A BAFTA hosted talk on narrative design in videogames

This is a repost from earlier in the year, without the automatic and obnoxious bolding that Squarespace loves to include.

“There’s likely to be standing room only,” the eager man told me as I arrived for the BAFTA hosted talk on narrative design in videogames. And why wouldn’t there be? The panel was as close to rock stardom as we get in the industry; Ian Livingstone (Co-creator of Games Workshop), Andrzej Sapkowski (Author of The Witcher series), Meg Jayanth (Writer and Digital Producer of 80 Days), Chris Gardiner (Narrative Director at Failbetter Games) all hosted by Simon Parkin (Journalist for The New Yorker and The Guardian).

Simon, Ian, Chris, Meg and Andrzej.

Simon, Ian, Chris, Meg and Andrzej.

After shuffling in and grabbing an extremely blurry photograph (“It’s so when I write about it later I have a picture to put in the post!” I told my ever-patient girlfriend) we settled in for a series of questions about the nature of narrative design and the challenges that those on the stage, and indeed beyond it, face daily.

For those unaware Chris, Meg and Ian work in branching narratives; Sunless Sea, 80 Days and the Fighting Fantasy book series comprise tens of thousands of words, many of which players will never see. And that’s Simon’s initial question; is there a preciousness about the words you write? Is there ever a storyline so good, a chunk of text so beautiful, that you’re disappointed it’s never seen?

The answer, as if professionally rehearsed, is a resounding “no,” but it’s a far cry from being a typical ‘PR’ style answer. Instead it’s the honest assessment of talented people who have seen thousands of words left on the cutting room floor across their careers. As someone who can barely drop words from a sentence (no matter how superfluous) it was an eye-opening, refreshing response.

The talk drifts between topics like how AAA gaming is taking narrative more seriously, how critics can often be unfair when discussing narrative (a particularly fascinating answer from Chris Gardiner the highlight, though Simon Parkin’s not so subtle allusion to Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Mass Effect: Andromeda piece a close second), and the best practice for writing, in practical terms, from each of the panel.

The late night, candle at both end burners and the early morning coffee shop clichés were in; but it’s fascinating to see, though not unsurprising, how dedicated and driven these talented people are. “I can’t have anyone around me,” says Livingstone, “it’s door closed, blinds drawn and head down.” This is a man, of course, who created Games Workshop, wrote the Fighting Fantasy series and had a hand (to say the least) in several successful videogames; but nothing fell by the wayside. “Games Workshop 9-5, Fighting Fantasy 9-2am,” as envy and awe swept across the room, not least from a man who can barely handle a game of Overwatch after work without getting tired.

The two key questions in the talk are addressed towards the end, in between Simon Parkin trying manfully to keep Mr Sapkowski on topic; how AAA gaming is evolving and how criticism isn’t. Meg Jayanth, aside from her work on 80 Days and an upcoming title, also worked as a writer on the mega hit Horizon: Zero Dawn. The game, aside from being a staggeringly beautiful work of open world AAA goodness, has been praised for the lore, world building and characterisation. “Games these days, even the AAA titles, have to have an engaging narrative,” says Livingstone, “there’s so many games now, so much competition for our time and attention, that studios seem to be realising just how important a compelling story is.”

Gameplay is still king, a sentiment held across the panel, but games are now being pulled up for subpar stories and narrative. A sign of a maturing medium, but is it also a sign of maturing criticism around it? (It’s not without a hint of disappointment I write that, knowing full well the torrent of abuse hurled at a female developer on Mass Effect: Andromeda this week.) The answer should be yes to both, but, as Christ Gardiner eloquently suggests, criticism has stood still.

“Games,” he suggests, “have such a broad audience.” He doesn’t just mean in terms of demographics, but also in how each of us consumes games. He suggests that the games studios are making have to work for all types of players – people who play two hours then come back months later and pick up where they left off, or people who finish your game in one sitting, or people who slowly consume your game over 6 months. Criticism, he argues, doesn’t account for that.

It’s a question I wish I’d put to Simon Parkin; how does criticism grow and develop in the face of things like branching narratives? How does it move to address Gardiner’s concerns? How do you offer criticism on the story of a game if you happened to experience a branch that was slightly weaker than one of your friends? It’s a question that has, I suspect, a long answer, saved for another Parkin hosted panel.

The talk felt short, though that’s a compliment on how engaging both the topic and the speakers were and, as ever, the assembled huddle left with more questions than we came in with.

The panel piqued my interest in becoming more involved in this community; attending more talks, reading more broadly in and around the medium and meeting like minded people. Next stop: Ken Levine’s keynote at EGX Rezzed.