Finding Meaning in Play: Defining Narrative Design

  • 2 April 2019
  • Nick Jones

Let's talk about narrative designers. If you get a bunch of us together in a room and ask what we do, nine times out of ten, our descriptions will differ. This is because, as a relatively youthful occupation, there’s still a lot of figuring out to do. Add in the fact that the technology to tell interactive stories advances every year, and you’ve got a field that is somewhat difficult to define. But define it, we must – although it’s a new path, we are seeing Narrative Design become more and more important with each passing year. This work is in demand all across our culture – often in places you’d never expect. Yes, we are often employed by Game, Movie and TV studios, Theaters and live event organizers, but we also find our expertise wanted in Governments, Hospitals and other social sectors. Narrative Design is allowing the world to encounter new, heart-changing ideas through the medium of character and play.

And far be it from me to try and put my fellow writers in a box, but I do feel, I can add some insight on this mysterious topic. I've both succeeded at it, and taught it to classrooms of bright-eyed students. For those of you who are perhaps new to the business of building interactive content, I hope that this blog can be your guiding key. Other readers might already be developing great stories, filled with complex characters and lore, but perhaps I can give you a framework for those things you're already doing so well.

So… what makes a story?

Words that spring to mind: Characters, Theme, A strong plot, Action, Drama, Suspense, Conflict…

You would be correct in thinking that a story is all of these. Simply put: Story is character responding to conflict. At least… traditionally.

Understanding the Writerly Text:

Way back before the internet, a literary theorist named Roland Barthes wrote prophetically about the future of story. He, and others foresaw a day when literature would cross the border of the passive and move into the active. At the time, he had no idea how this would look, but to map out the future, he wrote of two things. Readerly texts and Writerly texts.

These terms defined both the old way and the new.

Barthes described Novels, Film and TV as being Readerly texts. With these stories, audiences engaged by sitting before them, passively suckling on the content provided.

The Writerly text, however, was something quite different. With the Writerly text, the audience would, Barthes imagined, become active in their consumption.

Whereas a Readerly text was filled with familiar, linear pacing, the Writerly text would be non-linear in design, and potentially infinite in the ways it could be interpreted.

Barthes saw Writerly texts in their infancy through forms of literature often referred to as ergodic literature– works that required effort from the reader to understand. Novels like B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates experimented with elements of play and form in ways that only the 1960s could produce. Although the first and last chapter of the novel were defined as such, everything else was presented to the reader unbound and randomized – the idea being that besides from the beginning and end, everything else could be read in any order to create a unique story for every person who engaged with it.

A more modern example is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – a horror novel (of sorts) that uses font size, type and color, along with strange formatting, blank space, hidden codes, multiple and conflicting experiences to tell the bizarre and terrifying story of a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Danielewski’s novel encourages readers to actively search for answers within the text themselves, often provoking emotional responses ranging from curiosity, excitement and fear, all the way to feelings of claustrophobia, agoraphobia and bizarrely – both cosmic pessimism and hope.

And yet, the truth is, Barthes wasn’t creating anything new. He was merely observing an age-old human tradition of storytelling. We’ve had Writerly texts for thousands of years. Divination practices of ancient cultures - Runes, the I-Ching, Tarot – all fit into the category of Writerly texts. What are they, if not random storytelling generators, only making sense when we engage with them? Regardless of whether you believe in their mystical powers or not, these texts hold the unique ability to capture readers through the conscious and subconscious shaping of their own stories based off archetypes and micro-narratives.

Today, it could be argued that we are perhaps seeing the birth of the most advanced form of Writerly texts through computers and technology. While these things are technically tools of Writerly texts, the formats that they allow are the means by which Writerly texts can be conveyed. If you were to look at a Story Bible or a Game Design document, it would be hard to deny how perfectly it mirrors Barthes ideas on this new, ergodic narrative. And when that design document is interpreted like an architects’ blueprints to build a player experience, something truly special is created. When a player travels these paths we have built, they are experiencing a Writerly text, and Narrative Design in action.

 A Toolbox of Terms:

So, when we think of the question “What makes a story” within the context of interactive media, we must consider how a Writerly text inherently changes the structure of its content.

Like Narrative Design itself, there are many different ideas on how to arrive at the meat of this kind of fiction.

In my own work, I’ve spent some time developing a terminology for what I do. For me, the structure of an interactive narrative – the beats that one must hit — are not linear. We aren’t talking about a simple list or a “hero’s journey.” Rather, the structure of an interactive narrative is  space. Why? Because to design a world that the player can interact with, a world the player can feel, touch and influence, we need to understand what it means to build and populate a landscape with geography, history, characters and conflict.

Let’s talk about Lore.

Lore is simply the landscape we craft to host our story. It comprises all the world-building elements that exist within an interactive story that are not necessarily crucial to the plot but are crucial to creating atmosphere and feeling. Lore is the playing field in which plot takes place.

Moving down a layer we have Deep Lore.

Deep lore describes a specific style of world-building. One which focuses on the things that are crucial to understanding the plot. Deep lore brings context to our story. To use an example from literature, Lord of the Rings is a powerful piece of world-building that we can learn a lot from in the realm of interactive storytelling. Think of the Elvish languages JRR Tolkien created for his work. These add flavor and realism to Middle-Earth and its cultures, but the reader does not need to understand Elvish to understand the plot. This is an example of lore. The backstories of the character Gollum and the Rings of Power, however, are required readings. With them, we understand exactly why Frodo must destroy his ring, and why we as readers should be so uncomfortable with the working relationship he has established with that gangly creature leading him into Mordor. This is an example of deep lore.

Narrative concerns itself with the mode of storytelling. It’s the what and the how. What tools are being used to tell this story? Are they successful? How can they be improved upon? How are the players encouraged to engage with what is presented to them? In this way, Narrative becomes more of a planning process, a strategizing of how we want the player to experience the world in front of them. More akin to the planning of an immersive theater piece or an amusement park than traditional definitions of the word, narrative in interactive storytelling is the bone structure that keeps the whole experience together and working.

Plot is what happens. It concerns itself with the right here, right now. It is player experience. It is conflict and character. As the player moves throughout the world, plot is there to challenge them, provoking them to act in response.

Character is the who. Who do these things happen to? How are they coping with it? How do they react when the player is thrown amid it all? Character requires a great deal of time, planning and effort. The people who populate your world need extensive backstories, they need likes, dislikes, passions and agendas. Establishing this kind of detail means that dialogue becomes real and multifaceted, which is important because interaction with characters builds empathy in the player. Empathy is an expression of humanity and it is through humanity that we can place our players at the very heart of narrative design.  

Story is the bigger picture. Story is the full context of this world. When we talk about an interactive story, we’re talking about something all-encompassing and profound. An interactive story is the plot, narrative, lore and deep lore, rolled into one.

All these things stand toe-to-toe, equal with one another. A good Narrative Designer understands this and tries to develop each so that they together, form a cohesive experience which plunges a player into full-immersion.

But there’s one last component that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s a doozey – because what is a game without interaction? That’s right, the last, and fundamentally key piece of the puzzle is Gameplay.

Gameplay, or if you prefer, main game-loop is that which your player will be doing the most throughout their experience. If it’s an RPG fantasy, that might be killing monsters and stealing their loot. If it’s an immersive theater piece like Sleep No More, you’ll be exploring rooms, handling unique props and solving a mystery. Whatever it is that you expect your players to do the most, that’s your main loop, and that is the most important aspect of your work.

So yes, us Narrative Designers develop worlds – fully fleshed out worlds with vibrant characters, exciting plots and thematic meanings, but the most special thing we do, the most complex, is working with your team on that gameplay loop so that both it and the story reflect each other.

 In short: Narrative Design is about the marriage of gameplay and emotional meaning. It’s what happens when autonomous action clicks into place perfectly with intricate storytelling. With it, play exists to highlight plot, and plot exists to encourage play.

* Many thanks to Jeff Gomez (Twitter: @Jeff_Gomez) for his help in developing this article.

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