Ludonarrative insolence: Add one part ‘game’ to four parts ‘story’, mix well and serve

This article originally appeared on on 13th December 2013.

Over the course of the last seven years, I’ve been involved in designing a range of digital interactive narrative projects across mobile, social networks, TV and games.

These projects have always been interesting, but (rightly or wrongly) their mass-commerciality has often been called into question. This now seems to be changing, particularly where story games intersect with mobile devices.

The case for

Within weeks of each other this year, we’ve seen the launch of Inkle’s Sorcery 2, Simogo’s DEVICE 6, Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre 2 and Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us.

All have Metacritic scores of at least 85 and reams of five star reviews, so there’s clearly an appetite from both critics and players for these kinds of narrative-led game and useful lessons can be drawn from them.

Good reviews and innovation are fine as far as they go, BUT as an indie dev planning your next project you have to consider the bottom line. Narrative games are a definite niche, which is clearly a risk, but also an opportunity.

If, for every 50 free-to-play casual gamers, only one is a potential narrative game customer, that’s still a vast, vast market. 2 percent of hundreds of millions isn’t anything to sniff at.

Anecdotally it also seems that those who are a fan of narrative experiences on mobile are also more likely to pay. DEVICE 6 is £2.49/$3.99 and Simogo has just announced (a very well deserved) 100,000 downloads within a couple of months.

So, practically, what should you think about when making a narrative game?

Start with a good story

This probably means that, unless you’re working with (or are) a very gifted writer, you shouldn’t make a choose-your-own-adventure. Branching narratives are flipping difficult because you need to write 100 good stories instead of one. A good linear story is more than difficult enough for most.

Telltale’s recent titles have all started with big, established storyworlds: The Walking Dead, the Fable’s comic series and now Game of Thrones all have solid narrative foundations to build upon.

Think about your game’s Attention Shape

A hat tip to Matt Locke on this one.

What are you demanding from your player, and what are you offering in return? The bigger the demand, the more you need to offer.

Part of the reason that narrative games are such a niche, certainly when compared to casual games, is the pattern of play which they typically demand.

Telling a good story requires a certain degree of focussed attention from the reader/player/watcher/listener. It’s generally a single-focus activity over a sustained duration in order that the desired ‘flow’ can be reached.

They’re not games you play on the sofa while flicking your eyes to Homelandwaiting for that dull Dana subplot to finish.

When playtesting Papa Sangre 2, for instance, I found it best enjoyed while sat on a wheelie chair in a dark room (wearing headphones is compulsory). This, perhaps unsurprisingly, made me look a little odd.

Similarly, you can’t listen to your own music while you’re playing DEVICE 6 and need to spin your device end on end throughout (which can also look a tad peculiar).

These narrative games are unapologetically demanding, but I’d argue they make up for it by the experience they offer to players.

Consider your storytelling toolkit

You’re on a connected mobile device that can detect location and orientation, has a microphone, a camera, haptic feedback, the ability to play video, text and audio, and run a bunch of logic, etc.

Shakespeare only had a quill and a bit of paper. Now, give yourself some specific constraints: pick a few of those tools and stick with them.

Will you reinvent the novel like Simogo? Make a video game with no video? Reboot a 30 year old gamebook for the iPad? Hopefully you’ll do something we’ve never seen before.

Now, add the ‘game’ bit

As a very tall person once argued, successful gamification is really the process of adding non-game elements to games. It similarly seems that the most effective narrative games are those that take a story and add game elements to it, rather than the other way around.

It’s worth being ruthless, and to stop adding new mechanics before you think you need to. This is exactly Inkle’s approach with the Sorcery series, taking a light touch in Sorcery 2 and even lighter touch in the first.

Combat in Sorcery!

What’s your story’s story? 

I’m not talking about your game’s story here, but rather your marketing story.

This applies for any game, but given that you know you’re only going to appeal to a specific niche, you can look at targeting your message more precisely to the particular outlets, reviewers and communities that have demonstrated a passion or appetite for similar titles in the past.

What will make your title stand out?

Is it your studio’s credibility and reputation for innovation (Simogo), having a big name attached (Sean Bean was the lead voice in Papa Sangre 2), working with an existing IP (Steve Jackson’s gamebooks for Inkle, everything Telltale’s done recently), or something else?

That’s it!

Now, the selfish bit: I’d love to know your recommendations for other great narrative games for iOS – I’ve got a week over Christmas where I’m planning to play little else…


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