Narrative Design

Transformation: Avatars, Role-playing, and Narrative Perspective in Games

As established in Janet Murray’s seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, transformation is a fundamental aesthetic quality of interactive narratives with the potential to change a user’s thinking and behavior. As game developers, we can use the related concepts of avatars, narrative perspective and role-playing to facilitate players’ experiences of transformation in intentional ways.


Screenshot of an avatar from the game Black and White
In the 2001 RTS game Black and White, the player character was a god, who then chose an avatar to represent them directly on the battlefield.

The term avatar originates from Hinduism. It literally means a god descending from the heavens to inhabit some earthly form. 

In games, avatars represent the characters we control as players. The metaphor affords players a lot of power! (Though perhaps it’s actually the programmers who have true omnipotent power over games… 🤔)

As storytellers we can frame the experience of a narrative by choosing who the narrator is, and in interactive media such as video games this often translates to our handling of the player character or avatar.

The main characters Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us
The Last of Us series employs strongly defined characters. Consider how playing as Ellie or Joel impacts how you experience the narrative of gameplay actions differently.

Role-playing vs min-maxing

As gamers, we are familiar with the RPG  (Role-playing game) genre. How would we characterize that genre? What are its hallmarks? I would suggest that story-richness and numeric character stat progression (i.e., XP gains and leveling up) have become the signature elements of the RPG video game genre. But strangely, these elements don’t always lend themselves to the notion of playing a role, as the genre’s name implies. What does it mean to play a role in an interactive narrative experience and what game features do facilitate this more literal role-playing? Considering the differences between Japanese (e.g. Final Fantasy) and Western style RPGs (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons) illuminates different approaches.

Who is the player character? Are we playing as though our actual selves have been transported into the game world? Are we playing the role of a character that the game developers have already defined for us? Are we playing as an original character that we, as players, conceived of? Or are we playing the role the way we imagine an existing character from some other narrative world would act? How much freedom do we have to define the role? What tools help us explore and play out these roles? Do you find it hard to role-play in any or all of these categories? Why and what might help you transform deeper into the alternative role? 

I remember playing Fallout 3 as a gunslinger based on Charles Bronson’s character from Deathwish 3, and another playthrough based on Freddy Kreuger. I was impressed by how these varied characters could be realized not just cosmetically, but also in gameplay through stats, abilities, weapons, and narrative choices. Suddenly I was making decisions based on how I believed these characters would act as opposed to choosing based on what would make my character more powerful. I may not have been that creative using these pre-established characters from other media but I felt like I was much closer to actual role-playing than my usual RPG playthroughs. This new character-based inner logic guiding my gameplay choices helped me feel more immersed in the experience.

screenshot of gun nut perk from Fallout 3
Just like Charles Bronson…

Narrative and game camera perspective

Narrative perspective impacts transformation, role-playing, and how we perceive avatars. Some game characters are presented as blank slates. First-person perspective helps with this, as we don’t see any character art and are free to imagine how the character might look and what they think (and what they do). This approach often involves no speaking lines for the player character, again allowing the player to imagine what they might say or how they might sound. When embracing this approach, it is also helpful to let the player name the character and choose their own pronouns, or alternatively, use gender ambiguous pronouns and names for the player character. Avoiding cutscenes and sequences that take control away from the player can help players feel immersed in the role of a blank slate player character as well.

An alternative approach is to strongly define a character for the player and allow the player to simply pilot the character through the game world. Often these games feature more strongly authored stories as opposed to inviting player-created narratives. They commonly use third-person camera perspective to specifically illustrate how the player character appears. Cutscenes and other sequences that take control away from the player are more common here. This type of storytelling in games can risk feeling divided into distinct gameplay and narrative sections instead of a seamless interactive narrative experience.

In the Half-Life series, Gordon Freeman is a blank slate, but Alyx is more strongly defined.

In the literary tradition, narrative perspective is typically discerned based on how the writing handles pronouns. “I” = first-person; “you” = second-person, “he/she/they” = third-person.

In video games, we typically consider the camera perspective as the telltale signifier of perspective. But it’s worth considering that there might be discrepancy between camera and narrative perspective, such as a game featuring a third-person camera perspective but a more first-person narrative style. For example, many western-style RPGs (e.g. World of Warcraft; D&D inspired games) invite the player to create their character from scratch and role-play in the first person while using a third-person camera style to portray the character and world. Some games use a first-person perspective but provide strongly defined characters for the player to pilot rather than imagine for themselves (e.g. Half-Life: Alyx). Other RPG games, like the Elder Scrolls series, allow the player to toggle between first and third-person camera perspectives. In a clever sequence, the indie horror game Undiscovered transitions from third-person to first-person at one point during gameplay, playing with how we perceive roles.

Putting it all together

This article covers a variety of narrative techniques related to how players experience narrative content and transformation in games. It’s critical to understand and consider how the formal narrative choices you employ impact players’ experiences with your game. Different gamers have different tastes and it may not make sense to attempt to please everyone. Each of these narrative approaches have associated strengths and challenges and there’s room to creatively blend different methods of storytelling to evoke specific impacts.

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive Town part 11 – sharing your work

It’s critical to share your work in order to demonstrate your skills, get feedback, and be part of the larger community. This is also how you could one day make money from your work! These videos will explain one way to do this using the site

Congratulations on completing your immersive town! 👏

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive Town part 10 – polish (particles, lighting, audio)

These videos go over how to improve the presentation value and usability of your work so that it appears more professional, engaging, and immersive.

Optional: adjust the post-processing of your scene! Creative Core: Post-processing – Unity Learn

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive Town part 9 – cinematography

In the next series of videos we’ll explore how to use cinematography and scripting concepts to enhance the presentation value, immersion, and clarity of our scene. These skills are in high demand for game designers, so they’re great to practice.

We’ll also show how to change to a new dialog UI prefab, since by default it blocks a lot of our game camera’s view of the action.

Optional: If you would like more info on using Timeline and Cinemachine with Dialogue System, consult the resources below.

Timeline – Unity Learn

[HOWTO] How To: Use Cinemachine with the Dialogue System – Pixel Crushers Forum

Immersive Town

Immersive Town part 8 – quests

Now that we have our layout and NPCs in place, it’s time to give the player some objectives. We’ll use quests to direct the player as well as to help the player feel like they have accomplished goals. We can also use quest names and description text to help establish the tone, backstory and lore of our immersive town experience.

Finally, we’ll set up collectible items for use in quests.

Immersive Town

Immersive town part 7 – add NPCs

Now that we have our layout established, it’s time to decide where to add our NPCs and set them up to be functional.

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive town part 6 – build town layout in Unity

Now it’s time to start creating our custom town layout!

In the following three videos, I work through setting up my basic layout. You can feel free to skip these and head to the next section about adding NPCs to the scene. Or, if you’re interested in seeing my approach, give them a watch!

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive town part 5 – NPC setup

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive town part 4 – player character setup

Now that you have a vision document with a basic plan for your scene, let’s add custom character art for the player character.

Immersive Town Tutorial

Immersive town part 3 – create a vision document

Now that we have a bit of inspiration and a bit of our vision for our immersive “town” identified, it’s time to flesh things out in a vision document.

Sometimes, in practice, I might skip this step and get straight to prototyping, especially on a personal project where no one else needs to understand “the plan.” But when you have a team involved, this kind of document is an essential communication tool, plus it will help you organize your thoughts.

For a portfolio piece, a design document like this can help show your written communication skills and helps tell the story of your design process, two vital things employers will look for.

Recommended reading

Document sections

Unlike screenwriting or other disciplines, there is no singular official way to document game concepts. My advice is to keep it short and simple. If you get carried away with a giant “design document as bible” approach, you become less agile and may resist the essential iteration and adaptability that game design requires. Until you are playtesting, you are just guessing! So no need to get too carried away with our guesses about what’s fun.

We just need a starting point that clarifies the initial vision. It’s natural that we will come up with new ideas as we work.

Project name

Come up with a name for your project. It can be a working title. It can be a codename. But don’t pick something that sounds like a school project like “Immersive Town Tutorial” or “Week 10 Assignment.”


Describe the camera perspective and genre. Don’t make up stuff you’re not going to execute. This is a third person narrative adventure game.

Focus on the project as an immersive environment designed to convey a specific atmosphere, as opposed to trying to weave a complex plot or create compelling gameplay systems.

What type of atmosphere? What is the theme? How do you want the player to feel?

  • Scared or vulnerable?
  • Heroic or like a leader?
  • Wealthy or poor?
  • Anxious or tense?

A lot of this will be conveyed by the setting and characters, try not to duplicate too much info.

Try to come up with an overarching drama that is surrounding the town, something that would have happened even if the player never showed up on the scene!


Describe the setting. What is the time period? The geographic location? Add images from the assets you liked in your research. You can use the Unity scene camera to arrange good views and take screenshots.

Include information about the answers to the  discern realities move questions from Dungeon World:

  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What should the player be on the lookout for?
  • What here is powerful or valuable?
  • Who’s really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?


Come up with a few character ideas.

  • What are their names?
  • How did they get to the “town?”
  • What role to they serve in the town / what’s their occupation?
  • What are their goals or impulses?
  • What do they like? What do they fear?
  • Who are their friends and enemies?

Use screenshots of the character art assets you found in your research as visual aids (and to make sure you have art for everyone!).