Writing for Interactive Worlds

Writing for an interactive medium requires all the same skills as writing in a static medium, but there are different focuses. Whereas plot is important in writing a novel or script, it is not important in writing for an interactive world. The three areas that are most important are character, world, and situation.

Plot isn’t important because in an interactive medium, we give the player choices, and they make the decision and drive the story in whatever direction they wish. If we develop an intricate storyline, we will end up giving the player meaningless choices which all lead to the same place.

Storytelling is the same no matter what medium we are using. Before you even begin writing about your characters, world, or situation, consider these questions:

  • What do you want the player to feel?
  • What does the player care about?

As the writer, you want to impart a specific feeling to the player, and you want the player to care about something so they don’t put down your game and do something else. You are creating a mood, and teaching the player something. Think about that while you create your characters, setting, and backstory. It will influence some of the decisions you make, and the story will benefit.

Gameplay should also enhance the emotion and writing of an interactive world. I am getting off topic, but the way the choices are presented to the player will enhance or detract from the experience. Consider that as you design the gameplay, and consider the gameplay as you write the story. They both can and should complement each other.


Think back to a movie or book you watched or read several years ago. Unless you have an excellent memory, you’ve forgotten the storyline and how it ended. You may have forgotten the character’s names. But did you forget the characters? Think about what was most memorable about the story. Was it the cool storyline filled with twists and turns, or the characters that won your heart?

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I would bet that you remember the characters more than you remember the storyline. This doesn’t mean the storyline isn’t important. Us humans just have a way of connecting with other humans that’s more powerful than with storylines.

All that to say, characters are important. Characters are memorable. Characters can teach us things about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way.

What does a character need, then, to become real? Characters are only interesting if they want something so much they are willing to do anything to get it. They need believable goals, which drive them forward. They need a backstory so we know where they came from and why they are the way they are. And of course they need a personality; one that is influenced by their backstory and goals.

There are many aspects that go into creating realistic characters, and many others have written on the topic. Here are some links to get you started:

Of course I have to recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, which has some excellent wisdom on writing characters. His second book, The Art of Creative Writing, is completely about character creation. If you can only read one, I recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing, but if you can, read both. They are excellent books.

After designing the characters, you will need to write a lot of dialog. I mean a ton. The characters will need something to say in every possible situation. For now, I would recommend limiting the situations, rather than omitting dialog. Writing dialog for three characters in one room is a lot easier than writing for 50 characters in an entire city. I could say a lot about writing good dialog, but I will keep it brief. Dialog must do more than just give the player information. It must also show the speaker’s personality, and their relationships with other characters. As all good writers know, nothing is there to just pass the time; it must have a purpose, it must drive the story forward.

To make the job easier for the writer, you should limit the cast of an interactive storyworld. Unless you have a team of writers, only a few characters should exist. Also, for an interactive storyworld, no characters are minor characters. In a traditional story, the writer could decide who got the large parts and who got the small parts. In an interactive environment, the player decides who is important. They may choose to pursue a path that involves one character more than all the others. That one character must be complete, or the player will think the world is underdeveloped.

In my humble opinion, games don’t do character well. Most of the time the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes meant to add some life to an otherwise dead setting. At least one exception would be the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect may not be as well written as some books or TV shows, but compared to other games, it is one of the best. Also, The Walking Dead from Telltale Games had excellent character development. But in no game are the characters interactive. They still have defined storylines, and the player can do little to change them. If you’re going to make your characters interactive, then you’ll have to know them.


When I talk about worldbuilding, I mean creating the setting. Where does the story take place, what are the politics, the religions, the history, the technology? A lot goes into worldbuilding–more than goes into any individual character. After all, a story isn’t only about who, it’s about where. The P.I. needs an office, the doctor needs a hospital, the family needs a house, and the King needs a castle.

Here are some things to think about when creating the world of your story:

  • Geography. The physical layout of the world.
  • Climate. Weather patterns, is it hot or cold?
  • Cultural groups. What are the different races of people, how are they organized, who are they fighting?
  • History. What has happened to the different cultural groups before your story begins? How have they changed?
  • Languages. How do people communicate?
  • Culture. How do people act, eat, live, dress, etc.?
  • Science and technology. What is the technological level of your cultures?
  • Religion, mythology, and magic. What do your cultures believe? If it is a fantasy world, is there magic? How does it work?

If you’re writing a science-fiction or fantasy world, then your work is cut out for you. Don’t think you can avoid research; even fantasy authors need to know how the real world works. Do you think J.R.R. Tolkien just sat down one day at his typewriter and hammered out The Lord of the Rings? Nope.

Of course your setting could be as simple as a single room, but there will still be some worldbuilding involved. A lot of time should go into worldbuilding; it is, after all, one of the main characters.

Worldbuilding is one of the stronger parts of most modern video games. The most memorable part of Fallout 3 isn’t the sardonic humor, or the crazy characters, or the gore-inducing weapons. It’s the Capital Wasteland. For Fallout 3, or a game like Skyrim, the setting is the main character. I’m not sure exactly why this is; perhaps because the designers put so much effort into level design. Setting is a large part of level design.


What has happened before the story begins? Was someone just murdered, and your character has to solve the case? Did a spaceship just crash-land on a planet stranding your character? What makes the player interested in the interactive storyworld to begin with? Nobody is going to pick up a game or book or movie because they heard it has interesting characters. They need a catch; a reason to pick it up in the first place. More than that, they need a place to start. Where they go from the start is their choice. They can choose to solve the murder and have the murderer arrested, or they can go and kill the murderer themselves. How the story ends is up to the player, but how the story begins is up to you.

I remember reading a blog post that said everyone started LOST because of the crazy storyline, but they stayed for the characters. I am watching Star Trek: Voyager for the third time. Even though I’ve forgotten most of the stories, I still remember and love the characters. If you put the time into making an interesting beginning, the player will start your game. If you make great characters, they’ll finish it.

Games usually do a pretty good job of starting with a bang, and putting the player into some crazy situation. Half-Life, Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, and Bioshock all had great intros that grabbed the player and tossed them into the thick of things.


Once you have decided on a mood for your interactive world, you will need to spend a lot of time creating the characters, setting, and situation. These are all important, especially in an interactive medium.

I haven’t spent much time on these three aspects of storytelling, so perhaps in the future I will dive into each topic a little further. For now, I will leave you with this introduction.


Why I Write

Writing with a fountain pen

Quite often I ask myself why I write. It wasn’t something that I thought about doing and then decided to do; it just sort of happened. It all started when my mom decided to teach me my spelling words by having me write a book using those spelling words. We started out pretty strong, but slowly I got all into the story and began using very few spelling words. I was five, so my mom would write the story while I told it to her. Eventually she told me that if I wanted to continue the story, I would have to write it myself. After that I wrote about two paragraphs, and it was too much for me. However, I continued to work on the book, and it helped me learn typing also. I would spend days typing one page, and eventually I was a very fluent typist. Mavis Beacon—puh! Anyway, that’s my story. Writing taught me spelling and typing; and a lot of other things, too.

I honestly haven’t thought a lot about why other people write; I assume it comes from a need to communicate some sort of idea of some sort—a premise, if you will. For me, who is the only person I know about for sure, writing isn’t just fun, or important; it’s a necessity. I have to write. It’s one of the ways I make sense of the world. I’ll be honest; there are a lot of things about life I don’t understand. I’m pretty sure that’s natural for someone who’s twenty years old. But writing helps me express my confusion in a way that makes sense. I’ve gone for long periods without typing a single word of fiction, but I can’t stop the storytelling machine that is my brain. Sometimes I’ll wake up from a dream and my mind will start forming that fragmented dream into a story. Sometimes I’ll be really depressed about something and my mind will create a story about a person going through those same things I am, and then show possible resolutions. It’s kind of like my mind is creating simulations of how my life could go, and then I can pick the one that I like the most.

Writing is also a way I communicate my deepest feelings. Either I can’t put these feelings into words, or I don’t want to admit I have them. Writing a story is a way to get these feelings out. I hope that my books help people who know me to understand me better, because there’s a lot of me in my books. Every writer puts their worldview into their book, and I don’t just mean their religion. Whether the writer is an optimist or a pessimist is very obvious through the story. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, when I was talking about writing something you are currently struggling with. I’m guilty of this, and those stories never go anywhere, but they do help me personally. Then there are the stories in my head which I never write down, but they’re there, helping me work through life and my feelings.

Writing isn’t easy. There are months where I don’t even open up the word processor except to read school documents. Maybe I’m stuck on a current story, or busy, or just burned out. Writers get tired, too. Writing a novel isn’t easy, especially if you’ve written several drafts. However, if you’ve ever finished a novel, then you know how rewarding that feeling is. When I’ve spent months (or years) on a novel, and I finally type the words “THE END,” boy, does that feel good. I lean back with a sigh of relief and stare at the final word count. It may sound strange, but I take pride in my word counts. If I’ve made it over 50,000 words, that’s quite the accomplishment. Write a book. You’ll see what I mean.

Expressing oneself and making sense of the world aren’t the only reasons I write. Stories are the perfect way to communicate with other people, short of actually giving that person an experience, which isn’t possible with current technology. I think that people underestimate the persuasive power of storytelling. A story has a way of getting inside your head; it bypasses many of the usual barriers that people put up when they hear someone’s opinion through conversation or read it in a blog post. I’m sure you’ve read a book or seen a movie that really made you reconsider how you think about some topic; that’s one of the many powers of storytelling. We’re not writers, we’re mind-controllers. Muhahaha.

Then of course there are the more basic pleasures that come out of writing a story. I enjoy creating my own little world with my own rules, races, technology, and of course characters. I love creating characters. There’s something about breathing life into someone that exists only in your (and your reader’s) imagination. After writing a book for a long time, I become very attached to the characters. I once wrote a book that I had planned out pretty well; I knew all the characters that were going to die, how they were going to die, and when they were going to die. What I hadn’t planned on was how attached I would get to these characters before I killed them off. I remember one character I became so attached to that when it came time to kill him, I didn’t. I spared him.

There’s another reason I write, however. This is a reason everyone can give, even if they don’t admit it. People need to be recognized. They need to feel important–to feel needed. Because of this basic desire, people do all sorts of things. Some people write software, some people paint, some people post constantly to their Twitter accounts. I write. I’ll be brutally honest with you, as I’ve had to be with myself: I write because I want people to like me. Sometimes the only motivation I have for finishing a story is how I think it will make other people think of me. Maybe this is wrong, and most of the time it probably doesn’t make a difference, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a strong driving force. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, but from a different perspective. Maybe you’re a young teenager who thinks being in a relationship with someone else will make you important, or get you more attention. The truth is, a great story doesn’t make a great person. Feeling important shouldn’t be a motivation for anything we do. I’m saying this more to myself than anyone else, because there are some days where I just feel like if I don’t finish this story, well, that’s it. I’m done. Nobody cares unless I make them care through my words. That’s true in some cases, but not in the really important ones. The truly great stories I write aren’t for other people. They aren’t to make me look good. Sometimes they are the stories I’ll probably never show to anyone else. They’re the stories I wrote for me. Because I needed to say something, so I did.

That’s why I write. Why do you?

Rules of Good Writing

I hate the idea that you have to follow certain rules to write a good story.  There are plenty of books and blogs and magazines that have different rules to follow so that you write a good story, but I don’t think that any rules will make a story truly great.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been thinking about different software tools that can help a writer.  For example, one idea was a program that helps the writer create a character.  The writer can input information such as age, gender, hair color, worldview, personality, etc.  But as I thought about this, I realized that it had a few problems.  Mainly, it forces the writer to think inside the box.  The software can only handle certain inputs, and if the writer wants to add others, it could be difficult if not impossible.  Writers have to be able to think outside the box, be flexible, experiment with things that have never been done before.  If a writer always follows the same outline for creating characters, their mind will eventually become dead to new ideas.  Characters will begin to seem identical.  The imagination will die.

Imagination thrives on new thinking.  Following tried and true methods is what you do as a beginner, but once you are more advanced, if you do not move on, you will not grow as a writer.

Of course with software, the computer requires rules, methods, data.  The computer cannot think outside the box, but that doesn’t mean you are constrained by what the computer can do.  Interactive stories will require certain character outlines, but I’m not talking about interactive storytelling.

Yes, that’s right, I’m not going to talk about interactive storytelling in this post. I am a writer first and foremost  and it is what I have the most experience in, so I am going to talk about something I’ve actually done.

And in case you didn’t know, I’ve written three novels and several short stories.  Nothing is published, yet, though, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Finding Premise

Premise, premise, premise.  I’ve been throwing that word around a lot lately.  It’s starting to lose meaning to me.  One question I’ve been thinking about, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is how do you come up with a premise, and when?  Do you start writing first, and then find your premise?  Or do you have to come up with a premise before you can start even writing?

Well, the answer is you can do whatever you want to.  I’m not going to force you to do anything.  Heck, you can write a story without a premise for all I care.  I’m simply going to talk a little about the experience I have with planning a story before writing, and writing a story before planning.

After reading The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri, I started to practice creating a premise and character sketches before sitting down to write a story.  I have found that it is very beneficial, at least for me.  A premise gives my story that forward momentum; without it, a story can easily fizzle out and die before it is finished.  This especially happens with novels.  I’ve tried to write many novels which have died because they had no driving force, and the premise is this driving force.


The character sketches are very helpful as well, perhaps more so than the premise, because they tell me everything I want to know about the social, psychological, and physiological aspects of the characters in my story.  It helps me to know what that character would actually do in any given situation, rather than have me draw from my imagination and hope I get it right.

I have found that when I don’t really plan out a character and just make it up as I go, the character ends up looking just like me, with a few characteristics exaggerated.

I have been using the character outline from The Art of Dramatic Writing as a starting point, but I have modified it slightly, and I can see myself modifying it even more in the future as the need arises.  There are some parts of it which I never use, and there are some things that are missing that I use fairly often.

Even after writing an entire book which seems like a bunch of rules on good writing, Lajos Egri admits that to become truly great, you must experiment with the rules, and if necessary, break them.  Perhaps your story is strong enough to not need a clear premise; perhaps it is simply meant to ask questions without answering them or proving anything.  This is a worthy purpose of a story.  Sometimes good stories don’t teach you something, but they make you ask questions and think for yourself.

Looking Back

It’s funny to look back at what I used to enjoy writing the most.  When I first started writing, around age five, I just wanted to write exciting, explosive action.  My stories were simple character interactions interspersed with extensive scenes of action.  Now my favorite scenes to write are those which really reveal the emotions of one of the main characters.  In the book I am writing now, I spent a hundred pages building up to one small moment, which was about two sentences long, but I had anticipated writing it for months.

I have found that writing fiction is a powerful way for me to talk about the way I am feeling, or questions I am asking, or trials I am going through.  I do not believe I am the only one.  Many writers use writing to explore what they are going through, to try and make sense of it all.

When I am writing, I can become very attached to the characters.  One book I wrote, I had planned early on which characters I was going to kill off.  When it came time for the characters to die, I had become so attached to them I felt bad about killing them off, even though I had planned on it the entire time.

Then of course there are the characters that truly express what I’m going through.  You form a special bond with those characters, because in many ways, they are you.  You feel the same pain they feel, and the same burden, and the same fear.  They make the same mistakes that you make.  They say the same things you say and believe the same things you believe.  Sometimes when I’m writing these characters, I wish I could help them out of all their problems, and fix their lives, and set them straight.  But a lot of the time I haven’t worked out all these problems, and so I cannot help these characters.

I have found that this is a very dangerous trap to get yourself into.  If you write too close to home, you may not be able to finish your story, because the real story has not yet ended.  Even if you know what should happen, if you haven’t yet experienced it, you won’t write it like you believe it.  That’s one of the hardest things about writing.  I don’t know everything, so there are some stories that I cannot write no matter how much I want to.  Not yet, anyway.

One piece of advice I would give at this point is this: write what you have already conquered.  Don’t write about something that you are currently struggling with.  It doesn’t work.  I’ve tried working through things this way, and the story dies in my arms.  If your purpose is to help the reader conquer something, then you must have already conquered it yourself.  The blind cannot lead the blind.

There is a common saying to “Write what you know.”  I’m sure everyone has slightly different interpretations of this saying, but I believe it means this.  If you do not believe something, then you cannot write as if you do.  If you hate someone so much that it makes your blood boil, then you cannot truly write about love.  It will seem artificial.  And if you are struggling through depression, your stories will always have that melancholy taste.

I hope that somewhere in this post you found something worthwhile.  If you are a writer and have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.