What is narrative game design, and how do we work with narrative?


Narrative is the soul of any game. It immerses the player in an invented world and helps them associate with the characters. However, creating an engrossing story that grips the player from the very beginning isn’t easy. You have to pay attention to technical factors and psychological perception, as well as finding a balance between the story and the gameplay.

In this article, we explore what narrative design in games is, what narrative consists of, and how to organize work that creates a gripping game story. Inlingo’s narrative designers Alexey Medov and Evgenia Nekrashevich share their professional experience.

Narrative in games and narrative game design: what are they and what’s the difference?

Narrative in games and narrative game design are connected but different concepts.

Narrative is storytelling, which may comprise several elements concurrently—plot, script, game mechanics, and other tools that help players gain new experiences and immerse themselves in a virtual reality. There are dozens of definitions of narrative, none of which have universal validity—they change from studio to studio. Our view is that narrative is the story that is established in the player’s head by all means available as they play through a video game.

Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo

— At the base level, every story is a biochemical process that occurs in our brains. We perceive reality through stories, interpreting the signals our brain receives and building a picture out of them.  Basically, we tell ourselves a story about ourselves, about the world around us, and about other people. Stories are a part of our nature, and that’s precisely why they work so well and sell so well, including in games.


However, it’s important not to confuse narrative with script or plot. A plotline is most often concerned with one character, conflict, or event. There can be several such lines in a game

Script is a broader concept than plot. The script is a carefully developed document that describes absolutely everything that will happen in the game, in precise order and with all details. It is required to structure information and present it in a format that is easy to use for the entire team. The script is the basis on which cutscenes are drawn, a boss’s behavior is coded, facial animation is developed, and much more. 

Narrative includes plot, script, game mechanics, story, and visual elements. These are all tools that help give the player a particular game experience.

Narrative game design is the process of creating narrative and integrating it into a game. It encompasses plot development, the creation of characters, the scripting of dialogues and texts, and work on the way the story interacts with the game mechanics. 

Narrative designers work to ensure that the story and gameplay mesh together to create an organic, exciting gaming experience. They employ their knowledge of the psychology of perception to keep the player engaged and make their choices meaningful.

The difference between narrative and narrative game design:

  • Narrative is the plot and story of the game—what players perceive during the gaming process.
  • Narrative game design is the creation of this narrative and its integration in the game.

Is a game’s narrative just text?

No. Furthermore, text is never the most important element in narrative design. The story is also told through graphics, gameplay, and other means by which the player’s experience of the story is simulated. 

Sometimes, a game can have no text whatsoever and still tell an interesting story. It is also possible to have a video game with text, but without any unified, pre-planned story—this can be left to the player’s imagination. Nonetheless, there will be narrative.

Alexey Medov, narrative designer at Inlingo:

— You can make games without telling a story. These games are based exclusively on game mechanics, or even a single mechanic. Projects like this can be extremely popular. Take, for example, Flappy Bird. The game has absolutely no text, but there is still narrative, if you take the concept in its broadest sense. It is expressed in the dissonance between the utterly basic, amateur graphics and the extreme difficulty of the game. It’s a method that evokes extreme emotions. Flappy Bird isn’t a story in the strictest sense of the word, but it does provoke a powerful and unambiguous response.

What does narrative in games consist of?

As a rule, narrative comprises setting, characters, themes, and conflict. Furthermore, conflict is the most important element. It allows the characters to develop, and the player to empathize with them. However, there are no mandatory elements to narrative. You can tell a story in all sorts of different ways: via text, cutscenes, dialogue, game mechanics, and setting. 

The games themselves can also be very different: some put the emphasis on exciting mechanics, while others focus on the visual aesthetics of the game. The role and importance of narrative also vary from genre to genre.


Two fundamentally different projects in terms of narrative: The Witcher, which has huge amounts of text in different forms, and Limbo, where the story is conveyed through gameplay and environment

How is the structure of game plots developed?  

If we’re talking about plot-based games, then the structure of the storytelling can be linear or nonlinear/branching. In the first case, the sequence of events is decided in advance by the scriptwriter. That kind of story is easier to control, but it has no flexibility. The player has no way of influencing what happens, although you can create the sense that their actions push the story forward. 

The cornerstone of nonlinear storytelling is choice. Depending on the player’s decisions, the story will develop differently and lead to very different outcomes. Nonetheless, the plotlines can converge at places where, according to the authors’ plan, something has to happen. There may also be various endings, or just one. Of course, if the story ends the same way no matter what, the player may get the impression that their choice doesn’t affect anything. 

A good example is Mass Effect 3, where the final choice ignores the player’s previous storyline decisions and seriously reduces the significance of many hours of gameplay.

How do genre and target audience affect narrative?

Alexey Medov, narrative designer at Inlingo:

— There are logical rules that you should stick to: it’s unlikely that a complicated ethical decision will be suitable in casual games, where people spend a short time on each session and are expecting simple entertainment, or in games for children. Genre also dictates timing, and thus the complexity of the narrative, its tempo, the player’s influence on the plot, and much more. Linear gameplay in a shooter? Fine. Linear gameplay in an RPG? Bad call.

Who creates narrative in games?

Narrative teams can vary considerably depending on the game studio and on the scale and budget of a particular project. Narrative teams vary massively from company to company. The composition of the team depends on the scale and budget of the game

Sometimes the game designer will take on the role of narrative designer and also act as the scriptwriter. Other times, the scriptwriter, the game designer, and the narrative designer are different people, each of whom is responsible for a specific part of the work.

Depending on the size of the game and on the quantity of storytelling elements within it, several scriptwriters and narrative designers may be required to work simultaneously. Sometimes famous authors are employed in the role—their involvement raises the game’s profile. For example, George R. R. Martin, author of the cult series A Song of Ice and Fire (which Game of Thrones was based on) was engaged as the scriptwriter for Elden Ring.

Ideally, storytelling should be inseparable from gameplay, and therefore the narrative designers should work directly with artists, game designers, and the whole development team. It’s important that the graphics, the setting, and the characters’ looks underline and add detail to the story. Narrative is also intrinsic to the game mechanics, level design, and other aspects of a video game.

What do you need to work on narrative?

In terms of technology, a text editor or a spreadsheet is sometimes enough. At a more advanced level or for larger and more complex projects, specialist software like Articy Draft is used. The most important thing is to be able to record your ideas, systemize them, and make them available to the team.

What working in Articy Draft looks like. Source: Articy Draft official website

As far as education is concerned, a background in languages, screenwriting, or similar is useful for narrative designers. It helps them present their ideas fluently and understand the principles of structuring a story. Overall, however, what you’ve watched and what you’ve played are far more important for working on narrative. It’s not unusual for narrative designers to come out of game design, with a technical background but a huge weight of knowledge concerning how video games are structured.

How is work on narrative in games organized?

At Inlingo, a team is selected individually for each project depending on the client’s requirements. Normally, you have one or more scriptwriters working on a project. They develop plotlines and then bring them together in one big story—or narrative. Literary editors are responsible for the logic of the storytelling, the stylistic coherency, and for making sure the text meets technical specifications. Project managers handle communications with the client, deadlines, and sending corrections. 

The first and most important stage of the work is discussing the task with the client. It’s important to understand how they see their game and what result has to be achieved. The specifics of the genre and subject matter, and the client’s preferences in terms of style and deadlines are discussed. The team also receives references from the client, as well as links to any materials that may help create the story.

The results of these discussions are detailed design documents—instructions and style guides that lay out the main decisions, commentary, and the client’s preferences. This is what guides the narrative designers when they are writing the text.

Once ready, the materials are passed to the literary editors, who ensure that the finished product corresponds to the client’s expectations. The text is then sent to the client for approval. Based on the feedback obtained, adjustments are made not just to the text itself, but also to the instructions the authors are using. 

Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo:

— It’s perfectly normal for the text to be rewritten several times. The process of developing game narrative is always very fluid. When the concept that is established at the outset remains unchanged at the time of release—that’s a rarity. With the majority of projects, changes are made throughout the development process. The final game is a “collage” of trial, error, and a huge number of compromises. You need to take an understanding attitude to this and be sensitive to the client’s needs.

How do you construct narrative effectively?

Narrative design relies on the psychology of perception and attention. Knowledge of these functions allows you to keep the player engaged and helps them associate with the characters. The human brain loves emotions. Using game mechanics and media, we can experience emotions safely, which satisfies a whole range of internal psychological needs. 

An understanding of the foundations of psychology allows a narrative designer to arouse a whole spectrum of varied emotions in the player. One of the key mechanisms is understanding the nature of conflicts. Evolution and the fight for survival have ensured that, when a conflict arises near us, we immediately focus all our attention on it. Our empathy also comes into play, and that’s an important factor in engagement.

The second factor that should be considered in the process of working on narrative is agency. Players like to feel that they can influence the plot, that the fates of the characters and the outcome of events depend on their decisions. This is an aspect that makes games different from other types of media, like books or TV series. 

Furthermore, it is important not to overwhelm the player and to choose the correct means of expression for storytelling

Evgenia Nekrashevich, narrative designer at Inlingo:

Our brain is quite a lazy machine. It prefers not to process large volumes of information or long texts. That’s why in games it’s so important to stick to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” You show the player the ears of a tiger, not the tiger itself, and allow their brain to fill in the rest. That’s what the brain is good at and loves doing. 

There is one other psychological factor that has to be considered, and that’s ludonarrative dissonance. This is a phenomenon where the mechanics of the game conflict with the plot or the established lore of the world. Imagine that you have a peace-loving character in front of you who thinks everyone deserves a shot at redemption. Then suddenly, without any justification in the plot, they start mercilessly torching their enemies with fireballs. It turns out the character was assigned to the combat class, so the game mechanic diverged from the scriptwriter’s intent for the character. 

If, up until that moment, everything went smoothly, then the player was able to suspend their disbelief and their psyche was able to temporarily suppress critical thinking, so that they perceive the invented world as real. As soon as inconsistency creeps into the narrative and a character acts in a way that doesn’t conform to the logic of the world, disbelief returns in full and engagement is rapidly reduced. That’s why you need to understand which conventions of the game a player can accept, and which will be very hard to sell.

How do you know if the narrative is working well?

Narrative isn’t tested independently, only in conjunction with the other aspects of the game at the relevant stage of development. For example, at the soft launch stage, various metrics are assessed—the number of downloads and installations of the game, engagement, length of playing session, number of active users, and the amount of time spent in the game. On the basis of this data, the developers decide which elements of the game should be replaced or improved. The script can also change. For example, if the developers notice that the majority of players grow tired and quit the game at one and the same place, changes are necessary. 

The entertainment value of the storytelling for the player can also be assessed using A/B testing, where the A group gets one line of plot development, and the B group a different one. When the test is finished, you can use metrics to assess which aspects worked better and were more engaging for players. Thus, in the future, you can use them more often. 

Depending on the composition of the team, at intermediate stages the result may be assessed by the head narrative designer or even the game designer. Within the development team, the final word on narrative in a game rests with the product owner or the producer. If they approve the final variant of storytelling, that means the players will soon be able to dive into this new world.

What experience does Inlingo have in narrative game design?

Since 2012, we at Inlingo have been creating engaging stories and characters for computer and mobile games. We have worked on the narrative of more than 2,500 games in different genres—RPG, adventure, action, etc.

The creation of narrative begins with our designers establishing the characters. They dive into the motivations and personalities of the characters, then track the development of their story arcs. The aim is to create living, multifaceted protagonists that the player can feel connected to.

Narrative development starts with our designers thoroughly establishing the characters. They dive into the motivations and personalities of the characters, then track the development of their story arcs. The aim is to create living, multifaceted protagonists that the player can build an emotional connection with.

Furthermore, our narrative designers work closely with the developers to integrate the story perfectly into the gameplay, graphics, and sound. This kind of integrated approach means that gamers can fully immerse themselves in the reality of the game.

Do you want your game to hook players with interesting storytelling? Tell us about your project and we will contact you to discuss the details.