December 17, 2021

15 Min Read

inside ubisoft

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. Julien Charpentier is a former videogame journalist and now senior editorial narrative advisor at Ubisoft headquarters in Paris, where he helps production teams to “shape the stories they want to tell.”

Each describes their vision of narrative design, their day-to-day tasks, and some of the clichés associated with their profession.

How would you define the term “narrative designer?” What does the role mean to you?

Inari Bourguenolle: The term narrative design emerged in 2006. Stephen E. Dinehart IV, who worked for THQ Nordic at the time, had to write a job description to recruit someone in his team. Their role would be to define the way a scenario would be told for a project in development. He chose the term “narrative designer” and ended up filling the position himself. 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.

Florent Maurin: Narrative design is a term we rarely use. We are a small studio, and we don't really need to structurally differentiate between narrative design, game design, and scriptwriting. However, for me, narrative design is a science that focuses on how to branch out a story. A story can be told in a linear way, but the narrative designer will split it into many smaller parts, so that it becomes a conversation with the player rather than a speech directed at them.

Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization franchise, said that game design was "a series of interesting decisions." Well, to me, narrative design is turning a story into a series of interesting decisions.

Sarah Beaulieu: Ask 10 narrative designers to describe their job, and you will get 10 different answers. Without going into the more technical aspects, I think the narrative designer is a sort of hybrid, cross-disciplinary role that spans across game mechanics and narrative. They are in a very unique position, as we generally tend to clearly separate different areas of expertise, which is a shame. I believe it is vital to have a global view of how a game works, whatever its genre.

Julien Charpentier: I like comparing my job to that of a writer. When an author starts writing, they systematically go through three different phases: researching, planning, and drafting. In videogames, writing is split in two halves. The scriptwriter drafts the script and the narrative designer – or director – maps everything out. Of course, it isn’t clear-cut, and the roles can overlap, but narrative design is mostly about wielding game systems.

In a film, you "only" need to whip out your camera and film a sunset. In a game, however, a sunset requires the creation of the sun, the reflections, the shadows, etc. And the same goes for the story: in a film, two actors might be filmed for a dialogue, but in a game, you have to think about the right time to start a conversation, and plan what might occur if enemies suddenly attack.

IB: Since I have a role-playing background, and RPGs are basically systems, I consider narrative design to be a part of game design, where we plan out the way a story will be told. That's how I became interested in what I now call narrative system design, which I differentiate from narrative content design, a more writing-oriented discipline.

Narrative design is both the content and the way this content is brought to the forefront. As I am not the creative type, my job is really to make sure that content creators have everything they need to express their ideas. The technical aspect of narrative design is very important, in my opinion. And I'm never afraid of going in elbow-deep to change a voice line, a trigger, or to work out probabilities. That’s also part of narrative design.

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. They can keep on playing after the story ends, and they can even create their own avatar.

Again, this is really challenging, but it is also fascinating to tell a story by means other than those that we've been using for centuries. After all, videogames are only a few decades old, whereas films have existed for over a hundred years. The industry is still learning, one project at a time, and a small part of humanity's narrative history is now written in videogames.

SB: At Ubisoft, the narrative designer often works in collaboration with the game designers, and the audio, production, and quest-design teams. They are basically an interface between game mechanics and narrative. At smaller studios, the narrative designer may need to handle tasks that would normally fall under the writer's scope: during the conception phase, they may have to take part in character creation, or maybe write synopses for different parts of the story or quests. They might also review the writers' and quest designers' work, and sometimes be present during voice recordings.

At smaller studios, the narrative designer might also help write dialogue and text content that isn’t voice-recorded, such as weapon descriptions or UI texts. Their day-to-day tasks and the overlap with the writer's scope vary widely depending on the project, the studio, and the team size.

IB: The narrative designer has recurring daily tasks, such as reading and answering emails, working hand-in-hand with other teams, or creating PowerPoint presentations to introduce new features and make sure they are later implemented. Some weeks, they might be involved in implementation or writing sessions in huge Excel worksheets or Word documents, depending on how the team works. I also like to test the game at least once a week to check on its progress. I have spent weeks playing a game in the past, just to make sure that what I had implemented was working properly.

JC: In a TV series that lasts 10 hours, there will be 10 hours of developed storylines. In a two-hour film, the story will last two hours. In a videogame, it tends to be somewhat different: 10 hours of gameplay will contain approximately one hour of story. Everything else will be missions or side activities, such as hunting or taking pictures. The narrative designer has to bear that in mind on a daily basis.

What are some of the most stubborn misconceptions that still persist about narrative design?

IB: In the early days, the industry employed many scriptwriters from the film industry. In the film business, this profession is generally focused on the dialogue and the plot, not the direction. I think narrative design is about directing, whereas game writing is about the script. This is a very broad description, as there are in fact many crossovers, but it's not that far off. 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. They believe they can easily transfer their skills, without realizing that there is a lot more to the job. 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.

Similarly, some game designers may wrongly believe that it is easy to bridge the gap and move to narrative design. It is also a fallacy to think that the creation of a game stems from the writer, as it is most often initiated by game design or the creation of a world.

FM: I think people don't realize that videogame content is basically written in Excel worksheets. This may sound strange, but the real challenge for a writer is to never lose sight of their intention while they split their stories into many different parts and write inspirational texts, briefs, animation intentions, or environmental storytelling. We really do organize our thoughts in tables and element distribution. This is something I discovered when I joined the industry.

JC: People tend to think a narrative game requires many narrative designers, whereas a game with less of a narrative focus doesn't require any. This is often inaccurate, because the less narrative there is, the more it needs to be fine-tuned. In a free-to-play shooter game that only features one opening cutscene for 50 hours of gameplay, the cutscene has to be extremely clear and visually stunning so that the player doesn't skip it, which is every narrative designer's worst nightmare.

In a nutshell: reduced narrative doesn’t mean there’s no need for narrative designers.

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. In these cases, it’s essential to approach level designers and discuss the option of adding an area without enemies, where players will be able to chat freely. 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.

For instance, we want to avoid having a hero say they hate violence in a cutscene, and then start shooting around recklessly a few minutes later. In an ideal world, game narrative and mechanics constantly feed and influence each other. They adapt to their respective needs as necessary.

IB: The types of teams we work with really depend on the studio, the project, and our own expertise. But the gaming industry is evolving into a profoundly collaborative ecosystem, as it is becoming increasingly technical and requires a wide array of individual skills. How could we possibly add narrative in all areas of the game without communicating with all parties involved? This is how ludonarrative dissonance may arise. We spend a lot of time with people who have different skills, like programmers, and for that reason it is vital to understand what they are saying to avoid running into problems later. I think that communication is the one key skill for a designer, whatever their area of expertise."

FM: When writing Bury Me, my Love, we thought it would be good for our heroine, Nour, to hesitate when writing her messages. So we used that famous little speech bubble that comes and goes on our phone screens when we start typing a message and that might cause some frustration on the other end. Paul Jouannon, our developer, devised a feature that allowed us to convey even more emotion thanks to this little speech bubble.

Conversely, at the start of the project, we were thinking of how the messaging app on the main character's phone would look like, as it was such a central part of the game. Paul mentioned it would be cool to make it possible to take selfies. He knew how to go about it technically, and it was a feature that we could make use of. He asked us if it made sense narratively, and even though we hadn't thought of it until that point, it soon became obvious that the answer was yes. This is how his technical idea fed our narrative design.

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. Generally speaking, I think it is better to start out with game design and specialize later. 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. It's important to know what’s going on around us.

You also have to be wary of generic courses, as they rarely provide the tools necessary to become a good narrative designer. 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.

JC: We’re lucky to have well-established schools, and I think that it is a good path to take, even if it means starting out in game design. In my opinion, it's only possible to do a good job when we know what others are doing. Understanding the issues game designers face is always useful for narrative designers. Although this may seem obvious, my second piece of advice is to play games. Take notes when you enjoy the story, and ask yourself why it works well, and how you could make use of some of its elements. We can learn a lot by simply observing games.

FM: If you're pursuing a career in narrative design, you have to create content, interactive content if possible. Reading your job application, I need to see in two clicks what you have created, be it a dialogue in Twine or a mini prototype made in an accessible game-creation tool. It's also very important to have references outside of gaming: I am less interested in the fact that you spent 5,000 hours on an online game than in knowing that you love comics, theater, or even that the layout of road signs fascinates you. And sometimes, it is good to create opportunities for yourself, which isn't easy as we don't all have the same means. There is no universal solution.

SB: There is no narrative-designer path per se. I think the best way is to study game design, and then to refine your knowledge in narrative via courses and master classes. “Dramatic Storytelling & Narrative Design” by Ross Berger – a videogame and VR author – is a great book I often recommend. The latest edition of “Game Writing,” edited by Chris Batement with chapters written by multiple authors, is also very engaging for those of you who are interested in these professions.

It’s important to cultivate the wide range of skills you may have developed within your professional environment. This is the kind of profile recruiters are after. Generally speaking, it is also vital to further your knowledge in different forms of art, and also in sociology or psychology in the wider sense. Anything that helps you get a better understanding of what narrative encompasses, really.

Are you interested in joining Ubisoft? Check out our current opportunities around the world at jobs.ubisoft.com.

This article was originally published in French on Ubisoft Stories.

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