Executive Interview with Morgan Read-Davidson

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Earlier this month, I got to sit down with Morgan Read-Davidson, a professor at Chapman University. Alongside being a professor, he is also known for having written traditional writing, screenplays, and even narrative design for video games. Having been a student in his Writing for Video Games class, I can personally attest to his vast range of knowledge and his ability to discuss nuanced topics such as narrative design.

During our chat, it was fun to dive deep into Read-Davidson’s experience with narrative design, how he views the medium of video games, and what he has taken away from such a subject. But rather than summarize, here are his words from my interview with him.

Kelly Uyemura: Could you give a brief introduction about yourself and your experience with narrative design?

Morgan Read-Davidson: I was a film student and screenwriter, so that was my start with narrative design. I happened to be at a meet-and-greet kind of party in LA in the film industry and met somebody who had a friend there doing an indie game. We talked about games we played, like Morrowind and games like that, and they said they were looking for somebody to help with doing some of the writing. They didn’t say narrative design, but that’s what they meant, like their story. And so, I did some work for them, where I learned about how the background process works, and I did some work for other indie game designers in the same network.

So, I started learning about the way gameplay and narrative design intersect and the difficulties, mainly how you control pace, how you control dramatic tension if the player has the choice to find and discover things or not, and a lot of that was writing things and then testing it, and then talking about that.

I brought to the table my strong understanding of the basic monolith, the hero’s journey. The game they were designing was a discovery-type game, which we would call an emergent narrative as opposed to an embedded narrative. So, I really had to rethink, “How do I help them achieve the narrative beats when it’s all dependent on somebody exploring around in a dungeon-crawler game? How do they discover these beats, and how does that move the story forward?” It is much different from writing a screenplay and having that complete control. That got me into reading a lot of stuff about video games, and I started playing a lot of narrative games, like indie games from Steam, and I was really thinking about how that intersects. Once I began to sort of read the theory behind it and understand the differences and intersections of the narrative theory, which I already knew, and the theory of gameplay and how the two complement each other or, in a lot of cases, they clash, that’s where I started to develop an understanding of how that works. And while I was playing games, I was able to appreciate the way the story was told in those games and start looking at them from an analytical point of view.

KU: You talked about the process a little bit, but if, say, someone were to think of narrative design and then go into it, is there anything that they wouldn’t expect?

MRD: Yeah, I think that if you’re coming into narrative design without experience in designing gameplay and a system, I think there’s a sense of control that you expect to have. And what you have to do when designing for narratives is think, “How do I create a space in which the narrative is going to be experienced either through triggering points where the player is hitting points that you’re anticipating or is going to be discovered and created by the player?” You have to release the control, or expectation of control, and think about how you hand it over to the player. It’s a shift in perspective that I think takes a while to figure out. That’s the biggest surprise.

“How do I give control of the narrative over to the player?” That can be a couple of things. It can be leaving breadcrumbs and clues that the player weaves together. This is also something that can happen in more traditional narratives. If a lot of the narrative in a story is the discovery of a backstory or something that happened, or if you’re purposefully being obscure about information that’s given, then what you’re asking the reader to do, or the viewer in the case of cinematic, is to make those connections themself. They’re constructing and reconstructing a narrative in their head. And I think that happens far more, and is the norm, in a video game. You stop writing in a linear fashion or even in outlines or linear narrative fashion and start writing in maps. You start thinking about what are all of my beats, how they are separate, how are they interconnected, and what are the various ways? What’s the golden path where the player hits all the beats I want them to hit and get the full narrative? What does that look like? What happens if they do other things? What if they do a speedrun or other sidequests, and they do that for a long time? How do they get back into the narrative? How do we ensure the dramatic tension can be dropped and picked up, or do we force it? You have to start viewing it in a math-like or schematic-like structure instead of a linear one, which is not what we’re trained to do as writers. 

Thinking like that has helped me with my narrative design and traditional writing short stories or novels because it makes me think about what are all the things on the table, even if they’re not making it into the narrative. So, they’re implied or hinted at, and I’m giving my readers an opportunity to draw these connections and pick up these backstories and hidden meanings. That’s the shift. Thinking in a schematic or non-linear way as opposed to a linear narrative type of fashion.

KU: Bouncing off of that, you gave a lot of advice for the quirks of narrative design, so what would be your best advice for getting into narrative design as a career? Would it be what you just said or something completely different?

MRD: I think the quickest way to do that is to write branching narratives. It doesn’t have to be in Twine; there are many free tools that will do branching narratives. Practicing that, and thinking and learning how to outline in schematic form for branching narratives. What are the different possibilities? I think an excellent way to get started is to train yourself to think outside the box and then think about how the narrative is told through objects, dialogue options, and stuff like that. Suppose a player character is talking to a non-player character, and they have a lot of dialogue options. In that case, one of those could be finding out more information or a backstory. So, while you can go down a narrative branch that may not have anything to do with the main story spine, what it does is it fleshes out the story or gives a different point of view from the NPC or sets something up and gives you clues for something later. It really is a way of designing something from a schematic point of view. I think that form of narrative design then can complement the stuff you already know, which is the main story beats–how do I have rising action, how do I have pacing that isn’t all action but moves us between high drama and more contemplative or reflective types of moments?

First is practicing writing in branching form, then playing games and analyzing them the same way you would a novel or screenplay for beats. What are the beats in a narrative game or a level? What are the options? How does a player discover those beats? How do we keep the player engaged with the story while having them do other game-related things like collecting items, crafting, etc.? So looking at open-world games, more linear games, puzzle-based games, and walking simulators are great examples. Playing walking simulators is good for seeing how they’re designed because they tend to be linear narratives, but the player has control of the pace. Those are good ways to analyze beats and think about how it works. 

There’s a lot of scholarship and reading out there about branching narratives and the different theories, and I think immersing yourself in that allows you to begin talking in that discourse. That’s really important when you get into a room with game designers because they’re thinking about using certain terminology, so you have to think about whether there are a lot of terminologies that game designers will use that have equivalents in narrative design. Narrative beats and triggers are kind of the same thing, and they’re connected like that. Crossing over something, talking to an NPC, dialogue option, and a certain amount of time has passed are sorts of things game developers are going to code into the gameplay. But that is the equivalent of launching or triggering a story beat. So when we’re writing narrative, specifically traditional narrative, we have a scene that leads up to that story beat. There are certain dialogues or actions that are happening in the linear narrative that are essential for that narrative beat to hit right. We’re trying to find ways to translate that to interactive play. 

Also, playing and designing TTRPGs (table-top role-playing games) is one of the biggest things you can do to start training your brain this way too.

KU: There’s so much freedom there.

MRD: There is! And you’re trying to create a controlled environment in which the players feel like they’re making all the choices and the story is moving through them, but you’re trying to get your story beats to coincide with their choices.

KU: To wrap things up, do you have a fond memory about narrative design for you?

MRD: In general, I really live for the moment in which the work that I’ve been doing ends up leading my brain to an “aha” moment or an epiphany moment, and it feels magical. It’s where novelists will say, “Well, this is where my characters took over and started writing for me,” but that really means we’ve done the background work so that our brains sort of work subconsciously. We suddenly see the puzzle pieces fit together. I have had many of those moments in both my traditional work and narrative design where I’m just moving all the pieces around, and then, suddenly, it clicks, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what needs to happen.” That’s where the characters are going to go, or the surprise comes to mind. I couldn’t consciously think of this until all the pieces were there, and I think that’s a surprising moment.

Actually, my fondest moment was when I designed this particular adventure for my kids, who were maybe six and eleven at the time. There was this antidote to this paralysis poison that a dragon was firing, and I thought I was being very, very tricky with how to make it work. My six-year-old figured it out in like five minutes. I thought that was a really fun moment because I saw it come together, and she figured it out, but it wasn’t that I was overly simplistic; she just happened to do all the right things to figure it out because of her choices. I felt satisfied that they discovered the little trick or twist I put in, and they did it not because it was too easy but because the beats were right, and they happened to hit those beats just right. And that was satisfying and really fun.

KU: That sounds like a lot of fun; I would love it if I ever have a situation like that.

Thank you so much to Morgan Read-Davidson for allowing me to interview him. I had a lot of fun just chatting and discussing video games and narrative design. It’s always a pleasure to discuss the intricacies of video games and the complex writing that goes into them. Such an inspiration and a pleasure to talk with.