Interview - Félix Elvis Le Pottier : scénariste et narrative designer

Félix Elvis Le Pottier : writer and narrative designer

The video game industry is full of professions that unfortunately don’t always get the spotlight. While we’re all familiar with the roles of developers or scriptwriters, there are a multitude of other career paths that are just as deserving of the spotlight. That’s the main purpose of these interviews, because we’re keen to highlight all the hands that help make the works we love, and on which we spend so much time. Today, it’s Félix Elvis Le Pottier’s turn to talk to us about his job as a narrative designer, and his experience working for renowned studios such as DON’T NOD and Quantic Dream.

Félix Elvis Le Pottier narrative designer

First of all, could you describe the job of narrative designer in video games and comics? What are the similarities/differences that characterize your job depending on the medium?

Hello! Thank you very much for the invitation.

On the one hand, the job of a narrative designer is to design a game’s narrative mechanics and systems. This means inventing, listing, selecting, describing and sometimes integrating the various ways in which players will have access to the story and the universe. This may involve defining dialogue mechanics (how characters will interact with each other, or with other players), or deciding what types of texts will be read, or on what system quests will be based. From this point of view, it can be considered a branch of game design specializing in narrative.

On the other hand, our job is also to dialogue with everyone on the team to ensure the narrative coherence of all the game’s elements, whatever they may be.

It’s difficult to have a more precise definition, because the role of narrative designer can be very different depending on the project, its size, or the studio in which we work. Sometimes it’s the same person who writes and does the narrative design, sometimes not. Sometimes, the work is divided between several narrative designers. You may specialize in systems, cinematics, dialogue design, quests and so on. It’s a role that has to be defined and reinvented on every project! And that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

My background is in comics, and before that I studied film. I’ve been working in video games for 4 years now, as a writer and narrative designer. When it comes to writing, i.e. the creation of worlds and characters, narrative structure and dialogue writing, there are a lot of similarities between these different media. The overall structure of a game won’t always be linear, but if you zoom in on game chapters, regions or quests, you’ll find common principles in the way you construct the narrative. The same goes for dialogue.

There’s no such thing as a narrative designer in comics, but as a scriptwriter, I always work as part of a team with illustrators. We pool our inspirations, we build the universe together, we think about the details we place in the setting to best convey everything we want to tell. There are a few parallels here too, even though the work of a narrative designer is very specific to video games.

What drew you to video games and Quantic Dream?

I wanted to study video games when I was in high school. Even back then, I was already having fun prototyping games on paper, creating worlds for which I defined the rules. I was also writing for amateur video game creation projects, on forums. But I thought it wasn’t possible to study in this field. It seemed a long way from home, and I was a bit in the dark.

So I enrolled at a film college in Rennes. I loved it, but I still wanted to make video games. Especially as Rennes has the Stunfest, an incredible video game festival that I still go to every year. After a few years writing comics, I got back into this project. I think the trigger was discovering Zelda Breath of the Wild.

I loved that game, and it’s still the one I feel most at home with. I play it to wander around, for the atmosphere, for the freedom to play while remaining who I am. The game lets me progress without forcing me to fight, for example. Or it always gives me enough options so that I don’t need to cut down trees or kill animals. And that mountain? I can climb it if I want, and soar to the horizon. Or stay and listen to a stream, crouched beside a mossy statue. Marvel at the sight of a dragon crossing the clouds, or tiptoe past a monster snoring quietly in a clearing. It’s not necessarily what every game has to offer, at all, but discovering that this freedom and poetry was possible, that it existed, made me fall in love with video games all over again. And then there was the art direction, the music, those environments battered by the elements, the sense of adventure! All in all, it was a very strong inspiration for my work on Jusant.

So I took part in game jams, led storytelling workshops for virtual reality students at the École de design Nantes Atlantique, and came across a job offer from Quantic Dream. They were specifically looking for people from fields other than video games with writing experience. I jumped at the chance.

Félix Elvis Le Pottier narrative designer
Jusant, the next game from DON’T NOD

Where do you seek your inspirations for your work as a narrative designer?

That’s not a simple question, because I draw my inspiration from many different things. First of all, there are the video games that I like the most, particularly those that have changed my vision of what a video game can be. From Monument Valley to the Zelda BoTW I mentioned, via A Short Hike, Firewatch, Journey, Pokemon, Flower, Wide Ocean Big Jacket, Florence, Limbo and Inside…

I’m just as inspired by music as I am by architecture, film, photography, fashion and design in general. I love car design and old trains, for example. Or Renaissance maps, dance in musicals, Italian lighting, the evolution of toilets in space exploration, the aesthetics of motor racing… I haven’t yet worked on a game where this was useful, but I’m not giving up!

But in my work, I try as much as possible to work on sensations, and to do that I’m inspired above all by what I feel in everyday life. What does it feel like in a video game, a cold, dry morning that stings the cheeks? How do you translate the satisfaction of reaching the top of a mountain? The relief of finding shade when you’re in the middle of a heatwave? What is adventure? And how do you break all that down into palpable elements (level design, sound, music, FX, props and environment, lighting, etc.) that add up to make you feel what you want?

In your thread on Twitter, you mention several times that your job requires you to work with all the teams because the narrative is distilled throughout the work. In your experience, on the other hand, how do the narrative and its design influence the other aspects of a video game, particularly its overall design?

Teamwork is another aspect of narrative design that I find fascinating. On all the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve had to work with the whole team, or almost the whole team. For example, a dialogue mechanic is a collaborative effort with the UI (what it’s going to look like, but also how we’re informed that a dialogue can be played, etc.), game design (to define how the interaction will fit in with all the other interactions in the game), sound (if there are voices or onomatopoeia, interaction sound effects), animation, the writer (to write the dialogue), the dev team (to prototype and integrate), localization (because we need to anticipate translation into languages where the number of characters can be very different), the camera team… and then of course the game management, QA, production, art direction, etc. And it’s the same for all the storytelling mechanics! And there’s often a lot of back and forth before it’s approved, and changes to the mechanics during production. So there’s a lot of discussion.

As a narrative designer, I also have to make sure that players understand the universe and its issues, no matter how they play. You can give a lot of information through dialogue or cinematics, but it also comes through the environment, whether it’s through the way the spaces are arranged (level design), their aesthetics (art, enviro), the sounds, the music, the animation… Here again, I have to work with everyone to ensure that the intentions of the game’s directors are conveyed as effectively as possible to the players.

It works the other way round too. My idea of narrative design is that everyone in the team takes part in the storytelling. All the people working on the game have ideas, either as part of their job, in which they are specialists, or more generally for the story, the universe and the characters. Part of my job is to see how they fit in, whether they should be integrated or not. Sometimes you might have to change the game’s narrative to adapt it to a new gameplay mechanic that’s been added along the way, for example. Or we may need to use concept art to enrich or clarify the game’s universe.

How did you discover that writing was a passion for you?

At school, I started writing fan fiction, about Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ratchet and Clank… And then a novel, which I never finished. And more fan fiction in high school, and a thousand ideas for novels I’d barely started. And then game prototypes, film scripts at university, comic books. I’ve never stopped writing since college, in fact.

I did quite a few odd jobs alongside writing in the early years. Fast food waiter, waitress then night manager in a brasserie, cinema usher. I enjoyed it all, but the aim was to make a living from writing.

Interview Félix Elvis Le Pottier narrative designer

What training did you undergo to become a Narrative Designer? Is there any specific training or is it a field in which you can specialise from different disciplines?

I studied film and learnt on the job. There are undoubtedly more effective ways! Having studied something to do with writing or literature can be a plus, but from what I’ve seen, there are all kinds of routes into narrative design. It’s also possible to train first in game design, production, development, QA or any other video game profession, before specialising in narrative design.

In video games, whatever the training, you’re always learning something new. Right now, for example, I’ve signed up for a course on Unreal, because I’m not really independent with it, even though I use it practically every day in my work. But I also read books on narrative design, I read the JV press (Canard PC <3), I watch talks by professionals who share their thoughts and experiences, such as the Mauvais Herbes collective, H’s videos on Youtube, etc.

For people who want to get into the profession, there’s a Discord that exists, with lots of resources and a great community: Design & Narration. It’s by invitation only, but ask me or another ND and it shouldn’t be a problem.

What are the main challenges you face as a Narrative Designer? How do you deal with time and resource constraints?

The biggest challenge I face is communication. As I explained earlier, I have to work with almost everyone. I have to manage to discuss everyone’s work, in relation to the narrative, without encroaching on their skills. It’s a balancing act, and that brings me to the second challenge in my day-to-day life as a narrative designer: I’m not the one drawing, coding, animating or whatever, so a lot of my work is totally dependent on the work of others and their timetables. There are a lot of people to convince, it’s a lot of negotiations, compromises and energy spent. Some things get lost in the shuffle, but every time I succeed it’s a small victory.

After the design stage, at the very beginning, when ideas fly off in all directions, the development of a video game is entirely made up of constraints. It’s very important that I respect the constraints identified by the people in charge of each department (animation, environment, art, etc.), because otherwise we crunch. If I’m told there can’t be more than 10 characters and animals in the whole game, I have to go along with it. If there can only be three different expressions for the characters with whom we have dialogues, it’s up to me to choose them carefully. The texts are due to go into translation in three weeks? So I’m organising myself to write everything, get it approved, and then approved again and again by every level of production between now and then. If we can’t recruit for a particular job, we’ll have to change one of the storytelling mechanics. If we have to cut half the game because we realise we won’t be able to do everything, it’s up to me to rework the whole narrative, without changing what’s already been done, so that it still works. It’s like that throughout the production of a game. But that doesn’t mean you can’t move forward!

It’s up to me to be intelligent and learn to cheat. You always cheat on everything when you’re developing a video game. It’s like a western set, sometimes it’s held together with glue and three pieces of string, but as long as you maintain the illusion, it’s fine! It’s something I’m learning as I go along, because to get round the constraints, you need to know everyone’s jobs as well as possible.

How do you work with other departments during the production of a video game?

I’m going to answer here as both a writer and a narrative designer, because I’ve always worn both hats and my experience is that they mix quite well.

Ideally, I arrive on a project at the beginning of the design stage (at the very start of the project), to co-create the universe with the team. For example, when I arrived on Jusant, they told me the main idea: we were going to climb a vertical world, a sort of immense mountain. I then worked with the team to define the universe, the characters, the reasons for the climb and the main issues underlying the adventure. Then we defined the game’s narrative arc, the different environments (regions, flora and fauna, etc.) that we’d be travelling through and what each one said about our universe. It’s a very interesting stage, on which everything else in the game will be based.

On Jusant, I then worked in tandem with the level designers to imagine each of the regions, and then each location within those regions. How should the space be organised to match the narrative structure of the game, the chapter, the quest? What sensations do we want to convey at what point? Is the location consistent with the universe? Is it densely populated? How do people live there, and what does that imply for the way we’ll be able to get around? What professions predominate, and why? How can we illustrate this with a few key locations?

At the same time, I’m working on narrative mechanics (dialogues, for example). Here too, we need to talk to other departments, because each element of the game is always strongly connected to the others. It has to be a fluid experience for the players, and it has to fit into the production schedule of each of my colleagues!

On Jusant, I soon had a layer dedicated to storytelling in Unreal. It was like a layer where I could put everything directly related to the storytelling mechanics. Letters, shells, posters… But I could also put indications directly in the game universe, like little post-it notes. I work with the environment team when it’s time to dress up the game’s levels (which until now have only been made up of large cubes), with the art team who use the level design to create concepts, and also with the concept artists to come up with objects in the game’s setting (props) that best tell the story of the universe.

Interview Félix Elvis Le Pottier narrative designer

I work with the sound team on a mechanic based on audio, with the game design team to prototype the mechanics I’ve chosen, and with the dev team afterwards to integrate them for real. I work with the animation team on the attitude of the characters and animals, on idles (poses) that illustrate their character or an aspect of the universe, to work on the animation of the dialogue, and so on. Like everyone else, I work a lot with the QA team to make sure that I haven’t made a mistake anywhere, or that changes made by another department haven’t broken anything. Or, conversely, that I hadn’t broken everyone else’s work by making a mistake! I didn’t work directly on Jusant’s cinematics, but I was able to discuss the storyboard for each one. These are just a few examples, but they illustrate what I was able to do during production.

I also wrote all the texts for the game (except the tutorial and some menu texts), managed their integration and translation. I learnt a lot at that point because I’d never worked on translation before, and the game is translated into 10 languages, which is quite a lot. The many exchanges with the translators really helped me improve my writing.

Once the mechanics have been designed and integrated, the texts written and translated, and the game’s environments laid out, all that’s left to do is polish the whole game, work out the bugs, pass the certifications for all the platforms, which have precise quality expectations before a game can be distributed on them, and other things where my presence is no longer necessary. So that’s where I let the team carry on without me!

What aspect of your job as a narrative designer gives you the most pleasure?

I really enjoy working in a team, and I always make great friends with my colleagues. It’s a real pleasure to see their faces every day, even when I’m working from home, and it’s quite something to go through the whole production process of a video game together!

I’m also really excited to see the world we create together take shape little by little. It’s not always easy working in video games, but it’s also full of great moments when you suddenly see a new piece of the jigsaw being added to the rest. You know how much work has gone into it, and there’s always a sort of childlike joy in seeing a new element integrated into the game. It could be the way a character’s outfit moves, a whole new environment added the day before, or a particular FX that’s being tested, an animal design, new music from the person who composed it. Clearly, there’s no shortage of opportunities to be amazed.

You now work freelance. Is this by choice, so that you can work on different projects at the same time, or is it due to the economics of video games and comics?

I haven’t always been freelance in video games, but until now the choice was simple: freelance or fixed-term contract. Both are rather precarious. Being freelance meant I was better paid and there’s a practical side to keeping the same status as when I work in comics. But today I’d prefer to be on a permanent contract, mainly because at the end of my work on Jusant I realised that I wanted to be involved in a studio’s projects for the longer term.

Can you tell us what your writing process is like? And what are the things you do to continue to develop and evolve as a writer?

See the meme of the little girl crying as she tries to draw, in front of a blank page? Or the screenshots from the documentary about Miyazaki despairing in his kitchen? That pretty much sums up my working process.

Hayao Miyazaki

On a more serious note, I often start by coming up with ideas for a world (whether real or fantasy) and an aesthetic. Or a clash, a mix of different aesthetics. I work a lot by collage. I gather together a lot of very different inspirations, photography, music, film… and I try to understand what attracted me to this first idea, the tension that underlies the universe, the common thread. So I try to understand what I’m saying behind these images.

Then come the characters, the places, the atmosphere, the sounds, the light, the point of view. In short, I zoom in as I go along. Sometimes the starting point is a particular scene, which leads me to imagine everything else. But the collage process remains the same. My greatest challenge is always to articulate all this in a narrative structure, the backbone of the story. To achieve this you have to understand perfectly what you’re telling, and above all choose what you’re not going to tell. It’s not easy for me, and that’s also what I like about video games: you can explore several options. Once I’m happy with the structure, it’s off to the races!

For me, writing is a job that you learn to do. You get better with experience, by exchanging ideas with your peers and by taking training courses. The reality of being a writer is that you have to get down in front of your keyboard and write. All day, every day. You can’t rely on sudden inspiration. But it’s like a muscle. The more you write, the easier it gets.

Except that in my work as a narrative designer, there can be long periods when I don’t write at all. Or only documentation. So I try to keep writing on the side, as much for the need to clear my head by immersing myself in another universe as for not getting too rusty. Because once the time comes to write for the production of a video game, you have to be efficient!

How did you start working on Jusant and what were the main challenges for this game?

I found this project after an unsolicited application to DON’T NOD. It’s an exciting studio, so when they called me back for a phone interview, I was super happy (and I was also filling up my car). I took a writing test, which I’d also done for Quantic Dream, and then I moved to Paris to go and work at the studio… the day before the second lockdown. So obviously I didn’t see much of the team. After a year, when the studio decided to offer long-term teleworking to everyone, I moved back to Brittany, where I’d grown up. Living by the sea was a great inspiration for Jusant.

There were a lot of challenges for me, because it was my first real experience as a narrative designer on a complete production. I was on my own to write everything, and to do the narrative design work on top of that. It was a bit tight, but I lacked the experience to fully anticipate the amount of work to be produced. In the end, we succeeded! I learnt how to use Unreal (thanks to my great colleagues), how to manage the translation of a game (again thanks to my colleagues) and how to get to know each other’s work better so that I could come up with more concrete ideas.

Teleworking was a challenge in terms of communication. But I was surrounded by really professional, patient and caring people. So even if producing a game is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, on the whole I’m very happy with my experience.

Do you climb? Was it essential to have an advanced knowledge of this sport in order to carry out your research?

I don’t climb, and the question arose several times of taking the Jusant team to a gym to try it out, but when we were all still in Paris everything was closed because of the COVID (quite rightly). After that, the team dispersed and it was more complicated.

In Jusant, climbing was more the job of the game designers. I worked on everything else! I think it’s important to write about what you know, but you can also use what you know to write about something else. Personally, I was most inspired by hiking. Not so much by climbing as by the mountains themselves. The wide open spaces, the vertigo, the challenge, the physical connection to rock and nature. The wonder, the solitude, the very meditative side.

Do you have any links to good articles or videos that you think could give advice to someone just starting out in this job?

There are a lot of resources available (often in English) for people who are interested in narrative design, or who want to learn more about it. I’ll just mention a few that I use in my work:

The conferences organised by the Mauvaises Herbes collective and the video essays by H, which I’ve already mentioned, are really invaluable for thinking about our games. Don’t hesitate to follow Jon Ingold’s work and his articles or lectures, for example as part of the regular conferences organised by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The GDC videos and other conferences such as Game Camp are a good starting point for tackling a whole range of themes and seeing how others work. The Cinéma et politique YouTube channel is great, even if it’s not about video games, and Stuffed Wombat’s is a very interesting way of thinking about what video games are (as is his blog). The documentary made about Double Fine, PsychOdyssey, is pretty incredible and even though it’s not specifically about narrative design, I learned a lot from it.

There are also books, like Kaitlin Tremblay’s Collaborative Worldbuilding for Video Games and Anna Megill’s The Game Writing Guide.

SAG-AFTRA voted unanimously to extend the right to strike to its members in the video games industry. Do you think this will have an impact on scriptwriters / narrative designers in the video games industry?

I have the impression that what is happening in the USA at the moment is very important. It’s a gigantic tug-of-war between the people who create the value and those who profit from it. The legislation in France is different, but video games is a very international industry and I think the outcome of this fight will have repercussions for workers everywhere.

I don’t know much about the history of trade union struggles in video games, so I hope I’m not talking nonsense. With SAG-AFTRA, I have the impression that the question of the distribution of value is being raised more strongly than before. Who benefits from the sales of a series, a film or a video game? All the actors and actresses in video games, and people working in motion capture (acting, dance, choreography, stunt, etc.) can now join the movement. One of the demands is for a better distribution of royalties from game sales. And if they’re entitled to it, why not the rest of the employees who created the game? I think that’s where there could be some interesting discussions in France too, especially as French studios often call on Anglo-Saxon talent to do the motion capture and voice work for their games.

There are already co-operative studios, in France and elsewhere, where these discussions have been going on for a long time, and where part of the profits are redistributed among all the employees. The SAG-AFTRA movement is interesting because it is highly publicised, because it brings these discussions to the fore, and not just for independent studios.

The strike decided by SAG-AFTRA also concerns the use of generative AI. Their press release on the subject states that SAG-AFTRA is not against their use, but wants it to be remunerated and included in contract negotiations. Personally, I think that the use of generative AI is not a desirable future, whether it is paid for or not.

More generally, how do you position yourself on the subject of Artificial Intelligence? Do you see it as a threat? Or as a promising tool if regulations are put in place quickly?

There are several types of artificial intelligence. A lot of little AIs are created in video games, for example to manage the behaviour of guards in an infiltration game, or to make sure that the characters’ feet land properly on the ground if the ground is not straight. These are essential tools, created by the teams themselves.

Generative AIs (like ChatGPT or DALL-E) are very different. As a writer and narrative designer, I’m going to talk mainly about text-generating AIs. Morally, I’m against them. As summarised by the Ligue des Auteurs Professionnels, generative AIs “operate by making illicit use of content protected under intellectual property law. They pose an extremely worrying threat to authors, rights holders and legitimate rights holders”. To train them, the work of authors and artists was stolen without their consent and without remuneration. Then, to make them work properly, millions of precarious workers are underpaid at the other end of the world to correct the errors. Then their use is again to the detriment of authors and artists, by replacing them. It’s also a choice for society: do we want stories and creations made by sensitive people, or content randomly generated by programmes? What elevates us as a society?

From my point of view, text-generating AI poses two problems for studios: it creates risk, and by its very nature it simply rehashes what already exists.

They create risk because they are dragged along with huge corpora scraped off the internet without any control, and without any idea of the ideological bias of the texts or creations that make them up. I don’t think we’re in a position to identify the moments when they are more or less content to copy and paste, or the entirety of the ideas they take up. However, in financial and reputational terms, I don’t think a studio can afford to risk legal action for plagiarism, potentially racist content, or the like.

Generative AIs are based on past corpora. As this article explains, they are incapable of imagining the future. We’re talking here about programs that string words together by calculating a probability. Generative AIs copy, they are by nature reactionary: they preserve the status quo, whereas stories should, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, be liberating, proposing alternatives, imagining other ways of being.

European regulations on generative AI are being put in place, but seem insufficient, according to the Ligue des Auteurs Professionnels. For my part, I’m also waiting for video game studios to take a stand. And as video game workers, we have a real say in the matter. I’m convinced that if most studios have avoided moving towards NFTs, it’s because their employees were mostly against it. We can do the same for generative AI.

If you had to tell us about the videogame works that have shaped your love of video games, which ones would you mention?

If I have to go back in time, the first games that hooked me were Sonic, NBA Jam and Castle of Illusions on the Sega Megadrive. On the computer, I played StarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Star Wars KOTOR II, Quake III, Star Wars Episode I: Racer, Rayman 2: The Great Escape. And Pokémon Blue, on an old Game Boy lent to me by a friend. And with friends too, we played Mario Kart Double Dash endlessly on the GameCube.

I’ve already mentioned Monument Valley and Zelda BoTW, A Short Hike, Firewatch, Journey, Florence, all of which changed my vision of what video games could be. More recently, I’ve loved Minit, Hidden Folks, Wide Ocean Big Jacket, Mutazione, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure and Sky: Children of the Light. Each of these games makes me want to create video games myself. It’s super inspiring.

Any cultural recommendations to end this interview?

I just watched the second season of Abbott Elementary, and it was really great. It’s so well written, and the actors are incredible. Speaking of season 2, Drag Race France was crazy too.

In photography, I recently discovered the work of Evelyn Hofer, whom I adore. In series, it was Somebody Somewhere that had me riveted, it was so, so good. And in cinema, I’m starting to watch the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, which I’d never seen before. I really like his poetry. As for music, lately I’ve been listening to Myriam Gendron and Branko Mataja. And the anniversary mix of Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby about once a day! I’m also mesmerized by the Jungle clips, which I didn’t see when they came out. And also, do you know Marine Baousson’s podcast Vulgaire? It’s a must-listen. Or Petit Vulgaire, if you have children, nephews or nieces!

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