Good stories evoke emotions. If we are reading, watching, or hearing a well-told story, then we will automatically empathize with the characters. We feel what they feel, be it fear or joy, sadness or tension. And then we want to know how the story continues. This is especially true for interactive stories since here the players are not just passive consumers, but part of the story itself.
To convey these emotions to the player in a convincing way, interactive stories are usually written in the present tense, using a second-person narrator. This narration will automatically place the player within the story, while the present tense creates a feeling of immediacy and tension. Since the player is supposed take part in the plot, these emotions are extremely important. The following elements will help you to create tension and evoke your player’s feelings.
Players of interactive stories want to be reinforced in their decisions. They want to feel that they did the right thing and that their choice mattered for the course of events. So reward your players often and in different ways.
You can, for example, have the other characters in the story give feedback to the player character for their heroic deeds. This can be praise from an officer who learned that the player chased off the wolves in the nearby forest, or the grateful glance from an old woman with whom the player shared some of their bread. This kind of reward is of course predestined for a companion character who can praise and encourage the player at any time.
Also let the player know if they’ve made important progress in the game. This can be done through comments from secondary characters or even through meta information. In the computer game “Elex”, some dialogues are accompanied by the hint that the player just made an important decision. It can be that simple and still work.
You can also reward the player with the discovery of items like weapons or tools, or by giving them a new ability. Instead of taking the easy and short path along the road, the player risks the longer and more dangerous way through the mountains? Have them meet an old monk who rewards them for their hardships with a healing potion or the ability to summon a spectral sword.
But rewards do not always have to be tied to story progress or character development. Use hidden knowledge to make your world deeper and more mysterious and to reward the player for discovering such knowledge. Have insatiably curious players find a yellowed parchment in a dungeon cell providing information about the city, the war among the gods, or the secret affairs of the earl. This does not only give your players a good feeling but will also add further layers to your game world.
No, this is not about forcing your will upon the player and making their bow to some authority. You are not supposed to punish your player, of course, but rather their player character. And only for the purpose of evoking the player’s emotions and making your story more dangerous, vivid, and varied. Effectively, your punishment is supposed to be a reward. How this can work is best illustrated with a short anecdote.
Example: Provoke Your Players, Not Their Characters
In pen-and-pager RPGs – a kind of narrative role-playing game where players, using just a set of basic rules, a character sheet, and a pen, are being led through an adventure by a game master – there is a problem that will occasionally surface. At the start of the adventure, the heroes are being approached by their future employer with the request to help them with some task. Since accepting this task is necessary for the story to move on, but players of pen-and-paper games are allowed to choose rather freely in what they want to do, it can sometimes be laborious for all of the participants to find the motivation to discover the fate of a missing scout or search the sewers for the reason for the receding water, all for the paltry sum of 50 gold coins. In most cases, it will end with everyone smiling through gritted teeth and accepting the task, or with the game master just skipping the intro scene so that the story can get rolling.
One resourceful game master had a terrific idea to solve this problem. During different adventures with their play group they noticed players were not really interested in saving the world and that even the wise king’s speech meant as little to them as an early appearance by the sinister arch villain who wanted to open the gates of hell. All of this may have mattered to the group of heroes within the game, but not to the seasoned players around the table.
But this changed abruptly when, one day, the game master rolled a random event whereby a thief stole something from one of the player characters. The item in question was just a worthless old dagger and the thief had no significance to the actual plot – he didn’t even have a name or a back story – but the players just snapped. The saving of the world had to be postponed, huge bribes were being paid to the local thieves’ guild, witnesses interrogated, and hounds bought. Whatever the cost: the thief had to be found and the dagger retrieved! Because this was – contrary to the greater conflict of the story – a personal matter!
Prompted by the sudden zeal and motivation of the group, the game master adjusted the plot of the adventure and used the thief to steer the heroes in the desired direction by having the offender be part of a larger conspiracy which the heroes then uncovered with great enthusiasm. Not only did the adventure end with the world being saved, but the dagger was returned as well, by the arch villain themself, including a submissive apology.
As you can see, every player has a vulnerability. Use it to provoke and motivate the,, to pull them deeper into your story and make it their own. To spur your players on, take objects of value from their player characters, withhold knowledge and abilities from them, explicitly telling them so, and have them fail at reaching a desired secondary goal.
The latter can be, for example, a subplot in which they are trying to win the favor of some character within the story which would open a new story path to the player. Show the player that this possibility exists and offer them a seemingly simple solution. And then let them fail! Most players will now be very motivated and will put a lot of effort into proving to themselves – and to you – that they can actually do it, by playing the story again or making all future decisions far more carefully. It will certainly increase the satisfaction and the gaming experience for your players.
Reward your players with additional knowledge about the background and the secrets of your world. This knowledge should not be crucial to the plot, but just add more zest to your story. These clues and information can be presented in many different ways.
Journal Entries (“Bioshock”)
The action shooter “Bioshock” has – like many shooters – not much plot. Instead, the fantastic atmosphere of the creepy underwater city is created by numerous journal entries in the form of tape recordings. These belonged to residents of the city and document from different angles how this Utopian place turned into a ruinous lair of mutated killers and madmen.
Inscriptions (“Dark Souls”)
At first glance, this combat-focused action RPG does not exactly impress with its story. Yet this grim world turns out to be very fascinating since there are numerous inscriptions to be found on the walls, telling of the creation of the world, its gods, heroes, and monsters. This elevates the game to something more than just the repeated slaughtering of demons and undead, and it paints a much more complex picture of what this world actually is in the player’s mind.
Conversations (“Fallout 3”)
This post-apocalyptic RPG above all impresses with its unbounded freedom. There is no questlog to be found and, except for the main mission, there does not seem to be any other task. Seem! – that is the key word here. Because if you pay close attention to the dialogues with the numerous characters in the game and record them, you begin to see the game world in a whole different light. Adultery, rape, pedophilia, aliens, drug addiction, crazy scientists, suicides – underneath the plain surface of Fallout, human abysses begin to open and the player can feel how they are being sucked ever deeper into this depraved world.
Such discoveries lend themselves well to branching the tree diagram or they can be used as hidden Player Choices. As the author, you are confronted with the problem that, to prevent the tree diagram from growing and taking on huge dimensions, you quickly have to bring many different choices back to the same text segment which can make the player feel as if their decisions are meaningless. Discoveries allow you to construct a short side path that rewards the player for their choice but immediately afterwards returns to the main path again. This requires only a little extra work from you but enhances your story considerably.
With hidden Player Choices you can reward particularly creative and curious players. Describe a room with a table, some shelves, and a lamp. Ask the player whether they want to examine the table or the lamp. The kicker: the “shelves” have been declared as a valid answer as well and will lead to a third event. But this Player Choice has been hidden. Any player who still discovers it will certainly be thrilled. But do not hide such options too well since your players are supposed to have the chance to find them. To ensure this, you can already hint at these hidden options in the blurb of your interactive story to make players aware of it. But you can also place this hint in the story itself, for example by having a character point out that they have spotted an odd book on those shelves, or by describing these shelves in a prominent way, basically pointing the player to the fact that they can deviate from the listed options here.
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is the continued progress of the protagonist from a little, irrelevant weakling to a superhero equipped with superpowers. Luke Skywalker has completed this hero’s journey, and so has Harry Potter. These two examples show how this concept can evoke deep emotions.
In role-playing games, these contrasting phases are one of the highlights for every player. It starts when, in the beginning, the player is being treated with scorn by even the city watch, when the discovery of an old, rusty sword equals that of a treasure, and when each biting rat is still a deadly menace. This makes players realize how insignificant and helpless they are, making them long to become stronger, more powerful, and more respected. This desire culminates during the showdown when the hero, equipped with a legendary sword, a suit of fire armor, and a backpack full of healing potions, rushes into the final battle like a godly being and turns every henchman of evil to ashes by crashing flaming meteorites down on their heads from the skies.
So use the hero’s journey to show your player how their character is making progress aside from the progress of the story. Have other characters deliberately act differently to the protagonist after reaching certain goals, and give the player character new abilities, items, and Player Choices that were not available to them beforehand. This allows for a positive identification with the player character and binds the player to their character, the world, and the story.
To immerse oneself means to enter a different world and get completely swallowed by it. In an audiobook, especially an interactive one, this is of course of great importance. You want your player to get lost in your story, see the boundaries to reality blur and have both worlds become one.
Immersion can, for instance, be achieved through the narrative viewpoint of your interactive story, by addressing the player directly. But it is also achieved from your story and secondary characters provoking the thoughts of your player and from your Player Choices presenting the player with real challenges. Furthermore, variables can be used to record the decisions the player makes to confront them with those decisions later on.
You can enhance your player’s immersion even more by making them answer in whole sentences instead of just single words. For this to work, you will have to phrase the questions of the Player Choices carefully and state fitting synonyms for your Player Utterances. For the gaming experience, it makes a huge difference whether the player announces their decision with the word “attack” or with the sentence, “I draw my sword and charge into battle.” Be aware, though, that players who are not familiar with Voice yet and especially children will prefer shorter and simpler answers.
Sound effects, ambient noises, and music can also add to immersing your players in the story.
And finally you can try to influence the player’s own environment. A horror story will certainly be much scarier and more gripping if you ask your player to turn off all lights in the room and play the story in complete darkness. This will no doubt make for a haunting experience, in every sense of the word.