The Craft of Telling Interactive Stories
The main distinction between interactive content and linear texts are the different paths the story can follow, with different events happening on those paths. An interactive story consists of either parallelly or sequentially ordered story segments. Based on their decisions, the players therefore construct their very own story.
To an author of interactive stories this presents one problem: even if every story segment of an interactive story only provides two options that a user can choose from, leading to two different new story paths, you would have to write 128 text segments for just seven choices, and 256 segments for eight choices. With twenty choices you would even have to write more than a million text segments. Obviously, this would be impossible.
The simple trick is not to keep forking your tree diagram to infinity, but to merge different story paths back into one main thread, or to bring certain story paths to a premature end.
How you achieve this without limiting your story too much and without frustrating or boring your players will be explained in the following subsections.
Story Segment: the events between two Player Utterances. Story segments can be subdivided into smaller text segments for technical, narrative, or gameplay reasons.
The Four Types of Player Choices
The most important element of an interactive audiobook are the choices available to the player. They allow them to actively influence the plot and to become part of it. The story alone will not create immersion, player identification, and player emotions; this will be achieved, first and foremost, by the choices made available to the player.
However, these choices and their consequences lead to the biggest problem of writing interactive stories: the ever-expanding tree diagram. Your Player Choices should allow players to make real decisions. This heightens the tension and forges a stronger connection with the plot. Players have to feel that their choices are meaningful and have consequences, otherwise your story will lose its appeal. At the same time, you cannot open a completely new story path every time the player makes a choice.
When writing interactive stories, it is very helpful to already have a good idea of the larger story paths you wish to offer to the player and what ending you wish to work toward (this will be covered in greater detail in Chapter 9: Plotting).
For now, we will just look at the four types of choices interactive stories can have, and we will show you how you can use them to control the escalating growth of your tree diagram while at the same time increasing the quality of your story.
Identification: specifically the identification of the player with the Player Character and their choices to create high immersion.
Fake Choices: Avoid them
Fake choices are choices that are in fact not really choices. No matter which decision the player makes, the story will continue with the same event. This is especially frustrating if the player is being offered options that are explicitly denied to them afterwards.
Example 2: Fake Choice – The Door
[Narrator] “You reach the second floor. Do you wish to take the left or the right door?”
🗣️ [Player] “Open the left door!”
[Narrator] “With a battle cry you raise your weapon and charge the dragon…”
🗣️ [Player] “Open the right door!”
[Narrator] “You open the right door and enter the room beyond…”
The player chose to open the left door. However, they are told this door is locked and that they have to use the right door instead. From the player’s viewpoint this means that they consciously decided against one event (using the right door), but that this event occurred anyway. At the same time, their actual wish (taking the left door) was ignored. This makes for a bad gaming experience and only leads to player disappointment and frustration.
Example 3: Fake Choice – The Autograph
[Narrator] “Your favorite star is getting swarmed by a horde of screaming girls. Do wish to get an autograph too?”
🗣️ [Player] “No!”
[Narrator] “Seeing all those hysterical teens, you have no desire to join them. But your best friend persuades you to get an autograph anyway. You give in and patiently get in line…”
🗣️ [Player] “Yes!”
[Narrator] “Finally you are closer to your star than ever before. This opportunity to get an autograph might not come again. Beyond excited, you get in line…”
In one of our very early stories the player is asked whether they wish to get an autograph from their favorite star. Since the autograph will be important later on in the plot, the player has to be “forced” to get it. We solved this problem in a clumsy way, using a fake choice and the question whether the player wants to have the autograph. If they say yes, they receive it directly; if they say no, their best friend persuades them to get it regardless. For the player, this means that they decided against doing a certain thing but then does it anyway. Not great!
If you look at interactive stories in all their manifestations, you begin to notice that they are full of fake choices. Many writers do not wish to start new, sprawling story paths, or they get the feeling that some text segments are too long. Depending on the platform, there are also limitations on the time laps in interactive stories between two user interactions (more on this in Chapter 5: Technical and Textual Requirements). All of this leads to writers weaving Player Choices into the text where the story does not really offer a choice, thus forcing the author-intended decision upon the player in any case.
Usually, the player will only learn if their decision was a real or fake one if they play the story again. But many questions are already surrounded by the aura of a fake question. Therefore, avoid the use of such questions from the beginning.
Your goal should be to have as few fake choices as possible. Only this will ensure a high replayability where the decisions the player makes have real meaning for the course of the story.
One fake choice might be excusable. But several can frustrate your players and lead them to abandon your story. So avoid offering an action to the player in the first place that you do not want them to take anyway. The next point will show you how you can solve this issue in a much better way.
Flavor Choices: The Better Fake Choice
A flavor choice is not a decision on WHAT action the player wishes to take but on HOW or WHY the player wishes to perform that action. The player is not being asked, “What should happen?” but, “How are you going to do it?”
Flavor choices have one big advantage over fake choices. They offer additional emotional value to the player and give them the opportunity to add distinct attributes and personality traits to their player character.
Use flavor choices instead of fake choices to contain your tree diagram. They do not require much effort from the author while at the same time improving the gaming experience considerably.
Example 4: Flavor Choice – The Door
[Narrator] “You are standing in front of a door. Do you to wish to storm through or open it noiselessly?”
🗣️ [Player] “I storm through the door!”
[Narrator] “You kick open the door and barge into the room. The guards inside are taken completely by surprise and you manage to quickly defeat them…”
🗣️ [Player] “I open the door noiselessly!”
[Narrator] “Carefully you turn the handle. There are several guards in the room, but they have not noticed you yet. Drawing your sword, you ambush and defeat them…”
Just as with a fake choice, both actions lead back to the same path without the tree diagram branching any further. However, the flavor choice is much more engaging for the player. Firstly, they have to weigh the option to “storm through” against the option to “open noiselessly”, deciding which action will have a better chance of success. They also have to choose what kind of character they want to be in the story. Do they want to play the role of a fearless daredevil or rather that of a cunning hero, striking from the shadows? By using flavor choices, you can therefore create meaningful identification opportunities for the player.
Lets take a look at how the other fake choice (Example 3) can also be reworked into an emotional and meaningful question:
Example 5: Flavor Choice – The Autograph
[Narrator] “You desperately need to get an autograph from your favorite star. How will you ask for it? Boldly or timidly?”
🗣️ [Player] “I ask boldly!”
[Narrator] “You push your way through the crowd of girls and plant yourself directly in front of your star. Winking cheekily, you hand him the autograph card…”
🗣️ [Player] “I ask timidly!”
[Narrator] “Somewhat uneasy, you shuffle between the other girls. When your star suddenly smiles at you, you are overcome by nerves and you ask in a whisper if you can have his autograph…”
Despite the rearrangement of the Player Choice, the author ensures that the player will receive the required autograph. In contrast to the fake choice, the question has now emotional and meaningful value. With their answer, the player decides on a personality trait for their character. Furthermore the question creates suspense. It could very well be that one of the options offers a greater chance of success or entails other consequences for the plot. At least at the moment of decision, this question offers twofold tension for the player.
Use flavor choices instead of fake choices to control the growth of your tree diagram. In this way you prevent the player from becoming frustrated and also offer them greater opportunity to identify with the player character and shape them to their liking. This creates immersion and a strong connection with the player character.