Writing for video games is a wonderful thing and at the same time a little odd. Or, rather, people’s perceptions of it can be odd. Even after all the time I’ve spent making it my career, there are still some people in development and publishing who think that game writing is just the dialogue or the text that appears on-screen in diaries, character logs, etc. This has led to some writers re-branding themselves as “narrative designers”.
I must admit that I’m not a fan of the term when applied to a writer. Narrative design is an important task and one that’s vital if the story and gameplay are to mesh, but I believe it is the task that’s undertaken when the writer and designer gets together, rather than being a standalone job description. Yes, there are people who do both the writing and design on a game (I’ve done this enough times myself) but narrative design is one aspect of the many that are undertaken on the road to completing a game design document.
Narrative design is a term that feels like it’s new and specifically it may well be. However, if we think about it, people have been designing narrative since stories have been constructed and written down. Take screenwriting, for example – much has been written on structure, plot, character arcs, protagonists, antagonists, sub-plots, etc. When putting together a screenplay from scratch, the writer is always involved in narrative design, they’ve probably never thought of it this way. I doubt that writers in other media would rush to re-label themselves so I don’t think game writers should do so either.
The core of what we do as game writers has so much in common with other media, yet there is such a fundamental difference due to one specific thing, interactivity. What I believe is needed, to ensure that the role of a game writer is fully understood, is to embrace the importance of interactivity in our writing, the way we structure our stories and the manner with which we work with development teams. A full grasping of interactive narrative is the key, either working closely with the game designer or as a writer-designer. With that in mind, here is a summary of how I see myself:
I’m a game writer. I craft stories, write and refine dialogue and develop interactive narrative that add value and player connectivity to character-driven games.