NARRATIVE DESIGN: WHY AND WHEN
By Greg Buchanan and Benjamin Ryalls
Originally published in DEVELOP August 2017
The games industry has a narrative problem. The question will be familiar to anyone working in narrative design: why? Why do we need a writer on our project, and why now?
Frequently game designers, programmers, and other creatives at a studio create a game’s story elements by themselves, with a writer potentially brought in to polish and expand the game’s text at a later date. Sometimes this is fine, especially for games where narrative is not a central component of the intended player experience. Sure, many studios will recognise that the hypothetical presence of a writer earlier in the process might benefit this element, but why hire someone that early when there seems to be little work to do?
Yet all too often, writers are parachuted in to try and rescue the story, text, and narrative components of games in the late stages of a projects development.
Even a few days consultancy early in that project, combined with ongoing and periodic support, might have allowed that writer to save the company development time, help build more coherency between narrative and gameplay systems, and increase the overall probability of higher review scores.
This is particularly the case where art or cinematic pipelines are involved, where writers may be able to point out issues and opportunities relating to genre, the cast of characters, drama, and diversity concerns that many studios may not be aware of. Due to their nature as external freelancers, game writers are often able to provide critique and feedback far beyond even their role as story champion, questioning development and production assumptions that those too close to the project might be blind towards.
The late-stage use of writers from outside of the games industry, such as television or film, can add to this problem, particularly if they work in isolation from more experienced game writers. Although their writing ability may be excellent, these writers may lack the knowledge of gameplay systems, production pipelines, and development processes required to be able to make the last-minute narrative improvements so often necessary. Ironically, films, television, comics, and any number of other media work on the basis of the story coming first. The pitch, and then script, all come before the construction of sets, the arrival of actors, the addition of special effects.
In cases where scripts were produced late in production like Suicide Squad, review scores dropped, just as they do in games. Writers from other media are hired due to success in projects where they were allowed to thrive and help guide production. The games industry could gain much from reflecting on their process similarly. Video game narratives can be excellent. The success of titles such as The Witcher 3 and The Last of Us demonstrates this, driving critical acclaim, sales, and player engagement. But high quality writing and narrative design does not need to be the province of those select few titles. Almost every game can have agreat narrative, from the briefest glimmer of tutorial text to the most epic cinematic.
All we need is for writers to be brought on early in the process, given the tools they need to do the job, and for the industry to appreciate good writing as a key ongoing component for the success of a project, not as a last minute task.