Narrative Game Design for Every Audience

How localization drives global game success

When you think of a good story, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s a beautiful romance or an epic battle. Maybe it’s the quest for self-fulfillment or the pursuit of knowledge. While these tropes are universal human experiences, the ways that we experience them can differ from culture to culture. A character’s journey will keep audiences engaged, but it’s their relatability — how easy it is for a player to put themselves in the character’s shoes — that makes good stories so resonant.

Find out more about game narratives.

Imagine you're working on a fantasy game that takes place in a new and unfamiliar world. You’ve perfected the visuals, written extensive world-building lore, and scored an emotional soundtrack that set your game up to be a one-of-a-kind experience. Your players love exploring the universe you’ve created, but the illusion comes crashing down when a pivotal wedding scene includes bridesmaids. This idea might be innocuous or even expected in some Western demographics, but the concept of bridesmaids is not a universal one.

“I see quite often these writers that have never been to a different country, that don’t speak another language, and that don’t have a bicultural life experience. They see the world from a very rooted point of view and have no clue that what they’re talking about isn’t universal,” says Ji Shin, Senior Narrative Designer at Lionbridge Games. “Little things like that really stick out. To some Western players, this pulls away from the story because it’s unimaginative for you to travel to an alien world and see bridesmaids. For other demographics, this foreign-to-them custom is treated like the status quo without being explained. They feel alienated, and like the content isn’t made for them. Either way, you’re pulling the audience away from your story.”

As part of the Lionbridge Games Narrative Design team, Shin is tasked with identifying these points of contention and working alongside publishers and developers to make sure their games will thrive in multiple markets.

Narrative game design for global audiences

Narrative game design is a part of the game development process in which the creative team defines the game’s story structure and core emotional elements. This is where components like theme, plot, character, and dialogue come to life. Global adaptation of narrative design ensures the emotional core of a story and character resonates with any player worldwide.

When a game studio produces a title that's successful in one locale, it's up to the Lionbridge Games Narrative Design Team to figure out how to differentiate the game in a new market, allowing it to be successful without diluting the creative essence of the original video game story.

“We work very closely with the client to collaborate on what they want to convey versus what the audience is comfortable seeing and what the audience really understands,” says Shin. “We review the material and go to the customer to tell them what issues we found, and if it’s small, we can write around it. For major issues, we keep an open channel of communication because it’s important for the customer to come back to us and explain why they made a certain decision or wrote something in a certain way.”

Shin, along with the rest of the Narrative design team, reverse-engineers problematic content to understand exactly what each scene and character contribute to the story. Once she understands the core elements of the story, she’s able to offer an alternative storytelling device to achieve the desired result.

“Take the bridesmaid example: the core element of a wedding is the coming together of people that love each other. That is a universal human experience — love, and the desire to declare it. To offer themselves to each other. That is one of humanity’s unchanging truths, but the concept of bridesmaids? Not so much. This is where we would help the developers brainstorm the different literary devices they can use to convey this relatable experience in a way that makes sense for the target audience, without cultural norms and expectations hindering the delivery of the core message.”

Diversity and inclusion in game narratives

In addition to big-picture plot points and character tropes, the Narrative Design team tackles more granular components like dialogue and imagery to ensure diversity and inclusion. Un-translatable jokes are rewritten, potentially dangerous signs, symbols, and gestures are altered, and even character names and song titles get thorough consideration.

Shin remarks that it’s especially important to consider marginalized demographics when refining a game’s narrative.

“At the end of the day, if you truly want your game to be the best it can be, you have to look at everything. You want every player to come home and turn on this game, and feel like they’re in a beautiful, fantastical world. If you’re trying to create a game where people can escape and have a good time, you want to make sure they’re not going to get catcalled by an NPC or get a fat joke hurled at them. Humor is important, and we definitely like to spice things up and keep the story interesting, but not at a player’s potential expense.”

The art and science of storytelling

Game translation & localization is both a science and an art. It requires a strong command of more than language, a deep understanding of storytelling mechanics, and an unwavering passion for video games.

At Lionbridge Games, we take a whole-game approach to game translation to deliver experiences that resonate with players all over the globe. Our experts are committed to making sure your game’s visuals, text, and audio content respect local political and cultural sensibilities while telling an engaging story. Backed by the industry expertise of Lionbridge and bolstered by a deep-seated passion for all things games, our Narrative Design Team is here to help you cross cultural borders with confidence.

Learn more about narrative game design and the full suite of offerings at Lionbridge Game Services.

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Abigail Smathers