Literature’s fuzzy melding of two separate imaginations, the writer and the reader, has always resulted in a form of interactivity. This has been taken more literally and expanded upon in the games world, where players are given direct agency over the unfolding story. As an unusually collaborative art form requiring high levels of technical expertise, games provide new storytelling opportunities and challenges which break away from linear page turning.
A vital role which has emerged is that of the narrative designer, which blends traditional writing skill with an understanding of game design. Tom Jubert has worked as narrative designer on critically acclaimed games including The Talos Principle, FTL, The Swapper and Subnautica. He’s a Writers’ Guild Award nominee, was selected for Forbes’ 2014 “30 under 30” list and has lectured on story design at London Southbank University.
Here Tom discusses the role of narrative designed and how games writing relates to traditional literatures.
What’s the difference between a ‘narrative designer’ and a ‘writer’?
A writer is hired by a studio once the studio has worked out internally what texts they need, how story functions in the game, how art reflects story, etc. To a writer, a studio says, "Here's a bare bones plot, here's a spreadsheet laying out where the dialogues are, please fill in the blanks." A narrative designer by contrast takes on some of the responsibility otherwise held by the creative director for integrating story with the other departments. A narrative designer might be working closely with concept artists and level designers; they might be iterating on gameplay mechanics to bring them in line with the story; they are thinking much more holistically about the game experience.
Has the concept of a ‘narrative designer’ changed over the years you’ve been working in the industry?
It hasn't for me. I'm not even sure it was a tern ten years ago though, so it's still new, and I'm sure people have a wide range of interpretations.
Does writing tend to be integral to a game’s overall design, or is it applied as a layer of narrative on top of a pre-existing setup?
Completely different on every project. Naughty Dog is all about story first. On, say, The Masterplan or The Swapper, 95% of the game is done before I come onboard. Obviously sooner is better.
Literature tends to be a solitary creative pursuit. How does writing for games compare?
I suppose my job is more solitary than most games industry jobs. I work from home, and a lot of it is just getting my head down and writing. That said, one of my favourite things about games is that my writing doesn't have to carry the show.
Does being an experienced writer in other fields put you in a good position to write for games, or are they very different disciplines?
They're different, but I say if you can write you can write. Skill in any other writing discipline is an asset, but by no means a guarantee.
Writing is traditionally a very low-tech endeavour – all you need is pen and paper. Does writing for games require a higher technical ability or coding experience?
It doesn't require it all the time, but it helps. There are some projects you could get through entirely with Open Office (eg FTL, where the guys took all my plain text and implemented it on their side). There are others where you're gonna need a beastly PC, a 3D editor, version control software, in-house string editor, FTP etc (eg Talos). Re: Coding, I did one year of computer science before dropping out in favour of English/Philosophy, so I have some basic C++ knowledge. It helps, definitely for interactive dialogue, but again it's not required all the time.
Players will often only experience some of your work, depending on their choices in the game, which is very different to the linear experience of reading a novel from start to finish. How do you know where to concentrate your efforts?
A number of ways. Sometimes we have stats, so we can pay more attention to the route most travelled, or tweak the options to balance out the ratios. Sometimes it's common sense (I know fewer people will explore the vegetarian branches in Talos, because there are fewer vegetarians). And the nice thing about having niche branches is that their simple existence is usually a big feeling reward. Someone catered for this rare interaction/behaviour, and the game reflected it, however briefly.
Is there anything that more traditional forms of literature can learn from interactive storytelling?
I suppose, though they'd know better than I. I suppose interactive fiction must now be the forefront experts on how to engagingly use the 2nd person subject. Hard to know what else they could take that wouldn't in itself make traditional literature interactive.
we all know the cultural world's a better place for interactive and linear fiction both
Does interaction give people a deeper connection to the writing and story?
I don't know if I want to say deeper. That implies some kind of superiority, when we all know the cultural world's a better place for interactive and linear fiction both. But it's different, in a wonderfully involving way. It gives the audience authorship over their story. We can do things other mediums can't.
Do you write fiction outside of games? Ie, in a linear, traditional form?
I used to write a lot outside of work, back when I had less. I wrote a couple of failed novels about David Hume, and a lot of short-stories, some of which are published in some very obscure places. However the last five years I was fully loaded down with philosophy and games work, so I didn't do so much. It's something I'd like to go back to. I like that in games I can reach massive audiences, and I can depend on the work of others to make the total experience engaging; but I like the complete freedom and flexibility of linear writing. I can try anything I want, and it doesn't matter.
What developments do you see emerging in interactive writing? Any trends on the horizon?
I see a lot more genres coming in. When I was a kid, if you wanted story in your game you played a point n click or a CRPG. Now we have interactive movies, walking sims, story-driven puzzlers, procedural games... So I think we will see a lot more specialisation within those genres. What I want to see more of than anything else, though, is procedural story generation*. Just because it's this technical and creative holy grail that few teams have the stomach to attempt, and it makes the most use of the unique elements of our medium.
You can find Tom on Twitter and over on his website. You can also see him discussing his approach to narrative design in this video:
*Procedural in this context refers to the generation of content algorithmically, rather than through manual efforts. In gaming this could be used to create a story which reacts more dynamically to the player’s actions or for generating believable, unique dialogue for thousands characters in a city.