Here are some terms I've heard thrown around while we were talking about game narrative. Some are entirely idiosyncratic to me and my crowd. Others are common.
What are yours?
Something left over from a previous draft that no longer makes sense or
serves its purpose. Narrative cruft.
A single object that exists in the game,
such as a gun, a tree, a beer can. An asset can be easily cloned. Environmental
artists make assets. Narrative folk may write text for assets that have labels.
What’s on the labels of beer cans in this world?
As You Know, Bob
Dialogue that recounts what both characters in the scene already know,
so the player can know it, too.
A compendium of all the information
developers need to make the game. Out of date moments after it is written. The
“narrative bible” might have information about the world story as well
as the characters’ backstories. Once production begins, developers tend to stop
updating the bible, so double check any information you read in it.
It’s helpful if writing a bible to focus on
things that can actually appear in the game rather than Tolkien-stye lore about
the Three Silver Trees of the Greensong. Also, remember that a bible is not player-facing.
Information you wrote in the bible is not in the game until you, or a level
artist, put it in the game using a narrative delivery system.
Laying out the beats of the story, usually in a room (or a virtual
A punchy way to end a scene, providing the energy to jump back into
gameplay. “Needs a button.”
A short movie that interrupts gameplay.
Level designers often hate them because they don’t like anything interrupting
gameplay. May be pre-rendered, in which case it is literally a movie playing in
the middle of the game. Or it may be animated via the game engine using the
character models and environments of the game. Some studios use “cutscene” to
distinguish in-game cinematics from rendered cinematics, but the distinction is
An overused phrase or gimmick. “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t
Anything the player character can use up,
such as health potions, grenades, or food. Usually found in the environment or
bought in stores in-game. If you find yourself in a large room with health
potions and ammo scattered around, expect a boss battle.
Two lines, usually brief, one answering the other. Often used to button
a scene. “I’m a man!” “Nobody’s perfect.” John Rogers calls this “the basic
molecule of script dialogue.”
Ways in which narrative delivery systems
interact with other disciplines. Readables, for example, have almost no
dependencies. They are assets that can be strewn about the environment by the
most junior of level designer, or a narrative designer, or even a writer.
(Gasp.) They don’t require animation. They may not require special art. If they
convey lore about the world, they don’t affect the game’s story. By contrast, a
cinematic has lots of dependencies. It can’t be written until we know what the
story is. It will require animation and possibly mo-capping. An actor has to
record lines, which have to be mixed. Putting cinematics into gameplay
seamlessly can be a person’s whole job on a AAA game.
Downloadable Content (DLC)
Additional content for the game. May have
new maps and tell a completely new story. “DLC” is also what your producer
tells you when they cut the levels you’ve been working on for a year.
What happens when the player character runs
into someone or something. Level designers create and script encounters. If
it’s a dialogue encounter, narrative folks will write the dialogue, Lord
An artist who creates assets that will
appear in the game. They may put them in the game map, if they don’t affect
gameplay; level designers may put them in the map if they do. Narrative folk
work with artists to make sure the environment tells the world story. For
This was once a
grand palace, but now it is covered in weeds. Sprawled here and there on the
floors and benches, servants, courtiers, knights, and ladies sleep dreamlessly.
Narrative descriptions of the game environment, creating a world story,
a mystery, a mood, or anything else that attracts us to play in this world and
makes us care. Each major location in a game might have its own narrative
description, in addition to whatever notes the art director is giving her
A few items laid out in the environment to
tell a story. For example,
A table covered
with playing cards. Two chairs, one fallen backwards. Dried blood spattered on
the cards. A bottle shattered by a bullet. Under the table, a scrap of paper –
on interacting with it, it turns out to be an IOU.
Narrative folk write these descriptions to convey
the world story. Ideally, an environmental scenario uses assets that
already exist, or are already planned for the game. Creating a single asset for
an environmental scenario can take an artist a week, which is expensive. The
sooner you can get these to the environmental artists, the better.
The difference between an environmental
scenario and environmental narrative is just scope. A scenario is a single
collection of assets intended to convey a single idea. Environmental narrative
encompasses everything that conveys what the world is.
Something that only happens once or twice
in the game, or in only one level. Exotic gameplay might be when a level
introduces tightrope-walking as a verb, but there are no tightropes later on in
A way of showing the player the world in
three dimensions as if through the player character’s eyes. The player
character is usually invisible, though sometimes you can see your hands. First
person games are more likely to have a blank main character, so the player
feels like it is them in the game world.
First Person Shooter, or FPS
A first-person 3D game in which you shoot
people in the face.
A logic problem in your story that no one is going to notice until they
get up and go the fridge. Often not worth fixing.
Someone who designs gameplay features,
such as verbs. Features are active on many or all maps, unless they’re exotic.
An early state of a level, before the
environmental art is in. Looks like a bunch of grey boxes. No point arting up a
level before you know if it works.
Hang a Lantern on It
To draw attention to something. If there’s
something you really want the player to know, you hang a lantern on it somehow.
You can sometimes get away with inconsistencies
by hanging a lantern on them. “How come he can fly and we can’t?” So long as
the players know that you know it’s inconsistent, they are more likely to
forgive you than if they think you’re being sloppy or think they’re dumb.
Hat on a Hat
Gilding the lily. Trying to make something stronger or funnier by adding
something else strong or funny, thereby paradoxically weakening it. A hat does
not need a hat on it. A man in a gorilla suit is funny. Give him a clown nose
as well, and you have a hat on a hat. Also known as “gilding the matzah.”
When a character makes an out-of-character and obviously dumb decision, or
acting on misinformation they could clear up in a text message, they are
carrying the idiot ball.
Killing your Darlings
A darling is a bit of narrative you particularly like and are
particularly proud of – but it isn’t actually good for the story as a whole.
You must kill your darlings, as Eudora Welty said.
Setting something up early that will pay off later. Akin to installing
pipes so you can use the sink later.
A hunk of the game map that is loaded into
the consoles or computer’s memory at one time. In Unreal Engine, a level is
usually on a single map. Levels may or may not be apparent to the
player. If levels are separated by loading screens, they will be pretty
obvious, but next generation consoles don’t necessarily need loading screens.
Often a single level designer “owns” or is responsible for a level.
Someone who designs the levels and what
happens in them. Their job is to make gameplay fun. They have to know how the
features of the game – especially the verbs – can work together. They
are known for having a god complex. They create worlds, after all.
What you see on the screen while the
console or computer is putting the level in memory. Usually a still image with
some text. Can be used to remind the player what’s happened so far in the game,
or to reveal some aspect of the world story, or give gameplay hints. The
loading screens for Spec Ops: The Line mock the player, “Do
you feel like a hero yet?”
A Magic Hat is a special power that you
don't explain because the explanation wouldn't actually resolve anything. The
point of magic is that it's magic. You can create lore behind a magic hat (e.g.
the One Ring, Excalibur). What you don't need is a scientific explanation:
were intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the
cells of all living things. In sufficient numbers, they could allow their
symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. Midi-chlorian
counts were blah bitty blah blah blah.
And what gives midi-chlorians this power? Their
magic hats? You're just kicking the can down the road.
Someone on the narrative team who focuses
on getting the content into the game rather than creating the
content. They might place assets into the level map. They might do some
scripting. They work with the level designers to make sure that the gameplay
is, as much as possible, also telling the story of the main character and of
A narrative systems designer defines
narrative delivery systems for the game. In a smaller team, that job might be
folded into narrative design, or even writing.
The dividing line between writers and
narrative designers is blurry, though. Some narrative designers write
player-facing narrative content. Others don’t. Some writers do narrative
design, whether they call it that or not.
A game focused on how the player character
gets from point A to point B.
Something players will experience in the
game. Lore is not player-facing until it appears in a readable, a journal
entry, or an environmental asset such as tavern sign.
An asset that exists to be read. Usually
when you interact with it, you can read some text on a separate screen, for
example as an entry in the player’s journal or inventory. A poster for shaving
lotion that you can read as you ride into town is not considered a readable;
it’s a “decal.” Readables are by far the
cheapest way to get lore into the game. Most developers will not put anything
critical into a readable, since God forbid the player should have to read
Gate 3 bravely puts information useful to the
player in readables. That’s a game design decision.
Run and Jump
Describes a section of traversal in a game. “And here we have a little
run and jump until we get into our first combat encounter.”
Something meaningful in screenwriting contracts and which producers like
to put in their narrative pipeline chart, but isn’t really a thing. Writers may
write a vomit draft, a rough draft, and a first draft. You may get your draft
approved, and eventually recorded. But all the drafts between first draft and
approved draft – why count them? How many changes do you need to make for it to
be a second draft? Every draft should be considered a first draft until it’s
A shoot’em up. A shooter. As opposed
to a beat’em-up, a game focused on melee combat.
The narrative hoops you have to jump
through to set something up dramatically -- e.g. establish that the hero is an
orphan, remind the audience of their psychokinetic abilities, etc. all so it
pays off later. Not that far off from laying pipe, but more of a criticism.
“That’s all just shoe leather.”
Any game focused on shooting NPCs. Game
developers add “in the face” almost instinctually.
As a putdown, dialogue that sounds clever and punchy but has little
A readthrough of all the dialogue scenes. On the first day of rehearsals
for a play, the playwright, director and all the actors would get together and
read the play, sitting down. Our version might be on Zoom, to make it easier to
get actors to participate. Pay the actors if you possibly can. You’re getting
paid, aren’t you?
Taking the Curse Off
When something is cliché or dumb, you may not be able to get rid of it
for reasons. But you can sometimes take the curse off it by twisting it in some
Foreshadowing. Giving the players too heavy a hint where the story will
go. You don’t want to telegraph the punchline to a joke. Comes from sending a
telegraph saying you’re coming, rather than just showing up.
Gameplay focused on getting from here to
there. Narrative audio is traditionally constrained by the assumption that the
player is traversing the level as fast as the game allows them, even though the
player may not be. If the narrative is longer than the minimum traversal time,
you need a game mechanic to prevent narrative audio from stacking up.
A substance that everybody in the science fiction game world wants but
is hard to get. It might be the thing you need to make the best sword, or a
spaceship. In Avatar it is literally
called unobtainium. Very common in fantasy too (e.g. mithril).
Up and Back
When the characters or plot go through action sequences,
dialogue scenes, complications, etc.,, but the story does not progress. You
could cut out an up-and-back and you wouldn’t feel anything is missing.
Any action the player can take in the gameplay,
for example, “walk,” “jump,” or “dodge.” A shooter has specialized verbs
like “shoot,” “take cover” (if it’s a cover shooter), “stealth takedown” (if
stealth is a mechanic), and “throw” (if you can throw grenades or other consumables.)
A platformer might have verbs like “climb,” “mantle” and “use zipline.”
A walking simulator might have “examine.”
The history of the world, as distinct from
what happens during the game. What sort of world we’re in can be as, or more,
important than the player character story. There may be a bible that
defines the world story. It is already hilariously out of date.
A person with a socially acceptable and
occasionally paying addiction. There is no known cure. Often an introvert.