Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 2

I've written a lot about interactivity in narrative, but I feel that I have a slightly different perspective on it now that I'm deeper into actually professionally writing interactive narratives. Last week I did some brainstorming about what makes good interactivity in narrative. In particular, we talked about the importance of meaningful consequences.

But having meaningful consequences is not the only thing important to a good choice. The other factor is that the choice itself presents as an interesting decision in the moment. There are a few pitfalls that could prevent that: having not enough information, having too much information, or one or the other choice is obviously better.

Here are a few types of choices I've been thinking about that have potential...

Fog of War Choices: A choice should be informed, but not obvious. If you know exactly what the outcomes will be of each choice, then it better be a damn hard choice or there's no choice at all. You'll just pick whichever one is better for you. Similarly, if you have no clues at all as to what lies behind each door, or the clues you think you do have are totally unrelated to the actual results, then again, there's no choice at all. You might as well flip a coin.

Speaking as an English teacher, I also want to say this is a great opportunity to evoke the skill of using clues in the text to make inferences. The way I imagine it, the most fun way to be informed about a choice is to only have the roughest outline spelled out for you, but to have more clues buried in the text. The reader needs to read closely and apply the skills of observation and critical thinking. If done well, this rewards the reader with a positive outcome. If the reader fails to observe a critical detail, or misapplies her logic, then she may be in for a nasty surprise.

Of course, the down-side of this type of writing is that it's only exciting once--on a second read-through, the player will simply remember the correct choice and select it. Boooring!

Which leads us to...

Difficult Choices: In an ideal world, the choices you make should not be easy. You have to pick between priorities. Which is more important to you, the life of this one survivor, or the crate of food that could mean the survival of your whole team? Which is more important to you, protecting the honor of your clan, or showing mercy on a hapless transgressor? 

Of course, as a reader... I want it all! It's actually a serious problem I have, both as a player and in life. But I do think it's artificial to constantly enforce difficult choices. Not every choice should force a terrible decision on the player. Sometimes it's satisfying to have a "right answer," which can be deduced, giving the player the thrill of victory when it's discovered that his guess was correct. 

Or, alternately, you could write a double difficult choice: do you pick A or B--or do you try for both, with the chance that if you try for both, you could lose both? This sort of question works well with the...

Strategic Choices: One which my partner in Dwarf King is quite fond of is the strategic choice, in which the player is not dealing with absolutes but with chances. No choice has a guaranteed outcome, instead, it will be based on a semi-predictable random factor, such as a skill check. In these cases, you can make a statistics based best-guess, but it's not absolute, preserving the replay value. This is cool because it values your prior decisions. If you've previously made the decision to specialize in diplomacy, you'll be more likely to attempt the diplomatic option to resolve a conflict, rather than go straight for the fighting option. This feels very true to life, but...

It does have the pitfall that if one option is clearly better--even if it's only better because of the prior choices you've made--it's still not really a choice. Instead, you've encountered an if-then statement. If you've specialized in combat, go to the fight; else if you've specialized in diplomacy, go to the negotiations. You still don't have any real choice! 

However, strategic elements can be layered on to other choices to add factors for consideration, making a choice more interesting. Consider this: The orcs have taken your friend hostage, and will kill him if you attack. But taking this step constitutes an act of war, and they must be punished. Will you attack (utilizing your combat skills) knowing they will kill your friend, but determined to crush the orcs once and for all and claim their valuable treasure? Or will you negotiate (using your diplomacy skills), suffering the humiliation in order to hopefully save the life of your friend.

Neither option is certain; both are based on skill checks. In a simpler choice, it would be easy to just pick the skill check you're better at, but in this case, that's not the only factor. This is also a Difficult Choice: do you suffer humiliation to save your friend, or accept his heroic death to strike a blow against the orcs? This choice too might be easy if it stood alone. You probably have a tendency to go one way or the other; but it's complicated by the strategic factors--neither branch is guaranteed. In the end, you need to weigh which option you want more, and ALSO which option you are more likely to succeed at. Now that's an interesting choice to run into in your game.
In conclusion, two important factors to consider in writing interactivity in a narrative are the quality of the choice, and the meaningful consequences. First, any instance of a branch in the narrative should present to the player as an immediately interesting choice--one in which the player is at least partially informed about the options, but neither path is the obviously correct one (even on replay! at least if you're considering computer games.) Second, the decision the player makes should have real consequences. They can be small or huge, near or distant, but the experience of making a choice is most rewarding when you can see that, and how, your choice affected the world around you, in big or small ways. If it doesn't, why make that choice at all?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 1

A constant presence in the back of my mind somewhere is the question, "what makes good interactive fiction?" I mean, this is the angle I've chosen to pursue, and there's really a lot to untie in that one question.

As I write and work, and break, and come back, and as I read over the latest crop of Windhammer entries, I find myself thinking of it again.

I think the real thing it comes back to is consequences. The choices you make should matter somehow. Something should happen because of the choice you made. It doesn't have to happen right away. In fact, it can be especially fun if a choice you made ages back comes up later to bite you somehow. One of the most rewarding and memorable choices I ever ran into actually came in the 2013 Windhammer entry by the excellent Andy Moonowl, in which stealing from the King's treasury goes off without a hitch in the moment (originally earning my frowning disapproval), but comes up later--all of a sudden you're a wanted man, with countless consequences that make the whole adventure more difficult. I loved it.

You can't always include that level of consequence. In The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, in particular, I've made the choice to include strictly nothing that breaks the immersion of the narrative. That means not even traits or keywords. Which means, unfortunately, there is no built in memory into the narrative. If you do something in Act I, there is no way for the story to remember that you made that choice later, in Act III. It really puts a damper on the possibilities.

So I've had to get creative. How can you include meaningful consequences of the reader's choices, without long-term memory?

There are a few kinds of choices you repeatedly run into. Which character do you want to tag along with through this scene? Maybe you get a different version of events depending on who you chose to go with as your POV character for the scene. Character-driven choices are also a big one: do you choose for the Marshal to be more sympathetic, or more hard-ass? You may run into half a dozen situations where you make a choice that's fundamentally between those same two options, but it gives the reader an interesting chance to explore his character. Do you pick the hardass option every time? Or the sympathetic option every time? If you break ranks from your habitually type of answer, when, and why? What happened in that scene that you think would cause the Marshal to break from his habit? 

There's also situational consequences. Maybe the book can't remember in Act III the choices made in Act I, but not everything has to be resolved two acts later. Say you rescue a survivor, but then you have to make a choice, in which balance hangs the life of that survivor. It may not technically matter two acts later, but you're going to remember whether you let that survivor die or not. And it will change your experience of the character and, ultimately, the whole story. 

But I also have another project on the back-burner, which is not constrained by the limits of dead-tree-format. Dwarf King is planned to be an Android game, rpg-strategy. It's been in slow production for a while now, but I believe we're reaching the point where Part 1 should come out in 2016. And in that game, I have no such limitations.

In fact, the reason I'm writing all this tonight is to take a moment to pause and reflect before planning some more adventures for Dwarf King. What do I want out of these storylines? What makes the difference between good interactivity in a narrative, or interactivity that falls flat? Have I made sure to include proper consequences for each of my mini-stories in Dwarf King?

Another element has to do with the quality of the choices themselves. I've written about this before, but it's been a while.

However, this is dragging on a bit already, so I'll put that off till next time.