Narrative Design for Indies (Edwin McRae)

narrativedesig.jpgNarrative Design for Indies: Getting Started. This is a brief Kindle book published in October of last year.

Edwin McRae is a writer and narrative designer who specializes in indie projects, and has written some blog tutorials and guidance for ink, as well. His book is designed to help aspiring indies figure out what they might need in the area of story, whether they need to hire a writer, and what expectations they should have going into that process.

McRae’s approach is very much conscious of resource constraints. Voiceover is expensive: what can you do without it? What methods of delivering story are affordable and easy to sneak into your story? How can you manifest important story information through gameplay and flavor text that you needed to create anyway?

Sometimes, this emphasis trends towards dismissing areas that I find quite interesting — for instance, McRae is pretty negative about the possibility or value of character growth, considering that an area for movies and television more than for games: “Character development is only necessary when the world doesn’t change all that much… by contrast, games are usually about changing the world.”

And also: “don’t build your world before your mechanics.” I tend to think you can go either way. You definitely need to know what your core gameplay experience is early in the process, so if you don’t have mechanics, you should figure out what they’re going to be — but starting from a setting or character prompt to come up with those mechanics is not inherently wrong, in my view.

On the other hand, the questions McRae offers for fleshing out your worldbuilding are sensible ones. There’s nothing wrong with the method he’s laying out here, even if it’s not the only approach that could possibly work.

He makes a good case for brevity, too: if you must have tomes and diaries scattered through your game world, keep them short and put them in places where the player will have quiet leisure to read. Flavor text, usually short by nature, should suggest as much as possible about the world in a small space. (In the parser IF world, this carries over to object descriptions: “It’s a typical stool” is never a good description for a piece of furniture, and even “Oak, with three legs” is disappointing because it provides no new hooks for the player to think about.) There’s more here about actual prose construction than you’ll find in most games writing books.

Overall, this is likely most useful for the indie audience he outlines, and in particular for creators who aren’t looking to build a primarily story-focused game. The most useful and specific advice McRae has to offer is around story framing for gameplay that is mostly non-narrative, and about how to maximize the emotional and narrative value of that content. It treats narrative design a bit like art design, as valuable and skilled work that can be done on a larger or smaller budget, but that is almost certainly not providing the spine of the game.

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