When you think of epic stories, what comes to mind?
If you’re in a western culture, it might be a name. Odysseus. Don Quixote. Harry Potter. Over centuries, westerners have clung to the idea of a hero: a central character who undergoes a compelling internal journey concurrent with an external one, whose story might be peppered with elements like battles, skills, escapes, and romances. Those external actions may turn pages, but it's the internal components—the protagonist's quests to learn who and what she or he is—that make the story so resonant.
Now, imagine you're working on a narrative game design inspired by that central concept of self-discovery. The theme may be wildly popular in western cultures. But how will your game story concept perform in China, for example, which values cultural unity over individual character development? How can you create a successful interactive story for a culture that doesn't value that central question: what does the character want?
"That's the first thing you ask when you're evaluating a story, typically," says Kendall Davis, Senior Narrative Designer at Lionbridge Game Services (LGS). "That's a really interesting thing culturally—because it's an individual aspiration, which is why we end up identifying with characters. But that sort of experience is not native to every culture, and it creates a really interesting problem for the narrative game designer and video game publisher to solve."
As part of the LGS Narrative Design team, Kendall is tasked with solving that problem for interactive media clients who don't just want their games to survive in other cultures—they want them to thrive.
Narrative game design for global audiences
In the game development process, narrative game design defines the game’s story structure and core emotional elements including theme, plot, character, and dialogue. Global adaption of narrative design ensures the emotional core of a story and character resonate with any player worldwide.
When a game studio has a video game that's successful in one locale, it's up to LGS Narrative Design 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 have a conversation with the game developers and try to understand what about their narrative story has been successful," says Kendall. "There's always a theme or experience in interactive storytelling that can transcend cultural barriers, and it's our job to figure out what that is. We need to understand what's unique about the client's dialogue and gameplay and help those elements shine, no matter where the player lives."
The art and science of storytelling
Translation and game localization - is both a science and an art. "Storytelling as an art form is poorly understood," explains Kendall. "How do you get people to understand the reasons why a story is successful? It's because of elements that are placed there by the writer. You can derive best practices by studying the best stories. But you don't want to copy them; you want to understand the mechanics of what makes them work."
At Lionbridge, we weave the art and science of globalization into a seamless tapestry for our clients in the video and mobile games industry. Game developers benefit from LGS' technical translation expertise—and its ongoing commitment to understanding the core elements of engaging story from country to country and culture to culture. And they benefit from something else, something more intangible: a deep love and appreciation for interactive game writing.
"I would do this stuff for free," says Kendall. "I love telling a story, I love creative writing, I love to play video games. I think game design as narrative is really exciting."