This is the first series for the NDN Narrator, “The Narrator Dialogs”; with it we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with Sini Downing, Agency Director for Sidelines a UK based talent agency for game writers and narrative designers.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you describe your role at Sidelines?
Sini Downing: I represent creative writers and narrative designers for the interactive industry. I promote the writers represented by Sidelines, find new opportunities for them, match writers to clients’ projects and am an advocate of quality writing and storytelling in games.
When did Sidelines begin representing narrative designers and how did that come to be?
SD: Sidelines began officially as an agency in November 2007, though we’d connected writers to projects in an unofficial capacity for at least a year before that. We’re under the umbrella of production company Side, which specializes in dialogue production for games, and let’s just say when it came to games scripts we were seeing the bad with the good! Clients were asking if we knew of anyone who could “fix” a script and writers were asking us to put them in contact with clients, so we created Sidelines and made it official. Some of the writers coming on board within that core founding group were already experienced in narrative design, some have now developed that as part of their skillset and we’ve also brought on more narrative designers as Sidelines has grown.
How many narrative designers do you currently represent?
SD: We have over a dozen talented writers who understand the unique requirements of interactive gameplay and a core group is experienced in narrative design. I also cultivate relationships with other narrative designers in the industry, in case a brief comes in that would better suit one of them.
What kind of demand of you seeing for interactive narrative design positions?
SD: It’s growing – we’re definitely seeing more writers brought into the development team in the earlier stages of a game, but some producers/game designers are still coming to terms with a writer stepping into their territory. The best scenario is when a producer sees a narrative designer as a true team member, working towards the same goal as everyone else, rather than taking over “their” story.
What is the ratio of freelance to full-time positions?
SD: I’d say most narrative design jobs we’re associated with are short-term contract. Some are embedded into the studio for a development cycle, but most are freelance.
How much variance do you see job description’s for narrative design positions?
SD: Each inquiry we get looks pretty different. It really depends on what the developer or publisher requires of the narrative designer. Sometimes I get a few details over the phone, sometimes a whole concept pack with game overview, screen shots, production timeline etc. Makes my job interesting!
How do you define interactive narrative design?
SD: It’s working with the development team to create the storytelling parts of the game: build the overarching story, working with art to develop the characters, figuring out their motivations and relationships, working with environment designers, creating conflicts, obstacles, goals with the level designers; plus of course writing the dialogue.
Is it simply another term for game writer?
SD: No, it’s safe to say that all narrative designers are writers but not all game writers are narrative designers. It takes a larger skill set, a special talent to understand storytelling in an interactive way, an understanding of game design – not necessarily the technical parts but the way games work – as well as being able to communicate all their ideas to the rest of the team.
That said, we find that narrative designers sometimes team up with an additional writer for the dialogue side of things – when you have the overall story and all that goes with it in your head it can be useful to have a dialogue specialist come in to assist.
What kinds of requirements and desired portfolios are you seeing studios requesting for narrative design roles?
SD: The big guys want to see experience on their narrative designer’s CV, an understanding of game design, whether it is just being able to talk “games” or including a smart game flow chart in their writing test, passion and interest in the game’s concept. You’re going to be a vital part of creating their baby; they want to make sure you care about it.
Do you expect the demand for the role to grow in the future?
SD: Oh yes, story and character are so important to so many of the games coming out. Even the “smaller” games, the mobile phone games, are getting a story: they need someone to guide how the story and game play are going to combine and a narrative designer is going to be the person to guide that through.
Is there anything you’d like to say to narrative designers out there that might help them sharpen their professional edge?
SD: To steal an idea from university, being “well-rounded” is good: some game writing experience, but also some experience in other genres as well, whether that be film, TV, radio, theatre, fiction, graphic comic. All of them require a strong sense of storytelling, whether it’s keeping track of storylines for a soap opera or radio drama, or keeping track of immense worlds and introducing characters in a comic…. An understanding of game design, whether it is from playing masses of games or working within a development team in a different role, is definitely a bonus.
Thank you for taking the time to interview with the Narrator and for sharing your insight with our network.
You can find out more about Sini and Sidelines http://www.side.com/sidelines Sini and her work is clear evidence of the growing market for interactive narrative design. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.