Methods for Interactive Storytelling

Fractal

Thinking about interactive storytelling is kind of like trying to see the entire earth while standing on its surface. You look around, see a part of the planet, and think OK, that makes sense. But what about that waaaay over there? So you start to walk to that other spot, and you look around, and you think, Got it. But now I can’t see where I was before; how are these to areas connected? You walk back, but there’s still the whole other side of the planet you haven’t even walked to yet. If you keep going back and forth like this, you’ll never get to the other side of the planet, but if you just walk to the other side of the planet, you won’t understand how all the areas are connected. Ugh. As Chris Crawford said: “Storytelling is infinitely complex!”

I am hesitant to nail down specific methods for interactive storytelling, because once an idea’s in the human brain, it’s very difficult to purge that and look at a problem from another perspective. I try to keep an open mind when it comes to interactive storytelling, but I’m sure from my previous blog posts you’ve noticed me lean towards one method or another. I talk a lot about Chris Crawford, but he’s not the interactive storytelling god. He has some very strong opinions on what interactive storytelling should be, and he has been working on the problem for a very long time, but don’t be afraid to traverse the unbeaten path or even go back to a more simple form of interactive storytelling and try to improve it.

However, that is not the topic of this post. In this post I am going to discuss some very specific methods of interactive storytelling, so that you can get a few ideas and at least understand what has been accomplished and what has yet to be accomplished.

Storytelling

The way someone approaches interactive storytelling is defined by how they understand storytelling. Other things affect this as well, their understanding of interactivity, drama, and even fun. I tend to look at storytelling more as a simulation of human character and emotion, which is enhanced by the setting, theme, and to some small degree the plot. I try to let conflict and plot arise naturally from the character and setting, but I would be lying if I said that I don’t plan out some of the plot and certain conflicts. The problem is, if I approached interactive storytelling this way, it would be infinitely complex! The human mind is an amazing organ, but the computer is nowhere near being able to do the things a writer’s brain can do. In my idea of storytelling, everything affects everything else, but storytelling must be simplified for the computer. This means the designer has a choice to make:

Plot or Character

Ah, that old question. A question as old as…well, actually I have no idea where or when the question originated, but it’s been around for a long time. Do authors come up with a plot and then create characters that fit in that plot, or do they create characters that naturally create their own plot? Lajos Egri refined the character-based approach by using a premise (theme, whatever) to guide the creation of the characters and how they acted. Honestly, I don’t think this question can be answered one way or the other. I think most authors find a mix of the two, whether they come up with the plot or the character’s first. Speaking from my own experience, I usually come up with a very simple story idea (a plot) and then I create characters that I think would make that plot more interesting.

Plot-based Interactive Storytelling

Mass Effect Dialog

If your the kinda person who comes up with a plot and jams a few characters into the cracks, then this will make more sense. Think of something like InkleWriter, or any Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA). Games such as Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead also use this form of interactive storytelling. Basically, you have a scene of the story, and then it ends with a choice that is presented to the player: Greet the stranger kindly, Greet the stranger angrily, or Shoot the stranger in the face.

Depending on which option you choose, you will be presented with a different scene. For example, if you choose Greet the stranger kindly, the next scene might involve him inviting you over to his house for dinner. If you choose Shoot the stranger in the face, the next scene most definitely will not involve him inviting you over; it will probably involve his buddy who witnessed the whole thing shooting you in the face. This is basically a branching-tree; each scene of the story is a node which has options that branch off to other nodes. This can be accomplished in HTML, or if you want something more advanced, InkleWriter can use flags to change certain text or hide certain options.

800px-Dialog_tree_example.svg

This may seem like a simplistic, pathetic approach to interactive storytelling, but in the past it has also been the most successful. It has several advantages. For example, a story written in scenes even if separated by choices is very cohesive. This is because the author wrote it that way, and he knows every possible permutation of the story. He knows exactly what happens when you shoot the stranger in the face, or if you greet him kindly, because he wrote each scene.

Another advantage is that because it’s so simple, a full story can be created by one person. More complicated methods of interactive storytelling will probably require at least small teams, just to get all the programming done. I would love to be proved wrong, however.

There’s another issue I should address before I move on. Some of you, if you’ve read anything by Chris Crawford, might be thinking, Well, a CYOA isn’t interactive storytelling. That’s just a story with some interactivity thrown in. Honestly, I agree with you. What makes interactive storytelling interactive storytelling is that you are interacting with the process used to create the story. You’re not interacting with a plot, you’re interacting with a process. Chris Crawford would be proud of me, but others would probably say things like “Crawford is going for the holy grail of interactive storytelling, and he’ll never reach it,” or other such things. That’s quitter talk! If you believe that, then you might as well stop reading this right now, because I believe that there is a way to tell stories interactively using the computer. Sure it’s not gonna be easy, and the road will be rocky, but hey, sometimes the biggest rewards come after the biggest trials. Of course, sometimes the biggest failures come after the biggest trials.

Character-based Interactive Storytelling

Another method of interactive storytelling would involve creating basically a character simulator. It would use personality models and advanced AI to simulate how characters would act in certain situations. Facade is one example of this, Versu is another.

Depending on how this is done, it could be much more interactive than a plot-based technology, but it could also have a less-powerful story. That brings me to the main difference between these two methods: the quality of the story, or the quality of the interaction. At this point in the story of interactive storytelling, choosing between a well-written story with a few choices and a truly interactive storyworld that isn’t able to tell powerful stories is a very valid choice. Many who have come before have chosen the more plot-driven, linear method of interactive storytelling; as I said, most, if not all video games that claim to be “Interactive stories” are really just linear stories with a few choices thrown in that change some small amount of variables.

Let me explain a little how character-based interactive storytelling could work. Since it is based on the characters and their personalities, there must obviously be a way to model these personalities. Chris Crawford has discussed at great length some methods to create personality models. The IS engine would then be programmed to make decisions based on the values set in a specific character’s personality model. There can of course be many other systems involved as well, that help the characters make decisions, but it all boils down to decision-making processes defined by personality variables.

Afterword

Well, I think I’ve rambled on enough in this post. I hope this brief talk on methods for interactive storytelling has been somewhat useful; if not, let me know in the comments. Be mean, even, if you want, but I probably won’t respond to rude people.

I feel that I haven’t encouraged you all enough to write comments, so if you did make it this far, let me know in a comment. Tell me if you liked my post. Tell me what you want to hear more about. Tell me about your ideas, because truly, I want to hear them. I have quite a few ideas for future posts, so I am going to try to be more consistent than I have been in the past. I mean, who wants to read a blog where the guy only posts every two months?

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