5 Things I learned From Games Narrative Designer Isaac Phoenix

Thursday 25 June 2020

Today's interview is with Isaac Phoenix, a narrative designer and an expert in transmedia world design. It’s Isaac’s belief that games are one of the best forms of storytelling due to the synergy between design, art, script, music, motifs, mechanics and more. All of these elements have to come together in order to create a truly immersive experience.

So, if you're interested in the world of gaming/how to establish a career much like Isaac's, then carry on reading to find out what tips he had to share with my wonderful guest contributor Emma Pullar!

  1. What is a narrative designer? 

To put it bluntly, it is someone who designs the narrative.  Now this includes the usual such as coming up with a high concept and writing the story, characters, and character scripts, but storytelling is in all parts of a story. 

A book has text, but also descriptive language and subtext.  A movie has visuals and music, and a game has all of this, as well as mechanics and choice.

As a narrative designer I have to make sure that the story is great, that the art and design supports the story, that the characters line up with and push the story forward, that the music reinforces the characters and their struggles, and that the mechanics, from the movement to the combat and everything in between, help tell that story through character and tone. 

As a narrative designer, your background is in writing, but you need to be familiar with everything else.

2. How did you start out and what tips can you offer to someone interested in getting into this line of work?

I started out just helping friends and studying in high school.  Eventually I took on a few contract jobs and some revenue sharing work.  Narrative design is everywhere.  It is not just in games, but also in marketing, and product design which I did a small amount of.  I did not have time for college, so I got lucky running into the people that I did.  It was with some of these people that I was able to pursue my dream of being a Game Narrative Designer.

If I were to give advice I would say go to college. During your time in high school and college learn everything you can.  While you're getting your official education through college, backup your learning with stuff like YouTube.  That is not a joke.  YouTube has taught me a ton. 

The internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time, you just have to get through all the bread headed cat videos to figure that out.  Once you do though, the information out there is invaluable and easy to digest.

Then, while you're in college and your bills are covered by loans or a job, take every spare hour you have and make projects.  Your education will get your resume in the door, but it is your projects that will get people to look at your resume. Lastly, and this is essential, make connections. What you know will keep you in a job, but who you know is what will get you a job.  Be friendly with everyone.  If a friend gets a job, they may recommend you.  If you're connected to someone online, they may know your work.  In short, get your education, create a portfolio, and stay connected.

3. What are ‘The Three Dimensions of Writing’?

While your creativity flows, you don't want anything to stifle that.  When you're being creative you are being inspired by your own life and the life around you.  During this process it is imperative that you go outside.  Nature is crazy creative and it will help you do more original work.  Take walks during the creative process.  Look through Google Earth.  Foreign cultures are just that, foreign, and great sources of inspiration.  The world gets smaller every day and as great as that is, and as cool as it is that we are able to adopt and celebrate the many cultures around us, I fear for creativity when the world gets too small.  Till that day though, study foriegn culture. 

Ok, it is ridiculous analogy time.  So writing is a lot like baking a cake.  The things you come up with are the ingredients to your story and mixing them together is gonna create an amazing world and characters.  However it isn't a cake till you bake it in a mold.  The best cakes have these molds to create a dessert that taste great, but also looks great.  The Three Dimensions of Writing are my mold.  I take all my creativity and make sure they fit within my rules laid forth here.

I named it the Three Dimensions because A) there are three, maybe I need to find a less creative field, and B) people want three dimensional stories and characters so this is how I create them.

I could go over the entire thing, but the short version is this:

Step 1: Every writer needs to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  It is done by Joseph Campbell who essentially breaks down why the oldest and most popular stories were the most popular stories and why they resonate today.  It is a deep book and to get the most out of it, you must take it as figuratively as you would literally.  So yeah step one is stolen, however, there is a reason. 

Many famous storytellers have gone through Campbells book, George Lucas being one of the biggest names, but another man, Dan Harmon, famous for his work on television shows like Community and Rick and Morty, took the concept and simplified it.  In some cases it is too simplified, and in others, Campbells is too complicated.  I believe that to understand the Monomyth and use it perfectly, it is important to understand both of these interpretations, and as many interpretations of the monomyth as possible.

Step 3: I will come back to step two I promise, but since I admit the theft of step one, I might as well get this over with here too.  Pacing is a term you will hear in writing.  I heard it everywhere, but I never truly understood it until I looked more into Shakespear.  Before Campbell, Shakespear created what is the first Writing Theory.  It was the 3 act structure.  With the monomyth I don't believe we really need the 3 act structure as a writing guide, however, I realized the 3 act structure was just a huge pacing curve.  So I combined them.  I was able to use the three act structure to map out the pacing curve and apply it to every bit of my stories.  This is important as pacing out your story is what is going to keep your audience engaged.  For the game designers out there, it is just like pacing out your Differences in Kind.

Step 2: Ok so this one is completely mine.  So if you find flaws in my theory, this is probably the place where they pop up.  While I studied writing there was a ton to learn.  As a game designer I already had a ton to memorise in the field of game design.  So memorising everything that had to do with writing was a challenge.  I have three children and had their names memorised till the third one came around and now I can’t remember any of them.  However there were four words that popped up again and again and again.  They were active, reactive, internal, and external.  I put together a chart with these words and applied them to every level of storytelling. 

I divide my stories into the World, the Character, and the Story, and then divide it into levels: the Act, the Segment, the Scene, and the Beat.  Each of these 7 segments has these four words applied to them in different ways.  When you hear of second act fatigue, this is what gets me through it. 

At no point do I ever have to question what happens in a story next because this always points me in the direction of where I need my characters to go.

4. How do manage to juggle the demands of raising three children with being a writer/gamer?

This is going to sound crazy, but in many ways these are the same thing.  I believe in writing that the world creates the character, that the character pushes the story, and that the story changes the world.

As parents, we are our children's world.  The children push the story that changes us.  As the story continues friends and the outside world become a part of their world, impacting them.  They have their story that changes them as well as us, their friends, and the outside world as they also have an impact on others.  Eventually as parents, we no longer are a part of their world.  That doesn’t mean you don’t interact with your children, but you are no longer what creates and molds them.  No one ever really stops growing, but the world around them that influences that growth does change.

All I can do as a parent is push them in the right direction, and while writing may seem like you have full control over characters, unlike parenting, that isn’t really true.  Once your creativity flows, it takes on a will of its own from your own memories and experiences.

We have had a string of medical mishaps.  My wife had thyroid cancer years ago, and while she is completely in remission she still takes medication for it.  Then we had a child with a severe heart condition, again she is completely fine, but there are lasting effects.  My wife also had a brain tumor that was removed and she now takes medications for that.  These things in our lives have shaped all of our stories, the experiences have shaped my writing, and I hope my writings will one day shape other people's lives.  Stories and cyclical, and so is life.

However, if you're talking about how I handle all of it, I don’t.  It is chaos and yet somehow things turn out ok.  I think the reason for that is the same reason working on a game design team usually ends up ok.  Yeah there is chaos, but you're never alone.

5. What projects are you currently working on and what is your favourite part of being a narrative designer.

Creativity is fuelled by inspiration.  Long ago we had the slower combat but beautifully narrated titles of the Asian countries, while the West worked on the narratively simple, but mechanically awesome games.  As gaming has become….more, we have been able to enjoy all sorts of titles from all over the world.  This then inspires us to do something more, like Mass Effect, a game that combines the real time combat with choice based narrative.

I am currently working on two titles right now.  Both of them are for the mobile phone.  I love developing for the smartphone.  The GPS, the accelerometer, the camera, so many great toys in one little package.  The first one should be out now, and is based on the Covid-19 outbreak.  The title is called CV, which stands for the CoronaVirus, but also for Curriculum Vitae, meaning course of life, something this virus has changed for a great many people.  It is a game with no text, and depends almost entirely on the mechanics to tell the story.

I can’t say much for now, but I am also working on a choice based narrative title with real time combat mechanics.  It is designed to grab the best pieces of great games that have inspired me to create and as a love letter to the developers of those games, show my gratitude to them, and hopefully inspire the next generation of game developers.  This is a game that I want to play, and as much fun as it is to make, I don’t get the joy of playing it for the first time. 

So I really hope it inspires others to make similar games with amazing stories for me to enjoy, like I hope the developers of the games I love, enjoy my title as well.  

Emma Pullar is a bestselling and award-winning writer of dark fiction and children’s books. She also dabbles in screenwriting.

You can find Emma on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook or lurking in the shadows, spying on people in the name of inspiration and creativity. www.emmapullar.com

1 comment

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