Narrative Design 101 — Game Analysis, Plus Some Tools

Johnnemann Nordhagen
6 min readMay 12


(An introduction to this series can be found here)

(Part 1)

Most of this lecture is really meant to be interactive — the interesting thing here is not what I have to say about these games, but the things that the students notice, or don’t, and how the conversation goes around those elements.

Still, in the interest of completion, I’m posting my slides here and some notes about where I would guide the conversation if it stalled.

I also want to note that for the first part, I did a short demonstration of each of the tools for the students. and they got to see what the process of making changes looks like, as well as the final output. Again, this doesn’t translate well to text, sorry!

Yes indeed
Ink is my favorite so I put it first


Obligatory Twine slide


None of the students chose to use Inform for their projects! I don’t blame them, I guess


Bitsy is so great. It’s not a “narrative” tool except it totally can be


Right here we paused for questions and clarifications on the tools, and then we went straight into our games!

Screenshot from Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short

Things I made sure we talked about:

  • Interactive fiction and parser games
  • Strong integration of mechanics and narrative
  • Good theming: the power of words
  • Point out that this uses Inform 7
Screenshot from Murder on the Zinderneuf by Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III

I’ll be honest, this is only in here because of the strong case made for it by Jimmy Maher’s chapter in Procedural Storytelling in Game Design (Short, Adams 2019). But it turned out to be an interesting inclusion for a few reasons!

  • Reading the manual and the age of putting your story in your game’s manual
  • Procedural storytelling
  • Why procedural techniques are a good fit for mysteries
Screenshot from Firewatch by Campo Santo Entertainment
  • Dialog as a first-class gameplay verb
  • Silence has meaning — not answering is a valid player action
  • Focus on character relationships; gameplay supporting theme here
Screenshot from Her Story by Sam Barlow
  • Barlow’s concept of “stateless story”
  • Reinventing the FMV game, and also casually inventing a new, better way of watching movies
Screenshot from Gone Home by The Fullbright Company
  • Environmental storytelling
  • Audio logs
  • Walking simulators as a genre
Screenshot from The Stanley Parable by William Pugh and Davey Wreden
  • Humor in games — why are there so few funny games?
  • Use of narratorial voice
  • Breaking the fourth wall and “meta logic”
  • Branching choice as metaphor and theme
Screenshot from The Beginner’s Guide by Everything Unlimited Ltd.
  • Unreliable narrator
  • Meta tools
  • Themes of relationship between creator and audience
  • The personal games movement
Screenshot from Return of the Obra Dinn by 3909
  • Discovering the narrative IS the gameplay — alignment of player and character goals
  • A puzzle game that doesn’t feel like a puzzle game because of the narrative framing
Screenshot from Papers, Please by 3909
  • Systemic storytelling — not about the plot, but about existing within systems and what the systems force us to realize
Screenshot from Portal by Valve Corporation
  • What role does the narrator play? Is this a “diegetic narrator”?
  • Narrative justification wrapper for a cool mechanic
Screenshot from Disco Elysium by Studio ZA/UM
  • Companion NPC, but also “companion NPCs” in the form of your personality aspects
  • Stats determine narrative voices and flow
Screenshot from Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer
  • Game as stage play
  • Multiple protagonists
  • Outside the game narrative tools in the Interludes
Screenshot from 80 Days by Inkle Studios
  • The problems of branching narrative
  • Making the choice network visible
  • Adaptation of a work to modern sensibilities
  • Made with Ink
  • Mechanics as narrative
  • An amazing narrative game without any text or voice
Screenshot from Left 4 Dead by Turtle Rock Studios
  • The power of a well-known setup (everyone understands the rules and backstory of a zombie apocalypse)
  • Characterization through dialog exchanges
  • Dynamic systems make each playthrough feel fresh rather than hearing the same lines over and over
Screenshot from Dwarf Fortress by Bay12 Games
  • Procedural lore and worldbuilding — literally worldbuilding
  • Being able to generate something means you need to know intimately how it works — it’s not free
  • The power of player stories — letting people tell each other their adventures rather than authoring a set narrative
Screenshot from Shadow of the Colossus by Team Ico
  • Player complicity — compare and contrast with Bioshock and Spec Ops
  • “Destined tragedy” and player agency
  • Focus on tone
Screenshot from Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital
  • Discovering the narrative and world as gameplay
  • Time loop as narrative device
  • “Stateless story” again?
Screenshot from Wildermyth by Worldwalker Games
  • Procedural relationship building
Screenshot from Galatea by Emily Short
  • Focus on a single character and single dialog
  • Experimental
  • Made in Inform
Screenshot from The Graveyard by Tale of Tales
  • Art games
  • Mechanics as narrative
Screenshot from The Marriage by Rod Humble
  • An attempt to make a “non-narrative” game
  • Unintended messages in the mechanics
  • Does this have a narrative, or narrative design?
Screenshot from Pathologic 2 by Ice Pick Lodge
  • Brutal difficulty and player friction as narrative tools
  • Different characters’ perspective on the same events
  • Synecdoche and other literary techniques — using the power of games to put us in a world that has more to offer than reality
Screenshot from Psychonauts 2 by Double Fine Entertainment
  • Level design as storytelling
  • Instant hook and infinite story possibilities in the brain exploration
Screenshot from howling dogs by porpentine
  • Hypertext
  • The personal games movement and who can make and play games
  • The Twine manifesto
  • ‘Challenging’ in the skill sense vs. ‘challenging’ as in a challenging work
  • Made in Twine
Screenshot from Bury Me, My Love by The Pixel Hunt
  • Diegetic storytelling
  • Timed narrative — the game events don’t happen at the player’s chosen pace
  • Empathy games

That is it! I’m sorry this lecture was a bit more flat than the previous — as I said it really depends on a conversation. I hope that my notes here provide some value, though.



Johnnemann Nordhagen

Johnnemann is a 19-year veteran of the game industry. He has worked across a variety of games, roles, and in AAA and indie spaces.