Soft Skills for Narrative Design
Or: How to make friends and influence other departments.
Lots of people ask — me, and in various discord servers, or twitter, etc — how to get into narrative design? Or how it’s different to writing. Or how to build and present a portfolio. Those are all valuable questions that have been answered frequently elsewhere.
But a more fundamental question it seems to me would be ‘what soft skills do I need to cultivate?’ That question is timeless — I ask it of myself regularly, because the biggest danger to creative growth and professional competency is complacency. More than that, I feel confident saying if you don’t have or work to improve the following skills, everything else is moot, because people won’t want to work with you.
So if you want to be — or already are — a narrative designer concerned with a growth mindset, maximising your potential and generally being the best you can be, focus on process. To that end, here are some thoughts, of mine and some peers who I asked to highlight the three skills they thought were most essential to thriving in this role and industry.
A quick caveat; in no way do I consider myself the apotheosis of any of these skills. But at the very least I’ve become fairly confident over the years which skills are worth investing in. So all of this advice is just as much an exhortation to myself to (always) do better.
A narrative designer (ND) sits at the nexus, and will likely have to be in close contact with most, if not all, departments. For whatever reason — perhaps the genesis of Hollywood and the woeful adoption of the auteur in the games industry, where it makes even less sense — people often presume an ND will be heavily authorial. So your challenge here is twofold; understand the needs and challenges of every department, and adopt a non-threatening, collaborative manner.
This can’t be faked. You need to be able to genuinely understand, empathise and communicate with each department in their own language, whether you’re transmitting or absorbing direction or feedback.
As Antony de Fault says:
Your job is to communicate the narrative’s needs to those other disciplines, then let them decide how to meet those needs with their craft. Never act like you assume you know more about someone else’s discipline than them. I.e. audio designers are the experts in audio design: tell them how the player needs to feel at a certain point in the game, maybe humbly throw in a few ideas and references to other executions, but the audio designers will know better than you how to meet those needs and you should accept their solution.
Now you might say to yourself, ‘I’m humble already’ — and perhaps you are. But humility is a skill, not a simple choice, and it must be worked on. Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism are predicated on the idea that the destruction of ego is both an essential part of the route to enlightenment and a never-ending struggle. In many ways, acknowledging and seeing past your ego is one of the most fundamentally important skills in any collaborate discipline. One of the most common ways this will manifest is in your approach to feedback. If you’re able to both actively solicit and deal with unsolicited feedback in a pragmatic manner, you will dodge all manner of personal anguish and professional friction.
Ray Vermeulen agrees.
Being able to listen to feedback, identify what is and is not going well, and making adjustments accordingly is an absolutely invaluable skill to have…
…[If one of your ideas isn’t sticking], this is okay. Remember that you’re all here to make an amazing game together, take a deep breath, and let go of your idea.
This is a wonderful article and primer on how to practice humility. But from there, I recommend reading into things like the Freudian theory of sublimation and ego-wounds, and some of the aforementioned Eastern philosophies. It takes work, but it will make you a better person, and set you apart as a narrative designer.
It sounds obvious, but cannot be stressed enough — if you sit at the nexus of multiple disciplines, and need to liaise with them on the execution of a vision — you damn well need to understand the challenges that discipline faces. As Sasha Kudryavtsev says:
In terms of non-verbal storytelling, it’s very helpful to know the basics of other development disciplines like level design, sound design, animation, etc. Even basic familiarity helps to come up with creative and cost-efficient solutions and pitch them to other teams using a common language. This is especially true in bigger studios where cross-disciplinary collaboration is key.
There is probably a certain diminishing return you get in terms of how well you know the other disciplines — as Antony explained above, ultimately you need to let other experts do their thing. The bell curve applies here — knowing the first 20% of a discipline is going to be enough 80% of the time. Whether you gain or have gained this knowledge through your own experience, in your career or through hobbies; whether you go and learn it on the side or by politely asking your colleagues for advice, it is going to reduce ambiguity and crossed-wires in your communication, which is of pivotal importance.
As ever, think in terms of implementation. If you have no idea about how music works, going and learning the guitar or reading a bunch of articles on how someone composed a famous game soundtrack is not going to facilitate your liaising with an audio engineer. You may also want to apply Bayesian updating to this idea — the needs of each discipline will change both per project and other time, so if you’re not willing to update your own understanding or assess the probability of you not knowing that discipline’s current challenges, then you will be missing a trick.
An important corollary to this is working on communicating your own discipline’s needs clearly. Says Ray Vermeulen:
You will be working with many people from different departments and backgrounds, and surprisingly, not everyone knows what ‘Atonement with the Father’ means, or why they should care! Learn how to explain complex ideas in simple language, adjusted to your audience. Who doesn’t love pretty flowcharts?
Amen. Complexity is the enemy of efficiency. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. And jargon — though it may often be a shortcut when discussing with someone in your field — often just obfuscates your meaning when it counts. It’s on you to make it as easy as possible for someone to understand your point, and the less room you leave for misinterpretation, the better. This is serious — if you assume your point has been understood, and it hasn’t, you risk wasting more than one person’s time, and a big part of an ND’s responsibility is ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Many disciplines in game production require a balance of creative and production focused decision making. Narrative design is no different, but I’d argue you need a broader than average suite of heuristics in order to thrive. This is because you will be both thinking creatively, bearing in mind the overall implementation and production process of the game, quite possibly deciding on or helping build a suite of tools — and because your work can affect so many other people.
Put simply, you cannot rely on pure instinct. This will only get you so far, but as the circle of competence mental model suggests, you don’t know what you don’t know. To see the world clearly, you need to be able to think in fundamentals, or first principles, and you need to utilise what Daniel Kahneman calls second order thinking. It’s much as it sounds; thinking through your initial decision, clearly seeing all of its implications, challenging your own assumptions, and so on.
Mental models. Critical/second order thinking. Heuristics and schemas. All (unique and valid) ways of making the difference between a good idea, and an excellent completed game. Ideas are cheap, and essentially worthless. A decision is potentially worse than worthless, it can be actively damaging.
A good decision is hugely valuable. While no-one can see the future, you want to get to a point where you can look a decision and feel reasonably comfortable it’s a high quality decision, made for the right reasons, at the right time. Keep a decision journal — that’s how you really learn. You can make the perfect decision at the right time, but it can still not work out. However, that doesn’t mean you made a bad decision. Conversely, a bad decision can lead to a positive outcome — and that’s dangerous, because you might well be encouraged to make another, similar bad decision that leads to a bad outcome next time. This long term approach to honestly, fearlessly auditing your own decision making is absolutely crucial to improving.
Special thanks to Ray, Sasha and Antony for their thoughts. All three of them are making special things, and pushing the discipline forward.