Interactive Storytelling: Lessons From Video Games

In an interactive narrative the audience plays an active role. What they say and do alters the course of the story. Audience members can step into your world as characters, or observe from the outside and make contributions that affect the story. This creates an unforgettable experience for participants, but it can be a tall order for a writing team. How do you create an engaging story when the audience can steer it wherever they want?  

The answer is… a lot of things! Last week we examined lessons from the medium of television. Today we are going to dive into the world of video games to see what they can teach us. 

This is what the kids are playing now, right?

Video Games

Oh boy, this is a broad subject. Arcadey platformers, first-person shoot-em-ups, and complex strategic wargames all interact with their audience in fundamentally different ways. In order to narrow our focus, we’ll only look at games that are primarily story focused so, uh, sorry Pong. The first game that could be defined as a work of interactive fiction was Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976. Players would type in different actions for their character to perform, and the on-screen text would tell them the results of their actions and advance the story. This text-based spelunking expedition was so influential it coined the phrase “Adventure Game.”

We recommend not shouting “I don’t understand that!” at your audience.

Things have changed a bit since the glowy green wall of text era. In terms of graphical fidelity and programming complexity, we have seen major improvements. Storytelling techniques have also advanced. High budget titles that feel like interactive summer blockbusters and lovingly crafted indie games that tackle some really weighty subject matter have taken the place of Colossal Cave Adventure. For some creators, however, the technology can still be limiting. That strain between the limitations of the medium and the aspirations of the creators highlights some important lessons for writers of interactive narrative. Specifically, it is important to examine how video games handle player agency, for both good and ill. 

Setting from “Gone Home,” by The Fullbright Company.

Remember Immersive vs Interactive 

Right off the bat, a creator should understand what sort of experience they are aiming for. Marketing materials love to throw around the terms immersive and interactive, and it gets a tad confusing. These qualities exist on a spectrum, and before beginning your next interactive or immersive project, it is important to understand what you are aiming or so you don’t disappoint your audience. 

Immersive means that it places the audience into the world of the story. An immersive experience can also be interactive, but it does not have to be.

Interactive means that the audience can tangibly affect the experience with their words or actions, to varying degrees. Your interactive experience can also be immersive, but it does not have to be.

In the world of video games, a project that understood its niche and succeeded due to that is Gone Home, a quiet, contemplative adventure game about exploring an abandoned house. This game is highly immersive but has limited interactivity. You uncover a compelling story, but your choices don’t have much effect on it. By implementing those limitations, the creators could focus on making the world compelling, and keep the focus on exploration as opposed to player expression.

As a writer of interactive narrative, understand how much power you wish to give your audience. If you want to create an experience in which the audience feels empowered to drive the story, be sure to create a world that can flexibly accommodate their choices. If you want to try and balance the two, give your audience agency but also immerse them in a world you’ve created, that is difficult but doable! However… please… 

Skip… skip… skip…

Please… Limit Your Cutscenes…

Many games that aim to deliver narrative do this by dividing themselves into two parts: interactive sections and cutscenes. A cutscene is a section of the game in which the player sits back and watches a non-interactive movie that relays the story. These aren’t always a negative, but when overused they can absolutely deflate the player’s sense agency. When designing your interactive narrative, moments of non-interactivity should be used sparingly, and only when certain information absolutely must be conveyed in a specific fashion. In almost all circumstances, it is better to interweave the story into the gameplay or, for live interactive experiences, make these moments where the audience must sit back and observe active and engaging. Instead of passively observing a scene, have them hide and eavesdrop on an important conversation. Instead of giving them an info dump about the world your story takes place in, have that info fed to them by characters they interact with. If the audience feels like they are being sidelined, they will quickly disengage.

Press A to say something nice. Press B to spit in their face for no reason. 

Allow Player Expression… But Beware Of Multiple Choice Tests

Disengagement can be the death of an interactive narrative. In order to keep to an audience engaged, to keep them playing in your story, they need to feel like their choices are being honored, like they can express themselves and the narrative will react to it. As a writer, both for videogames and interactive theater, this creates an issue. How do you plan your story if you can’t predict how the audience will want to play? Many games, specifically in the role-playing genre, use a tool called a “dialogue tree.” When the player character is addressed in conversation, they have multiple choices on how they would like to respond. The story then branches off depending on those choices. This is an excellent tool in the world of games, as writers and programmers don’t have the time to create content for the myriad of decisions a player might make. Similarly, an interactive narrative can give an audience member moments in which there is a fork in the road, a choice that alters the narrative and produces consequences they must deal with later in the story. This allows you to give them a feeling of agency but is limited enough that you can plan ahead somewhat. However, avoid the obvious binary choice.

A moral choice segment from “Infinite: Second Son” by Sucker Punch Productions and Sony.

Life is rarely so black or white, and when you push these choices on an audience they may feel railroaded, like they are just along for the ride. Some participants will disengage then and there, and either actively resist the direction you are leading them or just passively follow along.   Instead, use branching paths as opportunities to discover how the audience wants to play. In an argument between two characters, do they weigh in on one side or do they attempt to find compromise? In a party scene that has several characters with contrasting personalities, who are they drawn to? When you make these moments feel like expression instead of choosing between A, B, or C, your participants won’t even know they’ve picked a path. 

Too many branching paths means less attention on each one…

Branch, Then Close The Loop

With all these paths, how does one find a production budget to design eighteen different endings? The answer, don’t. While tailoring the entire story to the participants decisions is possible, it requires a team that can create a compelling story completely on the fly. Video games, which don’t have that option, present us with an effective solution. Allow player choice, then have their decisions ultimately lead them to the same place, but in a diffent fashion. For example, in The Witcher 2, a Polish role-playing game, players make a choice midway through the game that splits the story into two completely different segments. Then, as things progress both stories converge again. Players felt a major shift due to their choices, but the developers did not have to design two completely different games. For a live theatre example, in Interactive PlayLab’s Open Mind project the audience member has a major choice of whether to rip up a business merger and foil the plans of a nefarious organization, or allow it to go ahead and perhaps take charge. Their choice directly effects how the characters in the world view and react to them going forward, but the plot ultimately leads to the same setting for the final scene, albeit under vastly different circumstances. By constraining your structure, but creating characters and a world that is highly reactive, you can retain production value while still encouraging your audience to play. 

That’s that! Thank you for tuning in. Join us next week as we pull lessons from a whole new medium. 

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