What is a Narrative Designer? 2019 Update

    It’s hard to believe my “Narrative Designer” role has grown so much over the past decade. Spring of 2019 will mark 13 years since I first wrote the first job description (JD) of its kind in my parent’s basement.  A role I wouldn’t be offered until the fall of that year with THQ Candad dba Relic Entertainment. The idea was to make myself the perfect candidate quite naturally, as I really wanted the job.

    I didn’t make it alone, it came out of the initiative and vision of one Tarrnie Williams, a mover, and shaker in the Vancouver game scene. We met at Electronic Arts Los Angeles (EALA) in 2004 when I interviewed to be on his Medal of Honor team as a production intern. We crossed paths again at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco in March of 2006 as I was preparing to graduate from USC Games with my MFA. I had attended a panel discussion, asked a question, he approached me afterward and explained he was trying to create a new role. He thought I could help as he knew of my passion for game-based storytelling and cinematic experiences. So began the discussion.

    Months later after a lot of talks with internal talent, I was asked to write the original Narrative Designer JD, wholly unpaid I might add. I didn’t hesitate. In years prior I had been focusing on what I learned to call ‘database narratives’ under Marsha Kinder at the Annenberg Center for Communication and had been working all over AAA games, from Warner Bros. to EA and Activision. I wanted to create a new form of the novel that blended interactive theory, game design, screenwriting, and cinematic storytelling. This was my chance.

    After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate – database.  – Lev Manovich, Database as Symbolic Form, 1999

    Narrative State Array
    Database Narrative Design

    The JDs haven’t changed much in recent years, some even still use my original copy, however uncredited. What has changed is that narrative is no longer the job of one, but of many with roles ranging from Narrative Directors, Narrative Producers, Narrative Designers and so much more. One might say, it’s completely blown up. It’s not only for video games anymore either, but a role and study seen impacting many fields. As increasingly the world realizes the importance of story and empowering users to create their own, one might say a total destruction of classic authorship models.

    What I didn’t realize at the time was that it would be seen as a threat to the Game Writer role, which was certainly not intended. It was meant to augment the role and indeed the entire production pipeline by championing story, not so much as developed or written, but as designed and manifested across pipelines over the course of production. Sure enough, it seemed the team at Relic also thought I was a game writer. Trained as a screenwriter, I had written my own films, treatments etc for years, but I was not a game writer, though I’ve since become one. This is why I say “Narrative Designer and Game Writer”, as I still believe the roles unique. I’ve managed a lot of writers that think they are narrative designers, but the craft goes way beyond the written word and non-linear storytelling. It’s really more of a threat to the Game Designer, as what it suggests is that gameplay itself is a facilitator of story, not the other way around.

    What is a Narrative Designer?
    Narrative Designer

    Over the next decade, I expect to see the role expand even more, and impact more industries. I know I myself have started doing narrative design for mixed-reality, VR and theme parks. I’ve applied to get on Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) projects in the role to study how story propagates in societies and how current media systems facilitate it. It’s an exciting time. If you’d like to learn more and jump into theory might I suggest my book “Narrative Designer: Fabulator Ludus” now available worldwide. Please feel free to contact me on social as well if you have any questions or narrative pipeline related needs. You can also learn more about my work at narrativedesigner.com

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