Narrative Design Commandments

You want to focus on narrative design in your game? Very well, start writing your story, your content and your character profiles and dialogues! However, keep in mind the following nine very important commandments with regards to interactive storytelling:


Character focus is the most important part of narrative design. In most narrative games, the characters are solely used as devices to drive the story. We believe that to create an immersive narrative game the player should be able to empathize instead of solely sympathize with the characters. To be able to design these characters we listed the most important steps below:

  • Research culture of the character (NOTHING is as jarring for the experience of the game when the character does not fit with his or hers culture)
  • Avoid static stereo- and archetypes as characters, use these classifications only as the function of a character.
  • Character’s occupation: Know it. Breathe it. Expect the unexpected.
  • Write the core of the character first and expand on details later. Keep in mind that the backstory is not important until the moment you need it.
  • Define your character: show-don’t-tell, re-emphasizing by de-emphasizing, insert paradoxes
  • Emotion is key: Values + Opinions = Human. Even when the player’s character is an elf or a dwarf or an alien this is important. Read this quote by David Anderson: “We do not see space, time and the universe the way they are, we see space time and the universe the way we are”. We empathise with characters when we can project/see human characteristics in them.


Characters come alive the moment the storyworld gives you more characters to develop relationships with. Write the conversations they would have between them and when they would meet in the game.

All characters should have their own conflict, believable relationships and immersive dialogues. You do not not have to explicitly state to the player what the relationships were. Use this foundation for the game mechanics as well for visual development, which can give the player enough information about the story. Decide which parts of relationships needed to be explicitly told and which could be hinted at or omitted so the player would feel the intensity of the relationship.


Besides a premise for the game, there is a premise for the main character(s). A premise of a character shows the single most important thing about them. It shows a quality or their internal struggle within the theme that prevails in their part of the story. If, as a designer, you know this one single thing about your character and you communicate this clearly to your audience, that audience can be hooked by this information. Whether they like the character or not, they understand the character and know what they can expect from the character. This is even more important than if your character is likeable or not. You give your audience a solid foundation as they enter the game, which remains clear to them even when the story or characters become more complicated. This premise is the starting point to create emotional involvement with the characters. You want your audience to feel empathy for non-playable characters and an immersive agency with the playable characters.

The theme of the game or the premise shows the point of the game, what it is all about. The premise is necessary for story progression, character development, and interesting gameplay in the game. A premise shows the arch of the game; by the end of the game everything has changed from the beginning. Visuals have gone from one state to another, from sober colours to very colourful, or from simple to chaotic. The challenges in the gameplay should become progressively more difficult to overcome. Every single element in the game should be linked to this premise or multiple premises. Without it, the story characters are unbelievable to the player, immersion cannot be attained, and the challenges are boring.


On one hand, we have linear narrative: the player makes choices that lead to different narrative paths. There is not any freedom in changing your path when you have chosen. The complete opposite is the sandbox game in which the player has complete freedom to make his or her own story as there is no set path to follow. For the games in the middle there is the design difficulty of giving players enough freedom to make their own story and still let them experience the designed story. A designer cannot take a good written storyline, cut it up to create different endings and still expect every path to be as great as the original storyline. The power of the interactivity of a game is giving the player the freedom in how he or she wants to experience the story. So the writer and the designer both practice their own skill without having to interfere with one another. The writers’ story is set and the designers’ gameplay is set but the player still has the freedom to create the story in his mind.


An important point is that a narrative becomes stronger if you could show the player something instead of explicitly telling them something. You design the explicit story in the game, but there is also the player story which the players themselves come up with in their head. The less you tell and the more you show, the stronger the story is. Authorial intrusion is frequently a problem when the designers want to points out stuff of the story to the players. This can break immersion because players will understand that, for example, a paper is hidden when it is located behind a closet without being explicitly told. Show-don’t-tell doesn’t mean that the author cannot give explicit information, but the important information given mostly in descriptions, the stuff of the story itself, should be strongly implied by what you do tell.


A trope is a commonly recurring literary or rhetorical device, motif, or cliché. Tropes are used to control audience expectations either by using them straight or by subverting them, to convey things to the layers quickly without saying them. The human brain is programmed to seek patterns and form stories in our heads to convey truths, examine ideas, speculate on the future and discuss consequences. To be able to do this, we need a basis for these patterns, a new language to show us what we are looking at today. So storytellers use tropes to let us know what things about reality we should put aside and what parts of fiction we should take up.

Every story is influenced by what came before it — and storytellers are bound to show that influence, intentionally or not, in the process of telling. It is actually impossible to create a story, even in games, without tropes. Fiction isn’t necessarily supposed to be realistic. Much fiction seeks to show not what is, but what could be, or what should be.


After researching narrative games we concluded that in most games the narratives are being derived from the game mechanics or from world building. After the mechanics and the world where figured out, characters were added to populate the world. In our opinion, this design process was not enough to develop engaging and believable characters. Characters are most of the time the primary influence on story and gameplay and should thus be the basis from which the world and game mechanics are derived. After this realisation we started with research about character development in narrative design. We decided to tackle the narrative like storywriters for films do. By developing a character the narrative would come naturally.

To develop the narrative from the character we needed:

-an interesting character premise

-a theme

-a conflict which brings the theme and character premise together


The story layer is most of the time explicitly told by the game designers. However, the players themselves also construct a story in their head while they are playing. This means that every game can have an explicit story and a player story. A designer has to think about how much power, influence and freedom the player has in the game and the story. Actions of the player should have appropriate reactions in the game or the player feels they cannot experience the game the way they want to. How much of the story needs to be shown to player and how much can be omitted so the player makes up their own story in their head? An important element in narrative design is the point of view of the player. Is the game a first person point of view than it is easier to attain a stronger emotional impact with your audience, as they understand the meaning behind every action as they can see into the head of their character. This is a bit more difficult with a third person point of view because the designer had to make clear why some actions have an effect of the character and the story. Some games switch between these points of view. However, bad narrative design or another and unexpected point of view will make the player lose immersion and empathy with the characters.


A conflict is created from within the triangle of world-character and theme by adding characters and see how they interact within the narrative. From these conflict, challenges arise. The challenges you should overcome in the game should be linked to your character and the world. The nature and level of difficulty of the challenges depends on the changes and conflicts your character encounters, the amount of progression you have made, and the relations the character has with other characters. Narrative designers have a whole lot of techniques at their disposal to tell the explicit story to the layer. This can be text-based (notes, graffiti, billboards), audio-based (audio logs, overheard conversation, banter between main characters, omnipresent narrator), visuals-based (artifacts, gun-in-the-drawer, show-don’t-tell), reactions (effects shown audio-visually after an action by the player), or cut scenes (omitting interactivity and power of the player for a moment). We found out that the best narrative game mechanics are the ones that give players the power to make their own story in their head; the mechanics that hint towards the explicit story but never actually tells the story explicitly. These are the visual-based mechanics, especially show-don’t-tell. Cut scenes can work very well, but they still take away power from the player to interact or react. Designers should be careful when to apply these so they do not break immersion.

(Copyrighted by Joe McCoy’s Puppet Closet and Lost Road Games)


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