The Art of LiveOps: Tom Abernathy talks narrative design

Award-winning narrative director Tom Abernathy lays out for us how narrative functions within games, and why it’s so much more important than most people realize.

January 31, 2023
Hero image for The Art of LiveOps reheat post with Tom Abernathy

The Art of LiveOps podcast provides an in-depth perspective on modern game development, with each episode finding host Crystin Cox (and sometimes former co-host James Gwertzman) interviewing a game development professional in the industry who can provide insight into what make a successful LiveOps strategy. As the team prepares to continue their journey through the world of LiveOps with a new season of The Art of LiveOps, we thought this would be the perfect time to take a look back at some of the highlights from the last few years.

Game narrative is far more than just words and cinematic sequences. In this episode of The Art of LiveOps, award-winning narrative director Tom Abernathy lays out for us how narrative functions within games, and why it’s so much more important—and more omnipresent—than most people realize. Given his experience writing for games like Halo: ReachLeague of Legends, and The Division, he knows what it takes to craft a compelling story that will keep players coming back for more.

If you’re interested in checking it out, visit this episode’s page on Buzzsprout. We’ve also included some quotes from the episode below to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

On what narrative design is as a discipline:

“Narrative as a discipline basically is ... not about words or text, which is a thing a lot of people misunderstand. It's about two things. Primarily, it's about context and it's about meaning. What I mean by that, basically, is that narrative creates the contextualization in partnership with other disciplines, the contextualization of the experience, and then minds and articulates and expresses and hopefully makes a way for the player to share in the meaning that hopefully arises from that context and that experience.”

On how narrative design fits into game development:

“We look for meaning. We know that about the human mind. It looks for patterns. It looks for meaning. It does not want to believe that chaos is just chaos. It wants to believe that things mean something. We feel, I think, if we're doing it right, that we're the ones principally on any game dev team, for whom that's the job is figuring out what does it all mean? Why am I doing this stuff? Designers are the "what," environment artists are the are in the "where," and designers is the "how." And, well, we're the "why."”

On why writers coming from movies and TV must learn to give up “sequence” for storytelling in games:

“[We] started getting creative and coming up with the idea that you can give people, you can move the story forward without people having to experience things in a certain sequence. That may seem pretty obvious and there's a sense in which it is obvious. I referred earlier to the ways in which when you, as a writer, move from linear media into games, you come to realize that you have to give up some of the tools in your toolkit. Sequence is one of the big ones. Because it's not uncommon in a game that you've got to make things elastic enough that a player can experience them in whatever order. We do it. We don't usually do it in a way that's carrying a lot of water from a storytelling point of view, just because it's hard. Again, that's not how the human brain evolved. We're not used to telling stories in a nonlinear fashion.”

To listen to more episodes, visit the official page for The Art of LiveOps.