Your story should not follow a classic Aristotelian structure (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement), but should rather go in medias res. Get straight to the point and establish the three C’s: conflicts, choices, and consequences!
The beginning of your story is important, and that in every sense. Because your players want to play your story to be able to make decisions. Therefore, offer them this possibility as quickly and often as possible, otherwise you will fail to meet their expectations and they might leave the story before you had the chance to captivate them.
Refrain from using longer text passages to slowly unfold your story in order to build atmosphere or convey background knowledge. Instead, allow your players to quickly and actively take part in the story. Three or four subsequent story segments with Player Choices, each with a short follow-up text, will successfully suck them into the story and make sure that they keep playing.
Your first scene should grip your players immediately. Keep your text segments short and surprise your players, unsettle them, or have their first decision be a moral conflict. More detailed explanations about the initial situation, the character of the hero, and the world can be given later. Instead, create suspense, making your players wonder whether their first decisions are “correct”.
Ever since we have been designing the beginnings of our interactive audiobooks following this mantra, the bounce rate of players has dropped considerably. Previously, 33.4 % of players left our stories during the first event, and only 46.3 % continued to event five or beyond. After switching to shorter text passages and more frequent choices, the bounce rate at the first event dropped to 12.7 %, and the number of players staying until event five or beyond increased to 79.6 %.
Originally, our interactive teenage love story “Herzklau” (“Heart Thief”) started with the main character’s best friend picking them up to go to the mall. After the first Player Choice came a 170 seconds long text passage, detailing the back story of the two best friends. To improve upon this verbose beginning, we rewrote that passage into a dialogue which we splitted into three story segments, each of them presenting a Player Choice and consisting of only about 30 to 40 seconds of text.
Not only does the dialogue now reveal the back story, players can also choose between ironic, friendly, encouraging, mocking, or neutral answers to respond to their friend. This immediately turns players into active participants and allows them to identify with the main character and develop an emotional connection with them. In other words, within a short amount of time, players become part of the story and make it their own.
So try to make the beginning as interactive as possible and start your story with providing the first three to four Player Choices as fast as possible. These choices do not have to be, and seldomly are, relevant for the overall plot. But they can have a huge impact on the situation at hand, on the relationship to another character, or on the personality displayed by the player character.
The following scenarios offer a dynamic beginning and can happen before the actual plot starts. The examples all have one thing in common: they immediately place the player within the action, but they also give them a rough idea of the world they have entered and what kind of character they are playing.
Dialogues are interactions. If we are in a conversation, we do not just passively listen for several minutes, rather we interrupt our counterpart, take stances, present objections, and answer questions. This generates a high dynamic which you can use for a simple, but effective entrance into your story.
Examples of a quick dialogue entrance:
“Without telling you why, you have been brought before the king. He eyes you appraisingly. ‘They say thou art the best fighter of my guard. Be that true?’”
“The door swings open and an attractive blonde storms into your office, seething with rage. ‘Was it you who had Frank Shellington arrested?! That man is my client!’ Do you wish to justify your actions, or do you ask the woman to introduce herself properly first?”
“Before you can even put a foot down on Mars, one of the customs officers of the empire confronts you. ‘Your signature identifies you as a cargo vessel of the merchant class. Do you have any goods to declare?’ Do you wish to tell him of the secret load of frost emitters, lie to him, or try to bribe him?”
If you dream, you often cannot remember how it started. A dream usually starts in the middle of things. Where you are, how you got there, and who the other people in your dream are, often remain vague, not to mention specific details. Still, our dreams work. While we are dreaming, we accept the lack of any such prior knowledge. Despite that, we still more or less know what we need to do. You can use this for your interactive story and have players start with a dream of their player character. The great advantage is that you can end the events of a dream at any point you wish. Once the player character is awake, you can use longer text passages to roll out your actual story.
Examples of a quick dream entrance:
“You are dreaming. A great plain spreads in front of you. There are mountains looming ahead, a sea is glistening to your left, and to the right you can make out the edge of a forest. In which direction will you go?”
“You are dreaming. A giant tree towers above you. Do you wish to climb it, or do you wish to have a closer look at its trunk?”
“You are dreaming that you are standing in the corridor of a shabby hotel. In the flickering light of the neon lamps you can see two doors at the end of this corridor. Which one will you open? The left door or the right door?”
The Action Scene
A dangerous fight, a thrilling chase, or the secret infiltration of a building. There are many ways to start your story with a scene that demands quick and important decisions from your players. Strike a high narrative pace and enthrall the players with the events of your story!
Examples of a quick action entrance:
“It seems that a private eye like you is not really welcome in Joe Molese’s Night Club. As the doorman recognizes you, he charges at you with his fists flying. Do you try to sidestep, or do you try to land a punch?”
“The loud yells of the city watch erupt behind you. All of this just because of an apple? Will you try to disappear in the throng on the market square, or do you run into the nearest alley?”
“You crouch behind the bushes without moving while the eyes of the goblin warrior scan the edge of the forest. As he turns away from you, you see your chance. Will you sneak away behind his back, or will you try to overpower him without a noise?”
Exploring The Past of the Player Character
By putting three short Player Choices about the past of the player character at the beginning of your story, you not only provide the player with a quick entrance, they also get an idea of who the player character actually is and what their motivation might be. This definition of the character’s past can, but does not have to be, important throughout the later course of the story. But it will certainly remain in the player’s mind and influence their future decisions in the game.
Examples of a quick past history entrance:
“You were lucky to enjoy a carefree childhood. How did you spend it? In the library, at the training ground, or in the streets of the city?”
“As a child you were witness to soldiers burning down the farm of a peasant who had not paid his taxes. What was it that you swore back then? To never be poor, or to always fight against injustice?”
“Your first love left you for someone else long ago and that hurt a lot. Who did you blame for it? Him, yourself, or no one?”
Defining The Personality of the Player Character
Moral Player Choices at the beginning of your story have three advantages. They can offer an insight into the game world (genre, setting), they have no influence on the later plot (being a flavor choice), and they allow the player to determine the personality of the player character and find out who they want to be in the story.
Examples of a quick personality entrance:
“Your commander gave you the task of looking after his horse during the battle. But you wish to aid your comrades in combat. What is more important to you? Follow his order, or proving your courage?”
“A friend of yours erroneously believes that it was he who shot down the enemy spaceship. Do you allow him to keep believing so, or do you explain to him that the credit belongs to you?”
“Your best friend is arguing with another friend, but she is in the wrong. Do you stand by her or do you criticize her behavior openly?”
As you can see, there are many ways to quickly jump into the story, grip the player, and from there roll out the greater plot. But do not cling too much to the examples given here, instead find an entrance that is special and unique to your particular story.
Here is a little mind exercise to achieve this:
If your story were to immediately begin with a Player Choice, without any further context, what would it be and what story would it tell your players?