Interview with Narrative Designer Stephen Dinehart

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Known as the critically-acclaimed narrative designer of Company of Heroes, founder of The Narrative Design Explorer, and Chief Creative Wizard and Director of NarrWare, Stephen Dinehart is a man who loves stories and is passionate about seeing them told in video games. He’s worked with major publishers on franchises such as F.E.A.R, Batman, and The Lord of the Rings, and has spoken at a variety of industry events, such as the GDC Online Game Narrative Summit and TEDx Transmedia.

Stephen is also an active champion of the art and craft of narrative design. When he worked for THQ, he created the first role for a Narrative Designer in the AAA industry, and the job description he wrote has become a standard point of reference for other people and organizations ever since. In a 2009 Gamasutra article, Stephen explained how the craft of interactive narrative design is the key to realizing “dramatic play,” an art of the future which he situates at the intersection of drama, games, and interactive media.

Venn diagram of how Interactive Narrative Design is at the heart of game design, ludology, and narratology.

Figure 1. Interactive narrative design lives at the intersection of overlapping disciplines. Source: Dinehart, Stephen. (2009) "Dramatic Play." Gamasutra. Used with permission.

I invited Stephen to conduct an e-mail interview after visiting The Narrative Design Explorer and watching his presentation on transmedia storytelling. Game writing and game dialogue are, after all, components of the narrative design process, and I wanted to know more about the relationship between them. I hope you enjoy the results.

1. You’re a narrative designer, “Chief Wizard” at NarrWare, and founder of The Narrative Designer’s Network. You also did graduate research on transmedia storytelling and did your MFA thesis on “Transmedial Play”. What got you interested in narrative design?

Yep. Though I decided today to just go by “Wizard”. What got me interested in narrative design? Do you mean narrative design, Narrative Design or, interactive narrative design? Maybe something else?

I studied story all my life, suppose we all do to some extent. Back in 2002, I had a hot portfolio in a range of media types and was bleeding to death on the edge of interactive media development when fickle lady luck shined good graces on me. I got into USC’s School of Cinematic Arts – reality ended and since all my work has done is feed the beast. Fast forward to 2006, I was approached by the General Manager of a AAA-studio. He had this idea, basically a FT ‘story dude’ on game development team. Wasn’t sure what to call it, or what it was. I wrote the job description, we called it “Narrative Designer”.

2. In your video lecture on The Narrative Design Explorer, you stress that narrative design is “holistic.” Specifically, you emphasize that it is “A belief that a system must be managed as a whole rather than addressing the individual components that make it function.” Do you think practitioners in the gaming industry too often address “game writing” and/or “game dialogue” as an individual component and fail to see its relation to the larger whole of a game’s structure? If so, why do you think this is the case?

The whole production pipeline is made that way in too many studios to count, though practices are changing. They must! In an economy like this people can’t afford to do so much wheel spinning. The writing has been on the wall for ages. Back at EALA I got to see this guy Neil Young try to overhaul the silo-system that plagued EA in a sea of missed targets. Even for him it was tough.

Fact is game development isn’t much different from other forms of technology and entertainment development.

3. Based on what I’ve read, narrative designers need to be expert game writers. However, game writing is not narrative design. Narrative design, it seems, encompasses much more than writing dialogue and character backgrounds. Indeed, you’ve mentioned that it is false to assume that narrative design is a “relabeled game writer.” So how would you characterize the relationship between narrative and game writing?

I wouldn’t say that. The expert game writer part, they may be, but the experts need to be the game writers. They are complimentary. I’d say a Narrative Designer is more like a Game Designer wearing a storyteller’s hat. That’s why it’s a design role, but one that focuses on the game as a story. Do you follow? The game is a story, the story is a game.

4. Your statement about narrative designers as “game designers wearing storytelling hats” reminds me of your Gamasutra feature ‘Dramatic Play,’ where you talk about how interactive narrative design aims to construct “dramatic play systems.” Can you talk a bit about how this art of dramatic play “system-building,” if you will, is different than — or similar to– writing a novel?

We are talking about play mechanics, not story structure. A narrative designer builds the game engine to deliver interactive narrative.

5. In your opinion, what are 1 or 2 games that accomplish narrative design very well, and what in particular about those games reveal expertise in the craft of narrative design?

“Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, “Prey”, and “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay” is very well done.

What specifically is it about these games that stand out to you as good examples of narrative design?

Context, continuity, and a seemingly seamless integration of story and game.

6. It seems that a narrative designer almost needs to be a jack of all trades — i.e., someone who understands the video game medium through and through, has experience with game design software, and has worked in a game design position before, on top of having expert writing and storytelling skills. Sounds kind of daunting. How does one study to become a narrative designer?

I never was quite sure until I wrote the job description for myself. That sounds totally pompous, but it’s the truth. Then I realized I had studied my whole life, but what is more important is practice. Get ideas and prototype them. Repeat until you find craft. I’m not sure if I have yet, but I keep trying. Thing is, how many games are your going to make in your life? AAA ones? 20? Pick good ones, dedicate your time to something you will be proud of. If I can do it, I know you can too.

7. It’s funny. I recall several years ago in 2004 doing some research on narrative in video games. At the time, the narratology vs. ludology debate was raging. The place of story in video games was seriously in question. But today, you’re championing story in video games. Do you think the industry’s perspective on story on video games has changed a lot since then, and if so, why?

No. As I was saying to @EdFear on twitter the other day after his dismay at the writing quality of MW3; game writing is still treated like a shellac soft-gloss finish over a shit-cake of repetitive gameplay. This sweeping generalization is sadly still true; there are exceptions. I think the Uncharted series is breaking new ground, as did DXHR & LAnoire. For the most part, story is still treated as an afterthought. While I’d like to blame myself and my peers for the problem, I think it’s more deeply seeded in the roots of game development & production. There seems to be a fundamental divorce in the development of story and game, as such the two shall never meet.

For me that’s where games begin, in the story. In the who, what, where and how. Louis Castle taught me the same thing – games deliver on a fantasy.

8. When Heavy Rain came out last year, I remember one article talked about how its story was delivered effectively via subtle contextual clues. The toothpaste in the bathroom, the wrinkles of clothes, the looks in characters eyes–all were small but important contextual details in constructing and communicating the game’s interactive narrative environment. Is that part of what narrative design is all about? Making sure the many contextual details of faithfully reflect the narrative vision?

You said it right there. Context. Context is everything; without we have nothing. I’m not a fan of Heavy Rain, I stopped playing after about 15 minutes. I should give it another whirl, but I had no desire to move forward. I didn’t care, and without that motivation – there is no story for me as a player, only for the game maker as author.

Narrative design is about design in context, about an architecture, a skeletal system, an empty vessel that is filled by the mind of the player.


You can follow Stephen on Twitter at NarrWare, check out his web site at http://narrware.com, or keep up on his activity at http://narrativedesign.org.

Sources:
Dinehart, Stephen. (2009) “Dramatic Play.” Gamasutra. Retrieved November 26, 2011 from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4061/dramatic_play.php?print=1