As games have grown more sophisticated, narrative designers have become an increasingly common part of the industry. But what exactly is a narrative designer? According to Graham Goring, himself a narrative designer who’s worked on LEGO City Undercover, Planet Zoo and dozens of other titles, it’s just “a poncy term for a writer”.
It’s a suitably irreverent answer from someone who made their way into the industry via stand up comedy. Goring clarifies, however, that narrative designer is also much more than “just” a writer. “It can be coming up with the idea, it can be writing barks,” he explains. “It can be taking everything from the word on the page to formatting it right as a screen play so that the actors can read it but also having it in a spreadsheet so that the sound engineers have got something useful.”
Indeed, Goring has worn many hats in his role as a narrative designer (which he discusses in detail in his My Journey interview). He’s written loads of jokes, loads of short, reactive NPC lines (or “barks”, as they’re known in game development), many whole scripts; and that’s just the writing part of the role. He’s also found himself directing A-list Hollywood voice actors, compiling voice data and building tools to make his workflow easier.
Talking to Strangers
Goring didn’t start out as a writer however. He landed his first job in the industry via a forum community for Sinclair computer enthusiasts on account of his pixel art skills. “I was talking to a stranger on the internet,” he says. “John Pickford actually, the guy from Software Creations who made Zub and Feud and all these amazing games.”
“I was posting pictures of pixel art I’d done and they happened to need [an artist] and they were like, ‘do you want to come up for an interview?’”
It wasn’t as simple as just sharing some art out of the blue of course. Goring had been chatting on and off with Pickford for a couple of years while also showing off some of his programming abilities on the forum. In doing so, he was able to establish himself not only as a confident all-rounder but as someone Pickford already knew he got along with. For Goring, that last factor is critical.
“I can’t overstate how important it is to be a nice person that people like,” he says. “People will hire someone that they like who can do the job well over someone who’s a technical genius and a pain in the bum. Company dynamics are very important.”
Goring started a job at Pickford’s new company Zed Two and began working on GameBoy Color games, which suited his Spectrum-honed artistic toolset well. When the studio made the jump to 3D games however, he found he didn’t have quite the same aptitude for 3D modeling and animation. Luckily he was able to be reassigned when a new project (the unreleased Nicktoons Snap Shot) came in – as lead designer no less. “I basically went from failed 3D artist to lead designer on this project,” he jokes.
Unfortunately, that spot of good luck was met by a substantial helping of bad. The project turned out to be a “poisoned chalice.” “It was the worst thing I’ve ever worked on,” Goring admits. “It was horrible and incredibly stressful.” In the end, the game was cancelled and he found himself working at a call centre on a midnight to 8am shift. “That ruined me,” he says.
Working With the Stars
After a gruelling nine months, he finally received a phone call he was more than happy to answer. It was from a previous colleague, offering him a designer job for a mobile games developer now known as Hands-On Mobile. Highlights in this role included helping pitch a tamagotchi-style tie-in game based on horror film The Omen (much to the chagrin of “the man from Fox”) and getting a credit on Call of Duty 2 (“it’s a really rubbish j2me version!”)
Again, Goring’s next role came about via an ex-colleague. It was another design position, this time at TT Games, makers of the LEGO games. TT Games was where he was first credited as a narrative designer – first on LEGO City Undercover and then on all subsequent games, including LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was also here that he suddenly found himself plunged into the role of voice director.
When a scheduling mix-up left the team directorless during a recording session, Goring was drafted in at the last minute to walk the actor through his lines. That actor happened to be Michael J Fox. “He was lovely, thank god!” he says. “And after that, they thought, we can save a bit of money if we just use him for directing” Goring jokes.
Becoming a Narrative Designer
Digging deeper into the role of narrative design, Goring explains what differs about “game writing” from regular linear writing. “You have to be able to write every version of a scene based on all these different permutations of factors that are going into that scene due different bits of plot or what the player has done. I think it also helps to be a games player.”
It’s often in games that writers are brought on quite late in the development cycle when things are mostly in place. For Goring, writing reactively in this way can be very fruitful. “I often thought that the best way to write on the LEGO project was to play the level and think, what do I need to know and what can I poke fun at? And then you write those lines.”
What about actually getting into narrative design yourself? Goring’s number one piece of advice (besides being a likable person) is being a good all-rounder. “As a small company, hiring an all-rounder is incredibly valuable,” he says. “If you can wear three different hats and to a degree of confidence, that’s incredibly valuable.”
As for building a portfolio, choose what to emphasise. “As a narrative designer, don’t worry about the gameplay. Look at something like Inkle or some other kind of interactive fiction.”
That said, even if it’s not the selling point on your CV, he recommends doing some simple all-encompassing first projects to get the fundamentals locked in. Remaking an existing game is a great option. “Make Tetris!” he suggests. “If you can remake [a game], it teaches you all the systems that go into making a game and you’ve got an appreciation for the whole thing. But it also means you’ve got a cast iron end goal. Feature creep’s not going to happen because you’re just making that.”
Now, Goring is working on his own game Phantom Island under the name Insupposable Games. He’s writing and designing almost the entire thing, bringing together all the skills he’s developed during his career including programming and design. Everything, that is, except the sound and, ironically, art. “It would look and sound terrible,” he says. It just goes to show that where you start doesn’t dictate where you might end up.