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Interactive Storytelling: Non-Linear

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In this final part of our series about interactive storytelling, we'll talk about the future of storytelling in videogames.

Non-Linear Interactive Storytelling

Or the Philosopher's Stone

Non-linear interactive storytelling is similar to the philosopher's stone: everybody talks about it, everybody wants it, but no one has found it yet.

Let's start with the definition: what is non-linear interactive storytelling? 

It's simple: this is storytelling that changes based on the player's choices. In the previous article, we discussed linear interactive storytelling and how it gives the player only the illusion of choice. Of course, there are some really sophisticated games that give a better illusion about freedom and choices and even the chance to really change the course of the story. But still, it is an illusion.

Bioshock gameplay
Bioshock gives players some interesting choices, but they are gameplay and narrative related, not story related.

So the best definition of non-linear interactive storytelling is a way to break this illusion and give the player real choices. However, this requires some advanced technology: Artificial Intelligence.

That's because true non-linear interactive storytelling requires an AI capable of reacting to the player's actions. As in real life. The theory is quite simple, on paper. The player does something in the game's world, and the world and everybody inside it will react.

But, of course, creating a system like that is nearly impossible with the current technology, because of the complex calculations needed. We're talking about totally removing the scripted part from a game! And right now at least 90% of a game is scripted.

In the second part, we talked about Zelda Breath of the Wild. That, I think, is a starting point: a game where the developers set out rules about the world, and the player can play with them freely.

Extend this idea to all elements, and you'll have the illusion broken.

Again: this has never been done, but I'm sure somebody will do it in the future. Maybe with the next console generation, when the calculation power increases.

Okay, that's the future. But what about today?

Today, there are some games that are trying to create a non-linear experience. I'll talk about two of them, as examples.

The first is an AAA game. Everybody knows it: Detroit Become Human. In his most recent game, David Cage is trying really hard to give the player a lot of forks and choices. Yes, it's still an illusion, but it's the game that I know with the highest number of narrative forks. While playing this game, you have the feeling that every choice matters. Even the small ones.

Detroit Become Human narrative forks
This flowchart shows all the choices in one scene of Detroit Become Human

Don't get me wrong: it's all scripted. And I think that's the wrong way to achieve real non-linear storytelling. But it's one of the games that comes closest. It's great to play without trying to discover the hidden script, just to "live" the experience.

Of course, the game itself, chapter after chapter, will show you a flowchart about the forks. And you will know where the narrative joints are. But, really: if you can, try it without thinking about that, and you'll have a better illusion of choice in the game.

The second game is an indie experiment: Avery. It's an experimental game based on an AI. It's free, it's for both iOS and Android, and you must try it. It's a game where the AI will respond to the player dynamically. And that's the right way, I'm sure, to achieve true non-linear interactive storytelling.

Avery gameplay
Avery in all its splendor

Of course, keep in mind that it's an indie game and it's free. But it's amazing. It's an "Artificial Intelligence Conversation". Those among you who are a little older (like me) will surely remember Eliza, the first chatterbot. Avery is an evolution of that. You'll talk with an AI that has lost its memory and is scared because something is wrong. Again: try it because, playing Avery, you can see one of the first steps towards our philosopher's stone.

Direct and Indirect Mode

As I said at the start of the article, we have the theory. More theory than we really need, probably—that's because we can't work on the real part, so we're talking, writing and thinking too much about it.

But a good part of this theory is found in some interesting papers and books. In those you will find two main definitions: direct mode and indirect mode. These are the ways in which the storytelling should react to the player's actions.

Direct mode is quite simple: the player does something, and the story will change in response. Action -> reaction. This is the way, for example, most tabletop role-playing games work.

The Game Master explains a situation -> the player makes a choice -> the Game Master tells how the story reacts to that choice.

The two games that I gave as examples before also work in this way. And when we have a full non-linear interactive storytelling game, I guess this mode will be the most common.

Also note that the majority of linear storytelling works this way: there is a setting, with a conflict, the character does something, and the story (the ambient environment, the villain, or some other character) reacts.

But there is a more sophisticated way to tell a non-linear story: indirect mode.

This is more like how the real world works. You do something, which causes a small direct reaction, which engages a chain reaction that can go on to have effects in distant places.

This is the so-called "butterfly effect". You will discover that this type of story-telling works only if there is not a real "main character". Because, in the real world, everyone is the main character of his or her own story. But there are billions of stories told every second around the world. And each story, somehow, is influenced by all the other stories.

Back to gaming, there are already games that use this concept: MMOs. Think about World of Warcraft: there is no main character, and the "total story" (the sum of all stories about all characters) is a complex web that links all individual stories. So actually, in the first part of this article, I lied: there is already a way to create non-linear interactive storytelling, and that's to put the domain of the story in the players' hands!

World of Warcraft gameplay
World of Warcraft is a place where the stories are told between players.

Of course, in World of Warcraft, there are still scripted parts (the enemies, the quests, the NPCs, etc.), and that's why WoW is not an example of true non-linear interactive storytelling. But when the players have the ability to create their own story, there is not only non-linear storytelling, but also it's told in indirect mode.

So think about this: some day, in the near future, we'll have a game where the AI will be so advanced that we'll play with it in the same way we play with the other humans in WoW.

That's the goal. That's true non-linear interactive storytelling.

Conclusion

I started writing this series of articles almost six months ago. It's been a labour of love, and I'm thankful to Envato Tuts+ for encouraging me to pursue it. This is a topic I really care about, and there are a lot of things that I had to cut to keep the series to only three parts. 

If you are interested, though, there are lots of articles and videos on this topic. For example, I could have talked about the dissonance ludonarrative (look it up!). I also had to cut a big part about Florence (a really great linear interactive storytelling game—again, try it if you can). And so on.

However, I'm happy to have this series wrapped up, and I hope you've enjoyed the articles and will find them useful.

Interactive storytelling is, in my opinion, one of the big challenges that the industry will face in its next step. In the last two console generations, we saw incredible advances in graphics and gameplay. Now it's time to think about the story. Because, you know, stories matter.

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