Narratives connect the player to the world and greatly drive immersion and provide purpose for mechanics.
Approaching Narrative Design
One approach to create a game narrative is to identify core gameplay and key mechanics then drive narrative based on the expected play. With these elements identified, a designer or writer has a solid understanding of what boundaries and limitations exist and the narrative supports gameplay.
This isn’t always the approach, however, as some games often place narrative first and develop mechanics and gameplay second. This has inherent risk because if the narrative is weak the entire game will be weak - all mechanics and major gameplay is focused on driving narrative.
So which comes first? The answer is dependent upon the type of game and user experience that the team wants to create.
Creating a World
Once the needed complexity of narrative is defined, the real creative fun can start! The first step to creating an immersive world is to define as much as possible about the world such as characters, setting, conflict/plot, etc. Understanding everything there is about the world such as character motivations and key points of conflict will help translate the experience to the players.
The tricky thing with games is that, unlike passive forms of media such as novels and television, almost all narrative components should come through player interaction. Yes, cutscenes work - but they are often disliked and skipped over and add significant cost to development time. A better approach is to figure out how to segment each ingredient of the narrative into an area of the game reserving core must-know details into main loops and additional content into secondary loops.
Everything in the game communicates a message to the player - from terrain to a small set pieces such as a broken wagon. The more endogenous with gameplay an element is, the stronger the narrative message; however, overloading any core loop with content will overwhelm the player. Everyone has played games where a massive wall of text provides the entire backstory - that’s way too much information! Let’s take a look at how information can be spread out over several gameplay loops:
Suppose a player must break down a castle wall with a dragon insignia. It becomes clear that the player has a conflict with the owner of the castle who has some kind of association with dragons.
Rather than have an NPC provide the history of the conflict, we can spread further information about the conflict over several loops.
Suppose destroying a minion from the castle drops a Dragon Sword. The player examines the sword in their inventory and discovers that it was forged 10,000 years ago but needs Dragon Blood and a Dragon’s Tooth to craft into an Enchanted Dragon Sword. The player completes the quest for each item and gains a little bit more knowledge with each successive achievement until eventually discovering the entire backstory of the castle’s owner.
Narrative design is often hotly contested among development teams. Some games believe narrative doesn’t add more than just development time while those that effectively execute on it’s potential provide stronger rewards for continued play. The real risk is for developers that put narrative before the experience - walls of text and long cutscenes belong in books and movies respectively.
There is no right or wrong answer to crafting narratives so long as it results in an improved gameplay experience.