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23rd Feb 2018 - 2nd Jun 2018

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Digital Artist diary

Narrators in games

One of the elements of the game I’m working on where there’s a sharp crossover between the practical and creative aspects of it is the ‘narrator’ figure. A narrator is typically found in some form or another in audio games, due to the sheer nature of them - you can’t use visual aids to guide a player through a tutorial, indicate what they should do, or relay information to them about the world they’re in. Sometimes narrators are more regular companions or contacts, as in The Nightjar, and some only occasionally come into play, like with A Blind Journey - in this audio game, the narrator’s grown somewhat from a necessity into a more complex feature.


Figuring out the details of the narrator - their precise role, their tone, their relationship to the player - is one of the difficult tasks I’ve come up against whilst developing the game. Especially when a narrator crops up regularly, as in this game, getting these details right is a big part of designing and writing the game. I know that a narrator from a particular game has cast a long shadow whilst I’ve been working on this: in The Stanley Parable, the narrator is a slippery but entertaining figure. The narrator can be civil, sarcastic, misleading, antagonistic, detached and self-aware. It’s a brilliant example of a narrator not being some perfunctory functional element of a game, but central to its ideas and why you’d want to play it - making it fairly difficult to shake from my mind.


In different versions of the playtest of my game, the narrator has gone from being quite factual and plain spoken and to far more colloquial and prone to tangents, and seems to have settled somewhere in the middle - neither omniscient and objective nor radically idiosyncratic. The first of these seems most significant - often narrators are objective or omniscient in some way (so much so that ‘unreliable’ narrators are a twist, a deviation from the norm), because the game itself can be objectively won or completed in some sense. However, the game I'm making isn't quite like that - it’s about the player figuring out what they think they ought to do and why, so it only feels right to make the narrator subjective and, in a way, more like the player.


A significant influence on the game’s narrator is the focus group that was an early part of the game’s development, where people spoke about their experiences and understanding of conflict from the perspective of being a civilian. The people in that group were the kind of people this game’s being made with in mind: people with no immediate personal experience of conflict. Since the idea is that players are figuring out their relationship to conflict and responses to the scenarios presented to them in the game, it felt like it made sense to have a narrator doing the same. With a messy subject like conflict, it feels right to have a similarly messy narrator, who can't offer neat guidance through the scenarios presented because no such thing exists.

I've not written a narrator before, even though they can be found in plays as well as video games (and elsewhere) - but this process has shed a lot of light on how narrators, at their best, aren't simply relayers of information but exemplify the tone, style and form of the work in which you find them.