Making Interactive Fiction: Narrative Design for Writers (part 1)

2018-06-12 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Columns / Non-Fiction

This is part one of a two-part series about narrative design aimed at traditional-media writers and IF authors.

First things first: What is narrative design? The real answer is that the role of “narrative designer” is relatively new in the games industry and has something of a fluid or even vague meaning. Different teams will use the term differently. But this is how I approach it: narrative design comprises the structures, mechanics, and dynamics that convey a story to a player.

Narrative design is about the whys and hows of story. It approaches the twin problems of how you deliver story (Are there non-player characters in the game? Can they talk? Do they talk spontaneously or only “in conversation” with the player?) and how story functions (Can the player change what happens in the story? Are there branching paths and/or an underlying world model?).

There’s a lot to say about how to build these structures, but a starting point is to think about them in terms of specific questions.

When you use a tool like Twine, for instance, you’re relying on a set of assumptions that essentially make up a narrative design for you — first-time Twine authors often write a narrative that relies on path branching for its underlying logic, because Twine pushes for that. To think like a narrative designer, you’ll need to make those choices into conscious decisions.

Here are some questions to ask:

Structure: How is the story organized? Are there explicit “chunks” of content that are self-contained (chapters, passages)? Can those be seen in different orders? How does the order vary? Is there a single overarching structure to the whole piece, or are there different “sections”?

Time: Does the story always move forward, or does the player have to do something specific to advance it? Are player actions limited by some resource or constraint? If the story isn’t always moving forward, what is the player doing other than advancing the story? Is there action going on in the background, independent from the player, or is all action tied to the player’s actions?

Choice: Is the player making choices as they advance the story? How are those choices presented? How does this presentation limit choice? How many choices do we want to give the player at once? What are the choices about: courses of action, emotional valence, player character self-expression, several of those, or something else entirely? Do choices feed into some underlying system? Can choices branch the story? Can choices be hidden or disabled? If so, under what circumstances?

Model: Is there some underlying simulation that impacts the story? How is the state of it surfaced to the player, if at all (for example, Choice of Games stories have an explicit stat screen)? Can the “world model” branch the story? Affect the choices you offer?

Gating: Does the player have to perform certain actions, accrue certain resources, or put the game into a certain state to advance the story or access certain branches? What happens if they fail or delay? What are we putting behind those “gates”: critical parts of the story, optional scenes, better story outcomes?

Goals: What is the player trying to do in this story? Are they trying to get the best outcome possible for the player character? Are they trying to implement a certain value system or express their own from a range of choices? Are they simply observers or low-agency participants in a process, with a goal to understand or explore? How do we make it clear to the player what their role is?

If this seems a bit overwhelming — well, yeah. The goal here is just to point out that interactive narrative is variable, and you really start to see things when you examine your assumptions. I hope this gets you thinking.

[Editor’s note: Part 2 of this post will go live Tuesday, July 10th — be sure to check in with us then for more on this topic!]

Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

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