You can use the following game elements to establish conflicts, encourage your players once in a while, or bind them to the story through the progression of their character.
Stories thrive on conflict. But even beyond the big main story you can work in surprises and little moments of tension. Obstacles and puzzles that the player has to overcome or solve are great for this. They also allow you to offer many quick choices, increasing the pace of the story, especially if the obstacle does not require just one single decision to be passed but involves a series of different choices. Such obstacles can include:
The Sudden Appearance of an Enemy
The hero is just about to sneak over to the window when suddenly a guard rounds the corner. Immediately several possibilities for Player Choices present themselves: Attack the guard in the hope of overpowering them? Wait and ambush them? Hide and see if they just passes by? Sneak past them to look for a different entry point? Throw a stone to distract them? Imitate the voice of another guard and send them away? Be creative and vary the options you offer to the player.
Carefully work out the consequences as well. What options does the player have if they hide and the guard sits down in a chair with a view of the player hiding place? What if their surprise attack fails? Can they still overpower the guard without making too much noise? If yes, at what cost? If no, what happens next? Can they choose to keep fighting or to flee?
Blocking the Path
The hero is on an important mission, traveling to a distant town. But the torrential rains and the unusual cold of the past days have made the path through the mountains impassable. The player could still chance the mountain passes, but would probably have to deal with avalanches, buried trails, steep slopes, and other obstacles. The player can also try to ride around the mountain range which will be much safer but also take longer. Or they head for the nearby river and tries to buy a passage on one of the merchant ships. Or they make the one-day trip back to town to find some other means of transportation like an airship or a magical teleportation.
Of course, your player’s decision can also lead to different follow-up Player Choices. The path through the mountains could fork. One trail leads down, the other up, at least as far as the hero can see. What lies beyond, they do not know. They could also meet a hermit who recommends one path while warning of danger along the other. But whether this information is reliable is another story.
The airship, on the other hand, might not have the exact same destination as the hero, but will make halt at two different places that lie equally far from the town the hero wishes to reach. One of these places is ruled by a nobleman who is an enemy of the hero’s quest giver. The other is surrounded by rumors that lizard people from the nearby swamp are frequently causing trouble there. Again, we can see more obstacles and conflicts emerge here, no matter which means of travel the player chooses.
Loss or Failure of Equipment
The artifact from the space ship that crashed into the sea is within reach, but suddenly the hero discovers that his oxygen mask is not working properly anymore. Surface and look for a different way to salvage the artifact, or risk your life and try it anyway? The decision to stay down could lead to the hero not finding the artifact, but recovering a different item. Then what? Be content with what you find and resurface, or risk even more? And what will be your decision if there is just enough air left to search one single room? Go for the captain’s cabin or for the cargo hold? Try to prize open the wedged door which will use up additional oxygen, or rather look for a way around it?
At the space harbor, the hero is hot on the smugglers’ trail when, after entering a prohibited area, they are being stopped by the police and discovers that their detective license has been stolen. Maybe the attractive acquaintance at the hotel bar from the evening before has something to do with it. But more importantly, what is the hero supposed to do now? Try to persuade the officers to let him go? Tell them the truth and ask for their support? Bribe them? Or run away and hope to remain unrecognized, at least until the smugglers have been caught? Or even come up with a totally crazy tale that would justify their presence? And what happens if the hero tries to explain their situation and the officers suddenly get agitated? Stick with the truth? Start to lie? Pull out a gun and threaten them?
Use the possibilities of the environment and the situation to place interesting obstacles in your hero’s path. You can even expand them into side quests and side stories, or just use them to insert additional player choices or to increase the narrative pace or the tension. To achieve the latter, you can create circumstances that put pressure on the hero, like a waning supply of oxygen, a crumbling tunnel ceiling that is about to collapse, or the sound of howling wolves closing in on them.
Pieces of equipment come in all shapes and sizes and can serve different functions in the game. They can be rewards, improve immersion, or raise the players expectations to draw them deeper into the events of the game.
For example, if the hero is entering a dark room, the player’s first thought will be that there must be some kind of flashlight around here. And vice versa, if the hero finds a flashlight, the player’s first thought will be that there probably is some kind of dark room coming up soon. Similarly, the finding of a key will make them assume that there is an important door somewhere that can be opened with it. This is an emotional and cognitive process that will foreshadow future encounters and events. And this process is almost always tied to a pleasant kind of suspense and anticipation.
Use equipment in creative and diverse ways. From resources like food, money, oxygen tanks, healing potions, to tools and weapons, treasure maps, keys, passwords, and mysterious artifacts, you can spread the discovery of items across the whole story. The obtainment of these objects can be tied to conditions like the completion of a side quest, thorough search of a room, taking a risk, or delivering certain answers during a conversation.
Items can also be comprised of several finds like the different parts of a treasure map, or a flashlight that is missing its batteries. Or they can have undesirable side effects like the carrying of a gun that makes the player appear hostile to other characters who then react reservedly or even aggressively toward their presence.
Also consider whether the item will be always available, only up to a certain point, or only under certain circumstances. Maybe the player has to choose between the tent and the rope because they cannot carry both. Or the player has to leave one of them behind once they reach the mountains or gets into a dangerous situation in the desert.
Items can have one use (healing potions) or a certain amount of charges (magic wand). Their use can also be optional (sword against a dragon) or obligatory (key for a locked door).
Items can also be used for completely different purposes, either once or several times. A short length of wire, for example, can be bent into a hook or a lock pick. With a mirror the player can blind someone, look around a corner, or even deflect a laser beam.
As you can see, it is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the items in your story. But do not overload your player with equipment. As so often is the case, less is more. Instead, use the few items you have efficiently and play around with their different characteristics and mechanics.
Once in a while, let your players just find something. Even if these things are not needed for the story, they will make your players feel good. These can be pragmatic things like a meal or a few coins, but also items like letters, tape recordings, photographs, or books that give the player a better understanding of the world and its inhabitants.
An interactive story, or a scene from that story, can also be based around the player exploring an abandoned house in order to reconstruct the life of its former owners from the things they left behind. Such findings can also be used to give the player some foreknowledge of upcoming Player Choices. A diary, for instance, could contain the hint that there is a troll living under the next bridge who devours all travelers who pass by. A photograph could show that the suspect of a murder case did in fact know the victim, and a map could hint at a secret door in the dungeons which the player can then open.
Puzzles and riddles are great for stories that are intended for attentive listeners. You can use them in such a way that a player, for example, can only reach the next part of your story if they find the right solution. Examples of puzzles are
- Discovering a numerical code to open a safe or a lock,
- Guessing or memorizing passwords to get past a guard or to gain access to a protected computer,
- Navigating through a maze (though there is a considerable number of players who hate mazes),
- Figuring out the correct sequence of the actions required to put together an artifact or to defuse a bomb,
- Correctly combining different information or facts to find a secret cache or accuse a murderer, or
- Finding a minimum number of possible pieces of evidence at a crime scene.
However, in the event that your player is unable to solve a puzzle, make sure that you give them some additional clues or offer them an alternative path. For example, a companion or other character could provide hints after a certain amount of unsuccessful attempts, or you could include the solution in an earlier chapter. Construct your story in such a way that your players will be able to complete it even if they do not manage to solve one or several of the puzzles.
Choosing a Viewpoint:
- Decide whether you want to have a second-person, third-person, or first-person narrator in your story. For your first interactive story, we clearly recommend the second-person narrator.
Creating Primary and Secondary characters:
- Does the hero have a back story or are they a blank canvas? Can the player have their character act freely or will the character be defined through character generation or the assignment of attribute values?
- Use archetypes as basis for your secondary characters and then equip them with unique and distinct character traits.
- Who is the antagonist? Are they simply evil, does they pursue a specific goal, or is it just the circumstances of the story that make them the villain? What exactly is his conflict with the hero? Do they already know each other?
- Who are the companions, friends, helpers, and mentors of the player character and what are they like? How do they support or maybe challenge the player character?
- What is the exact relationship between the player character and the other characters, including the relationship between these other characters themselves? How can these relationships change during the story and influence the plot?
Evoking Player Emotions:
- Reward the player for important decisions and heroic deeds through positive feedback from other characters, through hints that they have made meaningful progress, or by giving their character new items, abilities, or secret knowledge about the world.
- Punish the player character (not the player) for passive or counter-productive behavior by taking away items, explicitly withholding information and abilities, or denying the attainment of an anticipated secondary goal to motivate your player.
- Reward explorative players with additional background information about the game world, with interesting side paths, and with hidden Player Choices.
- Have your player experience the hero’s journey during which their character will turn from an unknown, disregarded weakling into a famous, respected superhero. Provide frequent feedback to show them how they are growing in fame, strength, and influence.
- Confront the player with real challenges and let them feel the scope and consequences of their decisions in order to captivate them.
- Encourage the player to reply in complete sentences, use sound effects and music, and invite them to create an ambient playing environment to increase immersion.
Using Game Elements Effectively:
- Create obstacles and conflicts by having enemies suddenly appear, by blocking obvious game paths, or by having the character’s equipment fail or taking it away. Analyze your scenes closely to find out which potential conflicts they offer.
- Use equipment in creative, exciting, and multiple ways by having it hint at upcoming obstacles, by tying its obtainment to certain conditions, by forcing the player to choose between two equally valuable items, by giving it negative side effects, by limiting its use to one or two times, or by using it for completely different purposes. But do not overload your player with items.
- Not every item found needs to serve a specific purpose in the game. They can also just delight the player like the discovery of a piece of treasure or the reading of an interesting journal entry.
- Captivate your player with puzzles such as the finding, deciphering, and combining of number codes, passwords, sequences of actions, and pieces of evidence, or navigating through a maze.