Narrative Design: The art of creating worlds and evoking emotions

Mar 18, 2021 10 MIN READ Vivi Werneck

Izadora Lima, Narrative Designer, brings her take on why narrative is a tool for making players fall in love with a game

Creating a great story is key in every game, regardless of the platform. A narrative that is attractive to the player is something inherently connected to game development itself, being present in the creative process since its first steps.

Being a narrative designer means, most often, to look beyond the fourth wall, using the game’s own world to tell stories and shape (with or without words) the personalities of characters, giving them choices and challenges, besides capturing the hearts of players in such a way they cannot wait to come back. 

In other words, we create our products’ stories as if we were immersed inside the game ourselves.

Surely, creating rich narratives is not the easiest of tasks and it demands that a writer/designer work alongside the development team, so not only can they all do “whatever’s possible”, but also allow the impossible (because why not?) to be experimented. 

All these concepts and techniques to create an amazing story are told to us by Izadora Lima, a Narrative Designer who’s been working at Wildlife for over a year.  

Before we dive right in on this world of stories, tell us a bit about your own and how did you start your career, Iza?

Izadora Lima: I was born in Mauá, an outlying municipality inside São Paulo State’s capital. I graduated in Game Design by PUC (Pontifical Catholic University) in São Paulo. I started my career as an English teacher. I taught classes for two years, also teaching bilingual theater. Ever since I was 13 years old, however, my real goal was to work with video games.

While in college, I realised I enjoyed the storytelling part more, and how games managed to draw out people’s feelings. A lot of this comes from narrative and is done in so many ways that go beyond the simple writing.

Still in college, I became an intern in a gaming company, working as QA (Quality Assurance), where I’d be testing and analyzing the overall quality of their games, among other things, That was my first contact with the industry. I spent two years there as a QA and we ran a lot of user-based tests as well.

When I left, I started working at Aster Publishing. I wrote supplements and additional content for adventure RPG tabletop games, such as “Barbarians of Lemuria”, as well as some articles for the company’s branded magazine. After that, I started to work more and more as a freelancing Narrative Designer, doing jobs for another company, called Venturion, which is more aimed at VR gaming.

Only after all of that went by that I joined Wildlife as a Game Designer, and I’ve been working here for about a year and two months. I am a Game Designer, but focused on content and narrative creation – these two walk side by side. Sniper 3D and Tennis Clash are two of our several games that I’ve worked on, for instance.

Digging deeper into your work at Wildlife, besides writing stories for its games, what other responsibilities do you have within the company?

Izadora: At Wildlife, narrative is part of the role of a Game Designer. And when we do narrative-based work, we promote a collective effort to finish the stories. I have taken on several tasks for Zooba, one of our most popular games – the backstory of the animals, for example, was written by me. 

Other than that, what I do is creating new features, game parts and special events, such as commemorative dates. I’m the one behind the Halloween-feature for Sniper 3D, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas and I’ve also taken care of some level design for all these occasions. When not doing all that, I’m always creating content: developing new gameplay mechanics and levels for our games.

In general terms, what are the main responsibilities of a Narrative Designer, when it comes to creating a game? 

Izadora: The most important thing for a Narrative Designer is knowing that, in order to tell a story, you don’t do it only through text and narrative resources. You need to demonstrate a game’s story with its gameplay and its levels and ambiance. In short: you tell a story through everything that encompasses the player’s experience. 

Sometimes, a game needs little to no text in order to tell a great story. This is, for me, of the deepest importance, the most essential understanding a Narrative Designer needs for any project: to carry the story’s vision throughout everything there is in a game. And tie it all together with gameplay, metagame and everything else.

Speaking about narratives and how they can create emotions, do you believe that leading the player to feel whatever the characters are going through, for instance, is a good form of game immersion?

Izadora: Yes, definitely. One of the things narrative helps the most in a game – especially when it comes to mobile games – is player retention. That’s the term we use to refer to “keeping a player on your game”, making them come back to play again tomorrow. The narrative brings a gigantic capacity of bringing out this concept’s full potential.

One of the great things about narrative is how it turns the player into a part of the game’s interface. This needs to be more well comprehended. We have the game, the platform and the player – these are the three parts of a game’s interface, and the player is the one connecting it all.

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This is a huge retention factor, since, from the moment a player begins to care about something, he or she will want to take care of it.

Do you believe there are specific techniques to create a good gaming narrative?

Izadora: It depends. When we talk about gaming narrative, this is strongly connected with the type of game we’re creating. There is a type of narrative for visual novels, with really long texts and choices that may or may not lead to different endings. This is completely different from, say, a first-person shooter or a platformer. What I always use is a basic form of structuring, which you can mold and fit on pretty much every type of dramatic arc.

This is something most writers already know, but you can also use a basic process of beginning things slowly, on a very calm part, raising the story towards its climax.

After that, comes the resolution and the ending of that particular story. When I’m writing a game’s narrative, I just love to combine its story and dramatic arc with the level design and the game’s progression.

Whenever I’m writing, regardless of what kind of game it is, I believe this technique is fun to use. You’re tying your game’s progression with the story’s evolution. When both things walk side by side, you can tell a story through every nuance of the game, not just words and texts.

Is there any difference in creating narratives for several platforms, such as mobile, PC or home consoles?

Izadora: Yes, absolutely. When we’re talking specifically about mobile games, we have a much shorter player attention span at our disposal. There are exceptions, of course, but overall, for the mobile industry, people play on their smartphones only during passing moments, like when they’re on a bus or on a road trip.

The main difference I see between mobile and other platforms, specifically, is the limited quantity of space and resources we have. We need to fit our narrative inside these resources. 

This is different in AAA games, for instance, where you can abuse the super heavy cutscenes to tell a story. Normally, they also have a much larger team working on it too. In mobile games, the teams are smaller, but they also need to manage priorities. So the Narrative Designer has all that to consider. This professional needs to think about how a story will be told for the platform his users are playing on.

We need to make things more straight to the point, but at the same time, they need to be intuitive, because people just want to fire up a gaming app and quickly realize what’s going on. If you take too long for this, the player will be interested right in the beginning. There is a lot of variation on this, but the main difference for me is the space and time we have available for a smartphone game, which differs from other platforms.

How important is the world’s creation in order to make a narrative even more engaging? How do you work with these elements?

Izadora: Like I said before, narrative is not just text-based. This is something I repeat all the time because it is important to clear this misconception and the game’s scenario plays a major part in it. How can I show that world to someone, or tell someone about it in the most integrated way possible? I do that through the game’s own world. 

The level design teams also bear some ownership to this. Normally, the person behind this narrative vision will work very closely to the art team. So several people will work together in order to build a game’s narrative, not just the Narrative Designer. 

Building a world is important to carry the context in which the player is inserted. You’ll apply this concept to several game genres out there. Whenever you want to insert your player in a different scenario, you’ll work on this ambiance. And, at least in my experience, this happens alongside a game’s conception.

What advice do you have for someone who’s starting to work as a Narrative Designer for games and where this person can start?

Izadora: The first rule I always tell people about is: “You’re not just the writer”. This is a misconception that, sometimes, you see within the role of a Narrative Designer. There is the Narrative Designer, the Game Writer and the Quest Designer, which are all different roles inserted within the same area of gaming narrative.

Depending on the company you work for or the project you’re on, these people will have different responsibilities, but usually, if you’re gonna work with Narrative Design for games, you’ll need to have some understanding from all of these parts.

Also, being proficient in writing is something incredibly necessary. As well as having some knowledge in storytelling, world creation, character development – these are all very necessary skills to have. But the greatest advice I can give is: understand the mechanics of a game if you’re writing its narrative.

You will never write a game completely on your own. Narrative will never be made of one thing. You’ll need all the teamwork necessary to build a theme and the story that revolves around that game’s universe.

The more you understand about its core mechanics, the more you’ll be able to use them to tell your story. And the more you do it, the more quality you’ll get out of it. 

Besides studying all the parts pertaining to storytelling and writing, try to get some knowledge on game design as well: find out how the greatest games’ narratives were built. The more you understand the game you’re working on, and all the parts pertaining this project, the better. You’ll be able to, at last, translate that story inside of your game. That’s the golden rule!

Wilders Mar 18, 2021 Vivi Werneck