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.


  1. A very interesting post. I always look forward to your blog posts. It is hard when you have the restriction of not being allowed to have keywords and the book not having a memory, so I look forward to the GBU.

    This is completely irrational, but sometimes I enjoy having choices that have no effect on the game or the narrative. For example, you can give Lord Rygar a magic spear in Lone Wolf 2, but it won't save him and actually make your life harder. I still do it, because I he's doing me a solid and it seems like I'm condemning him if I don't. Also, there are various times where you can stop and chat to people or do some actions like give items to people for no in game effect and for consequences that have nothing to do with the story, but I still do it. I guess it's because in my head, it helps me flesh out my character - I get an opportunity to be kind or cruel etc.

    Incidentally, have you read this post, about different ways players could have agency

    1. That's an interesting edge case... I think in a way those cases, where you can imagine the consequence, but it happens off screen, exemplify one extreme of the kind of consequences you can run into.

      The thing is, even if it happens off screen, and nothing in the book changes, you still know it had an effect (at least, within the world of the story.) You never get any feedback either way about Lord Rygar's fate, and whether giving him the spear makes any difference. But this represents the end of your story with Lord Rygar, and at that end, he either has the spear or he doesn't. In a way, that itself is a very real consequence.

      In fact, how a story ends is perhaps the most significant consequence of all. And I think this gives some insight into what kind of consequences players look for. It doesn't have to be a stat bonus or an extra item or gold or something. It doesn't have to be a mechanical consequence. In fact, from a story perspective, the most rewarding consequences aren't game-mechanic based at all, but in fact purely story based.

      Whether you see Lord Rygar's final moments or not, you know it changed because he had the spear. The end of his subplot changes based on your actions. That is real, meaningful choice, in my opinion.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Stuart :) Making me think about it in new ways.

    2. Incidentally, I always gave him the spear also ;)