Path of Exile is a free-to-play, online action role-playing game developed and published by Grinding Gear Games. It was released in 2013 to rave reviews and an exploding player base that itself rivals that of games like Diablo 3 and others.
The game boasts deep story-lines and a rich lore for players to explore in the harsh and terrifying world of Wraeclast. Recently I had the pleasure to sit down and talk with Nick Jones, a narrative designer for Grinding Gear Games and more specifically Path of Exile. So pull up your gaming chair, pop open a Red Bull or Mountain Dew and listen in on our conversation.
So tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure. My name is Nick, I’m a narrative designer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I run my own freelance business — Punk Writer Ltd, in which I write for traditional gaming, virtual reality, film, TV, graphic novels and everything in between. Outside of my work I currently study at the Auckland University of Technology, where I am writing a thesis in non-linear storytelling.
What are a few of your hobbies?
I don’t have much time for hobbies nowadays due to the amount of work I take on, but obviously, I game quite a lot. I also enjoy going to the movies, and writing my own fiction. I actually have a novel manuscript in the early stages of publishing, which I hope to see on shelves within the next year or two. Like I said, my life tends to be pretty busy so I try to balance everything I’m doing, whether its work or play, around the practice of storytelling.
Tell me about what a narrative designer does?
A narrative designer is many different things depending on who you ask. For me personally, a narrative designer is the person responsible for constructing story and plot for any medium that requires creative writing.
What do I mean by story and plot? When I talk about story, I refer to it in the sense of a linear unpacking of everything that happens from point A to point B, but also the components that go into creating a fully formulated world.
In a fantasy game like Path of Exile for example, that can include everything from an encyclopedic bible of information regarding characters, history, geography, politics, mythologies and religious practices, all the way to thematic ideas and purposes. Plot, on the other hand, is the way these events are presented to the player, which includes the typical ideas of conflict and resolution, character development and narrative arcs.
So in returning to your question, a narrative designer will typically take a small seed of an idea from the studio or people who’ve hired them, and develop it in such a way that it can exist as a fully formulated world of information.
A truly talented narrative designer can set this up in such a way that it has transmedia applications, by which I mean, creating a world from which multiple narratives can spring onto many different media platforms with equal importance and integrity as each other.
What is your favorite part of being a narrative designer?
I guess my favorite part about this job is the fact that I’m doing what I love for a living. That’s a hard thing to find in this day and age where we are oversaturated with this idea that nobody is special and we’re all just cogs in the great consumerist machine.
For years, I’ve worked office jobs, and fast-food, and I just got to a point in my life where I felt totally unfulfilled. I kinda had an internal conversation where I asked myself what it was that I really wanted to do with my life.
The answer was "tell stories," and so I figured although chances were slim at being successful in that, I owed it to myself to at least try. I didn’t originally intend on writing for games. I went to university to learn how to be a novelist, and through a series of fortuitous events, ended up learning how to write across multiple mediums, which pulled me in the direction of narrative design and transmedia storytelling.
How does it feel to see your narrative design transformed from paper into a dynamic game world?
When I was in my early 20s I used to sing in a punk band. We probably weren’t very good, but we made up for our inexperience by being the craziest presence to hit the local stages. We’d swing our instruments around like weapons, set fire to things, once I even hung upside down from the lighting rig in the centre of the stage.
Anyway, this persona we put on got us a lot of attention from the local scene, and we eventually ended up being rather popular. Kids would pack out the venue and sing along to our lyrics — the lyrics I wrote. That was a bizarre feeling, seeing all these people grab these lines of poetry that I’d written as quite personal to me, and sing them right back at us, as if the lines were their own. It’s kinda like that.
Seeing game designers and programmers taking my stories and turning them into something tangible, it’s like seeing a world you’ve created come to life. The first time I got to walk around in the world of a little indie game I’ve been working on with some awesome people across the globe was crazy, as I really got a sense of the living quality of the story I’d written.
When we announced the upcoming Path of Exile: Fall of Oriath expansion the other month, it was wild to see the fan response as well. We were number one trending on Reddit for a few hours. I’m excited to see the response once the expansion is officially released. Hopefully it lives up to their expectations.
What is it like working for a company like Grinding Gear Games?
They’re a cool company from my experience; the guys are always involved in the creation of the story, and open to discussing things, tossing ideas around, and finding what best fits. It’s also awesome to be a part of a group of people who started from nothing, with a desire to make something they loved, and then went ahead and did it.
How did you come to work for Grinding Gear Games?
Path of Exile in its original four act story was written by a veteran narrative designer named Edwin McRae, who basically mentored me in the craft — I should say, he still mentors me, as with a job like this, you’re always constantly learning!
Anyway, I met Edwin through some other connections of mine and did a bit of writing for him in his The Falconers franchise — which by the way has a Visual Novel coming out soon called Moonlight. He offered to bring me in on the upcoming expansion and work alongside him.
So for everyone who wants to know how they get into this kind of work, it’s pretty much a combination of firstly talent, but also networking, reaching out, making friends, doing freebies and feeling your way through the maze that is the entertainment industry.
Do you have full narrative control over where the story goes?
Like I mentioned before, the Grinding Gear Games guys have a lot to do with the creation of the story. I like to think of it as a collective work, so no one person really has “complete” control over the story’s direction, rather we are all working together for the betterment of the game.
How did you come up with the idea for the story of Path of Exile?
Edwin McRae lead the development of the original four act story. In regards to the upcoming expansion, once again, it’s been a collective process of tossing ideas around – fitting the jigsaw pieces together as it were.
In terms of coming up with ideas in general for stories in Path of Exile and other games or pieces of media, I draw from my literary background on this – you’ve got to ingest other stories constantly. I watch a hell of a lot of movies, animes, Netflix and tv series, but I also — and the literary elitist in me likes to say “most importantly” — read a lot.
I buy books faster than I can finish them, so I always have at least three books on the go and a to-read list a mile long. There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as a new idea. I think that’s very true. The newness comes from working out different ways to piece old ideas together to create something new.
The best way to do that is to learn about story and compile ideas through taking in as much as you can from as many places as possible.
Did you imagine that Path of Exile would go on to be such a popular game?
I came into Path of Exile when it already had — I believe — 16 million registered players, so in the abstract, I always knew it was a popular game. But the response to our upcoming release have been massive, and that was quite a shock.
I’ll be honest, I found myself on a couple of occasions watching fans ‘reaction videos’ to the trailer. It will be a lot more real when the reviews start coming in I guess.
Do you play Path of Exile?
I have played Path of Exile extensively, but to go back to the story of me being in a punk band, it’s kind of like when you’re recording an album. By the time you’re done, you don’t really want to play those songs again for pleasure — at least not for a while. I enjoyed the game a lot when I played it, and will probably enjoy it a lot more in the future, but for now, I mainly use it as a reference for work.
Do you play any other ARPG style games?
On the occasion, yes. The last one I played that I enjoyed was The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, which really scratched the gothic horror itch. If I’m to be honest though, I’m not an online gamer so any ARPG I play has to be a solo affair. I find the social anxiety of playing with strangers or against strangers I bit too much!
I’m mainly a console gamer. I’m a big PlayStation 4 fan so jam that quite a lot. I do game on my PC as well, but my general interests lie in story-driven gameplay, whether that’s the walking-simulator style of Dear Esther, the interactive movie feel of Telltale Games or the horror/fantasy vibe of Bloodborne.
For me as a gamer, I’m mostly interested in strong narratives that push the boundaries of what gaming is traditionally considered to be. I’m a big advocate for video games being seen in the same status as other literature, and so am looking forward to the day where someone puts out a game akin to The Great Gatsby or For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Is there anything you can share about future story-lines for Path of Exile?
Sorry, you’ll just have to wait and see!
Thanks Nick for taking the time to sit down and chat.
Cool man! thanks
Path of Exile is a fun game, its dark and gritty fantasy world is very different from the more colorful worlds of Diablo 3 and Torchlight. By separating itself from the competition, Path of Exile has been able to carve a wide path in the gaming community that is still growing!
Check out Nick Jones' website to learn more about who he is and what he does!
Have you played Path of Exile? Do you enjoy it? Is there another game you like better? Let me know in the comment section below!
Path of Exile is an online Action RPG set in the dark fantasy world of Wraeclast. It is designed around a strong online item economy, deep character customization, competitive PvP and ladder races. The game is completely free and will never be "pay to win". Start your adventure!