Game Narrative Toolbox (Heussner/Finley/Hepler/Lemay)

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The Game Narrative Toolbox is designed to guide readers to become professional narrative designers — perhaps a seemingly slight difference from game writers, but this approach includes a certain amount of level design and mechanical design in the purview of the narrative designer, as opposed to simply producing words.

The book is structured as a textbook, with exercises at the end of each chapter, and lots of examples, images, and sidebars.(Indeed, I found the layout a little distracting; there are often several things going on on any particular page, in a way that often made me feel slightly anxious I might miss a part of what I was supposed to be reading because I’d forgotten to go back to the beginning of a multi-page sidebar. I am pretty sure this has to do with quirks in my own reading style, however.)

This is not to say that the book is unstructured. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful for someone to use while self-training and transitioning to a job search. The exercises are designed to gradually build up the user’s portfolio of samples, taking the writer from a relative novice to someone with sample dialogue, narrative structure diagrams, and even practice resume/cover letter content. Meanwhile, the chapters follow the lifespan of development: preproduction planning, development of world and story and characters, writing the main content, and troubleshooting.

There’s less here than in some of the previous books I’ve surveyed about how to work with particular team members and how to arrange the life of a freelance game writer. (They do discuss these matters some, but they don’t approach, for instance, Skolnick’s discussion of how different game creation roles dovetail with narrative roles.) There’s also much less about what constitutes a good story in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s more about how to accommodate your work to different types of game. The Game Narrative Toolbox does not assume you’re necessarily working on a AAA console game, and includes guidance for MMOs, social and casual games, and mobile projects. Often this guidance is fairly high-level and general, but still unquestionably preferable to not acknowledging the existence of those game types at all.

The name “toolbox” is aptly chosen, in that it suggests something useful and standardized. The book is more focused on describing current norms and typical practices than on inspiring the reader with the joy of storytelling or with the potential of interactive storytelling specifically, let alone speculation about future formats and possibilities. The authors see narrative design as a job, and a job subordinate to the creation of the game as a whole; for instance

Telling a great story is awesome, but only if it doesn’t block and hinder the gameplay… (193)

Like Dille/Platten’s book, The Game Narrative Toolbox recommends template-based approaches to character- and world-building, though its suggested templates aren’t nearly so long-winded. The authors also introduce familiar basic structures for lightly branching story, for designing dialogue trees, and for designing quests with an element of choice. The section on dialogue gets into points like choosing a maximum line-length for UI fit, and making game-genre-based choices about how many blatant hints should be given to the player during a given exchange of conversation. Sections on editing and localization suggest ways to vet your dialogue for voiceover-readiness, and how to keep comments on your created content in order to support the efforts of the localization team.

Along the same lines, they also provide lists of pitfalls to avoid: stereotypes commonly used with particular types of minority, for instance — or guidance about how to avoid bruising the player’s ego. On the topic of moral choices in games, they advise that “bad” choices should not result in punitive mechanical effects lest the player become irritated and disengage.

What I missed in this book, given its title, was more exploration of mechanics. I tend to think of “narrative design” as distinct from a pure game writing role partly in that it can incorporate more involvement in things like systems and level design: not that the narrative designer is necessarily doing all of those things, let alone implementing them, but that you’re the person best positioned to advocate for ludo-narrative consonance. The Game Designer’s Toolbox acknowledges the importance of mechanics (24-26 of the book) and goes so far as to offer the distinction between mechanics and dynamics, which many books in this area will tend to conflate.

But it doesn’t really have a great deal to say about how to connect mechanics and storytelling effectively. There is a single page chart (page 29) that gives one to two sentence descriptions of the types of storytelling suitable for different genres as defined by their mechanics, but this is on the order of “RPGs have complex, slow-paced storylines” and “simulation games have short, non-distracting plots on the sidelines”. There are a couple of paragraphs under environmental storytelling (146) about examples from Bastion and Alan Wake that communicate something interesting via the mechanics, but this is handled very briefly, and without trying to account for how these elements work, let alone how you might try to invent your own.

The image I had by the end of the book was of story as a kind of exquisitely crafted inlay, painstakingly cut from various woods and precious stones, and then glued and varnished onto the surface of a game.

2 thoughts on “Game Narrative Toolbox (Heussner/Finley/Hepler/Lemay)

  1. As a hobbyist game designer who wants to eventually make something to share (maybe never to sell), I’ve got to say, reading you review all these different takes on “teaching stories in games” has been an invaluable help in thinking about game stories. I’m not sure how much feedback you get on this series, but it’s really awesome. I had no idea there was this much textbook-style writing out there on this. And thinking about all the students who may have been at risk of shaping their ideas around any one of these books, I’m driven to check my assumptions about things (not just my games’ narratives, but in general).

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