An Interview by an Aspiring Narrative Designer – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

An Interview by an Aspiring Narrative Designer

margaretcogswell_NDE.jpgI was contacted recently by a curious mind, it belonged to a student named Margaret A. Cogswell. I asked her to tell me a little about
herself and her program.  “I am a sophomore at Savannah College of Art
and Design
, and a game design major.  I recently discovered that I am
really passionate about narrative design and storytelling in general.  I’m
in a Survey of Interactive Media class right now, in which we study the
emergence and progression of digital and interactive media and the effect it
has on the art world (gaming industry included; it is, after all, an art form).
I am required to do a presentation on a specific area of the gaming industry,
and I teamed up with two other people who are also interested in narrative. The Interactive Media and Game Design department is pretty ruthless and intense at SCAD. As a general rule, if your work isn’t excellent, it doesn’t pass the
test. I was looking for resources on the internet when I came upon The Narrative Design Exploratorium… I’d really like to ask you some questions that may help me in my project…” Ask away Margaret.

Margaret A. Cogswell: How did you break into the industry?

Stephen Dinehart: I did game design for casual content starting in the late 90’s. But my real break came while in graduate school at the University of Southern California. I volunteered for MIT’s Education Arcade, they gave me a free pass to E3 for my time, which I then managed to upgrade to a VIP pass. That’s another story, but with my new pass I then proceeded to crash the VIP lounges and networked like there was no tomorrow. I did my best to look and be professional, while hinting that I was cheap. I offered up the idea that I would like to have a internship. Someone in the Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment (WBIE) lounge took notice. Three months later I got a phone call asking me to interview for the new production internship position at WBIE.
Elf Quest
MC: Do you have a specific source of inspiration?

SD: Many I suppose. I’m tempted to speak of my earliest. I used to love the stories in pen-and-paper RPGs, I would sneak into the family office and hide out just to listen to my brother Grant and his friends play Dungeons and Dragons and Gamma World, not to mention Avalon Hill games like Axis and Allies. Comic books are also a big inspiration for me, my pops had a sick collection from the 50’s-70s. Then there was this one I got into in the 2nd grade called ElfQuest which for me was the subject of many imaginative play sessions with my friends. Once I remember so vividly running over a hill and seeing an army of trolls coming at us. I knew it wasn’t real, but my imagination was on fire. It was like living the most impossible dream. Saturday morning cartoons, and film also rank high on my scale. The most powerful media experiences for me are those transmedia experiences, which allow me to engage with story on multiples levels, and build my own subjective beliefs about characters, plot, and motivation. It’s what I call Transmedial Play.

MC: Is there a set process that you go through when you develop an idea into a concept for a game?  If so, what is it?

SD: That’s a great question. It depends on many factors, like the team, time-line, resources, and expectations. Media production has been a full fledged force now for over 100 years, there are great processes that already work. The illusion that interactive entertainment is somehow so ‘different’ from other form of media that it demands a entirely new development methodology is not a idea I would embrace. For the most part I see it as my job, like any professional artist, to be able to create on the spot without warning. It’s part of what separates hobbyists and dabblers from professionals. That said, as Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is shit.” Ideas come a dime a dozen, it’s only through refinement, practice, failure, and iteration that you can do your best. I start with a nice pen, and a blank piece of paper. If I’m not
inspired enough, I go out and live life. I read, love, paint, and laugh.

MC: Can you give me any idea of what a starting salary might be,
what the average is, and what the stats are for advanced positions in
narrative design?

SD: Start low, and move lower.
Really though, I would say around 40K, for a green student just out of
school with no work experience. That’s up to you though, remember to
negotiate high! I also took a significant pay-cut when I entered the
interactive entertainment industry, specifically AAA-video game
production. I know lot’s of folk that have had to do the same thing. My
first gig I described at WBIE, pay $0.00, but it was one of the most
valuable jobs I ever had. Some “very successful” people are not as well
off as one might like to think. That’s about all I’m willing to say. If
you want to be rich, this might not be your dream. I do what I love,
and Day 1 Studios takes good care of me.
MC: Since you’ve
been in the industry for a while, can you tell me how the role of the
“writer” has changed over the years in the game industry?

I have only written for games as narrative designer, but the writing
credit is very important. This is why in my current role I also have
the title of Lead Writer. Part of how I sell the position is as a solution to the
problems both writers and game developers have with contracted talent,
too often brilliant, or not so brilliant, material is inadvertently
butchered by the iterative production process, which is itself in
constant flux. It can leave both writers and developers angry, hurt,
and frustrated with their end product. The only solution is to have
someone, or a team, whom work alongside a production as it changes and
insures that the story content is managed and developed in such a way
that it maximizes the potential positives of that interactive fluctuation in production. That’s part of what a narrative designer
does, manages the fluctuation in story as is demanded by the tangles of
the iterative production process which plagues the industry.
MC: How do you think the role of the “writer” will change in the future?

A writer is a writer. I wouldn’t mess with that. I write, I love it, it
is an art wholly unto itself. What will change is the demands of
interactive narrative, which is why being an interactive narrative
designer is so much fun, and at the same time so challenging. We are
wrestling with the past via the present to define the future. 

MC: What games do you consider to have good writing?

There are plenty, I really enjoyed Black, Jade Empire, Prey, Dead
Space. I could nit-pic in a critique what worked and what didn’t, but
what I’m more interested in is interactive experiences that tell good
stories. Bioshock is a typical example, but what was done well there
was utilizing the lessons of Disney Imagineers. Go to a Disney park,
walk down Main Street, go on the Pirates of the Carribean ride and I
think you will instantly know what I mean. They are highly crafted
interactive experiences, story spaces as it were, ones from which we
still have much to learn.
MC: How do you feel about the increasing significance placed upon graphics versus narrative in games?

It’s both empowering and daunting. Narrative in interactive
entertainment still has a lot to prove. I do think the shifting
attitude is really going to help our field see some groundbreaking work
in the next decade. I hope and pray that we might be done with the race
that has brought the industry to cherish higher polygon counts over
believable characters. Nintendo has done a lot to shatter this illusion
in recent years. I hope it means that narrative development starts
getting budgets allotments like engineering. Ok, so that might not be
realistic, but I would really love to see more developers put their
money where their mouth is. It’s something I have had the pleasure and
pain of being on the forefront of. Some developers get this, “we didn’t
need that dude before” attitude, which just isn’t helpful. My favorite
comparison is that of engineers back in the day saying “artists? Who
needs ’em? I did all the art on our past 3 titles.”

MC: What
are the advantages and disadvantages to both linear and non-linear
storytelling?  Which do you feel is more effective in games?

I am of the school that your average player from a mainstream audience
doesn’t need a “non-linear story” to have a great experience. What
matters is that feeling of catharsis. If you can bring a player to the
point where they get that “jenkies” moment. That’s what matters. I also
am growing tired of the phrase “non-linear story” it’s a very misused,
and misunderstood term, you can throw it in with “emergent” and
“procedural”. Fact is all experiences we have as human beings are
rendered as linear by the simple fact that we cognitively perceive
reality in just such a fashion. What is important is player feedback,
and providing them with the enough degree’s of agency that they feel
free, or as free as the system requires to provide a rich experience.
Even life has limited agency or the perception thereof. How often do
you feel like you have freewill? Most of life, sadly, seems
deterministic from one day to the next. Any good story should come to
an ending beyond which the audience couldn’t imagine another. That’s
what makes it a good story, it’s complete. It’s only academics and
forum lurking super-geeks that argue about linearity vs. non-linearity,
and frankly they are both delusions.

Thanks for the questions.
If you find yourself with a thirst for knowledge, or a curiosity about interactive narrative design, I’ll do my best to share.
Take this as an open invite to ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on February 17, 2009 7:00 AM.

Do we need gore? A rationale for murderous video games. was the previous entry in this blog.

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Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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