How to Write Interactive Fiction and Interactive Audio Stories – 011 – Narrative Dynamics

Ending

Just like the beginning, the ending of an interactive audiobook is of great importance. The reason for this stems from the unique appeal of this kind of storytelling: players play your story because they can influence it and thus can experience their very own version of that story. And how they rate a story very often depends on its ending.

There are many books, movies, TV shows, and video games that have been lambasted for their unsatisfactory endings and have left many disappointed consumers in their wake. For an interactive story, the danger of this is even greater because players will experience it as their own story to which they will have a unique and intimate connection.

Your last scene should therefore offer a grand finale. Your player has probably spent some time in the story and carefully made their decisions. Reward them for this investment and give them the feeling of having accomplished something out of the ordinary.

If you are writing a series consisting of several episodes, take care that the ending of each episode rounds out that episode in a conclusive way but also provides a cliffhanger for the next episode, giving the player ample satisfaction and, at the same time, motivating them to keep playing. Cliffhangers can be hints at future conflicts in the story, or rhetorical questions about characters or events that might not have been the focus of this episode but will play a more important role in the next one.

Your stories should also – depending on the player’s success or failure – offer different endings. Some story paths might lead to the death of the hero, others can see them defeated or fleeing, but at least one ending should culminate in a spectacular triumph.

So make sure not to write just one satisfying ending, rather make every ending as satisfying as possible! To achieve this, you should first and foremost avoid the following few key mistakes.

The Premature Ending

In the traditional fantasy gamebooks from the 80s and 90s, deaths of the player character come quickly and frequently. This creates permanent tension which can be very appealing, something that is not much of problem when reading a book since the reader can choose how fast they read, and they can simply turn back to the last entry and make a different decision.

In interactive stories for Voice, players cannot simply turn back to a previous page. Therefore you should avoid Player Choices that can lead to an early end of the story. Having the player character die, is usually a convenient way for authors to insert Player Choices without having to spend extra time and effort on writing a completely new story path. But is it a constructive approach? In most cases not. You want your story to be played and you want your players to have fun doing so. So do not let your player characters die early on, and in particular do not have them die in an unnecessary way, or without pointing out beforehand the dangerous consequences their decision might have.

Also, use choices that can lead to the death of the protagonist very sparingly. In the interactive story “Die Meisterin” (“The Mistress”), in five cases out of twelve, the first three Player Choices lead to an abrupt end of the story, without warning or the chance to avoid this. Later in the story, deaths are frequent and sudden as well. You only reach one of the two truly positive endings of the story if you are very lucky. Consequently, in their reviews in the Amazon Alexa Skill Store, players criticized it for being a rather frustrating and disappointing gaming experience.

We recommend you avoid letting the player character die before you are at least two thirds into the story, or before players have reached the next episode. And even then, not without pointing out to the player the probably dangerous turn their decision can take. Do not let them pick an option that seems completely reasonable but which in fact just leads to a random death.

A premature end of a crime story, for example, could be that the player fails to identify or capture the true killer because, though they manage to rescue one of the victims, they missed an important clue or made a bad decision along the way. In this case, players would miss the last part of the story, but they would still end the story with a conciliatory partial success after a sufficiently long playing time.

Of course, we have made such mistakes ourselves. In our very first story, “Der Zauberwald” (“The Magic Forest”), the second Player Choice was whether the player wanted to go on an adventure. If they said no, the skill would just end, which players perceived as very negative, and rightly so. This resulted from our own complacency and lack of forethought. We had not worried about how we would want to draw players into the story, how the beginning should be structured, and what a premature ending would mean to the player. Furthermore, players had absolutely no idea that the answer, “I do not want to go on an adventure,” would lead to the immediate end of the story. We hope that this guide will help you to avoid mistakes like this.

Does this mean that early failure in interactive stories is not permitted at all? No, of course not. You, the author, decide the rules of your own stories. It is very easy, for instance, to turn a supposed weakness into a deliberate strength by elevating failure to the core concept of the game. The video game series “Dark Souls”, that sold a gazillion copies, advertises itself with the fact that every wrong move or decision will result in death. Here, the high level of difficulty is a consciously designed part of the gaming experience and thus works extremely well.

If you want to write a challenging story where death looms behind every corner and is the rule rather than the exception, you should communicate that clearly in the story’s description or in an intro text at the beginning. Go with a dynamic narrative pace and carefully devise your story. For an interactive audiobook, an approach like this would certainly be exciting and innovative.

You should also use save points. In TWIST, you can easily set such save points to give your players the opportunity to jump back a short way in the story and continue from there with a different decision without having to play the whole story again. Do not hesitate to make use of this feature. In Voice, unlike in a book, it can be tedious trying to find and reach a certain point in the story again; this can be frustrating for players and might lead them to abandon your story.

If you want to make it especially interesting, you could write alternative texts for your save points. Choices that led to the death of the player character will not be offered anymore once they reach that point in the story a second time. This certainly means more work for you, but it will provide an incredibly fascinating gaming experience to the player because the story will react dynamically to their decisions. (For a detailed explanation of the practical implementation of save points, we offer coaching to our authors; see Chapter 21: Coaching for Writers.)

The Illogical Ending

Take care to avoid logic errors. If a player’s decision leads to the death of the king or to the marriage between princess Miralda and prince Kasimir, your story should not end with the king knighting the player or Miralda proposing to him. We can see that even experienced authors can easily slip such errors into their stories since it can sometimes be difficult to keep all possible variations of the events of an interactive story constantly in the back of your mind while writing.

Most players will rarely excuse such logical errors, and your story will leave a sour taste in their mouth. To prevent this, have your story playtested to discover and quickly mitigate such problems.

The Incomplete Ending

If you introduce exciting storylines and establish interesting character relationships in your story, you should revisit them or bring them to a conclusion at the end of the story. Again, “Die Meisterin” (“The Mistress”) can serve as a negative example here.

The events in the main part of the story are indeed very thrilling. The player character receives mysterious calls on his cellphone and comes into a conflict with werewolves. Both, player and player character, are unexpectedly drawn into this situation while the reasons for the things happening are only hinted at. All done very well. However, most endings of the story have the player character simply leave the building and take a seat in a café to have some cake. The events do not seem to bother the player character – in contrast to the player – very much. Things that just moments before were fantastical, extraordinary, life-threatening, and incomprehensible are not worthy of further consideration when coffee and cake arrive. A short inner player character monologue would have immensely improved these endings for a comparatively small amount of extra work.

A much better example gives us the computer RPG “Fallout”. In each part of the series, the player has to make decisions about the life and future of secondary characters or whole factions. At the end of the game, every decision relevant to the plot gets some closing credits, telling the player what happened to this or that person and what their life looks like years later on. This is nice, because the story does not end so abruptly. And it is even ingenious, because it allows the player to relive the whole game with all their decisions one final time.

So make sure that each of your endings feels complete, capping off all the central story events and providing emotional closure for the player. Even fairy tales do this with one simple sentence: “And they lived happily ever after.”

The Good Ending

A good ending for the player does not necessarily have to be the best possible ending of the story. It is legitimate to make only the most triumphant ending hard to reach. This can be an incentive for players to play the story, or part of it, again to reach the perfect ending. However, the ending should always feel good and justified, no matter what. This can even be a premature death of the player character if it is told in a fascinating way, for example an epic battle in which the hero dies amidst his enemies, bleeding from multiple wounds, but having fought bravely to the bitter end.

Just bear in mind that the ending will have a huge influence on how players will rate your story, and thus on whether they will play it again or even play some of your other stories. So take your time to carefully check and revise your endings. They should give the player a feeling of “Wow! What an ending!” regardless of whether the player reached all their story goals or not.

A good voice actor can contribute immensely to that feeling. In the interactive story “Das Finstertal” (“The Dark Vale”) by Jörg Benne, the player character can be killed by a demon. The corresponding text passage is very short and simple:

“You cannot bear it any longer and jump out of your hiding place. The monster hisses and stalks toward you. You try to edge your chair between you and the monster, but it sweeps the furniture aside like a small toy. Before you can even scream, its claws close around your throat and bring your life to an end.”

The voice actor, Bodo Primus, recorded this passage, and especially the last sentence, with a hissing voice and so much pathos that you can actually feel the claws being wrapped around your neck, making the listener wonder if it might not be the voice actor themself who has turned into the demon. A great idea, enhancing the ending and reconciling the player with their failure.

You will certainly be able to come up with many more ways to write or design a great ending. Do not hesitate to try out new things and use different means like content, language, voice actors, music, or sound effects to surprise your players and reward them! They will appreciate it.

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