ‘creative’ and ‘technical’. Creative narrative designers can focus on developing the story, world and characters, and designing and tracking narrative elements in the game, for example. Technical narrative designers might work more in the game engine to prototype and script narrative systems and implement the story elements, like dialogue, in the game.
What does a normal day at work look like for you?
My work varies a lot and depends on which stage the game is in. During an average week right now, I collaborate with the Game Director and other leads to build the world and the story, and carry the vision for the game. I meet with many other disciplines like character and environment art, audio, gameplay and level design to provide narrative context, and see what they’re up to and where more worldbuilding is needed. I research and design narrative elements in the game and discuss them with programmers and other designers. Let’s just say I’m not often bored. There’s always something to do, it’s a lot of fun!
Lately, I’ve been learning more about designing processes and pipelines to efficiently implement and track all of the text and dialogue that goes into a game, and how localisation and subtitling fits into that. There’s a lot to consider and I’m really enjoying it!
When you first started at Remedy, what surprised you about the role?
I was pleasantly surprised by how many more narrative elements there were in a Remedy game than any game I’d worked on, so the role was, well, more. Coming from independent game beginnings, I knew there were a lot of ways to tell stories in games that I hadn’t had experience with, like lots of narrative items, dialogue systems and many characters to tell a story. I was surprised by just how much there was to track like dialogue, cinematics, main and side missions, optional content, menu strings and objective text. Another fun surprise was that my role also involved attending dialogue recording sessions and working with actors!
You’ve written and designed for teams of all sizes, from being the one-woman narrative department on indie projects The Gardens Between, to your current role as a senior narrative designer at Remedy Entertainment. What do you think are the pros and cons of working in narrative at these different scales?
Narrative designers can’t really operate in isolation like some other disciplines, so the pros and cons revolve a lot around that. When I’m in a smaller team, it’s a lot easier to communicate and design with the team. Naturally, the communication challenges increase with the team size. In a larger team, it’s wonderful working with other writers and narrative designers. Their perspectives and approaches to story benefit me and help me think and grow in different ways.
Do you ever miss working in tiny teams?
Actually, I’m in a small-ish team at Remedy at the moment, and I’m really enjoying it. Working for a big studio doesn’t automatically mean working in big teams. I enjoy working in teams of all sizes, but what I do miss about small teams is they’re often making a game experience that has to be focussed and unique in order to stand out. It means doing a few things really, really well, as opposed to a bigger, longer game that needs to tick a lot more boxes.
In a fireside chat with Supergiant Games’ Greg Kasavin, you outlined the fact that your current role is very distinct from a narrative writer role. I wonder what kind of skills (both hard and soft skills) you think are particularly important for a narrative designer, specifically?
It’s important for a narrative designer to understand the mechanics of storytelling (structure, characterisation, and theme in particular). It provides a shared storytelling language to use with the narrative team. If the narrative designer understands the arcs and motivations of the characters and the importance of each narrative beat to tell the protagonist’s story, they can better design the ways players will interact with the story.
They must also have an understanding of game design and design skills, because a narrative designer can be primarily responsible for those game mechanics that are used to convey the story. The ability to create clear design documentation and communicate with a range of people are good skills to have and ones narrative designers are constantly honing.
Was working specifically in narrative design always your goal, or has your career focus changed over time?
My career focus has definitely changed. The role of a narrative designer is relatively new to the industry, so I didn’t really know about it when I first started. I began thinking I’d like to be a writer, but my first game project, The Gardens Between, was to have no dialogue and minimal text, which felt challenging as a fiction writer. While I did a lot of world, story and character development, I also enjoyed discussing how to combine those story moments with gameplay moments.
As my understanding of narrative in games developed, I realised there were so many more elements to a game that can be leveraged to tell a story outside of writing dialogue. As I gained more experience and explained my work to other developers, they suggested ‘narrative design’ was a better description of what I did.
If you knew someone who worked in an adjacent, non-games role – copywriting, publishing, or the media, maybe — who wanted to move into narrative design, what skills would they need to work on to smooth that transition?
That’s a good question. I’ve found the mechanics of storytelling (structure, character arcs, characterisation, dialogue and so on) has been integral to my work, so I would start there.
To smooth the transition from other media to games, I recommend learning game design skills, mainly to understand the limitations and possibilities of an active player making their way through the game and the story. Games, in very raw form, are about actions, rules and rewards. Three ways to start learning these skills are to participate in (or design) a table-top roleplaying game, make an interactive text game and participate in a game jam. Game jams can also help with understanding the restrictions around the narrative in a game, for example, how many characters or locations there can be in the story.
If you were hiring a narrative designer, what qualities would you be looking for?
Outside of the skills I’ve mentioned earlier, I’d be looking for someone who has excellent written and verbal communication skills, who is keen to learn, who can give and receive feedback in a constructive way and who’s excited to brainstorm and iterate with a team. People who have these skills are easy to work with, teach and support. Someone could have all the necessary skills of a narrative designer, but if these interpersonal skills aren’t present, they will be difficult to work with. You can’t ignore the people stuff.
Complete this sentence: If you love [BLANK], then you might enjoy working as a narrative designer
Worldbuilding, storytelling and working with others. We need to work with other disciplines to create a cohesive narrative experience because it’s not just the narrative team who bring a story to life in games. We build the world together but narrative designers advocate for the story and use it to fuel the creativity of others.
What about the opposite: If you hate [BLANK] then narrative design might not be for you.
Compromising on your story and world ideas. Other disciplines look at the story in different ways, and have their own creative aspirations. A narrative designer’s job is to know which aspirations we can incorporate and what might be off-tone for the narrative. There might also be changes to the game experience, like a new gameplay feature, that require the narrative to adapt. We can’t be too precious about all our original intentions.
Finally: What do you like best about your job?
I love the challenge of combining gameplay with story beats to create an experience that resonates with people. As a kid, playing games was about living in another world for a while and I enjoyed solving puzzles, having cool abilities and so on. Making those things come together really well is incredibly rewarding.