Narrative Design 101 — What is Narrative Design?

Johnnemann Nordhagen
15 min readMay 10

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(If you haven’t read the introduction to this series here, it will offer some valuable context).

I like to start out on a positive note
Screenshot from The Stanley Parable by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I covered this in the intro article, but I also wanted to include the slide I gave the students here.

Screenshot from Bioshock, by Irrational Games

Narrative design is where game design and storytelling meet. It’s how we figure out how the player encounters the story we want to tell. It’s not writing that story, or writing the individual lines of dialog, or even necessarily plotting out what will happen over the course of the story in broad strokes.

Screenshot from Psychonauts, by Double Fine Entertainment

It’s important to note how much of a game is directed towards telling a story, or how much can be! Character design, level design, writing, art, systems design, they are all components that make up the whole narrative of your game. If you’re telling a horror story, colorful cartoonish characters might not fit, nor will systems that allow the player to feel powerful and in control.

Screenshot from Firewatch, by Campo Santo Productions

What does a narrative designer do? First, they figure out the bounds of the storytelling. By that, I mean they define which elements of the game contribute to story, and the overall general scope of the story. “We will have hour-long cutscenes with famous celebrities” vs “we will showcase the world in the background of the puzzlegame by putting flavor into the powerup descriptions”

They create a story engine to drive the writing and storytelling. I’ll cover a story engine in more detail later, but in brief it’s a setup from writing that naturally leads to relationships, tensions and conflict that can drive story

Narrative designers narrativize systems. I’m not sure that’s actually a word. But what I mean by that is that narrative designers look for opportunities in existing game systems to add narrative, or adjust those systems to accommodate narrative needs. For instance, pushing to add flavor text descriptions to the inventory screen, to provide another vector for narrative

They create new systems, too. That means things like designing the specs for a dialogue system, for instance, or prototyping a procedural story engine

And then they basically just handle anything that is at the intersection of story and game design. There’s way more than is included in this list, because games are unique and we can never predict what needs they’ll have!

Screenshot from Unpacking, by Witch Beam

Many people think that narrative designers are writers. This is not a situation that’s helped much by the fact that at some studios, the roles are the same! But in an ideal sense, they are two distinct things. If you’re a narrative designer you might not ever write a word that shows up in the game.

The way the two disciplines are separated is, in broad terms, that writers are thinking about the plot of the game, the characters, and what actually happens. Narrative designers come up with the means by which those stories are told. These two things can sometimes overlap — a narrative designer might place limits on the writers. Maybe they say “we don’t have a cinematics system so we can’t do this big setpiece moment you’re planning”, or similar.

Screenshot from Papers, Please by 3909

Narrative designers are game designers, but each design discipline has its own pieces of the game that it is concerned with. This is another place where the lines blur — in a particular studio level or systems designers might fill a narrative role. But basically speaking, narrative designers are the ones concerned with the player’s emotional interaction with the game. If you’re asking “how can I get the player to engage with the process of inventory management?” you’re a systems designer, if you’re asking “how can I use the limited inventory space to make the player feel anxious?” you’re a narrative designer. (This is an oversimplification, sorry systems designers!)

Screenshot from Digital: A Love Story by Christine Love

As I’ve already alluded to, though, it’s rarely this clear-cut in actuality. Narrative design is something that touches every part of the game, so many people in the studio might end up having to make narrative-driven decisions. On the flip side, few studios have fully-fleshed out narrative departments — many times roles will be shared. This is especially true, of course, in smaller studios and indie places, where one person often wears many hats anyway.

However, this is why I’m trying to be so precise about what narrative design IS, where the lines of the discipline are drawn, because if you look at how a game is made you’ll come away with many different ideas about what narrative design consists of.

Screenshot from Shadow of the Colossus by Team Ico

So let me talk briefly about what the different roles are in a given narrative department. These are roles, not people! Meaning that these don’t correspond necessarily to a single person’s job, just what the department as a whole is responsible for. This breakdown came from my old boss, Ian Thomas, and is the best explanation of a narrative department I’ve ever seen

There’s narrative direction, maybe a person with the title of Narrative Director or Narrative Lead. This is the role responsible for the overall narrative vision and getting everything accomplished. Setting the tone and themes of the game, the approach used, the style.

Narrative design, that’s what we’re talking about in this class!

Story design, this is the same sort of thing you might do for a story in a movie or a book — plotting, creating characters, worrying about setting.

Narrative systems, this is interesting. This is the more technical side, where we actually start looking at “how does a dialog system work” or “how do we procedurally generate characters” or something like that.

Worldbuilding — This is fleshing out the world of the game, figuring out things like the history and politics and geography, or more generally the background of how things got to where they are in the game.

Screenshot from Left 4 Dead 2 by Valve Corporation

Writing is actually putting words on paper. Writing pieces of text for item descriptions, writing dialog, anything like that.

Editing is making sure the writing flows well, as well as any other storytelling elements you’ve used — does the whole thing fit together?

And lastly, performance direction. If you have a game with voice acting or motion capture, you need someone to cast the actors for those roles and get the top performances out of them

Now, again, probably there’s not one person for each of these roles. Probably in a real narrative department one person or team is responsible for several of these roles. For instance, writers are responsible for writing, sure, but also story design, worldbuilding, often editing, sometimes performance direction for the lines they’ve written. Some of these roles may not even be needed — performance direction is only a factor in some games, or maybe there isn’t a narrative director, just a team working together towards shared goals. Often things like narrative systems will live at least partially outside the narrative team, with a programmer on a engineering team, perhaps.

And, if your title is “Narrative Designer”, you might be responsible for any part of these different roles! That’s partly why I want to be so clear about what narrative design itself entails, because in the real world the lines blur quickly.

Screenshot from Bury Me, My Love by The Pixel Hunt

Here are some questions that you, as a narrative designer, might be expected to answer for your team or game.

  • What actions do we have available, and what do we need?
  • What tools and techniques do we have to tell the story? These are sort of collectively our “narrative levers”, the things we can pull on to change the direction or feel of the story experience.
  • And then of course we have to consider whether we can use these levers at all, because they may not fit our available budget or scope.
  • And I know I’ve said this twice already but narrative design involves a huge part of the team, so you need to think about how those people will be brought on board to do this, and how you’ll advocate for the narrative to them.
Screenshot from Portal by Valve Corporation

Here’s some things we need to keep in mind as narrative designers. First, is integration with the gameplay. The players of a game are entering a magic circle, where they are willingly suspending their disbelief in order to be entertained. Ideally you need to help them to do that! There is definitely room in games for deliberate friction, pushing back against what a player wants, breaking the fourth wall, all those things. But that’s something to be approached cautiously, and for now let’s assume we need to build rapport with the player before we do more.

So, part of this is diegesis. You may have heard this term before, it’s about the separation of things that exist in the fictional world and things that exist in the real world. An example is really needed here — the best one I’ve heard is the music in movies. If there’s music playing, on a radio or a record player or something, and the characters can hear it, then that’s diegetic music. If there’s music that’s part of the film’s soundtrack, that’s non-diegetic. This comes up all the time in games. UI is a big part of this — is there a reason the character can see the UI? Maybe it’s part of an in-game map, like in Firewatch. Another thing is stuff like objectives or quests. Does the character know about those because something in game told them, or is it just a box that pops up that tells the player?

To be clear, diegetic things are not inherently better than non-diegetic, but it’s something you should be aware of in the context of integrating story and mechanics

Another tension point in game story design is that, often, we’re trying to do two different, opposing things with our content. First, we’re trying to tell a story, and good fiction writing is subtle and full of inference. Second, though, we’re often trying to tell the player what they need to do, and good instructional or technical writing is clear and unambiguous. You’re going to have to balance these two demands as you attempt to create stories for games!

There’s also this famous term, Ludonarrative Dissonance. This was coined by designer Clint Hocking as he wrote about Bioshock, but it basically points at the difference between what we tell the player they’re doing or what kind of world they’re inhabiting, or who they are, and the actions we push them into through gameplay. If we tell the player they’re the great hero of light, and then we also ask them to spend a lot of time murdering innocent animals, it might create this kind of tension. Or if we push the player to get something done before a deadline, but then give them lots of unimportant tasks to complete, we undermine that.

Screenshot from Disco Elysium, by Studio ZA/UM

Next, is the themes and tone of your game. I love this part, this is where I really think a lot of game design could seek to learn from literature, movies, and TV. I recently wrote a piece for the Game Developer site about theme-driven design. Briefly, themes are the things your work is concerned with. If you’re making a survival game, you’re concerned with the timeless theme of humanity vs nature, and possibly of the lone individual vs living a society. And your game will end up saying something about that topic. To be clear, I’m not saying that your game has to take a stance on an issue, or something like that — but even if that’s not your aim, your game will end up saying SOMETHING about the world. If you think you’re making a game that doesn’t, you’re probably just saying something that is so close to the status quo that you’re missing it. Again, this doesn’t have to be a big social or moral point — you could be saying something like “despite all our advancement and seeming mastery, humanity still struggles when pitted directly against the forces of nature.” Or “living in a society produces certain benefits, such as running water and grocery stores, that an individual on their own will struggle to replicate”. Neither of those statements is particularly controversial, I think, but if you don’t at least have them in mind when you’re making a game, you might inadvertently be confusing in what you say, or say something you don’t really intend or didn’t think through. Disco Elysium, pictured on the slide here, is a great example of a game that knows what it is trying to talk about, and the fact that it’s so consistent thematically is one of the reasons it’s so powerful and popular.

Tone often flows from theme, but it’s a separate thing. I wrote here that it is “what mode or register are you speaking in”, another way to think of it is “what flavors does your game have”. Examples of tone are things like “dark and gritty”, or “optimistic”, or “noir-influenced”. You can keep the same theme and basic mechanics in a game, but changing the tone can have a huge impact on how it feels. Consider something like Fortnite versus PUBG, both are battle royale games with similar mechanics, but PUBG is focused on grim realism and Fortnite is goofy and happy.

Screenshot from Return of the Obra Dinn by 3909

And then lastly here, writers talk about building a “Story engine”, which I mentioned before, a set of relationships and situations that naturally create conflict or tensions to explore. Luckily for us making games, games are pretty good story engines on their own, but we need to make sure we help them trend in that direction. What mechanics and characters and setups can we create or expand upon to give the writers juicy ways to tell the story?

Screenshot from Pathologic 2 by Ice Pick Lodge

This is a list of a bunch of different places and ways in which we can introduce story into a game. Probably no one game will use all of these, and this also isn’t an exhaustive list. Sometimes the tools you have are unique to your particular game.

Dialogue is a generic term but includes any time two characters are talking — usually one of those characters is the player character, but not always. This is really common, most AAA games will use dialogue in some way. Some examples might be Skyrim, or Final Fantasy.

Barks are short voiced lines that don’t have responses. Similar to dialogue, but they’re usually used to indicate NPC internal state to players. For instance, in a stealth game such a Thief or Splinter Cell, guards often have lines to let the player know they’ve been detected, or that they’re hidden again. In a game like Uncharted, NPCs often shout out when they’ve thrown a grenade, or when they’re dodging one on their side. But even though they’re usually used for mechanical purposes, they also have a narrative dimension.

Companion NPCs are a way to deliver dialogue lines — if you need someone for the player to talk to, that’s a common solution. You’ve got a friend with you, or on the radio, or similar. The Last of Us does this, or God of War

Narratorial voice is a different thing. That’s when there’s a voice outside the game narrating what’s going on, in some way. Perhaps reading text like prose, or perhaps speaking to the person playing the game. Bastion is famous for this, and The Stanley Parable.

Mechanical storytelling is letting the actions the player is performing help tell the story for you — when just by virtue of playing the game, a story unfolds, without a need for extra text or dialogue. This is surprisingly rare for a game to rely on entirely, although most games use it to some degree. Of games that do just this, Unpacking is my favorite example. Her Story might be another one, or Shadow of the Colossus.

Flavor text is anything that’s not directly telling the story, but is giving pieces of extra stuff alongside. Things like item descriptions, or text on a map, or other pieces of the UI. Dark Souls and similar games are very good at this.

Environmental storytelling is using pieces of the game’s environment to tell a story. The joke about this is that it’s placing skeletons next to things to show where people died, but it’s basically putting objects together in a way that suggests a story. It might also include decoration, like graffiti or advertisements. BioShock is the go-to example of this, but also something like Psychonauts, where the levels themselves are kind of a whole story told through design and art.

Audio logs are when the player finds recordings of characters that talk to them as they walk around. Bioshock again here, also Prey from 2017, lots of games use this.

World building is a bigger topic than we can cover in a sentence, but basically it’s creating the behind-the-scenes textures of your world, the way it’s ended up in the state the player has found it in. This is a really rich place to put story, although it’s not usually related directly to the player’s main narrative, just kind of the flavor of story. Outer Wilds is a great example of this.

Branching narrative covers a whole category of games, where the player’s narrative choices change the outcome or at least the pieces of story that they see. This is contrasted with linear narratives, where the story is always the same no matter how you play it. The Telltale games are branching narrative games.

Storylets are a different way of doing non-linear narrative, creating small pieces of story that can be delivered when different criteria are met. They’re a good fit for open-world games, where you don’t know what order the player is doing things in. But you can say “this story is available to the player if they have a magic sword” and then it can trigger at any point after the player has found a magic sword, whether they bought it or got it from a defeated enemy or forged it in the flames of the Dragonforge or whatever.

And then lastly, cinematics or cutscenes are often what people think about when they think about game story, but these are often used only in big-budget games and are seen as a rather clunky way of getting story across since they take agency away from the player and make them a passive observer

So again, this isn’t a full list of everything you could ever use to tell story in a game, but these are some of the most common elements we might use, and some terms you’ll run across as we go forward.

Screenshot from The Outer Wilds, by Mobius Digital

I think the best way to start getting our minds in a narrative design place is to look at what narrative design looks like in some games that have gone before. So for this assignment, pick at least one game from the list below, and play it. Ideally pick something that you’re not familiar with already, and something outside your comfort zone. Write down notes on the narrative of the game, but not just the story, how the story is told in the game.

  • Counterfeit Monkey (2012)
  • Murder on the Zinderneuf (1983)
  • Firewatch (2016)
  • Her Story (2015)
  • Gone Home (2013)
  • Stanley Parable (2013)
  • The Beginner’s Guide (2015)
  • Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
  • Papers, Please (2013)
  • Portal (2007)
  • Disco Elysium (2019)
  • Kentucky Route Zero (2013)
  • 80 Days (2014)
  • Unpacking (2021)
  • Left 4 Dead (2008) or Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
  • Dwarf Fortress (2022)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
  • Outer Wilds (2019)
  • Wildermyth (2021)
  • Galatea (2000)
  • The Graveyard (2008)
  • The Marriage (2007)
  • Pathologic (2005) or Pathologic 2 (2019)
  • Psychonauts (2005) or Psychonauts 2 (2021)
  • Howling Dogs (2012)
  • Digital: A Love Story (2010)
  • Bury Me, My Love (2017)

Several of the games on the list are free, but if you don’t have the time or tech or money required to play something, you can look up a let’s play or similar. Try to find something without commentary so you can use your own muscles of analyzing the game. We will discuss these next time, and I’ll give you my thoughts on any that no one chooses to play. I strongly encourage you to try to pick something you wouldn’t normally play! It’s good practice to think about things like that, and that might well be your experience as a professional, asked to design for a genre that you wouldn’t play on your own.

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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.