Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

Interactive Storytelling and Non-Digital Games

In the last years, interactive storytelling is drawing a lot of attention but none of its concepts are new. Let's analyze how non-digital RPGs achieve interactive storytelling.

Emanuel Montero

September 25, 2009

4 Min Read


“The mind game is a relationship between the child and the computer. Together they create stories. The stories are true, in the sense that they reflect the reality of the child's life”. 

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.


In the last years, interactive storytelling is drawing a lot of attention but none of its concepts are new. Games that create stories for and with the players.

In digital games, we’re still far from interactive storytelling. Indeed, most digital games have conflicts with interactivity, variabilityand linear storytelling. Digital games are difficult to control, repetitive andin most cases present a total lack of story. Of course, that’s not where digital games should be. Computers allow us to design clean interfaces, intuitive control schemas and highly interactive systems where each time you pick up a game you can experience a challenging and different story. But meanwhile, let’s see how non-digital games have tackled interactive storytelling so far.


What can non-digital games teach us about interactive storytelling?

Non-digital RPGs are the best example of interactive storytelling games. You play your character in a story that iscreated between the players and the game system (i.e. game master). Non-digital RPGs are fun to play and, at the same time, engaging because of their interactive storytelling.

Let’s analyze a very simple example, Call of Cthulhu non-digital RPG game on H. P. Lovecraft horror stories.

All Callof Cthulhu sessions begin with multiple players and the game master. Note that non-digital RPGs are multiplayer cooperative games almost by definition. The game master knows the game rules and the archetypical story structure of thegame. All H. P. Lovecraft horror stories follow the same story structure. And a good Call of Cthulhu game master knows it. For each game session, the game master creates a new horror story following the archetypical horror story structure, which acts as a story template. Instead of a single story, non-digital RPGs offer infinite stories which are easy to create thanks to the archetypical story structure.

The main problem is that all story structure knowledge is implicit. There is no interactive storytelling language in which we can precisely define a story structure. So even if we know our stories, we can’t define how an archetypical story structure actually is. We can write linear stories but we can’t write interactive stories.

Once the story is presented by the game master, players interact with the game system following the game rules. Some game rules embed character growth in terms of the story values. Call of Cthulhu game rules include a character growth system based on the loss of sanity. Therefore, all Call of Cthulhu game stories revolve around the value sanity (+) / insanity (-). The sanity loss system rules clearly define in gameplay terms how a character grows in terms of the story value sanity/insanity.

Consequently, some game rules embed archetypical story events. Call of Cthulhu game rules include asstory events: transitory and permanent insanity, which create meaningful changein both the storytelling and gameplay situation of the player characters.

In addition, some game rules define meaningful player character actions interms of the story values in order to produce story events. Call of Cthulhu characters can read occult books (action) that make them lose sanity (story value), which in turn may produce temporal insanity (story event).

In execution, the game master performs the function of the interactive storytelling engine. An interactive storytelling engine ensures that all game actions maintain the archetypical story structure. Being a human storyteller, it’s easy to maintain the story structure while giving the players the sense that they’re in control of the story. A software storytelling engine is not capable of such a degree of freedom and it should only permit that players perform those actions which maintain the story structure.

So in non-digital RPGs we’ve got anarchetypical story structure or story template to create easily a great number of game stories. Gameplay rules defining player character growth and actions interms of story values and story events. And a human interactive storytelling engine to ensure that everything is correctly applied to create an interactive story through gameplay.

Read more about:

Featured Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like