Narrative Design: Player Agency

BloodyBaron

In the last post, I defined what "narrative design" is, and thought it would be apropos to continue on the theme of picking a particular phrase which pops up a lot in this field, that nobody seems to know what they mean.

What Is Player Agency?

You'll see "player agency" come up when RPGs are discussed, which should already tip us off that it has something to do with how the player controls the story using their decisions. However, this becomes a Narrative Designer's first quagmire, because the potential decisions need to be designed for the player, and thus, limits the scope of what they can do depending on what you allow.  What you allow depends on the game design, and where the story needs to go after that interaction, so managing the entire breadth of choices / consequences + their effect on the overall narrative is a daunting task.

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What Is "Narrative Design," and What Does a Narrative Designer Do?

IndieGameDev NarrativeDesign

Aside from a really short paragraph on Wikipedia (which does feature the informative fact that the entire profession stems from a 2006 job listing by a THQ employee), there's so little information about what a Narrative Designer does (as opposed to a Game Writer), leaving a lot to the interpretation of whoever ends up writing more recent job descriptions——which vary vastly from one job to the next.

So I've looked into this quite a bit since I myself transitioned to game development and was looking for an appropriate job title.  Here are a few things I've discovered.


There's No Such Thing As a "Game Writer"

Though you might see this as a job title every now and then, this should let you know in advance that the studio may not have a precise idea of what they're looking for from the person they want to develop their base idea. "Story Writer" is a more apropos title, and that relates to what I just said: that a Project Lead will likely have a general story direction that they've already thought up, but need an actual writer to make it a reality in the form of a strong narrative, fleshed out characters, and worldbuilding.

That's already a heartbreaker and / or disqualifier for a lot of writers new to game dev, because they envisioned that a game would be built from their vision, and nobody else's. However, this becomes a type of Darwinism, because game development by nature is an endless series of compromises on every facet of production, so this requirement sorts those who can adjust to collaboration, and those who should rather be writing novels than developing games.

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Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 3)

ProjectOver

My introduction to Winston is documented in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 1), and after five months, he re-connects with me in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 2).



The Meeting

Less than a couple of hours after re-connecting with him, I find myself in a voice chat with all of the major players in Winston's new project. The lack of leadership and structure in the server immediately becomes apparent in the team meeting, and it feels like that scene in a horror movie when the protagonist goes to a scant rural gas station, and meets oddities of different sorts. However, most of the team do have talent and a depth of knowledge that suggests they aren't casual developers. But then, the democracy begins.

Each facet of the project begins to be voted on, and after finding that actually collecting votes is a bit laborious, they set up a web poll for each topic that comes up. The first major vote is on the name of the studio, and takes about fifty minutes of debate to decide. It ends up being something like "Steampunk Dinosaur." Throughout the entire voice chat, I refrain from giving my opinion on anything, including the suggestion that the cart is being put before the horse, and they don't need to waste time on titling a studio when the development of the game is in shambles at the earliest possible juncture.

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Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 2)

Soulanity Title

It's been seven months since I told the story of one of the most interesting people I've met in indie game dev, Winston. The original intent of that article was to document the concurrent happenings of what was going on with his project at the time, which was being run as a democracy. Let's resume there.



After we left off on the last day of January, Winston messages me after five months.

Winston: Sorry I've been dead silent for like half a year, but I've been working with some guys on an indie horror project, and we could use a Producer if you're interested.

RTL: Holy Christ. This was one of my first conversations on Discord, LOL. Hold on—let me catch myself up.
Winston tells me that his previous game development project collapsed, but he salvaged it somewhat and impressively transformed it into a web comic that's published on a platform called Tapas.io, having done all the writing and illustrations himself. Unfortunately, like most self-published endeavours, the comic didn't gain any traction at all, and Winston's accompanying Patreon account has zero patrons. On top of his unemployment, he faces the harsh reality of being a well-meaning, but resourceless creator.

I inquire about his new game dev project.

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