Since starting the blog, the single most common role that people have asked about has been ‘Narrative Designer’. Unfortunately I’m hardly an expert on this subject: this blog is really the first ‘writing’ that I’ve done to any extent, and so I decided to seek out some professional help.
Fortunately, I’m surrounded by talented individuals, so I went straight to the amazing Navid Khavari. Navid is a Narrative Designer here at Ubisoft Toronto, who is currently working on Far Cry 4 in collaboration with Ubisoft Montreal. I worked closely with Navid on Splinter Cell Blacklist, and was blown away by his ability to keep track of so many different threads, updating all of the departments constantly and revising the story on the fly due to restrictions or changes that came up. Truly a masterclass in ‘plate spinning’. Additionally, Navid is an all-around great guy and I’m so happy that he has graciously agreed to answer some questions for you all.
I want to emphasize how grateful I am to Navid for helping out – there is precious little advise out there for people interested in Narrative Design, as this is one of the rarest roles in the Games Industry – most companies only have one Narrative Designer per 100 employees or so. Please note that some companies vary in job title for this role; some companies have ‘Writers’ with far more responsibility than just writing that are more in-line with this role.
What are your primary responsibilities as a Narrative Designer?
That is a big one. I’d say the primary responsibility of the Narrative Designer is to ensure story cohesion across all disciplines from a game’s concept to ship. When I changed titles in the middle of making Splinter Cell: Blacklist, I was told by Pat Redding (our game director and a Narrative Designer on Far Cry 2) that it was the equivalent of taking on three jobs in one. You’re responsible for story crafting, ensuring that the story makes sense to all departments, helping to manage the massive script database of the game, and on top of that, you should probably be ready to write at a moment’s notice.
What is your typical work day like?
I’ll have to give a disclaimer that most of my experience has been at fairly large studios, so it’s not necessarily indicative of what happens in all studios. But in general, the big plus about working in narrative for video games is that often any two days are never the same. You will likely pull your hair out to no end if you’re not adaptable. The needs of the game are changing constantly and in turn, so are the needs of the story. I usually start my day catching up and answering plenty of emails. A lot of times the story department is not all that large, so I will get questions from practically every department you can think of. These questions cover the gamut, from somewhat administrative (“How many barks do we need to record?”) to the more fun stuff, what you might call universe building (“Where did so-and-so come from? I’m doing an armour concept.” or “What’s the story behind this space?”). My day will then be fleshed out based on where I am in the project. If you’re in conceptual, you’ll be in plenty of meetings with directors (Creative Director, Art Director, Cinematic Director, Level Design, Writers) of the game discussing what the needs are and how the story fits. It’s an incredibly organic process and highly collaborative. As you progress it becomes a lot more practical, such as organizing or writing dialogue, AI trees, and sitting with the Level Designers or audio engineers and figuring out how and where it’s going to be implemented in the missions. I’ve done plenty of voice directing so I’m often pulled into that when recordings come along too. There’s a lot of diversity!
What is your favourite part about your job?
I think my favourite part of the job is collaborating with so many talented people. Ubi Toronto is a very special place and contains some of the most diverse and fantastically talented individuals I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Being able to collaborate on ideas and then see them come to life is an amazing feeling I can’t even describe. I’ve had several moments where I’ve seen people here take horrific chicken scratches mapped out on a whiteboard and turn them into something filled with life and beauty. Something strange happens when you get excited, creative people in the same building. Magic (or inspiration, or wonderment and so forth).
What is the most challenging part of your job?
You might be surprised, but it’s the same thing! Stories in games can be so huge and massive that it’s very easy for departments or individuals to have a brilliant idea that completely torpedoes the bigger story. A mentor of mine, the honourable Richard Dansky down south at Red Storm, always told me he needed to be the keeper of the gestalt, the bigger picture. That’s narrative design in a nutshell. If you’re not on top of that stuff or raising the flag when it needs to be raised, the story will suffer, the game will suffer, dogs and cats will live together, pandemonium ensues.
What kind of post-secondary education did you do?
I received a BA in History and Political Science at the University of Toronto. I never realized how important staying up until 3am, jacked on caffeine, and studying intelligence failures in the Cold War would be until I worked on Splinter Cell.
Did you feel your education prepared you for work as a Narrative Designer?
It taught me to meet deadlines and get used to writing massive amounts of content in a short period of time. It also taught me the art of brevity. If you can say it in five words don’t say it in 100 just to be fancy. No one is impressed, especially professors. And that applies to story in games too. Games are an immersive medium, the world the team has created is telling your story 90 percent of the time, so having talking heads ramble on about motivations and what’s good for breakfast is a surefire ticket to get the player to go make a sandwich. I’ve done some radio work for the CBC and it’s always the same thing, get the story out there in as few words as possible. One interesting thing that happened though was that I had to slightly “unlearn” some of the habits I picked up in university, especially for writing dialogue. When you speak you don’t follow MLA guidelines, so I’ve had to really focus on finding organic flow and diction.
Which path did you take between school and working as a Narrative Designer?
I’m a bit of a jerk for saying this but after about 3 months of panic I was one of 4 people picked to interview with the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and immediately following that I had an interview with the now defunct Bedlam games to write an interactive comic for a show called Lost Girl. The interviewer in the Consulate knocked her coffee over as she went to shake my hand, ruining all sorts of important-looking documents, so yeah, I ended up getting the video game gig and never looked back. My loose-working title for my memoir is Might’ve Been a Diplomat.
What kind of schooling would you recommend for someone interested in becoming a Narrative Designer?
This is a very tough question. Narrative Design is a fairly new position in the industry and barely a decade old. On top of that, what I’ve found in games is that it’s filled with a wonderfully eclectic group of people with diverse backgrounds and paths. I’ve known coders who’ve transitioned to narrative design and game designers who made the leap. In the beginning though, my advice is to get close to what you love. If you’re close to it, chances are if you’re doing great work and have a great attitude then someone somewhere will want you to do great work and have a great attitude with them. And pay you for it. I did not follow the game school route, but I know plenty who have to great success. I think one of the most tried and true paths is to enter QC (Quality Control) and be next to the developers you hope to learn from. QC jobs aren’t necessarily raining from the sky though, so I think going to school and having a grasp of the fundamentals of game design (with a critical eye) and working on your own games can only help your odds at being a successful narrative designer. It also doesn’t hurt to get involved in social events like the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) or the Hand Eye Society. You’ll meet all sorts of like-minded individuals and learn from them. Maybe even work with them.
What extra-curricular activities would you recommend for someone interested in becoming a Narrative Designer?
Get to know the fundamentals of story inside and out. I find over and over again that regardless of what medium you’re in, strong, meaningful characters and layered universe building are always needed. It’s obviously important to “play” as many games as you can, the quotations are because you should dissect how the developers have structured their stories in the game. What tricks do they use? What are they doing that you could do better? Now I know of some narrative designers that won’t write a word but if your goal is to write well, then write every day. If you can’t think of anything to write about make it a journal entry. You need to be prepared to write reams of dialogue at a moment’s notice.
But I think what’s also critical is not just to immerse yourself in games, but also film, art, music, comics–as many avenues for storytelling that you can find. I can’t tell you how many random ideas have come from a gallery I visited a week prior. It helps to keep your brain working as far out of the box as you’re willing to allow it.
Don’t panic. Don’t be precious. Have fun.
It’s easy to get discouraged, frustrated, or angry. Whether in an interview or in the workplace you can fall in the trap of thinking that every thought you had was forged by Zeus on a tablet of diamonds and asking yourself, “How can no one else see that?” But the most successful people I’ve seen in the industry are those that acknowledge when times are tough, work through it, and then are eager to move on. If you learn to protect that feeling you get from making games because you love them you’ll be years ahead before you even step inside a studio.
I’d like to thank Navid for helping out. I hope you found his answers are interesting and valuable as I did. If you want to hear more from Navid, you should follow him on Twitter at @navface.
What do you think? Are you interested in Narrative Design? Have any further questions about the role? Let us know by leaving a comment below!