Are companies the enemy of narrative design?

When our latest exploration of narrative design on Gamasutra, “Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach”, went live, one reader commented, “So in one word, ‘holism.’  [. . .]  I’d have thought this mentality was so obviously sensible as to be accepted wisdom. Though when I consider some recent games I’ve played I can see that it clearly isn’t.”  If the multidisciplinary approach is so sensible, why isn’t it commonplace?  Is narrative design or holism just too hard to do?  Or is it something in this industry’s makeup that makes it extra challenging?  Based on a recent reading of The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars, the answer might surprise you.

Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars explore different approaches to capitalism in seven different countries.  They posit that in the US, which pioneered many innovations in capitalism, created the assembly-line mentality.  The production process is broken down into the most minute steps, and farmed out to workers who repeat the same step over and over.  The reason for this, they claim, was because the US was a nation of immigrants, and many could not talk to each other.  Instead of expecting workers to collaborate, managers assumed they would not be able to.  This practice, the authors claim, influences the US economy and countries with similar practices even today, where our jobs are kept separate and planned out by managers who are not in the thick of it.

This “mechanism” thinking breaks down everything into parts.  Countries who don’t follow this mode instead look at the whole of the organization as if it were an organism.  “Organism” thinking “generates higher levels of meaning, purpose, and direction which transcend its parts.”  In short, it’s the holism narrative design seeks to create.

Certainly game development is a long way from the assembly-line mentality, right?  Many developers can move effortlessly between different jobs — producer, programmer, artist — thought usually not all at one time.  One-man bands have created created some pretty great titles.  At Epicenter Studios, boasting 20 whole developers on staff, Chief Creative Officer Bryan Jury says:

“Since we’re small enough, everyone often ends up wearing multiple hats. This means I’ve got art and tech adding significantly to the design, for example. We made sure to hire people who are comfortable in that environment.

And through that semi-organic layout, things do tend to happen more naturally. The lead artist and lead designer might be talking about some upcoming event they need to create, and an animator overhears that conversation and offers up a much better solution. That kind of stuff happens on a near daily basis, and I love it.  I do think if/when we get bigger, this type of layout will have to be revised. But for the size we’re at now, it really seems to be working well.”

As games get bigger, the companies that make them get bigger as well.  PODS, which team together one person from each department, might be a step in the right direction.  However, if they are not involved in the bigger picture, such as the overarching narrative, they may also fall victim to the mechanism mentality, making PODS just one more cog in the machine.

What’s your take on Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars’ view of mechanism vs. organism?  Do you think it applies to the game industry, or just certain companies?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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