How to Write Interactive Fiction and Interactive Audio Stories – 022 – Variables


Variables for attributes offer the exciting opportunity to experience the same story from different perspectives. At the start of the story you could, for example, offer character generation to the player in which their choices define the personality and characteristics of the main character. These Player Choices can be phrased directly or indirectly:

  • “Are you rather strong, smart or agile?”
  • “How do you solve conflicts? With brute force, a cunning mind, or a lot of dexterity?”
  • “Your father had a huge influence on your early life. Was he a builder, a scholar or a goldsmith?”
  • “At a siege, the enemy soldiers were already assaulting the gates with a battering ram. How did you save the fortress from being taken? Did you make a sortie, strengthen the gates with beams, or kill the enemy commander with your bow?”

The player’s decision will lead to the corresponding attributes receiving a certain value. For example, if the player chooses to be a bodybuilder, you could have their “strength set to 10”, “dexterity set to 7”, and “intelligence set to 5”.

Attributes using the example of strength, dexterity, and intelligence (A)

TWIST image: Attributes using the example of strength, dexterity, and intelligence (A)

During character generation and at later points in the story, you can ask several such questions and increase or decrease the corresponding variables accordingly. The attributes, as defined through this process, can then be used to determine the success or failure of specific player actions.

For example, in an interactive thriller story the player could be taking on the role of an agent who has to infiltrate the warehouse of a gang without triggering the alarm. Based on earlier decisions by the player, this agent will have certain values for the variables “strength”, “dexterity”, and “intelligence” which, in the following scene, will influence the result of two of the three possible player actions.

Example 29: Player Choices with Attributes

Text Passage

You are just about to round the corner when you hear footsteps approaching from the side corridor. It is probably one of the goons patrolling the premises. Do you wish to silently overpower him, quickly hide, or outsmart him?


Continuation – “Overpower”

Strength > 9

[Narrator] Unexpectedly, you step out of the shadows and floor the guard with a punch before he can even make a sound…

Strength <10

[Narrator] Confidently, you jump into the corridor to bring him down with an uppercut. But the bandit just takes the blow like nothing and screams, “Alerrrrt!”

Continuation – “Hide”

Dexterity > 7

[Narrator] Thinking fast, you press yourself into a recess of the nearby wall and hold your breath. The guard strolls past you without noticing you…

Dexterity < 8

[Narrator] You press yourself into a recess of the wall and listen with bated breath. The footsteps stop in front of you, then you hear the trigger of a gun being pulled.

[Guard] “I don’t know who you are and what you’re doing here. But I can see the tip of your boots.”

Continuation – “Outsmart”

[Narrator] The oldest trick in the book! You hurl a stone down the dark corridor and it noisily bounces off a wall. The footsteps move away toward the sound and you seize the opportunity to…

Attributes using the example of strength, dexterity, and intelligence (B)

TWIST image: Attributes using the example of strength, dexterity, and intelligence (B)

You can also use attributes as a continuous pattern for all player decisions. For every action that implies high dexterity you award dexterity points, for every action implying high strength you award strength points. Similarly, some events can cause these values to be decreased, such as injuries.

So each chapter and each decision should change these attributes. At the same time, avoid too much complexity. Instead of six attributes like strength, health, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma, two such as “body” and “mind” might be sufficient. Ultimately, you, the author, will have to keep track of the values of all these different variables.

Furthermore, it is a good idea to occasionally give the player feedback about their attributes, especially if there is no character generation in the beginning and attribute values are being determined during the course of the story. For example, if the player is trying to break open a door and does not have great strength but is very dexterous, you could tell them, “You are not strong enough for this. With your nimble fingers you might want to try and manipulate the lock.”


The opportunity for the main character to learn or gain certain abilities can make your stories more diverse and immersive. At the same time you can use this element to allow for decisions, or series of decisions, to have a greater influence on the story.

For example, other characters in the story might be able to teach the main character abilities like “sneaking”, “fire spell”, “lying”, or “dancing” if the player manages to have a successful dialogue with them, solves some kind of puzzle, or completes a quest for these characters. Abilities gained in this way can then, by checking the corresponding variable, could lead to new or additional Player Choices for the player.

Example 30: Player Choices With Abilities

Text Passage

The ice dragon stomps through the cave, snorting. Deadly clouds of frost come hissing from its nostrils. It will be near impossible to defeat him using normal weapons. And you have not much time left to reach the mountain top and save princess Jaanja.


Continuation – “Fire spell” = 0

Will you attack the dragon anyway or try to sneak past it?

Continuation – “Fire spell” = 1

Will you attack the dragon with your sword, try to sneak past it, or cast a fire spell?

In this case, the variable is being checked before the player is presented with the Player Choice. Depending on their progress – they either learned the fire spell or not – the player is being offered different options.


Abilities using the fire spell example

TWIST image: Abilities using the fire spell example

In the above example, attacking the ice dragon with normal weapons could lead to the player character’s death. This would be okay since the text told them that this probably isn’t a good option. Sneaking past could allow the player to continue their way to Princess Jaanja. However, she would then miss the loot from the dragon’s lair which she only gets if she defeats the dragon with the fire spell.

This whole passage will of course require some additional work from you, but it makes the gaming experience so much better. The player will feel that it is not just the plot that is progressing, but also that they are making real progress in terms of their character’s development. What is more, their earlier choices give them an advantage later on which will motivate them to weigh up and think through their future decisions even more.

Of course, you will not be able to include such Player Choices based on abilities at every turn in your story. But that is not really necessary. Use them as highlights for your players and they will appreciate them even more.

If the abilities the player gains can open up new options, this does lead to some questions. Do you now have to include them at every Player Choice where possible? After all the player could ask the legitimate question why they are allowed to use the fire spell in their encounter with the ice dragon, but not when they have to face the bear or the bandit.

 Should it not be their decision when and where they wish to use their abilities? To cut a long story short, even though this question is legitimate, it is not necessary. We should be clear that in a narrated story – in contrast to most video games – all events have to be manually constructed by the writer. And the player’s freedom of action will be restricted anyway since you can only offer a certain number of, very reasonable, choices.

The few unhappy players who might hold this against you, you must simply ignore. Really. You will not be able to satisfy their demands anyway, no matter what you offer them and how much effort you put into it. Rather focus on avoiding crude mistakes and logic errors, telling a great story, and including occasional highlights.

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