5 Games That Helped Me Become a Narrative Designer
How their stories lead me to this creative role in the games industry
Earlier this year, at 33 years old, I started my first proper games dev job. I’m now a narrative designer position at a local Australian studio after years of working primarily as a games critic and journo. Your 30s are, I’m finding, a nostalgic time. This big life change has had me looking back over my life to see where the seeds were first planted and led me on this creative career path.
Obviously, in any life, there can be many reasons we walk down certain paths and avoid others. But looking back over the many games I have played over my life, there are five that really stand out as milestones for me. These were games that shaped my understanding of how games could tell stories. Even now they remain fresh in my mind, acting as inspiration in how to tell engaging stories myself.
I should acknowledge upfront I do not mean this to be a list of the best, or the most well-written, or the deepest stories in games. Nor is it a list of the games you absolutely must play to become a narrative designer yourself.
This is an exercise in nostalgia and a reminder that the decisions we make in our lives rarely happen in a vacuum.
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Broken Sword was my first point-and-click adventure, playing it for the first time on a Game Boy Advance. I was hit by a game-breaking glitch about two-thirds of the way through and didn’t finish it until a few years later. I finally played the game in the way it was intended to be played — on the Wii, of course.
Broken Sword was the first game I played where the story really felt like the point of playing it. The puzzles were fun, but the compelling part of the experience was experiencing protagonist George Stobbart’s growing involvement in the story, digging deeper into the templar mystery.
I remember reading a review of this version in the classic GameCube-era UK Nintendo magazine NGC and being excited that a game like this existed on a Nintendo console at all (if young me could see the cornucopia of adventure games available on the Switch now he’d be so, so excited).
Not too long after, I played through Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon on Xbox. On a whim, I emailed director Charles Cecil to ask him some questions and express my love for his games. To my great delight, he replied, which led to a bit of back-and-forth that could not have been as exciting for him as it was for me. I can’t say that this directly led to me wanting to get into narrative design myself 18 years later, but it’s certainly an extremely fond memory.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
It seems almost trite to point at Knights of the Old Republic, a BioWare RPG leveraging the most popular sci-fi universe of our time, and say “this one meant a lot to me”. But it can’t be overstated how earth-shaking the morality system in this game was, how drastically it expanded my ideas of what games narratives could do, and how they could involve the player in making complex decisions.
Tying a morality system to the light and dark side is such a slam dunk that almost no other games have pulled off a system to a similar degree of sophistication (Telltale’s best efforts and the Life is Strange games may come close, and mileage may vary depending on how you feel about Star Wars).
What’s really stuck with me about this game is how the dark side path plays out, how tempting the game makes the evil options, and how seeing those decisions taken seriously is both extremely satisfying but, in some other, important ways, very unsatisfying.
I felt a little empty as the credits rolled, realizing I just made things much, much worse. It’s a powerful feeling, being given the tools to make bad choices — to drive a narrative experience where mostly bad things happen. I’ve never gone down the darkest path in a choice-based narrative game again, but I think about how my game played out all the time.
I recently read Alex Kane’s Boss Fight Books entry on Knights of the Old Republic, which was a sad reminder that the game, like many others I love, was made under pretty intense crunch conditions. I’m confident that the game would have been even better if the team hadn’t been forced to push so hard.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Capcom’s beautiful adventure/visual novel series just released a new entry in the west, the excellent The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which brings together two former Japanese 3DS titles that seemed unlikely to be translated due to how distinctly tied they are to Japanese history. I’m endlessly thankful that Capcom took a chance on localising this series on the DS, because eight entries in (nine if you count the Miles Edgeworth spin-off and ten if you include the Professor Layton crossover), I absolutely can’t get enough.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is the prime example of the game I’d love to make.
What really strikes me about the Ace Attorney games is how it immerses you into the game, feeling like a participant in the narrative. The writers created a story in which it feels as if you’re driving every twist and turn through your discoveries.
The balance on the series has always been excellent; you’re being pulled along by each case, and even if you’re a few steps ahead of the character on screen, you almost certainly don’t have the full picture until the moment the game asks you to reveal exactly how things really happened. Once I played the first game, I knew I would play every other game ever released in this series.
Grand Theft Auto IV
This one’s straightforward, to the point I wrote a thesis on player-driven narrative experiences in Grand Theft Auto IV. Years have passed since I wrote it (starting as a Ph.D. and later a Master’s once it became clear that academia and myself were not a good fit), but it would later become a powerful tool in my portfolio. When I was ready to apply for a job as a narrative designer, I had a thesis I could point to and say, “I have given this some thought.”
And yes, Grand Theft Auto IV is the best GTA. Far and away. We don’t need to fight about this.
When Hades came out, I was working full-time for GameSpot in a precarious casual news role. I loved my team; I loved the solid wage it paid me; I loved not needing to beg for freelance scraps. But I was fast getting sick of the work itself because as much as I inherently enjoy writing, it’s not the writing I enjoy the most.
Greg Kasavin, head writer on Hades, was executive editor of GameSpot for 10 years before moving into game development. And now here he was, four games into his career at Supergiant, producing one of the coolest games I’d ever played, a roguelike based on figures from Greek mythology that absolutely bleeds with “This Was Fun To Write” energy.
It was impossible for me to play Hades and not want to make some changes.
Of all the games on this list, Hades might be the one that materially led to me getting my current job. I cited it in every interview. I talked at length about what it did right, and how it had inspired me. Sometimes I think about the possibility of someone in ten years' time playing something I worked on, sensing how much fun the writers had, and thinking “yes, I would like to do that too, please”.
While the above are the more notable of games that drove me on this journey, the below are honourable mentions. Narrative experiences that helped support this path of mine.
This entire article would have been about Deus Ex if I had played it in 2002 instead of in 2013. The way the game prioritises player choice and makes you think about the character you’re building is still incredible.
The Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents games are world-class examples of how to marry narrative with gameplay design that seems antithetical to storytelling and work as powerful examples of the storytelling potential of music.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 made me weep; so did What Remains of Edith Finch.
For all its padding, the back half of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is thematically very potent and means a lot to me.
I will never, ever shut up about Sine Mora and everything it accomplishes.
I’d like to shout out every single other game I have ever played, every book I have read, movies I have seen, songs I have listened to, television shows I’ve watched, shower thoughts I’ve entertained, dreams I’ve had, anecdotes I’ve been told, and several bumper stickers I’ve seen throughout my life for inspiring me.
It’s all a rich, creative tapestry and one I can now share through the future games I will be a part of.