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?


  1. Ashton, I love your blog on Gamebook Theory and I am fascinated with the skillset you use to write a text that is easy to read and at the same time full of technical information on the game mechanics of this genre as well as setting up some standards through developing the gamebook terminology. However, I can't help it, but feel like you are missing something somewhere along the lines of handling well the type of choices. The other day, in a private message, I shared with you that gamebooks should rely on statistics and probabilities. Many of the recent gamebook adventures I've read use the "treasure hunt" game mechanics that are based on providing the player with the so-called flawed narrative choices such as "Which Door", "Cake or Death", "Shell Game" and "Blah Choices" (please revise the "blah" terminology, the name of it doesn't really fit the quality of your terminology). Basically, I am claiming that there is not enough use of good against bad consequences based on strong logic, statistical probability and educated guessing. Most of the choices I was facing were merely calculated risk and while that technique has it's place in the gamebook mechanics, it shouldn't take priority before the good/bad EDUCATIONAL choices based on well known facts. For an example, a while ago, I was reading a book where I was playing a fantasy style hero and while on the right path to accomplish my quest, I was put in a wide open field in the middle of a thunderstorm. I believe that there were two options: Hide from the rain under a tree or Run for the Cave mountains in the distance. My thinking was that I didn't want to get soaking wet and I decided to go under the tree. Needless to say, I learned a very valuable lesson: lightnings hit the tallest object around and unfortunate for my protagonist, that was the tree I was hiding under causing an instant death to my character. The "fog of war" hint was in the word "thunder" before the word "storm". All I am trying to say is that gamebooks should be relying mostly on "fog of war" and "educational" (please find the right word for this kind of choices) instead of a labyrinth of flawed narrative choices.

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