Conflicts are what drive the story. What drives your player, however, are their goals. There is no reason not to present your player with a specific goal. As Spartacus, they could, for example, throw him into a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The player’s goal will be clear: they have to win this fight. If they fails, the story will most likely end badly for their character. So you can basically tell only two versions of the story here. One where the player wins, and one where they are defeated. There might even be several secondary goals like freeing more slaves, building one’s own army, and forming important alliances. But the main problem remains: the player cannot depart from the predetermined path. All of those secondary goals only serve to reach the good ending of the story.
Alternatively, you can offer the player several independent goals that might even contradict each other. Returning to the Spartacus example, the player could either become the best gladiator of all times, or start a rebellion to initiate societal change, or just secretly flee from the gladiator school to spend the rest of his life as free man in the mountains of his homeland. These different goals will lead to completely different stories and your player will have to pick one of them during the course of the story.
Another possibility is the arm-and-fingers technique. Here, the story mostly follows one single main plot thread, simply moving from one chapter to the next. Within those chapters there are Player Choices and small branches and, through the use of variables, the choices of the player remain relevant right up to the ending. But after each chapter, no matter how it ends, the next chapter is always the same one. This is the “arm” of your interactive story. Now follow the “fingers”. After the second last chapter your story splits into several final chapters that are so different from each other that they will lead your player to completely different goals.
Let us use the Spartacus example again to illustrate this: The second last chapter ends with the rebel army having retreated to a mountain and being besieged by Roman soldiers. Now, the player has to make an important decision: Will he try to directly fight the Roman troops? Will he turn over his Gaulish ally because it was his cruel deeds that forced the Romans to act in the first place? Will he endure the siege until the pirate ships arrive to bring him and his army to a land where they are safe? Will he split his army to undertake a risky two-pronged attack on the Romans? Will he just flee to save his own life, abandoning all the warriors who trusted him? Or will he open diplomatic negotiations with the Romans to gain safe conduct for himself and everyone else?
Depending on the player’s choice, the last chapter will of course play out completely differently. And even here you will have many possibilities to confront the player with choices that they have to weigh carefully in order to reach their desired goal.
In short, it should be obvious that giving your player different goals in your interactive story will lead to more work for you. If you think that your story and that the experience of your player are worth it, then you should take this technique into consideration.
Once the basic framework of your interactive story is in place, you can decide whether you want to insert some more freedom and choices into your story. If your answer is yes, you can include one or several subplots.
While the player is trying to prevent the space ship from crashing into the artificial sun, defeat the evil sorcerer, or solve the obscure murder case, they also have the chance to decipher the mysterious message of an alien race long since extinct, find a cure for their sick father, or win the heart of the female inspector they are working with. These subplots can be completely independent from the main story and will provide many possibilities to offer new interesting Player Choices without your story branching out too much. Subplots can take place simultaneously with the main story or in between main story events.
If you have a simultaneous subplot, its events and Player Choices appear within the main plot.
In an interactive crime story, for example, the player could be an investigator accompanied by a female inspector. During the investigation, there are frequent interactions and dialogues with her. During these, the player can gain her trust and get to know her better. Make sure that those passages are not too one-sided whereby the player only has one way in which to approach the inspector. Instead, there should be different options for them to establish that relationship.
Imagine that both have to break into a house through a window. In this case, an interesting Player Choice would be whether the player wishes to help their partner in doing so, which would distinguish them as their guardian but would also assign a weaker role to her; or whether they allow her to perform the task alone, trusting that she is strong enough to do so but risking at the same time that their behavior may be interpreted as disinterest.
Like in real life, there is no actual right or wrong here. It depends on how you construct the investigator’s personality and how you convey this to the player. In the end, different approaches should allow the player to reach different goals. The development of the relationship between the two characters can be charted with the use of variables. This enables you to check these variables at certain points in the story and then have according events for this subplot take place.
After they return from their field work, you could check the number of successful dialogues and actions between the player character and the inspector. If the value is high enough, the inspector could share a personal story from her private life to which the player can react in different ways. If the value is too low, this event will either not happen until much later in the story, will not take place at all, or will provide the player with fewer options for their own reaction.
The main difference of a separate subplot to a simultaneous subplot is that it only appears at certain isolated points within the main story.
For our crime story example this could mean that the heroine investigates the murder case all by themselves. Once the player has completed a chapter or scene, she can now play a short episode from their private life which includes regular dates or meetings with a young man. The subplot – a romance with this man – will thus take place in separate chapters and scenes that have nothing or next to nothing to do with the main plot.
It will be much more immersive, of course, if the subplot is somehow tied to the main plot. On the other hand, it is a lot easier for you as a writer to treat the subplot as an entity of its own. Another decision that you will have to make on your own without a clear right or wrong answer.
Tying the Subplot to the Main Plot
You will achieve real immersion if you weave the subplot into the main plot.
For our previous example this could mean that the player can only reach the best ending of the story if they not only find all clues and pieces of evidence and wins the trust of all witnesses, but also manage to form such a close relationship with the inspector that she helps them in the final chapter of your interactive story. Maybe the killer knows some dark secret about them, or it is revealed that the killer already knows the inspector from a much earlier case. In this case the player will need to have built such a strong connection with their partner that they can prevent them, at the end, from taking the law into her own hands. Furthermore, the subplot could provide them with important information that is relevant to solving the case. There are no limits here to what you can do, and the subplot can even make for exciting plot twists within the main story.
Questions, tips, and considerations for the planning of your story:
- When writing an interactive story, it is advantageous to plan the plot, chapters, and scenes beforehand.
- Choose a specific genre: horror, crime, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale, romance, and so on. Mixed genres are also possible.
- Define your game world. Does it consist of known elements that the player is familiar with and that you do not have to explain (old world)? Or does the world consist of new and alien things that the player does not know yet and that you will have to explain during the course of the story (new world)?
- What is the unique feature of your story? What distinguishes it from other stories?
- Who are the main characters? What are the central conflicts arising from your story idea? What story paths and options for interactivity does your story offer?
- Collect as many ideas for events and meaningful or interesting Player Choices as you can come up with. Things that do not work can be weeded out later.
- Divide your story into chapters and scenes. Assign the ideas you gathered to the scenes where you wish to use them. For every scene, define your narrative goal, the central conflict, the acting characters, and the information, items, and abilities the player can gain there. What do the Player Choices of that scene look like and are they meaningful?
- Always finish one chapter first before you start the next one. This allows you to be more flexible if you decide to change the direction of your story or parts of it during the writing process.
- What are the main and secondary goals of the player character and how will you convey them to the player? How do you wish to end the story? Which different endings do you want to offer?
- If you include one or several subplots, will these happen simultaneously with the main plot, be separate from it, or be narratively and structurally woven into the main plot?