The narrative is the soul of a game. It immerses players in a fictional world and helps them identify with the characters. How do you create an engaging story that grips the player from the first click, while still taking into consideration all the technical nuances and particularities of human psychology?
We explore this topic with Inlingo specialists, narrative designers Aleksey Medov and Evgenia Nekrashevich.
What is a game narrative?
A narrative is a story that can include several elements: the plot, the script, game mechanics, and other tools that help provide new experiences. There are dozens of definitions of “narrative”, but no one true definition exists. It differs from studio to studio. In our view, the narrative is the story that is created in the player’s head using all possible methods as they progress through the game.
At the base level, every story is a biochemical process that occurs in our brains. We perceive reality through stories. Our brain receives signals which we interpret and form into a picture. Broadly speaking, we “tell a story” to ourselves, about ourselves, the world around us, and other people. Stories are natural to us, and that’s why they work so well and sell so well, including in games.Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo
However, don’t get the narrative mixed up with the script or the plot. Usually, a plot line is tied to one character, conflict, or event. There can be several plot lines in a game. The script, meanwhile, is a broader concept than the plot. It’s an elaborate document that describes everything that is going to happen in the game, in a specific order, and with all the details worked out. The script is necessary for structuring information and putting it in a format that’s convenient for the whole team to use. The script is used as the basis for creating cutscenes, programming boss behavior, developing facial animations, and much more.
The narrative includes both the plot and the script, as well as the game mechanics, the story, and the visuals. All of these things are tools that help the player get a specific game experience.
Is the narrative just about text?
No. In fact, the text isn’t even the main consideration in narrative design. The story is also conveyed through visuals, gameplay, and other methods that help the player simulate the experience of living through the story.
Some games may not have a single line of text, but they can still create an interesting story. Other times, a game has text, but not a unified, pre-planned story. It can be left to the player’s imagination. But in both cases, there is still a narrative.
It’s possible to have games with no story. They rely solely on game mechanics, or even one specific mechanic. These kinds of games can be quite popular. Take Flappy Bird as an example. That game had no text, but it had a narrative, if we take the broadest meaning of that word. It’s expressed in the dissonance between the totally harmless and simple graphics and the extremely difficult gameplay. This method causes strong emotions. Flappy Bird isn’t a story in the strictest sense of the word, but it provokes a clear and unmistakable reaction.Aleksey Medov, narrative designer at Inlingo
So what makes up a narrative, then?
A story is generally made up of setting, characters, themes, and conflicts. Conflict is the most important of these. Conflict lets characters develop, and lets players sympathize with them. That said, there are no mandatory elements to a narrative. A story can be told in all kinds of ways: through text, cutscenes, dialogue, game mechanics, or environment. The games themselves can be totally different, too. Some may emphasize engaging mechanics while others highlight visual aesthetics. The role and meaning of the narrative also vary by genre.
Two fundamentally different projects in terms of narrative: The Witcher, which has huge amounts of text in different forms, and Limbo, where the story is conveyed through gameplay and environment
Taking story-based games as an example, the structure can be either linear or branching — non-linear. In the former, the sequence of events is determined by the scriptwriter in advance. This type of story is easier to control, but it’s less flexible. Players have no influence on what happens, but they may feel that their actions are what’s driving the story forward.
Non-linear stories are based on choice: the plot develops differently depending on the player’s decisions, which can lead to various consequences. Still, plot lines can intersect at points where the authors have planned important events. There can be multiple endings or just one. However, if the story ends the same way no matter what, the player may feel like their choices had no effect on anything. One infamous example of this is the game Mass Effect 3, where the final outcome ignored all of the player’s previous choices and seriously diminished the significance of many hours of gameplay.
There are logical rules that should be followed: complex moral and ethical decisions don’t really fit in casual games, which people only play for short periods of time and want to have fun, or in games for children. Genre also influences length of play, affecting the story complexity, its tempo, the ability of the player to influence the plot, and much more. Linear gameplay in a shooter? Fine. Linear gameplay in an RPG? Bad call.Aleksey Medov, narrative designer at Inlingo
Who creates a game’s narrative?
The narrative creation team differs greatly from company to company. The choice of specialists depends on the scale and budget of the game. Sometimes the game designer takes on the responsibilities of the narrative designer and may also be the scriptwriter. In some cases, the scriptwriter, game designer and narrative designer are all different people.
Depending on the size of the game and the amount of story-based elements in it, there may need to be several scriptwriters and narrative designers. Often, well-known authors are hired for these roles. Their involvement in the project can help lift the game’s rating. For example, George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels that served as the basis for the TV show Game of Thrones, was invited to work on the script for Elden Ring.
Ideally, the story should be inseparable from the game process, so the narrative designers work closely with artists and game designers. It’s important for the visual elements, environment, and characters to highlight and complement the story. The narrative is also conveyed through game mechanics, level design, and other game elements.
What do you need to work on a narrative?
From a technical standpoint, sometimes all you need is a text editor or a spreadsheet. For more advanced work or for large, complex games, there is specialized software, like Articy Draft. What matters is that you can write down your thoughts, systematize them, and make them available to the team.
In terms of skills, it’s helpful for a narrative designer to have education in screenwriting, language or a related field. This helps you express your ideas accurately and understand the principles of building a story. But in truth, experience with games and visual media helps more than anything else. It’s pretty common for game designers to switch over to narrative design. They have the technical background, but also a wealth of knowledge about how games work.
How is work on narratives organized?
At Inlingo, a team is chosen individually to meet the client’s needs. Usually, a project team consists of one or more screenwriters, who develop the plot lines and combine them into one big story. Literary editors are responsible for the logic of the story, the stylistic coherency, and for making sure the text meets technical specifications. Project managers handle communications with the client, deadlines, and sending corrections.
The first and most important stage of the work is discussing the project with the client. You need to find out what their vision of the game is and what the desired results are. This conversation touches on game particulars, the theme, the deadline, and style requirements. The client also gives the team references and links to materials that will help them create the story.
These talks lead to the creation of detailed design documents—instructions and style guides that lay out the main decisions, commentary, and client expectations. The narrative designers use this information when writing text.
The finished materials are sent to literary editors for review, to make sure the results meet the client’s expectations. Then, the text is sent to the client for review. Once we get feedback, we make adjustments, both to the text itself and to the instructions that the authors use.
It’s pretty standard for texts to be rewritten several times. The game-development process is a very active one. It’s rare for a concept to appear at the very beginning and remain unchanged until the final release. For most projects, changes are made throughout the entire development process. The final game is a “collage” made up of compromises and trial and error. You need to take an understanding attitude to this and be sensitive to the client’s needs.Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo
What’s the best way to design a narrative?
Narrative design relies heavily on psychological concepts of perception and attention. Understanding these concepts means you can engage the player and help them identify with the characters. The human brain loves emotions. Media and game mechanics help us experience these emotions safely and meet numerous internal psychological needs.
Knowing the basics of psychology helps narrative designers provoke a wide range of emotions in players. One key concept is understanding the nature of conflict. Evolution and the fight for survival have made sure that if a conflict breaks out near us, we give it our full attention. Empathy plays a big role here, too, which is another important factor in player engagement.
Another major aspect to consider when working on a narrative is agency. Players like to feel like they are influencing the story, and that their decisions affect the characters’ fates and the outcome of events. This is one criterion that makes games so different from other forms of media like books or TV shows.
Among other things, you should be sure not to exhaust the player and pick the right means of expressing the story.
Our brains are pretty lazy. They don’t like to process large amounts of information and long texts. That’s why the ‘Show, don’t tell’ principle is so crucial in games. Show the player the tiger’s ears, not the whole tiger, and let the brain fill in the rest of the picture. That’s what the brain is good at and loves to do.Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo
Another psychological factor that you should consider is ludonarrative dissonance. This is the conflict between the mechanics of a game and the plot or given lore of its world. Imagine a peace-loving character who thinks that every person deserves a chance at redemption. Suddenly, for no plot-related reason, this character starts mercilessly blowing up hordes of enemies with fireballs. The character was given a combat role, and the game mechanics diverged from the screenwriter’s initial concept.
If everything was going well up until this point, the player was experiencing “suspension of disbelief,” meaning they were able to temporarily set aside their critical thinking and perceive the fictional world as real. As soon as there is an inconsistency in the story, and a character starts doing things that don’t fit within the logic of the world, the disbelief comes rushing back and player engagement nosedives. So, you need to understand what conditions a player can accept, and what will be very hard for them to believe.
How do you know if your narrative works?
You can’t test a narrative in a vacuum. It has to be in combination with the other elements of the game during the development process. So, for example, during the soft-launch stage metrics are evaluated: the number of downloads and installs, engagement, game play session length, number of active users, amount of time spent in the game, etc. Using this data, the developers decide which parts of the game need to be changed or improved. The script can change too. For example, if the developers notice that most players get bored and give up at the same point.
You can also test player engagement with the story using A/B testing, where Group A gets certain plot points and Group B gets others. At the end of testing, metrics can help you evaluate which variations worked better and were more engaging for players. You can use these options again more often in the future.
At intermediary steps, depending on your team, the head narrative designer or even the game designer can evaluate the results. On the side of the development team, the product owner or producer has the last word on the narrative. If they approve the final version of the story, then players will soon find themselves in a new world.