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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Adventures in Narrative Design #1

I've been focusing a lot on work lately. The overwhelming majority of my short-term (six-month) goals revolve around professional development. So, I thought I might as well start writing about how that's going. Anyway, if you see an AIND post, then you'll know that I'm talking about work stuff.

This month marks my three-year anniversary at a company that I'll just refer to as Smalldot. Smalldot specializes in browser-based video games. I started off as a community manager for their English-language games, kicked-ass at that for about 2.5 years, and -- right before a complete burnout phase could set in -- was serendipitously re-assigned to the company's fledgling narrative design department about +/- 6 months ago.

Despite the huge learning curve and drop in seniority (I'm just a baby narrative designer), the change couldn't have happened at a better time. An odd thing to say, given that it's been taking place during a particularly (and, perhaps, spectacularly) shitty time in my personal history. But sometimes a person needs something (both challenging and maybe even a little fun) to cling to and that helps keep other things in perspective. For me, it's been mostly about my work and I'm ok with that.

So what is a narrative designer? Very good question. I probably only have a slightly better idea of that than you do (unless you are also a narrative designer). Some companies might call the position a game writer or a copywriter (or Texter in German). To be honest, when friends (or strangers) ask me about my job, I usually end up falling back to those descriptions (depending on how much I feel like getting into it). I work for a company that makes video games. Those games have words: storylines, people, places, and things. I write those words and create names for those things. That's a simple and easily digestible concept. But that's not all.

At Smalldot (since I don't know how it works at other companies), Narrative Design is a sub-department of Game Design (the people who think up the mechanics and gameplay elements that ultimately are the backbone of any game). Our Narrative Design team works (or at least attempts to work) hand-in-hand with the game designers to flesh out the parts that make the game, for lack of a better term, come alive. However, we don't necessarily do this by writing words.

Video games are visual, (usually) auditory, and interactive (probably some other things that I'm forgetting, like I said, I'm a baby). The medium itself allows for a few really awesome things: 1.)  It opens up the doors of possibility simply in terms of how a story can be told. So you're not just locked into traditional, linear-types of storytelling. 2.) It can also "force" innovation by necessity. So basically figuring out how to incorporate/explain necessary game elements without it seeming forced or clumsy or just too many words that the player(s) probably won't read (and when words are used, making them interesting enough that (at least some of) the players will *want* to read them). It's a challenge that I can only describe right now as delightfully frustrating. Getting better (and eventually excelling) at this is my goal.

Right now, I'm taking a multi-pronged approach. Even though I work in the gaming industry, I wouldn't exactly call myself a gamer. Maybe a casual gamer, at best. I've played a lot of games, but I've never taken the time to really think about and breakdown a game. I certainly don't feel like I have the chops (as yet) to venture off too far into the unknown, meaning that at this phase a lot of my work will likely be learning-by-doing derivative stuff.

I'm working my way through an ever-growing backlog of games (and always accepting new suggestions, if *anyone* has them). Playing them and observing/figuring out what makes a "good" game good (or a "bad" game bad). Of course, good and bad are subjective qualities, but I've found that in most cases there is generally some kind of consensus among gamers as to whether or not a game is good or bad. I'm using that as my jump off point and then will come to my own conclusions after I've played the game myself.

Alongside playing games made by other people, I'll be working on a mini-game project of my own. In my mind grapes, the foundation is sort of a text/choose-your-own adventure-type storyline mixed with some point-and-click RPG-type elements. It's still fairly conceptual at the moment, since I don't have the actual story pinned down and I don't know how to program, script, or draw/animate. To be honest, I'll probably never learn how to draw/animate  well, so I'll probably be calling in for reinforcements once I get to that stage. Anyway, the the first part of the goal is to practice crafting a non-linear story (i.e. multiple paths, multiple endings) with a minimum of said story conveyed through words, while still presenting the player with a series of meaningful choices to be made. The second part is to sort of guide myself through the process of creation on a relatively small scale, so as to be able really grasp important concepts that I can apply on a larger scale.

It's all very...daunting.

Overall, the main inspiration stemmed from the Choice and Conflict episode from the Penny Arcade show, Extra Credits (which generally does an excellent job of explaining all sorts of game design stuff, clearly and compactly). Additional inspiration (in terms of form, I suppose) came in the form of two small Flash games:

One Chance: Here you play a scientist whose cure for cancer goes awry and will kill every living cell on the planet in six days. And you basically have to choose how you'll spend those last 6 days.

and Sacrifice, in which you lead a team of adventurers on a suicide mission and for each "level" you have to choose which character to sacrifice to move ahead. But, like I said, it's ultimately a suicide mission for everyone.

Both are simple enough in concept (so that the feasibility of completion is still fairly high), but they also convey deceptively complex ideas. And, as kind of an added bonus, both manage to sort of circumvent the whole "action for reward" concept (i.e. you perform a certain action, which then results in some kind of advantage -- so that you do the actions to get to the reward and reach your happy end). Not that I think games shouldn't have rewards, but I'm fascinated right now with the idea of making choices in the face of the unknown. One Chance is quite interesting in that regard, because once you've played through to the end of the story, you can't replay it (without clearing your cache). In that way, the decisions you made throughout the game/story carry a sense of permanence (even if it's artificial).

On the gaming front, I'm working my way through the Fable series that embodies this concept on a much grander scale. In it, the choices that you make for your Hero character influence whether or not your character skews more towards "good" or "evil", storyline outcomes, your character's appearance, how NPC's react to you, etc. All sorts of cool stuff.

Anyway, I'll try to post updates on my progress (or setbacks) over the course of the next few months.

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