Job Functions in Game Narrative

I’ve seen many attempts over the years to answer the question “What is a Narrative Designer?” in the game industry. The answers are fuzzy, and vary from studio to studio and person to person. I’ve been working for a triple-A outfit for a bit now, and it’s clear the answer is even different between different internal studios.

For years I’ve used a pretty simple set of definitions, and I was prodded to write this as an explainer!

It’s not about the name…

I think precise job titles here are confusing and misleading. It’s much more useful to define a set of things people do rather than things people are. So I have a set of narrative job functions, which for me cover most of a narrative department.

Here’s a hopefully-useful diagram!

To make it more readable, here’s my list of functions, my high-level definitions, and then a breakdown of some of the things this function covers.

  • Narrative Direction — What is the overall narrative approach? Storytelling approach, tone, themes, central conflicts, writing style / game voice.
  • Story Design — What is this story? Plotlines, characters, setting, choices.
  • Worldbuilding — What are the truths of this world? History, names, lore, metaphysics, background, socioec/dramatic pressures.
  • Narrative Systems — What methods do we have available to tell a story? Dialogue systems, quest systems, gameplay integration, art/animation/audio integration, procedural systems.
  • Narrative Design — How is this story told? Methods used, pacing/reveals, gameplay collaboration, art/animation/audio collaboration, content implementation.
  • Writing — What are the words we use to express the story? Text, dialogue, cutscenes.
  • Editing — Is the storytelling consistent? Continuity, testing, quality, consistency.
  • Actor Direction — How can we get the best in-game performance? Casting, voice direction, scene direction.

But then what do the job titles mean?

The answer is, I’m afraid, that most narrative roles combine a slightly fluid set of the job functions above, depending on the studio and in some cases the individual.

For example, I’ve seen studios advertise for a Narrative Designer, and they mean someone who covers story design, narrative design, and writing. I’ve also seen studios advertise for a Game Writer and mean exactly same thing! I’ve seen other studios have a Narrative Designer who does story design and narrative design, and then a Writer who just does writing, and perhaps editing, but not actually any story design.

Most roles consist of a core function and then potentially other things. Here are a few examples, but in my experience every studio stacks these differently:

So, as with so many things in games, it all depends. But I do find it useful to think in job functions, and to be clear what functions you mean when you construct an advert for a job — or what to query about when you apply to a job advert!

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Ian Thomas

Ian Thomas

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He co-founded Talespinners, and has worked on over 100 titles.