Designing a Winning Game Narrative for Every Audience

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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 figure who undergoes a pivotal internal journey concurrent with an external one, which might be peppered with battles, escapes, and romances.  Those external features may turn pages, but it’s the internal components—the protagonist’s quest to learn who and what she or he is—that make the story so resonant.

Now, imagine you’re creating a richly narrative game, predicated on those central components of self-discovery.  That game may be wildly popular in western cultures.  But how will it perform in China, for example, which values cultural unity over individual character development?  How can you create a successful game 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).  “But 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 thing is not native to every culture, and it creates a really interesting problem to solve.”

As part of the LGS Narrative Design team, Kendall is tasked with solving that problem for clients who don’t just want their games to survive in other cultures—they want them to thrive.

When a company has a 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 essence of the original game.

“We have a conversation with the game creator and try to understand what about their game has been successful,” says Kendall.  “There’s something in there 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 game and let those elements shine, while enabling the client to succeed as much as possible.”

Translating and localizing a message—any message—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 author.  You can derive best practices by studying the best stories.  But you don’t want to copy them; you want to understand what makes them work.”

At Lionbridge, we weave the art and science of globalization into a seamless tapestry for our clients.  Gaming clients benefit from LGS’ deep basis of technical translation expertise and its ongoing commitment to understanding the core elements of a successful story from country to country and culture to culture.  And they benefit from something else, something more intangible: a deep love and appreciation for their stories.

“I would do this stuff for free,” says Kendall.  “I love storytelling, I love writing, I love games.  I think [narrative design] is really exciting.”

Learn more about narrative design and the full suite of LGS offerings here.

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