What are Interactive Stories?

Since the first post was about games, I’m going to post something about interactive stories now, since that is what the blog is supposed to be about.  You may have read my very brief description, but if you haven’t, well, read it really fast.  I’m not going anywhere.  Moving on, so what is interactive storytelling?  Is it like a RPG?  Or maybe one of those interactive narratives that, well, never were all that popular?  The answer: sort of.  Remember in my last post when I finally stated my definition of what games were?  Just for completeness, here it is again:

An interactive experience in which the player collects things, shoots things, and interacts with things.

I’m going to move on from this point assuming that everyone agrees with me, at least mostly.  If you don’t, post a comment, but please, be nice.  Anyways, if games are about things, what are interactive stories about?  Well, it’s pretty simple, actually.  Interactive stories are about People, not things.  Characters in an interactive story are more important then the weapons you can acquire, the money you can spend, the objects you can find.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any weapons or money or cool looking buildings in an interactive story, they just won’t be the most important part, and the story won’t revolve around them.

Why Interactive Stories?

So, why am I making such a big deal out of interactive stories?  Why not just make really complex simulations, or Roll-Playing games with thousands of characters and complex character customization?

Ask yourself this question: what kinds of people play games?

Not many.  Video games are made for an audience of 18 through 35 year old males.  Obviously not only 18 through 35 year old males play video games, but they are the largest group of people that play games.

But who reads books?  Pretty much everyone.  I read books.  I’m guessing you read books.  My grandma reads (OK listens) to books.  Everyone can enjoy a good book.  Of course not everyone enjoys the same book, but everyone enjoys books in general.  Not everyone enjoys games, because games can be hard, frustrating, offensive, boring, or just too graphics intensive.  There are so many reasons people who don’t play games won’t start anytime soon.

So what?  Who would play interactive stories?

Let me tell you about a dream I have.

I think that in the future interactive stories will work on pretty much any computer, will have many different themes and genres, will be easy to use by anyone, and therefore be more accessible to people who aren’t used to playing other forms of electronic entertainment.

I mean, think of it this way, how many people do you know that want to shoot people over and over and over again?  It would probably amount to the number of males between the ages 18 and 35 that you know.  But how many people would do other things if they were in games?  Things as simple as driving their kids to school, to as complicated as being president of a country?  The larger pool of things you can be and do makes the audience much larger.

Another thing that makes interactive stories different from games is the challenge.  Games are challenging to beat, which actually slows down or even halts flow of the story.  Can an interactive story have something that is against its very nature?  I’m not saying that it should be easy to finish an interactive story, but interactive stories are more about choices than they are about challenge.  Finding the right balance of challenge and choice is going to be difficult, and most likely the topic of another post, so keep your eyes open.

What Would Interactive Stories Look Like?

I would like to take a moment and describe a few ways I think interactive stories could look. One is to have them be from the first-person perspective, so the player sees everything through the eyes of the character, and they have complete freedom of movement (similar to a FPS). But in my humble opinion, I don’t think they will be just a floating camera with maybe some arms that shoot out from the sides. The player would be able to see their entire body, as if they actually were that person. What these types of interactive stories would aim for would be immersion.

Another way interactive stories could look would be the cinematic approach. This wouldn’t be a third-person perspective in the usual gaming sense, but it would be more like an interactive movie. The player could see their character so they are detached, but also attached in a different sense than just immersion. This type of, for lack of a better term, “Camera system,” would be more like an interactive fiction, where you tell your character what to do and where to go, and then you watch him do it.

Both of these camera systems would have different uses, and different effects on the player.  I believe the first person camera would make the player feel like they are the character they’re playing as, so instead of emotionally bonding with their character, they bond with the other characters they interact with.  This would be like real life, where you have your own emotions, and they’re yours, but you can observe other’s emotions without actually feeling them.  This type of camera system would make the interactive story focus on the characters that surround the player, instead of the player’s character.  Finding the right balance of personality for the player’s character would be difficult, and will be the topic of a later post.

The cinematic camera system, on the other hand, would allow the player to see their character and see their emotional responses.  The only problem is, these responses may not be those of the player.  If the main character is mad at someone else, then the player may not feel that same anger.  Should they?  Perhaps not.  I don’t think the player should be so caught up in an interactive story that they forget about real life, but books and movies can have an emotional impact that can sometimes be quite strong.  This is a difficult topic, and I will definitely talk about it in more detail in the future.

The Next Step

If you think about it, interactive stories are the next logical step for entertainment.  First there were books, then movies, then text adventures, then RPGs, and now interactive stories.  Obviously that’s not a complete chronology, but it get’s the point across.  Even in games, there has recently been more and more emphasis on story and characters, not just gameplay.  Many reviews of games focus on how well the story was told through the game.  In general, people are attracted by story more then they’re attracted by gameplay.

Interactive stories are all story and practically no gameplay.  There will still be some features that some may consider “gameplay”, but these will be mostly how the player moves their character, how they interact with the environment, and how they interact with other characters.  I suppose we could come up with a new term for these things, such as “story interaction” or something like that, but basically, it’s the same thing.  Some may be wondering why we don’t get rid of this completely, but until we make a holodeck or use the Kinect where your body is the controller, the user will have to have some way of interacting with the machine (computer, laptop, tablet, TV, phone, whatever).

Some Examples

So what kinds of interactive stories have already been made?  Well, Chris Crawford, who coined the term “interactive story” and wrote a book on the subject, which I highly recommend, has done a few experiments with interactive storytelling which are text-based.  They allow you to choose certain parts of a sentence which you want to “say” (basically, input to the computer), and then the characters and story change based one what you do.  He also made a game called “Trust and Betrayal, the Legacy of Siboot”, or just “Siboot”, which was based almost completely on the player’s relationships with the other characters in the game.  I highly recommend this game, if only to see how someone might converse dynamically with game characters.  The language system Crawford created for the game was quite ingenious.

But has anyone else attempted to make an interactive story?  I mean, Chris Crawford is cool and all, but is he the only one who’s done anything that can be considered an interactive story?  No, as a matter of fact, he isn’t.  Probably the most commercially popular “interactive story” was Façade, which is a story where the player character goes to dinner with a couple who are having some marital problems.  I would recommend Façade, except it is riddled with bad language, and the subject matter is adult in nature.  It was still an interesting experience, and the ability to type what you want to say is pretty nice, if a little buggy.  The most revolutionary feature is the ability to have real-time conversations where if you can type fast enough, you can interrupt characters with dialogue or even physical actions.

There are other examples of people’s attempts to create interactive stories, but I will not discuss them here, mainly to keep this post relatively short (compared to War and Peace) and also because I have not played through them, and so I don’t want to discuss something I haven’t experienced.  In the future I will try to post more reviews on interactive stories that anyone can access.

In Closing

Well, I don’t want to wear you out, so I’ll stop now.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to write a comment.  I will answer any questions that I can, and if you want to answer someone else’s question, feel free to.  This is an open discussion and I want to encourage everyone to say what’s on their mind.  Also, please consider voting in the poll to the right.  I think we all might be interested in the results it receives.  I will change the poll about every month, but perhaps I’ll publish the results on a page so that they will always be available for everyone.

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2 thoughts on “What are Interactive Stories?

  1. “First there were books, then movies, then text adventures, then RPGs, and now interactive stories.”

    Actually, Gygax’s Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons predates Crowther’s Colossal Cave by about 3 years, and served as an inspiration for the latter.

    • True, but I was talking about Computer RPGs. I suppose I should have made that clear. I have never played Dungeons & Dragons, and I don’t want to talk about something I don’t really know about.

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