Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational individuals from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Lena Falkenhagen, Narrative Director, Novelist and Game Writer. She speaks about adapting storytelling for games versus novels, emphasizes media analysis, dramatic structures, and personal perspectives in teaching, and highlights balancing player agency with predefined narratives for immersive games. Read more about Lena in this interview:
Hi Lena! Your versatility in writing spans across various genres, from modern literature to historical fiction. How do you approach the creative process differently when crafting narratives for games compared to traditional novels, and what unique challenges and joys does each medium bring to your storytelling?

Stories usually have to adapt to the medium you’re telling them in, and to external factors. If you want to sell a concept for a book to a publishing company, you need an outline of what you’re going to write. But then, in the writing process, you can err from the script, because the novel only has to function in itself. A game needs a lot of structure and preplanning because you’re working in a team. If you go and try to find the story in the making, a lot of people have to wait for you, twiddling their thumbs.

That being said, a lot of game studios use the 1-3-2-method, as I like to call it. You concept the story in preproduction, and in production, you build the beginning of the game first, the end second, and the middle third. Then you go over everything again to smooth all parts together. You never want to build the end at the end of production, because then, time and ressources are scarce. You want a perfect beginning and a perfect ending.

In a book, you usually work chronologically, because you have more insight into the characters mentality and way of thinking. This needs to be a continuous development, otherwise the character will have breaks and gaps in their growth process. So, in novels, I usually pre-plan what I’m going to do, and then I have to let the outline go and find the way that makes sense for the characters in the story. Because sometimes, you plan things that just don’t work for a character.

Your passion for writing extends to teaching game design at university. What key insights or principles do you emphasize when guiding the next generation of game designers, and how do you inspire them to explore unconventional and thought-provoking narratives?

I have three principles that I teach and that I find highly important for anybody, but especially for narrative designers.

First, it’s learning to analyze any media. Looking at different levels of techniques and mechanics to tell a story, for example. In a movie, you could differentiate lighting and contrast from camera perspective, from cuts and omissions to different layers of story. In a game, mechanics and indexical storytelling and how games achieve to tell a non-linear story would be among these things. And how all different levels (narrative, gameplay, art, music) tell the same story (hopefully).If you can analyze media, you can find out what works and what doesn’t – or how you can break expectations and find something new.

Secondly, I teach dramatic structures. I start with linear dramatic structures (3/5-act structures, 7-plot-points, you name them), and then find the linearity in their non-linear fiction. Sounds wrong? I think that every player follows their own linearity. And then I teach them that a „narrative“ is not only ‚story‘. A narrative is resonant in all levels a player sees in a game: world building, non-player characters you meet and interact with; sound, art, and of course gameplay. So, for a lot of games, all of these aspects need to grip into each other to create a working, compelling, immersive experience.

Thirdly, I try to help students find their own perspective on what’s happening in our society. I firmly believe that if five people read the same outline and go away and make games from them, they will make five totally different games, because every one of them brings their set of experiences, their view on the world, and on people.

This is living diversity, living art through the eyes of the designers. And yes, art and design sometimes seem to happen at different ends of the same process, but I think that with game design, you need both.

How do you strike a balance between providing players with agency and guiding them through a predefined story? What techniques do you find effective in ensuring an immersive and emotionally resonant gaming experience?

These are actually two very complicated questions. First, I think that a predefined story and agency (as far as games can actually allow for them) don’t have to exclude each other. There are different levels you can offer a player agency: dialogue options that outline your player character’s personality according to your wishes, options that let you decide the path of a certain substory, or which direction to go to next in a level. If you combine a semi-linear story with gameplay that offers agency and creates choices with a meaningful experience, that balance is met.

Secondly, techniques to find an immersive and emotionally resonant gaming experience are many. I usually teach students to find not „just a story“. I try to help them find an authentic, meaningful story that people actually care about. Topics that they might have themselves, that they find worth their time to explore. I teach people to keep the diegesis, the closed garden of the game, believable and interesting.

To find that meaningfulness in a game is not only a matter of narrative, but also of game design, and art. But if you don’t find it in narrative, it usually does not happen. Building meaningful, resonating characters and conflicts in a game is happening over all areas of expertise. Somebody has to find that important and worth the extra effort in the development process. And somebody has to steer that ship. That usually happens in narrative, but other departments might do it, too.

As to emotionally resonant games: to me, this lies in the conflict design. If the conflict of a game or a game world is built in a way that we as players can relate, and the characters in the game mirror that conflict, and are built believable, and then swept away in the conflict as our proxies, the game as a whole usually resonates with us.

So, it is all in the craft of Narrative Design. There are no shortcuts.

Thanks for this interview, Lena!

Lena’s links: LinkedIn, website

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Madeleine Egger