My Pet Peeves in Narrative Design

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On Saturday, I taught a lovely Intro to Game Writing class through the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. I’m always nervous about not jamming enough material into the workshop. Thankfully, students told me what they're hoping to learn before class began.

This group asked a ton of questions, and there’s one in particular I’d like to share with you. They asked what my pet peeves in narrative design were. I had to think about that for a minute, because it is a personal question about my preferences. At the same time I never want to insinuate “all games that employ this technique” are inherently awful.

I do have pet peeves! Many of these hit the same beats so often I tend to skip some parts of the narrative or some games altogether. In the spirit of answering their thought-provoking question, they are:

Tutorial is an Afterthought and Not Accessible

This, for me, is a big one because it’s also a huge turn-off. Narrative-centric games are immersive experiences that are wonderful in so many ways—but they also can be frustrating for people who've never played that style of game or on that platform before. How a game is taught (tutorials) are a way to teach combat, sure, but they can also teach how to interact with the narrative, what to look for, and what not to do like missing key areas of the game unless you read the walkthrough.

It’s my preference that tutorials would be free-to-play, because the experience speaks volumes about whether or not I’d want to invest time, energy, and money into a game.

Captions are in a Tiny Font

Not only is this an accessibility issue, it’s also one of those details that matter more than you think. Why? Well, gaming set-ups are going to vary widely and not everyone can wear headphones when playing. Also, by their nature narrative-centric games incorporate lots and lots of words. Text is great when the game’s captioned, especially when highlighting important exchanges, and even better when it can be accessed and re-read.

I’m the type of player who finds written instructions easier to use than just hearing the voices—especially if I need to pause. Having that text is also crucial to sliding right back into gameplay after a short interruption.

Assuming Players Don't Care about Previous Editions (or Parts)

This is primarily related to legacy franchises that incorporate multiple games and editions. I personally believe it’s a mistake to make assumptions about players and their experience with your IP unless you have viable data that isn’t farmed from social media (where the most active fans tend to engage). Getting that data can be a challenge (especially since retailers don’t share theirs) which is why I’m suggesting that assumptions can backfire.

Why does this matter? Players who know the franchise and remember playing the previous edition are customers, too. While new narratives do not have to incorporate previous editions (or problematic aspects of them), I prefer to include ways to acknowledge older games and, as a result, the fans who helped the franchise grow.

Not Accounting for Multiple Forms of Conflict Resolution

Look, I am “that” player who enjoys throwing one too many grenades, but that’s certainly not true for all games. Narrative conflicts that are always resolved with guns, guns, and more guns tend to get repetitive after a while. And, when that happens, then I stop caring about the story because the interactions become predictable.

Narrative conflict is a hallmark of gamification, and violence is often employed as a solution because it’s easy to attach systems to. I’m suggesting that it shouldn't be the only one in a narrative-centric game.

Not Accommodating Player Abandonment/Inconsistent Play

So say I’m playing a game and, for whatever reason, I have to take a break. Deadlines, life, catastrophes, whatever. If I leave the game for a short period of time, I should be able to return to gameplay quickly. If I stop playing for bigger chunks of time, if there isn’t a clear path to remind me where I left off? There’s a good chance I’ll abandon the game than start over.

For the love of my controller, please include accessible chapter/scene summaries in the game as a resource. They don’t have to be long!

All Characters Sound the Same or are Stereotypes

What I’m referring to here is the difference between character and characterization. It’s definitely challenging to write character-driven dialogue when you need to produce lines of text and don’t know “who” the NPC is, where they’re based, or what their artistic rendering will be. I can tell when the game was produced in this fashion, because all of the characters sound vanilla.

Dialogue is part of worldbuilding and something I enjoy when it works. There are cultural factors impacting dialogue ranging from regional accents, slang, and dialect to one’s profession or role in their community.

One way to vary dialog is to pick three bullet points you might cover. This could be game-related (e.g. what your producer tells you to write) but in the absence of clear instructions? Be specific, anyway. For example, say your dialog is for static NPCs players don't interact with. (Or the “overheard” bits as the PC walks by.) Comment on something the NPC does/doesn't like, offer an opinion/rumor, or talk about how they feel re: newcomers, changes in the city, etc.

By the way, Free Guy does a great job commenting on NPC dialogue. I love this movie!

Only Portraying Same-Aged Characters in a Town or City

I'm at the point where worldbuilding feels flat if an entire city is home to nothing but the same age and type of character. I spend a lot of time in a game, and I'd like options to engage more deeply with the setting. This means offering more than one type of character.

Portraying Social Interactions as Conflicts to Overcome

I completely understand why game structures attach values to a player's social actions, but that doesn’t always resonate for me. I have a few peeves within this area that greatly depend on the game, but romance is one of them.

It’s my belief romantic storylines in a larger game should be optional. We all play games for different reasons, and sometimes look... I just want to lunge at that chimera, okay. I would absolutely love to see player consent in the game. Say you're chatting up a party member after a battle (or narrative pause), and you’ve been spending a lot of time with that character. Why not include a "Would you like to pursue a relationship with..." and let the players choose how that relationship takes shape?

It's also my belief there should be different types of romance and some characters who aren't interested in it at all. There are other types of relationships that can be nurtured, too, like besties, frenemies, mentors, etc.

While more options can spike production costs, if you’re going to include it, I’m suggesting it’s important to enhance gameplay and it increases replayability.

Using Sexual Assault/Child/Lover Death as a Motivation

This guarantees I won’t play your game. It’s been done. A lot. And not always well.

There is No Clear Ending

...and my number one pet peeve is? Games that don’t have a clear ending or end with “to be continued...” I spent hours and hours playing your game. And that’s what I end up with? No ending? I always walk away feeling dissatisfied when that’s the case.

Even when a game is part one or an installment in a series, that narrative should have a clear and satisfying ending. They’re important!

So, there you go! These are some of my pet peeves in narrative design from a functional and story-centric perspective. How about you?