Narrative Design 101 —Introduction

Johnnemann Nordhagen
4 min readMay 10

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The person on the bench is your game. The other thing is narrative design

A few months ago, I was contacted by someone from Futuregames, a game development school here in Stockholm, who was looking for an instructor for a Narrative Design course.

I had taught at Futuregames before — I did a short course in using Perforce to help the students with their game projects — but at first I was reluctant to help with this course. “Do I actually have anything to teach about narrative design?” I wondered. Then I was shown the previous course materials, and immediately I began thinking about how I would improve upon them, until I basically felt like I had to take on the course, if only to get the ideas out of my head. And now I want to post my lectures and materials, so that anyone who wants can benefit.

That being said, I think there are far more people out there who know more about narrative design, especially as practiced at the AAA level, than I do. Many of them are generous with their expertise, as well — watching GDC talks from the Narrative track, or NarraScope talks, can show you that. But there does still seem to be a lack of very basic introductory materials, freely available, and I hope that these articles will help to fill that gap. If you are one of the many people who knows more than I, and you take issue with something here, please let me know! I was happy to teach but I’m even happier to learn.

The students were game designers, but not necessarily narrative designers. And it was a mere three weeks long, so there wasn’t really time to fully explore the subject. So I had three goals for the course:

  1. Expose everyone to the basics of narrative design, to see if it’s a field that catches their interest
  2. If they are interested in narrative design, inspire and excite them about the possibilities
  3. If they are not interested, give them the tools to communicate and work with narrative designers as well as a respect for the discipline.

The course was three lectures and three assignments.

  • The first lecture focused on the basics, definitions and so on.
  • The first assignment asked the students to pick a game from a long list of narrative games that I consider important/discussion-worthy, and look at it through a narrative lens — what techniques did it use to tell a story, what interesting things did it do, what rules did it break, etc. The goal of this was to get the students to start “thinking in narrative”
  • The second lecture we went through each of the games in the list, with the students giving their thoughts first, and then I would talk about what I thought made the game worth including. I also gave an intro to and demonstration of a few different narrative-focused game-making tools: Ink, Twine, Inform 7, and Bitsy
  • The second assignment was to use one of those tools to create a short narrative experience. The goal of this was to give the students practice in creating an experience that focused on narrative, learn a new tool, and potentially gain a portfolio piece
  • The third lecture was an exercise in practical narrative design. I adapted an older talk of mine, “How to Make JAWS Without a Shark”, and I talked through the process of re-imagining the classic film as a game instead, with a focus on the themes of the movie. I used a deconstruction of the film as a starting point to create a high-level narrative design for a new game. Then I talked though some narrative design decisions from Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, including some successes, dead-ends, and mistakes.
  • The third assignment was to create a similar high-level narrative design document for a game. I gave a selection of briefs to choose from, but also allowed the students to make up one from scratch, although I warned them that this would be harder than using something with existing constraints. If I taught this class again, I think I would focus more on giving set briefs, and in fact perhaps ask them only to do a game adaptation of an existing work…

In the followup articles, I’m going post the slides from my lectures, and then write a prose version of my lecture notes for each underneath. I might skip some slides if there’s not much to say. But I hope this will be valuable for other students out there!

Here is the first lecture!

Part 2

Part 3

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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.