Beyond the Game: Narrative Design Director Leah Hoyer

From Disney’s Recess to the Holy Roman Empire, Microsoft Studios’ narrative design director extends stories beyond the screen.


The video game equivalent to six seasons and a movie is a broad game franchise, mobile spin-offs, physical books, and some sweet swag. With the high cost of AAA production, it pays for development and publishing houses to invest in transmedia projects that take the game lore off the screen and into the hands of fans who aren’t hardcore gamers. Thinking about how to expand a game franchise off the screen is part of Leah Hoyer’s job. As a narrative design director for Microsoft Studios, Hoyer helps direct efforts on extension projects that go beyond gaming. Coming to Microsoft with a background in animation development for Disney, Hoyer knows a thing or two about crafting characters and plot lines that fans want to invest in across multiple platforms.

Get In Media: You’ve worked on several projects that span multiple mediums, such as games with comic book tie-ins or online with mobile games. In cases like that, how do you decide what goes into a game versus what goes into those other projects?

Leah Hoyer: It really changes on a case-by-case basis. There’s no one right set of secondary experiences for all games and there are different types of games that sometimes are better at telling more story than others. When you’ve got longer campaigns of things and single-person perspective, it’s a lot easier to tell a narrative that will move through it. When you start to get into a place where you’ve got a [multiplayer] situations that happen, you’ve got a much harder time telling that personal story, so it becomes a different challenge and there may be different ways that you use those other platforms to help augment it. …

We did a digital interactive comic for Ryse that was really interesting. It actually came out prior to the launch of the game. What it did is it told a related but distinct story from what you would find in the actual game itself. [We] did it in a digital comic way that was also interactive and while you were going through it you could find gold. As you played through this online comic, you were actually banking gold so that the moment that you put your disc into your Xbox One, you all of a sudden had this cache of stuff in your account there that you could go and buy certain merchandise in the story. It became a good way to both introduce people to some of the fiction and the world, but it was also a way to get people excited about what was there in the fact that you already had something that you had achieved before you started playing the game. …

GIM: You’ve spoken in the past about how building out a story world nonverbally is important. Would you mind speaking to how Microsoft does that?

LH: I think the real key is that you want to have great communication between all the various disciplines that go into making a game. … Even the gun that the character is carrying around should say something about that character, and the way that the character carries the gun should be really present in the game. You need to make sure that the folks who are watching over the story have really great relationships and great communication with all of the other leads, because that’s where that special sauce is going to come from. If you’re not having great communication and people are working in a vacuum, you’re absolutely not going to see that great synergy that comes together and creates one cohesive, immersive story world.

GIM: Are there any particular games or any specific characters that you feel do a good job of comprehensively telling the story, through everything from the way the character moves to what they’re wearing or carrying?

LH: …One thing I love and would encourage everyone to play that came out recently is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s a great example of how, without a huge budget, with practically no dialogue, just more or less sound, how much storytelling you can get into an experience. It’s almost a mini master class in being able to understand who your characters are by the way they look, by the different ways they act, even by the interface and gameplay of holding the controller, understanding the big brother is on the left-hand side which, for a lot of people, is their stronger thumb, and the little brother is on the right-hand side which, for people often, is one that they may not be able to move around as well. That is brilliant. I think that’s a great example.

GIM: You were working in television animation prior to Microsoft. How does that stack up to gaming in terms of your job?

LH: I feel like working in animation was a tremendous training ground for working now in interactive. … So many of the principals and the mentality and the ways that teams work together was ingrained in me early on, and a love of the art form and a love of not just story and characters but the visuals and the audio and everything that goes into making that experience, so much translates into video games.

The other thing that I wound up doing a lot of in my career in animation was working on property extensions, and quite a bit of interactive experience before I started working first and foremost in games. For instance, when I was at Disney, if I would oversee a project like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb, I was the person in the company for the various extensions that might be done by the other groups, which were often the video game group or our online presence and marketing, which often had smaller casual games that you could play on the website. Probably one of my favorite projects I’ve ever done in my career was I actually got to work with [Disney] Imagineering to put this attraction within Epcot Center, which was amazing. You actually got a phone in the park and you went to the various foreign country pavilions and each one had a little mystery that you had to solve. You would go to places and entire displays in shop windows would start moving and turning around because you were there with your phone and pressing the right button. You would solve this almost scavenger hunt crime-solving expedition to be able to take down a new villain at each one of these pieces. The idea [was] that you were telling a story but that you were also working very much with the interactive experience and the person as such a huge agent, particularly because this was actually in a real-world, real-time setting. You were walking around through the middle of your video game. That was a really amazing experience and something that made me realize how much I love pushing storytelling with technology in a way that I think that you can only do in interactive. It’s a really exciting space to be in.

TQ Jefferson

RELATED: Marvel’s VP of Game Production talks about taking Captain America across multiple platforms.

GIM: How can students moving into narrative development get the experience necessary to make an impression?

LH: It probably sounds cliché, [but] you have to write a lot and you have to read and watch and play a lot. You need to develop your own sense of what works and what doesn’t, your tastes in things that other people are producing so that you’re learning from the things that they’ve done well, you’re learning form people’s mistakes. … Then you have to start putting it into practice. It’s a lot easier for many people to write a short story or a script than it is to create an actual video game, but there are many ways that you can start honing those skills with things that don’t necessarily require a tremendous amount of technological ability to back-end savvy. Certainly, I think Twine is a great tool for people to be able to use to think about what does it mean when you give the players choice in your story, what are successful ways to deal with that, and what ones don’t work as well. … Certainly, role-playing tabletop games, you have to craft stories to make those work and it’s fun to see what are some of the stories that you can put someone into that the other people sitting around the table really start to respond to and get excited about. I think just knowing games and trying them out, looking at your ideas and taking some of the tech out, you still get a really good sense of are your story instincts working? What strategies are working? What are not?

Then you just want to become a really strong student of character. Start diving into what makes a good character. What makes someone really rich, layered, motivated to do various things and how do you write for that character in certain ways that allow them to show off the character that they are through what they experience and through the situations that you put them in rather than having to say that they’re a dynamic, funny, sexy person? How do you show that through the certain situations you put them in? We are always crafting better stories. The more you do this the better you get. I’ve been doing this a good 15 years or so now and I feel like every year I become a better storyteller. Part of my job is also building the right teams of people to tell the best stories. Understanding how to collaborate with people in those regards as well is so helpful. You always have to want to continue to be better, to continue to learn, and part of that happens just from doing it. 

Ken Levine

RELATED: Ken Levine on narrative design and starting over from scratch after Irrational Games.

GIM: When you are hiring, what do you look for in portfolios and new recruits?

LH: Absolutely I want good writing samples that really take character and explore what that character can do in different situations. I think that’s key, but I think on top of that, what you’re going to want in these situations is someone who wraps their head around the bigger problems. The problems of storytelling and ways that, given a tough storytelling situation that you’re going to always be encountering in interactive, thinks about new ways that can do it that aren’t just what they put on their page or in their writing samples. …

People who know how to work with other disciplines, people who … understand that they want to have a really good rapport with artists, think about casting, think about sound effect and music choices, have a bigger, broader sense of the entire production process, because all of that goes into making good story. For me personally, something I really love are people who are really proactive in making things happen, people who will come in and say, “OK, I’ve got a general direction; I think this is the way we go,” and aren’t always waiting to be told what the next step is that they should do. I think folks who come up with ideas, write them up, and then come and present them that I may not even know about, those are the people I want on my team. People who get these great brainstorms and then develop them both in themselves, bring other people, build teams around that, and create this really proactive, creative vibe’s something that I think really stands out in this industry.

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