In the last article we saw where the need for storytelling comes from, which is something intrinsic to humankind, and we said that telling a story means basically to convey a message in order to obtain a response in our listener.
We also started to examine the tools that we, as game designers, have available to learn how to tell stories. Finally, we mentioned the birth of interactive stories, typical of videogames.
However, in order to thoroughly address this issue, we have to take a step back and start analysing the classic narrative (or passive narrative).
In the past, storytelling has traditionally been considered as a one-way relationship: the author of a story chooses a medium (book, theatrical play, movie, etc.) and uses it to tell a story that will be passively received by the audience.
But is it really like that?
Leaving aside the fact that in ancient times attempts were made to directly engage the public during theatrical performances (such as in experimental Greek theatre), passive narrative must actually be considered, more correctly, a two-stage narrative.
Because, if it is true that the author tells us a story to convey a message and to generate a response in us, then two different stages must be taken into account: reception and elaboration.
Whenever we assist a story, we are passive, it’s true. For example, while watching a movie in the theater, we’re usually sitting in the dark, in silence, ready to just “live” the experience that the director and the authors have prepared for us. This first stage, reception, is one-way: the author tells, we listen. We become receivers of the message from the author.
However, it’s not unusual to go out of the theater and talk about what we just watched, maybe with our friends or our partner. We comment on the movie, discuss our personal opinions (“I liked it”, “I got bored”, etc.), and often elaborate on the scenes, underlining the details we were most impressed by.
Therefore, we analyse the parts of the message from the author that were etched in our brains, the ones that have generated most of a response in us.
It doesn’t matter what kind of movie we just watched; this kind of after reception interaction happens anyway: whether it’s a comedy, drama, documentary or action movie, the second stage, the elaboration one, always happens. Even if we went to the movie by ourselves, we would think about particular scenes and elaborate on them.
The length and intensity of this stage, clearly, can vary depending on how much we liked the movie (that is to say, depending on how much the message from the author managed to create a response in us).
The most famous franchises in the world are the ones that push their fans to wonder and speculate, for example, in between movies, about a character's origins that haven’t been revealed yet. Thousands of Twitter messages, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and Reddit threads, for example, have been created by fans after watching Star Wars Episode VII, proposing theories dealing with the mystery of Rey’s parents.
When we develop a passion for a story that excites us, it usually happens that we dedicate ten or a hundred times as much time to the second stage compared to the first one.
Let’s ask ourselves: why does this second stage even exist? Why does reading a book, closing it, putting it on our nightstand and forgetting about it not seem to be enough? Why do we want, instead, be directly involved, letting the suspension of disbelief make us live the responses that the author wants to create in us? And then why do we keep trying to interact with that story, reliving and analysing specific parts?
The keyword here is precisely interaction: it is one of the needs of humankind. Without going into too much detail about a complex field such as the human psyche (a field that, however, is increasingly being studied by game designers and authors of movies and books because it is obviously extremely useful in order to calibrate our messages and get exactly the desired responses), one of the fundamental parts of human personality is the ego. And it’s precisely our ego that makes us want to be in the center of the story, or pushes us to discover some contact points between the characters in a story and ourselves. It’s our ego that lets us relate to the characters and make our reactions to the story we’re being told so powerful that they become able to actually affect our reality.
Without the ego, we wouldn’t be moved by reading a dramatic book.
At the same time, the ego leads us to not want to play just a minor role in the story—that is to say, to be just a passive audience.
We want, by instinct, to be at the center of the scene (and let’s say that we are also living in a time in which society and technology push us in this direction). Thus, if we can’t edit the story while it’s being told to us, we wish to interact with it anyway, at a later stage.
One of the first authors who understood this mechanism was David Lynch. Perhaps one of the most important authors of the modern era, he is certainly the father of TV series as we know them today. In 1990, when David Lynch began telling the story of an unknown (and fictional) town in the northern United States, Twin Peaks, he was following a hunch: he created a mystery that engaged viewers all over the world and led them to look for a solution.
The dreamlike puzzle created by Lynch and Frost (the other author of Twin Peaks) kept viewers glued to that story for two and a half years (and later for 30 solid years, because the fans never gave up on that unsolved mystery until the release of a very long-awaited third season just last year). The story brought viewers to interact among themselves: they shared theories and possible scenarios. For the first time in the history of television, the second stage became actually important and, clearly, contributed to the success of Lynch’s work.
Then how can we call this experience passive if, sometimes, the second stage lasts longer and is more intense than the first one?
You’ll agree with me that the definition is inadequate at least. However, it’s true that during the narration the audience is passive: throughout the duration of the transmission of the message from the author, whoever is receiving that message can only passively listen to it. The audience is not able to intervene in the events or shift their focus to minor details that look interesting to them. Furthermore, in the case of media such as cinema and theater, the audience doesn’t even have the chance to choose the narrative rhythm: the message from the author is shown in an unstoppable way, like a river in flood that overwhelms the viewers.
From this point of view, videogames are deeply different, and their interactive narration opens up countless possibilities that, before videogames became an established medium, used to be unthinkable.
The Evolution of Storytelling
It’s interesting to note how, looking at the videogame world, older media have always felt a little bit of envy. The authors of a movie or a TV series are clearly aware of how charming interaction can be for the audience, and they know that, generation after generation, classic storytelling is getting less and less appealing.
In the last 30 years, many attempts have been made to hybridize the classic nature of certain media, and some have been more successful than others.
One of the most famous attempts of this kind is the book series Choose Your Own Adventure: books where the story is made of forks in the road in which the reader/player can make choices and often fight against enemies or use a style of interaction very similar to that of tabletop role-playing games.
Another example is the eighties TV series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future that allowed players, using infra-red devices, to fight against the enemies on the screen and score points, and the player's action figure reacted based on the results.
A recent example is the interactive episode of Puss in Boots, published on Netflix and designed for tablet: it’s a cartoon for children with choices to make and forks in the road in the story.
I’m really curious about what will happen in the future in this respect.
What about you?
Now that we have looked at traditional (to a certain extent, passive) storytelling, it’s time to go into the very subject of these articles: interactive storytelling.
First of all, let's try to set things straight: are all games narrative?
To answer, let’s look at a few examples.
Chess is one of the oldest and most popular games in the world. It represents a conflict on a battlefield between two armies and, as many of you will know, chess and go are considered the most strategic games in the world.
However, is let’s simulate a battle enough to define chess as a narrative game?
Because all the elements we highlighted as fundamental to narration are missing: the narrator is missing, and so is the message.
The same goes for videogames.
There are completely abstract games (like Tetris) and games in which storytelling is a simple expedient for the setting of the game. Consider Super Mario Bros, in its first version. There was a basic story (Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach and Mario must save her). But there’s no actual storytelling, no narrator, no message.
There are responses, but they are directly provoked by gameplay. In fact, taking away the story from Super Mario Bros doesn’t affect the user experience at all.
The lack of any actual storytelling, however, doesn’t invalidate the quality of the game. On the other hand, adding narration to the structure of the game as it is would probably burden the experience and ruin the perfect balance of the design.
Not for nothing, even though in more modern Super Mario games texts and cut-scenes have appeared, the story keeps working as a mere expedient, as a corollary to the gameplay.
When we as designers, therefore, start approaching the design of a new game, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions:
- Does my story (my message) need interactive storytelling?
- How can interactive storytelling improve my story?
Answering these questions in the first place will let us understand if and how to include interactive storytelling in our game.
We may realise that a simple story used as an expedient is enough, or that the game doesn’t need a story at all! The assumption that any modern game should have interactive storytelling is a mistake we have to avoid.
If, instead, the answers are positive, then it’s time to learn how to master the art of interactive storytelling.
Linear Interactive Storytelling
The first kind of interactive storytelling that we are going to consider is the linear one. This definition might, at first sight, appear to be counterintuitive, but it’s actually the most common kind of interactive storytelling.
Videogames using this kind of storytelling allow the player to interact with the events, choosing the narrative rhythm (in the case, for example, of a quest that won’t proceed without the player’s intervention), choosing the order in which to go through the events (for example, when there are two parallel quests active at the same time and the player can decide which one to complete first), or setting the desired level of accuracy (for example, when reading documents and clues in a game is not mandatory but increases the player’s knowledge about the story or the game’s setting).
However, as much as the player feels free, the story is eventually going precisely how the author meant.
It’s as if the game designer had taken his message and split it into many different pieces to be put together by the player.
Developing this kind of interaction is clearly more complicated than classic storytelling: certain tricks of the trade commonly used in book-writing, for example, cannot be used here.
Consider this game with a linear interactive storytelling (maybe one of the most famous in the world): The Secret of Monkey Island. It allows players, on a number of occasions, to explore the story and interact with it in the order and rhythm they prefer. There are at least two large open sections where players have multiple tasks to do, following their own hunches and preferences.
A more recent example is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in which the story is told through flashbacks but it is up to the player to decide which parts of the game will be handled first and thus which pieces of the puzzle will be put together first.
Each part of the story, however, had been written in order to coexist without contradicting or hindering each other.
There’s no need to deal with this kind of problem when writing a book.
In order to be sure to create a correct interaction, therefore, a game designer has to use certain tools.
When writing a book, one often takes notes and sketches diagrams. Not all authors, I know, take this approach. Some of them are way more spontaneous: they sit in front of the keyboard and start writing.
But when you’re dealing with interactive storytelling, the spontaneous approach is simply not feasible: outlining the story, using flow charts, creating tables and summaries about every character of the story is the necessary starting point.
All these documents, in fact, will be part of the Game Design Document (GDD), which contains all the elements of the game.
Writing this kind of story, without losing track or making mistakes, is definitely complicated. The more diagrams and notes you’ve got, the more you’ll limit the risk of mistakes.
But it won’t be enough.
When writers finish their work, they will usually hand it to a proofreader who will thoroughly read it and point out mistakes and inconsistencies in the text. Likewise, designers will have to entrust their work to a QA department, made of different people that will check the story and test in a systematic way all cases of interaction—looking for every possible loophole.
And yet… what if we want more? What if we want to give the players the freedom to affect the events and make their experience even more intimate and personal, providing each player with a different response?
In this case we would have to resort to non-linear interactive storytelling that, along with the direct method and the indirect method, will be the subject of the third and last article of this series.