Game Republic

Insights on Narrative Design

On 18th April, developers gathered in Leeds for the first event of 2024. Alongside the announcement of Game Republic’s Official Partners for 2024  – Red Kite Games, Barclays and Escape Technology, a forecast of the year ahead from Chris Dring of and an update on opportunities at Epic with Unreal and Fortnite, a highlight of the event was the narrative design panel with Rhianna Pratchett, Paul Cornell and Charles Cecil chaired by Dr Jackie Mulligan. Judi Alston was unable to make it, but sent her answers to the questions separately. So thanks to the magic of digital, she attends the panel in our round up of the key insights that emerged from the event which was sponsored by Revolution Software. We have covered just a few of the questions and summarised some of the answers that included many interesting examples and anecdotes throughout – huge thanks to the panelists for sharing them.

About the panelists

Rhianna Pratchett – There are few entertainment fields that Rhianna Pratchett hasn’t written for. In her award-winning work for games, she’s help craft titles such as Heavenly SwordMirror’s Edge, the Overlord series, Tomb RaiderRise of the Tomb Raider, and Lost Words: Beyond the Page.  In the world of comics, Rhianna has written for DC, Dark Horse and Marvel, whilst her film and TV projects include collaborations with Film4, New Regency, Complete Fiction and The Jim Henson Company.  Most recently, Rhianna wrote the Fighting Fantasy novel Crystal of Storms and co-authored Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Roleplaying Guide for Pets.  She is also co-director of Narrativia, the multi-media production company which controls the rights to the works of Sir Terry Pratchett. October 2023 will see the release of Tiffany Aching’s Guide to Being a Witch (co-written with Gabrielle Kent) which marks Rhianna’s first foray into writing within the Discworld universe.  She lives in London with an Italian and three cats.

Paul Cornell has written episodes of Elementary, Doctor Who (‘Father’s Day’ and ‘Human Nature’), Primeval, Robin Hood and many other TV series, including his own ITV children’s show, Wavelength. He’s worked for every major comics company, including his creator-owned series I Walk With Monsters for The Vault, The Modern Frankenstein for Magma, Saucer Country for Vertigo and This Damned Band for Dark Horse, and runs for Marvel and DC on Batman and Robin, Wolverine and Young Avengers. He’s the writer of the Lychford rural fantasy novellas from Publishing. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, a Hugo Award for his podcast and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his Doctor Who and the Grand Prix Nova and Scribe awards for the audio series Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Firewall. He’s the co-host of Hammer House of Podcast. His latest book is the SF novella Rosebud, his latest graphic novel is The Witches of World War II for TKO and his latest comic series is Con and On for Ahoy. He’s written games material for 3Mind and

Charles Cecil, founder and Managing Director of Revolution Software, Charles has been a key figure in the Interactive Entertainment industry for 40 years beginning his career in the 1980s at Artic Computing in Hull before forming Revolution Software with Tony Warriner and Noirin Carmody. In 2023, Charles with business and life partner Noirin Carmody was awarded Games Legend status in the 20th Anniversary Game Republic Awards. For his work in the video game industry, he received the title Member of the British Empire (MBE) on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2011. Charles most notable game credits include Broken Sword and Beyond A Steel Sky.

Judi Alston is the Co-Director and Creative Producer of Dreaming Methods a Wakefield based multi award winning studio that creates immersive and compelling fictional experiences through XR, and games, with a strong focus on reimagining writing and literacy. Dreaming Methods current project, The Abandoned Library recently won the Game Republic Award for “Most Innovative Use of Technology” and was officially selected for Bolton International and Aesthetica Film Festivals. Judi is also the Founder and CEO of arts organisation and registered charity One to One Development Trust who use film, game design, XR and other creative approaches to work with communities, increasing opportunities and aspiration, breaking down barriers and inspiring positive change Judi has a long track record as a documentary film maker with broadcast credits as a camera person, director, producer and editor. Her career spans many changes in technology from analogue to digital but she embraces it all with an unwavering passion for authenticity, good stories and meaningful audience/user engagement.


What is your creative process? How do you get inspiration for ideas?

Paul –  I think everybody has ideas for stories – writers are the people who keep them and who don’t let them wander out their heads but write them down. If you’re the person who argues with a movie on the way out and  really annoys your partner, then you could be a writer. You see what’s gone wrong or you want to argue with it and do the things the movie didn’t. I think that’s a major source of narrative inspiration for a lot of people

Charles -I often draw inspiration from meeting extraordinary people and visiting amazing places. I look to history because so much is often fresh and unfamiliar. As a writer, it’s so easy to be cliched, so easy to just copy an existing story or film. A compelling story requires a writer to convey extraordinary humanity – people throughout the history of the world have pushed human emotion to the absolute limit. If there’s a historical element that excites me then I will try to weave that into a game and hopefully excite the people that will be playing it.

Rhianna – I think it’s about being interested in the world and being interested in people. Writers have to be sponges for stories – you’ve got to keep your mind open, and you’ve got to read. You’re always looking for inspiration and dad used to say, “there’s a man at the back of Sainsbury’s that sells it by the bag full”. Because it is everywhere  it’s like asking your fish where water is. You have to just get to know how to process it.  I think what makes a writer is actually knowing how to catch ideas and process them into something that’s going to work.

Judi – Firstly, I guess its how you define yourself, I don’t see myself purely as a writer, my approach is multimodal. I draw on different creative practices as well as my own lived experience.  I have been making documentary films and working closely with often difficult to reach communities in UK and overseas for over 30 years, I am also naturally curious about people, society, current affairs – I think I often draw on these experiences for inspiration. In our XR storytelling projects we tend to adopt an intuitive approach as key to our creative practice where writing progresses hand-in-hand with the technical and artistic development. Our narratives, structurally, are not dissimilar to short stories or poems, which often leads us to ‘write into’ a project, subsequently reverse-engineering the resulting content into a more formal script. This is both liberating and fluid.

Paul Cornell talking into the mic, with Charles Cecil and Rhianna Pratchett looking on.

What are some of the best tips and tricks that you’ve learned over the years to help develop characters and stories and creative projects?

Rhianna- Characters are often looked at in gameplay terms and unfortunately in a lot of games a  character may be defined as “psychopath” . So try to look beyond this to who would live a life like this and what might that character be…? So for example something like Mirror’s Edge you know Faith runs a lot – But what would push you into this kind of life? What on the inside is she really running from? What she’s really scared of and it isn’t really just the men with guns (although they don’t help)- what’s actually going to make her stand stop and turn and face what she’s running from?  So thinking like this through the psychology of gameplay affects the shape of the character. Take gameplay as inspiration but remember it can be really difficult because game players often tell a different story to the one that you want to tell with the narrative.  The trick is to find sweet spot and work with people to understand what their gameplay is saying about the character and try to say the same thing.

Paul – It’s all about the voice to find the character, how they react to a situation. You plunge your character into the worst possible situation and you hear what they’re saying as a result.  I think the impulse to kick in another direction and to do the thing which is not the cliche is a good building block for that moment because then you can start to expand into an area which is not the obvious thing.

Charles – I’m going to go back to the need for authenticity. If you come across an extraordinary character in real life, write everything down – what they said and how they behaved. Whilst writing the first Broken Sword I was in a Parisian taxi en route to the airport – stuck in a terrible traffic jam, a French Gendarme was trying to direct traffic but it was gridlocked and everyone was hooting horns. I was just chaos.  In the end he just shrugged his shoulders, wandered to a café, sat down and bought a glass of wine. Very quickly the traffic cleared, and we were on our way. He made it into the game – in fact both the first two Broken Swords! It’s real people doing extraordinary things that they think are normal that are often the most crazy. In any story, and particularly in an interactive story, your characters need to behave in a way that is logical and believable to reflect their motivations and the state of the world because that’s what gives the player the information that they need to then solve problems.

What are your tips for creating story-telling games on low budgets?

Charles -I am excited by how low budget games can use the environment and gameplay to tell a story that forms directly in a player’s mind. I am a huge fan of Inside which starts with an unknown boy, who is clearly scared witless, and the player must take him though a terrifying story. But at no point is there any story told in a traditional way – no text or speech. I think this approach allows developers to tell stories in a very cheap way because you are setting up a situation in which the player is, to an extent, telling their own story. The key part is that it should be set in a really interesting game world.

Rhianna – I think you can do some wonderful things with environmental storytelling I think the first BioShock in particular had a really good use of storytelling because they used everything in the world to underpin the story of what happened – down to the placement of bodies to the vending machines –  it was all tailored towards the story and colouring the world.

Judi – Take inspiration from reading experiences where stories are generated in the readers’ mind – an entire story world can be suggested through carefully crafted glimpses rather than explicitly shown, often resulting in a stronger emotional impact and a desire in a reader/player to know more. Don’t forget audio – music, soundscape, audio FX all contribute hugely to the mood and impact of characterization and storytelling. Practically, there are a lot of free tools and services around, like royalty free assets, Twine to ChatGPT, that can help you bring stories to life on many levels.

When is the best time to hire writers for your game?

Rhianna –  They can be useful at every point. I think when we talk about writers sometimes you just think it’s the words bit. Writers especially ones that do not have to design can be useful at any stage.  I do a lot of consultancy these days, even on early prototypes, which is when you can get in into the guts of the story and knockabout ideas. Then you can do some crazy stuff on the characters where you’ve got real space to play and not when everything else is going wrong and you’re trying to repair the story on the fly. When I first started in the industry, I described myself as a narrative paramedic which was how writers were used. We were kind of parachuted in towards the end to fix the dying story because no one had paid attention to the story throughout the whole process.

Paul – I think one of the central features of linear which applies even more in games is empathy. When I stream the latest episode of a show, I want to see my favourite characters –  I have an appointment with them. But I don’t feel an obligation to them.  Games give me obligation. I feel I’ve got to know them, and I sometimes feel that if a member of my party keeps getting killed I owe them something! One should thus bring in narrative writers at the moment the story begins to be structured, not just to write on top of the plot, because narrative writers bring that empathy more through plot, and dialogue alone often won’t do it.

When pitching we often hear publishers say developers should keep the story element very brief and concentrate more on the gameplay – so is storyline and characterization not as important?

Charles -We’ve all seen a million and one pitches which are just a story without any gameplay whatsoever and that’s nonsense. If the gameplay is no good then no one’s going to play and so they won’t experience your wonderful story.  I really think gameplay does need to lead story design and the gameplay then inspires the narrative.

Rhianna – I think gameplay and story benefit from thinking about both at the same time because story is getting context and meaning to game play so I feel it’s essential to entwine them. This gives strength to both areas and they need to support each other therefore I think they should be developed at the same time

Monkey island creator Ron Gilbert has said that every puzzle should tell me something about the story the characters or the world is this the same for your games?

Charles -I try to design puzzles which are driven by character motivation within a consistent world –  so the puzzles feel like interesting narrative challenges. I would like to think that puzzles work best when they don’t feel like they’re getting in the way, they feel like they are a narrative challenge in a great story.

I’m going to ask about diversity and representation –  we are seeing more diverse characters and storylines in different media – what more can be done to better portray underrepresented groups in games?

Charles – From Revolution’s inception, we felt that our stories would be stronger, and our games would play out better if we had a strong female protagonist which was kind of unthinkable in the ‘80s. From a marketing perspective it actually means that we have a very high proportion of fans who are women – and that should have been obvious. But that wasn’t our reasoning at the time.

Rhianna – I think it’s getting a little bit better. it certainly took a while to expand the conversation beyond having female protagonists. For a long time it was just about that and don’t get me wrong there is definitely room for more female protagonists, and we’ve got a lot more to do. But it needs to be a bigger conversation it needs to be about ethnicity, about age, about ability, about sexual orientation – there’s so many different ways of representing diversity and we’re still kind of only scratching the surface There is still a lot to do.

Judi  – There is a rise in better representation in the sector but still plenty of scope for progression. As documentary filmmakers as well as games designers, one of our biggest drives is to bring voices that might have been previously unheard into our projects, not just on-screen but also behind the scenes/ involved in the artistic development. Bringing diversity into storylines and game play needs to start with the developers and opportunities in the sector to embrace people from different backgrounds, ages, abilities in entrance into the sector the production process. We try and bring the BFI (British Film Institute) EDI guidelines as a measuring stick into all our projects now – which I find really helpful to reflect on where we need to change and diversify. For each project we do, I look at the stats – for example I know that The Abandoned Library has an entirely female cast, with a 55% Female identifying Production Team, 11% LGBTQI+, 22% from underrepresented ethic groups and 22% of from a lower socio-economic background. I now think how can I develop opportunities further? For example, can I now create opportunities for people with neurodivergence or people with a disability.

What trends and changes do you see in storytelling in games and media?

Charles – Certainly in adventures – people used to love challenges that frustrated them, and they would go to bed pondering the solution, and then wake up the next morning having dreamed of solutions. This has completely changed – people want a much more fluid experience. I think one of the problems with point-and-click adventures is that the solutions can remain hidden which quickly becomes frustrating. In updating our early Broken Sword games, and reimagining the genre for 2024, we are seeking to reinvent the genre for the present day rather than just look back at what worked in the past. That’s certainly our objective.

Shot from behind the panel at the audience

What new technologies support narrative games now and in the future?

Judi – A clear answer to this is the number of AI-driven tools and services that are emerging. These range from assistance with the writing process itself – research, language usage, grammar, tone and clarity –through to generating realistic-sounding voices-overs for characters. Natural Language Processing can allow for more sophisticated dialogue with NPCs, making interactions more natural and engaging.

Then there is the tech itself – changes in VR/AR mean utilising a 3D space offers infinitely more possibilities for an immersive story/game – the experience becomes more intimate, more realistic often blending the real and virtual.

With advanced graphics and animation technologies we are in a period of exciting times. I am interested in how games can become part of larger transmedia narratives, where the story unfolds across multiple platforms, including games, films, books, and more. This blurring of genres really interests me and has been a key driver in our Dreaming Methods projects for over 20 years. The possibilities for storytelling present an exciting future.

I am also really keen to explore working with haptics and other ways of engaging the senses like smell and taste, and hope that we can develop our XR work in this field. The possibilities are boundless.

What do you think are the new trends in storytelling?

Paul –  I think the last few years we’ve seen how fan fiction that has kind of conquered the mainstream and to some extent taken over. Fan fiction is driven by a  feeling of ‘well that was great but let’s adjust it and remix it’ – Let’s change it to be more LGBTQ friendly say or to have relationships that we can’t see in the original – that’s all become very mainstream, and gaming is really at the heart of that process.  In the world of prose fiction right now there are trends like Dark Academia, there are people basically re mixing the cortex of fantasy, doing it their way and changing it

Rhianna – More writers getting involved in the industry so mechanics that will let writers rooms which are obviously common in particularly TV are becoming much more common in games. That has been great that the industry is taking storytelling more seriously. When I started there was only ever one of me – writing was never talked about and now we are at a point where there are conferences about narrative – there are awards for games narrative and people outside the games industry know about game narrative. Now games narrative is being turned into TV shows and into movies – that’s extraordinary.

A few words of advice from each of you for those developing narrative games…

Charles –Innovate. Please, please don’t just copy what’s gone before, because you will fail – there will be a gazillion games that look like yours. Come up with something original and totally wacky  and it could take off – if you are both inspired and lucky.

Paul – I find I get good ideas and solutions to what I’m working on when I’m cleaning my teeth! Let your mind relax and remember you can put a project down and start something else and go back to it later. Go for a walk.

Rhianna – Have something to say and if you don’t have anything to say come and see me ’cause I’ve got lots of things to say!

Judi – There are so many ways to propel a story from dialogue, voice over through to branching narratives, quests, missions, diaries, NPCs, visual and audio clues – explore them all. Embrace your story and characters, get to know them, explore their world, think of their back story – they need to become real in your mind. Link up with people who share your ideas or who support your vision and help it grow. Don’t give up on your idea at the first knock back, and if you do give up – then move on to your next idea positively.

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