An Interview by an Aspiring Narrative Designer

    I was contacted recently by a curious mind, it belonged to a student named Margaret A. Cogswell. I asked her to tell me a little about
    herself and her program.  “I am a sophomore at Savannah College of Art
    and Design
    , and a game design major.  I recently discovered that I am
    really passionate about narrative design and storytelling in general.  I’m
    in a Survey of Interactive Media class right now, in which we study the
    emergence and progression of digital and interactive media and the effect it
    has on the art world (gaming industry included; it is, after all, an art form).
    I am required to do a presentation on a specific area of the gaming industry,
    and I teamed up with two other people who are also interested in narrative. The Interactive Media and Game Design department is pretty ruthless and intense at SCAD. As a general rule, if your work isn’t excellent, it doesn’t pass the
    test. I was looking for resources on the internet when I came upon The Narrative Design Explorer… I’d really like to ask you some questions that may help me in my project…” Ask away Margaret.

    Margaret A. Cogswell:  Do you have a specific source of inspiration?

    Stephen Dinehart: 
    Many I suppose. I’m tempted to speak of my earliest. I used to love the
    stories in pen-and-paper RPGs, I would sneak into the family office and
    hide out just to listen to my brother Grant and his friends play Dungeons and Dragons and Gamma World, not to mention Avalon Hill games like Axis and Allies.
    Comic books are also a big inspiration for me, my pops had a sick
    collection from the 50’s-70s. Then there was this one I got into in the
    2nd grade called ElfQuest which for me was the subject of many
    imaginative play sessions with my friends. Once I remember so vividly
    running over a hill and seeing an army of trolls coming at us. I knew
    it wasn’t real, but my imagination was on fire. It was like living the
    most impossible dream. Saturday morning cartoons, and film also rank
    high on my scale. The most powerful media experiences for me are those
    transmedia experiences, which allow me to engage with story on
    multiples levels, and build my own subjective beliefs about characters,
    plot, and motivation. It’s what I call Transmedial Play.

    MC: Is there a set process that you go through when you develop an idea into a concept for a game?  If so, what is it?

    That’s a great question. It depends on many factors, like the team,
    time-line, resources, and expectations. Media production has been a
    full fledged force now for over 100 years, there are great processes
    that already work. The illusion that interactive entertainment is
    somehow so ‘different’ from other form of media that it demands a
    entirely new development methodology is not a idea I would embrace. For
    the most part I see it as my job, like any professional artist, to be
    able to create on the spot without warning. It’s part of what separates
    hobbyists and dabblers from professionals. That said, as Hemingway said
    “The first draft of anything is shit.” Ideas come a dime a dozen, it’s
    only through refinement, practice, failure, and iteration that you can
    do your best. I start with a nice pen, and a blank piece of paper. If
    I’m not
    inspired enough, I go out and live life. I read, love, paint, and laugh.
    MC: Since you’ve
    been in the industry for a while, can you tell me how the role of the
    “writer” has changed over the years in the game industry?

    I have only written for games as narrative designer, but the writing
    credit is very important. This is why in my current role I also have
    the title of Lead Writer. Part of how I sell the position is as a solution to the
    problems both writers and game developers have with contracted talent,
    too often brilliant, or not so brilliant, material is inadvertently
    butchered by the iterative production process, which is itself in
    constant flux. It can leave both writers and developers angry, hurt,
    and frustrated with their end product. The only solution is to have
    someone, or a team, whom work alongside a production as it changes and
    insures that the story content is managed and developed in such a way
    that it maximizes the potential positives of that interactive fluctuation in production. That’s part of what a narrative designer
    does, manages the fluctuation in story as is demanded by the tangles of
    the iterative production process which plagues the industry.
    MC: How do you think the role of the “writer” will change in the future?

    A writer is a writer. I wouldn’t mess with that. I write, I love it, it
    is an art wholly unto itself. What will change is the demands of
    interactive narrative, which is why being an interactive narrative
    designer is so much fun, and at the same time so challenging. We are
    wrestling with the past via the present to define the future. 

    MC: What games do you consider to have good writing?

    There are plenty, I really enjoyed Black, Jade Empire, Prey, Dead
    Space. I could nit-pic in a critique what worked and what didn’t, but
    what I’m more interested in is interactive experiences that tell good
    stories. Bioshock is a typical example, but what was done well there
    was utilizing the lessons of Disney Imagineers. Go to a Disney park,
    walk down Main Street, go on the Pirates of the Carribean ride and I
    think you will instantly know what I mean. They are highly crafted
    interactive experiences, story spaces as it were, ones from which we
    still have much to learn.
    MC: How do you feel about the increasing significance placed upon graphics versus narrative in games?

    It’s both empowering and daunting. Narrative in interactive
    entertainment still has a lot to prove. I do think the shifting
    attitude is really going to help our field see some groundbreaking work
    in the next decade. I hope and pray that we might be done with the race
    that has brought the industry to cherish higher polygon counts over
    believable characters. Nintendo has done a lot to shatter this illusion
    in recent years. I hope it means that narrative development starts
    getting budgets allotments like engineering. Ok, so that might not be
    realistic, but I would really love to see more developers put their
    money where their mouth is. It’s something I have had the pleasure and
    pain of being on the forefront of. Some developers get this, “we didn’t
    need that dude before” attitude, which just isn’t helpful. My favorite
    comparison is that of engineers back in the day saying “artists? Who
    needs ’em? I did all the art on our past 3 titles.”

    MC: What
    are the advantages and disadvantages to both linear and non-linear
    storytelling?  Which do you feel is more effective in games?

    I am of the school that your average player from a mainstream audience
    doesn’t need a “non-linear story” to have a great experience. What
    matters is that feeling of catharsis. If you can bring a player to the
    point where they get that “jenkies” moment. That’s what matters. I also
    am growing tired of the phrase “non-linear story” it’s a very misused,
    and misunderstood term, you can throw it in with “emergent” and
    “procedural”. Fact is all experiences we have as human beings are
    rendered as linear by the simple fact that we cognitively perceive
    reality in just such a fashion. What is important is player feedback,
    and providing them with the enough degree’s of agency that they feel
    free, or as free as the system requires to provide a rich experience.
    Even life has limited agency or the perception thereof. How often do
    you feel like you have freewill? Most of life, sadly, seems
    deterministic from one day to the next. Any good story should come to
    an ending beyond which the audience couldn’t imagine another. That’s
    what makes it a good story, it’s complete. It’s only academics and
    forum lurking super-geeks that argue about linearity vs. non-linearity,
    and frankly they are both delusions.

    Thanks for the questions.
    If you find yourself with a thirst for knowledge, or a curiosity about interactive narrative design, I’ll do my best to share.
    Take this as an open invite to ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

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