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Wrecking Immersion to Save the Story

Should you remind their audience that they're playing a game? Some skillfully applied gamification can make your audience appreciate the story more.
I made some incorrect assumptions about two entries in this year's Interactive Fiction Competition, but I wasn't the only one who misread The Call of Innsmouth and Ulterior Spirits
 
In reviews, Chlorine described The Call of Innsmouth as "a bit linear for my taste," and Stian wrote that "there does not seem to be many branching narratives that do not end with a quick death; rather, choices are usually either correct or deadly."
 
I thought the same thing until I uncovered branches that affect where you find the game's missing person, when you confront Innsmouth's inhabitants, and how you escape from town. The choices were not easy to miss, but they were worked into the narrative so smoothly that it was easy to underestimate their importance. 
 
The Call of Innsmouth had long-term choices to affect the shape of the narrative, short-term choices that end the story early, and opportunities to "undo" bad choices so that the player doesn't have to start over. I'd call that good game design!  
 
But the design decision had an unintended tradeoff: by immersing readers in a strong narrative, those readers didn't see how they were steering the story.
 
Ulterior Spirits is another entry that was carefully crafted to immerse readers in a strong narrative. Sounds, graphics, and presentation choices gave it a futuristic atmosphere that reminded me of the BBC Doctor Who webcast "Death Comes to Time."
 
The story worked so hard to draw me in that I couldn't tell when I was allowed back out. It wasn't clear where my choices were making changes, but I was reluctant to start experimenting — restarting the entire narrative would have been exhausting.
 
Autumnc's review described a similar experience, questioning whether it was possible to find alternate endings. (We got different results, so the answer is yes.)
 
Both of these IFcomp entries presented the audience with meaningful choices, but people failed to notice them. It seems like cognitive bias at work, and I'd be grateful if anyone could recommend resources for learning more about this aspect of game design.
 
During the competition, I thought about these entries in comparison to Josh Labelle's Tavern Crawler. It went in the opposite direction, presenting notifications outside the story to highlight the effects of player decisions. 
 

After making some professional interactive fiction this past year and participating in extensive UXR/focus group sessions, I saw how even significant branching in most IF can go completely unnoticed if too subtly implemented, so I purposefully swung (probably a little too) far in the other direction for this piece.
Looking at these three entries and their reception, it looks like you can make a player feel like they're influencing the story by reminding them that they're not part of it.
 
Donald and I will have to keep that in mind as we develop Tonciven further.
 
This post was originally published on the Bitterly Indifferent blog. 

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