Thursday, July 26

On Approaches, Pt. 1

How do we approach the idea of writing an interactive story?  It’s a difficult question, and rather than claim I have the perfect answer for it, I would like to explore a little, and see what other people think.  Let’s start with something important: what does an interactive story mean?
Well, in broad terms it means any story in which the audience can make a decision and affect the events as they progress.  This can be represented by an old choose-your-own-adventure story, or by a game like Super Mario Bros., where player input will indicate how effective Mario is at saving the Princess.  But that definition isn’t of particular use in this situation, because we require a more precise image.  What I mean, when I say an interactive story, is a story in which the actions of the player or audience drive the plot and events that occur.  A player must have agency in the actions of their character for the story to really interact with them.  Agency – The capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.
What I am saying, more plainly, is that the player must have power over their actions, and their choices within the storyline.  This is still a difficult task, as most stories told prior to the invention of interactives (games of all sorts) have been set in stone, once told, rarely told differently.  Yes, there are more experimental and impressive works which dabble in the same story told different ways, but that’s not really what we’re here for.  We’re here for games.  Video, Tabletop, Board, Card, and more.  How do we effectively tell stories in these formats?
Some games are based around the idea of a story unfolding as the games does.  Magic: The Gathering is a game which represents the titanic duels of dimension-hopping spellcasters called planeswalkers, who summon legions of creatures and invoke the wrath of Gods to prove who is greatest.  Dungeons and Dragons exists largely as a vehicle for escapist stories.  But these formats, as in video games, are always limited by the world and content created for them.  “Railroading” became a popular term in Pen-and-Paper RPGs for situations where the story led the players by the nose, rarely giving them a chance to make a clear decision, and sometimes punishing attempts to do so.  It is clear that there will always be limitations to the content that can be created, and while I’m sure many Game Masters would love the opportunity to create an massive world and every detail in it, the truth is that such time rarely is allowed, and the GM can never create everything there could ever be.
So maybe there is a first point about creating an interactive story effectively: Know the limitations of the system.  Whether these limitations are time or money or disk space or player interest, they’re an important factor to keep in mind when creating.
"Implicit Promise" is in here.
We should also look at what basic story structure contains.  Generally, stories open with a measure of exposition or an introduction, something which gives context to the audience and often sets the tone of the story.  There is a concept called an “implicit promise” which can be made at this stage of the story as well, which comes from all the scene-setting and exposition.  The implicit promise represents an unspoken understanding between story and audience.  It represents how the audience expects the arch of the story to go, and how the tone shifts or doesn’t.  When the implicit promise is later fulfilled, the audience feels satisfied, the payoff to previous build-up.  Interactive stories must understand this nature as well, and be aware of the implicit promise they create simply by having the story be interactive.
How do we go about setting an appropriate opening to an interactive story?  We must give the player an early chance to interact.  Not immediate, there needs to be at least some context for their actions.  While I’m sure immediate interaction can work, and often does, it can separate the story and the play too much, one must flow into the other.
A simple example:  In a Tabletop RPG, the game will start with the character getting out of bed, and seeing their family.  The two examples below represent the difference between more and less immediate interaction.  Most of this will be expository, imagine the way text adventures tend to play.

Example 1:
You wake up in a bed.  There is a dresser nearby and a window to your right.  Stairs at one end of the room lead down to where you can hear voices and sizzling noises.
You descend the stairs after dressing and see two people standing in a Kitchen, they are cooking food on a stove.  They smile when they see you.

Example 2:
You wake up in your cushy bed.  Light streams in through your bedroom window, your old dresser sits nearby.  From the stairway at the end of your room, you can hear the voices of your mother and sister working diligently on a breakfast you probably almost slept through.  They seem to be arguing, which is fairly common when they’re both trying to cook.
You come downstairs yawning and your sister and mother immediately stop talking and turn to you, smiling as if nothing is wrong.  You see several foods on the stove, bacon and eggs, toast, and nearby a bowl of sliced fruit.

Example 2 is a touch more verbose, and creates a much different and well-rounded picture of the situation and characters, which will greatly influence the character’s actions.  As I see it, based on this, the best approach is to identify the relationships between one NPC and another, and possibly how the NPCs feel about the PC, but avoid telling the PC  how they feel.  When games tell me someone is my girlfriend, I don’t care, but given the chance to choose my own, I care a great deal.  Characterizing the relationships between NPCs creates the feeling of a full world and gives insight into how the world works.  It allows for the player to begin to understand the world, and how they can react to it.
Something I haven’t largely addressed is how to write a stories where the player actively takes on the role of another character, one written not as a blank slate, but as a person all their own, whose shoes we’d love to jump into.  I’ve focused most of my work on how players act when given blank slate avatars, and I have little knowledge on this subject.
Anyway, to recap.  The first part of most stories is the exposition and introduction wherein we make the implicit promise.  This scene setting should, as in most stories, characterize the world and introduce us to the types of relationships that exist.  It should give the audience an opinion, whatever that opinion might be, and provoke some kind of emotional reaction, by being familiar enough that the audience can relate to it in some way, but detached enough that they can feel to react as they see fit.
I feel like I will probably clarify this more in the future.  Largely, these articles are me working through my own ideas to arrive at important conclusions.  I’m happy to see my point disagreed with, and happy to entertain a dialogue about where to go from here.
Thanks for reading.

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