The best way of writing an interactive story is to use time-delayed decisions. They allow for a high level of interactivity, a great playing experience, and a lot of replay value without increasing your workload too much. For this you use variables that change depending on the individual choices of the player. At a later point you can check the value of these variables and have according events occur for the player. What variables are exactly and what else they are useful for will be explained in the next chapter of this guide. For now you only need to understand how they can help you to better structure your interactive story.
With the simple use of variables and time-delayed decisions you can begin to write interactive stories that truly come alive and in which every decision the player makes can influence the main plot thread. To understand this, it might be easier to stop thinking of a single plot thread running from left to right and rather start thinking in chapters and scenes.
Let us return to the example of the princess who is going to marry the prince at the end. Imagine there are seven scenes in which the princess has the opportunity to either impress the prince or fail to do so. This can be the attempt to train her sword fighting skills in front of him, the attempt to flirt with him during a dialogue, or the selection of a suitable present for her beloved. The different decisions of the player can lead to different degrees of success or failure. The prince could react to the actions of the princess with great enthusiasm, some interest, or sheer boredom. By using variables, you can now assign specific values to the decisions of the player or the corresponding reactions of the princess which you can then interpret later on.
You could start by creating a variable named “attraction”. Depending on how successful a decision was, the value of this variable either increases, decreases, or maybe stays the same. If the princess’s fencing skills turned out to be decent, the variable “attraction” could be changed by “plus 3”. If the player embarrassed themselves, the value of the variable will be lowered by 3 instead. You repeat this process for all of the seven scenes, coming to a final value between minus 21 and plus 21. At the end of the last scene you interpret the value of the variable. If the princess garnered an “attraction” of minus 21 to minus 5, the romantic relationship ends with the prince falling in love with a different princess instead. If she garnered an “attraction” of minus 4 to plus 10, the prince will tell her that he needs some extra time to think it over. If the player garnered an “attraction” of plus 11 or more, they both marry and live happily ever after.
You can also interpret the events of these seven scenes separately, for example by using variables like “sword fighting” or “present” and giving them the value “1” for success and “0” for failure. If the princess then fails in her attempt to flirt with the prince, it will allow him to give a reply that refers to an earlier decision of the player. For example, “Telling jokes is not one of your strengths, but you make for a passable swordswoman,” if her fencing demonstration was successful. Or, “I should have known that your jokes are as dull as your blade,” if not.
As you can see, time-delayed decision offer you many possibilities to tell your story in a dynamic way, to give your player the impression of freedom of choice, and to surprise her with the fact that the other characters in the story will remember her decisions. This makes your work easier because you can just merge different story paths at certain points in the story. No matter what decisions the player made in individual scenes, they will always reach the same point at the end of the chapter, but it will happen under different portents that again can have different consequences in the later parts of the story.
Here is another example of how you can use time-delayed decisions for telling fascinating interactive stories. In a wild west story the player enters a saloon and is being asked whether he wants to flirt with the barmaid or challenge the local sheriff to a fistfight. Since the main plot thread requires it, at the end of the scene the cowboy will land in jail, no matter which choice they make in the saloon. Without time-delayed decisions this would be a classic fake decision. But by using variables and doing some additional writing, you can turn these events into a gripping and living story. Since, depending on his previous decision, his imprisonment can have different omens.
If the player did flirt with the barmaid, she could have slipped him a lock pick when they were arrested which will allow him to easily escape from jail. In this case, the variable “lock pick” would get the value “1”. If they exchanged blows with the sheriff, they will be watched even closer while in jail, making the later escape much harder. In this case the variable “brawl” would get the value “1”.
As you can see, time-delayed decisions allow you to tell complex stories that are very interactive and varied even if they quickly return to the same main plot thread (in this case the character’s jail time). Not only does this make for a great immediate gaming experience, it also predestines your story for being played a second or even third time.
Apart from the possibility of failing or dying early on in the story, the player’s decisions can also lead to different endings in the story.
An interactive crime story; depending on their decisions and the story paths they’ve followed, the player might end up:
- Convicting the true murderer,
- Having an innocent person arrested,
- Convicting an accomplice while the murderer walks free,
- Finding out who the murderer is, but being unable to catch them,
- Killing the murderer,
- Convicting no one because the evidence is not clear,
- Or being killed by the murderer.
Construct your story in such a way that it features at least one very good and one bad ending for the player. Between these two, there should be more good than bad endings of different nuance and character. In this way, players will feel that their choices are being acknowledged and accepted by the author, but they will also feel the desire to play the story again and bring it to a – from their viewpoint – perfect conclusion.
One More Tip for Writing
In our talks with different authors, one of the most recurring questions was what the best practical approach to writing an interactive story was. Our clear recommendation is to not write one story path all the way to the end and then go back and add some Player Choices, but to always write only up to the next Player Choice and then finish all the texts for the different options offered before moving on. Otherwise you will end up with a very linear story, packed with many uninspired fake choices.
The Structure of Interactive Stories:
- Take care to make your interactive story neither too one-dimensional nor too complex.
- One-dimensional stories only have one main plot thread. Compensate for the player’s restricted freedom in influencing the story by using emotional Player Choices that give the player a lot of freedom in shaping the personality of their player character and the way in which they react.
- Branching stories have one main plot thread that regularly splits into different smaller paths that converge again on the main thread. This gives the player more freedom in influencing the story.
- Time-delayed decisions give you the chance to revisit the previous actions of the player character at a later point in the story to have different events occur and thus vary the plot. You do this by using variables.
- Different endings allow you to tell a perceived broad range of stories with just one story (especially if your story is one-dimensional and if you use time-delayed decisions).
- If the player misses important information on the story path they have chosen, make sure to give them this information at a different place instead.
- Always write up to the next Player Choice only and then finish all the smaller paths resulting from this choice before continuing along the main path again. This way you avoid making fake choices and retain more narrative wriggle room for yourself as you move on.