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Designing Interactive Story (PART ONE)

Hi! I've been an independent game developer for 35 years. I thought I might share some of my thoughts on Interactive Story...what it is, and how one goes about making it. I ramble a lot so I'll probably need 5 or 6 posts to get all my thoughts down.

Greg Johnson, Blogger

January 28, 2016

10 Min Read

Hi.  I'm Greg Johnson.  I've been making games as an independent game developer since pretty much the start of the games industry (35 years).  If you're like me, you're captivated with the idea of interactive story, and are always trying to understand it better.  I plan to make a series of posts with my thoughts on this topic.  If you read em in order, they will make slightly more sense (hint hint). 


So…. The year is 2016.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this supposed to be “the future”?  Heck, 2016!  That’s when we’re supposed to have hover cars, robotic assistants, matter transmitters, and full-on ‘Holographic Interactive Movies”.   OK, so perhaps you’re not a child of the 1960s like me, in which case, maybe this isn’t quite so much “the future” for you, but still… where are the Interactive movies?  We should at least have those by now, right?

Let’s talk about video games.  Raise your hand if you like this topic.  (Really, go ahead, who will know?).   (….OK, fine.  Don’t raise it then.)  If you’re a gamer you’re probably aware that there is a genre of games called “Interactive Story Games”, and also that people in the gaming press have been talking about Hollywood and Video Games converging for many years now.  If you’re not a video gamer you’re probably already starting to get sleepy, and this might be a good time to think about reading something else.

So what are Interactive Story Games?  And what does this convergence mean?  It sounds exciting doesn’t it?  It sort of suggests that you can somehow step into a movie and “live” the story.  Just like in the “Holodeck” on StarTrek (Raise your hand if you know what that is…….  oh, come on.)  The idea here is, of course, that you have total freedom to do anything you want in the game-world, at any time, and interesting things will happen as a consequence.  In the end, a really satisfying story, unique to your experience will result.

So back to our first question…What are Interactive Story Games?  As we said already, this is commonly referred to as a genre of existing games.  On the other hand, the interactive story that we just described where you can “live the movie”, clearly doesn’t exist yet, so what’s up with that?  What is this existing genre of which we speak?

Well, try to stay with me here, because this is going to get a little subtle, and perhaps just a little inane….   what we were talking about with our Holodeck-type description are: “Interactive-Story games”.   Those don’t really exist yet, or perhaps it’s fairer to say that Interactive-Story exists today only in its simplest form.  What we currently have are “Interactive Story-Games”.  (hopefully you’re not reading this out-loud to someone, because that won’t have made any sense to them at all.)  If you think about it, games are by their nature, interactive, and there are plenty of games with stories, so we DO have Interactive Story-Games.  Voila, that is one major problem shot down!  High Five!    ….what?   That’s a stupid problem to solve you say?  OK, well how about this then?

The game industry has spent billions of dollars, and probably hundreds of millions of people-hours producing games so far.  There are a lot of really smart people making games. (some of them even talk to me now and then, when they’re not ignoring me)  I can attest to the fact people have been trying to make truly interactive-story for at least 3 decades now.  So… er… cough cough…. Where is it?

In spite of the fact that there are tons and tons of games out there, many of them truly impressive and masterful works, it’s still tough to deny that the art of building Interactive Story is in its infancy.  We’re still mainly in a world of trial and error.  Unfortunately, this R&D-like, iterative approach is inherently unpredictable, and it adds tremendous risk to Interactive-Story projects, which translates into time and cost.  This is probably the main reason why we don’t see more attempts to break the Interactive-Story barrier.  The attempts we do see are most often in the realm of low-budget indie projects where the money at risk is minimal.  These projects often offer interesting insights, and wonderful learning examples, but they are so limited in scope that they only hint at exciting possibilities. 


Before we dive into a deep scientific analysis of Interactive Story (which will be very scientific – did I say that already?)  Let’s take a look at the ever-present question of “do we care?”  After all, there is a whole wide world of game genres out there.  I, for one, have been addicted to many awesome games that have nothing to do with Interactive-Story.  Is this even worth the trouble to pursue?  For some, clearly not, but here’s a bold statement for you….  Interactive Story is something we human beings almost have to pursue. (by the way, if you’re reading this, and you’re NOT a human being, please email me.  I REALLY want to talk to you!)

How surprised would you be to learn that human beings are literally built for story… physiologically speaking.  Brain researchers have been finding that a significant portion of our brains are structured specifically for ‘modeling alternate realities’.  From an evolutionary perspective, our ability to imagine possible futures, and run hypothetical simulations in our minds has had tremendous survival value.  This singular ability has allowed us to predict the consequences of our actions by first testing them out in the safety and privacy of our minds, and it’s what’s allowed us to learn from the experience of others without needing to face dangerous situations.  This ‘reality modeling’ is possibly the most significant milestone in the evolution of human intelligence. With it, we construct ‘complex chains of causality’, also known as “stories”.[1]

In regards to how ‘real’ stories are for us, other interesting brain research has shown that when we’re immersed in a story, via a book, movie, or story teller, our brains trigger chemically and electrically in exactly the same ways as when we experience events directly in the real world.  Our emotional responses of surprise, fear, joy, arousal, anger, and sadness, our learning and memory centers, even our visual cortex and sensory or motor areas of the brain get stimulated as if the experience were real.  This isn’t to say that we can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, but it is a clue as to how fundamental stories are to human experience.  In other words, we can’t help but respond to stories.  We’re story machines.  Within the last several years, neurologists have made great strides in identifying the functions of specific areas of the human brain.  One area of our cortex, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, is found to be the master control center that essentially orders and sorts our various disparate thoughts and impulses; it prioritizes, organizes and builds causal links, or in other words, it creates stories.  The Orbitofrontal Cortex acts like a fact-checker to make sure our internal stories “make sense” and are consistent with the rest of our mental model.  This part of our brain decides what’s “real” and what’s not.[2]

Think about how our daily lives are filled with stories.  We share our life events with friends and family via stories, we run scenarios and conversations in our heads constantly, we teach each other by relating stories, speculate on the future with imagined stories, escape into fictional worlds to relax, or role play-stories with each in acting or gaming contexts.  We even dream in stories, albeit semi-rational ones.

“OK, OK!”  You say in my mind.  “You made your point about stories being important to human beings 3 paragraphs ago!  But there are a ton of great games out there that give you the feeling of being in a story.  They may not let you do whatever you want, and they may not really let you change the story much, but still, they can be lots of fun, and sometimes deliver a pretty good story experience.  Why do we need to understand more about Interactive Story?”

If we make innovation less risky we’ll be able to do more of it.  This is true both for the small incremental steps of making existing story-games better, and for bigger, more ambitious leaps, where we really try to advance the art.   The goal of a great game is to let players feel empowered through choice and through action.  Games are all about doing.  Stories, on the other hand are about suspension of disbelief.  The goal of a great story is to transport you into the world of the story and allow you to “live the experience”.    Interactive Story strives to blend both of these things together.  The challenge of course comes from the fact that stories are, by their nature linear sequences.  Every time you introduce player choice into a story, you mess with that linearity. 

This is the key challenge with creating a truly Interactive Story experience.  Anyone who has tried to tackle this problem can tell you immediately that the tough part is figuring out how to give players lots of choice and freedom to affect what happens in the story. Or put in a more academic way, how to give players “agency” in the story. Games, by their nature, tend to be tight loops of repeated actions and repeated outcomes.  You dodge and you shoot, then you dodge and shoot again.  Or perhaps it’s driving, or playing music, or moving through a dungeon or whatever the actionable-loop of your particular game is.  These loops allow players to develop an expertise in some skills, and they allow designers to ramp difficulty and adjust parameters of whatever the core activity is.   More relevant to this discussion is the fact that these loops offer efficiency in terms of the assets that are needed. They allow game builders to create sustainable play experiences with limited, repeatedly used content.  Some games may offer lots of content in regards to environments, enemies, vehicles, level designs, etc… but as soon as this becomes unmanageable designers simply stop adding content.  As long as the core action loops work the game is playable.  In contrast to this, games that allow players to fundamentally change the story via their actions very quickly run into an ‘exploding content’ problem.  With every player action potentially causing a whole new set of possible NPC behaviors and world states, building a game from a fixed set of pre-made assets becomes extremely problematic.  

The key problem with Interactive Story is never “what’s the story?”  In a way this is of little importance, and shouldn’t be the focus of a design.  Of course we ultimately want great stories, but the real difficult and interesting question to answer is:  How does one allow the player to meaningfully and dramatically affect the story, in a way that is viable?

There are two basic roads we can take:  The Real Road, or The Imaginary Road.  The Real Road is the road of the real world, with all its current limitations.  For better or for worse it’s the road we’re on, maybe not by choice, but hey that’s reality.  On this road we use a wide variety of tricks and techniques to try and give players the sense of affecting and being “in” the story.  For every technique there are limitations, costs and benefits.  These techniques are not exclusive but can be used in combination with each other.  We’re going to go over all of these shortly and talk about when they are useful and what trade-offs they offer.

The Imaginary Road is the road of our hypothetical Holodeck in the future.  This is the road of advanced simulation, and true “emergent story” (i.e., story that isn’t pre-planned, but instead simply emerges from the simulation experience as a fascinating byproduct).  Oddly enough there is a lot to learn from thinking about this Imaginary Road, so we’re going to start here and then circle back to look at the current State of the Art in Interactive Story Trickery. 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=0


[1]Michio Kaku : The Future of the Mind (p.173)

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