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[Guest post by game designer and author Emily Short: see bio]

Authors and publishers alike are beginning to think more about the interactive possibilities of fiction.

The good news is that it’s not necessary to invent interactive storytelling from scratch. Computer games have been exploring this territory since the late 1970s; literary hypertext since the late 80s. These media are directed at a different audience from the book-buying public, but they do offer some pointers about what interactivity can add to a story:

Exploration. The reader chooses what to read about next, just as when browsing a website, following one of two possible reading orders for Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, or looking up references in Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of the Khazars. The order of reading doesn’t change the text, and a thorough reader may eventually see all of the work. Nonetheless, variable ordering makes the reading experience different for different participants.

Challenge. If the reader wants the story to end a certain way, but to achieve that, he has to figure out the right decisions to make. Challenge is a common component of stories in games. As a storytelling device, it can make the reader value certain outcomes more, or sympathize more deeply with the struggles of the characters. Presenting a challenge can also be an effective way to co-opt the reader: someone invested in trying to reach a certain outcome does not always pause to consider whether he should.

Complicity. When a story is interactive, the reader bears some of the responsibility for the way it turns out — and indeed for the fact that it comes out at all. Presenting the reader with options to continue the story, all of which are less than perfect, can force him to choose whether he wants to accept the universe as you’ve created it in your story or allow him to share — and understand more fully — the limits of a character.

Choice. The old Choose Your Own Adventure books let readers choose what the protagonist should do next: attack the dragon or run away? sell the jewel or give it to the beggar? But specific works in this model are often disappointing thanks not only to poor writing but also to badly-thought-out interaction.

There are many possible pitfalls. Options that separate into easily recognizable Good and Bad moral decisions tend to cheapen a story, turning it into a piece of propaganda rather than engaging fiction. On the other hand, so do choices where the reader has no reason in advance to care one way or the other — like asking him which of two identical doors the protagonist will pass through. Inconsistency is a problem too: choices in a story should generally be at a uniform level, about roughly the same kinds of decisions — not asking the reader to choose what to eat for lunch on one page and whose life to save on the next.

Done well, though, choices in stories can challenge the reader to explore his own beliefs.

Whatever angle you choose, you need to able to answer the question, “What does this interaction add to the story? What experience does it create for the reader that a non-interactive version could not?” What’s more, you need to give the reader enough information to make informed decisions, and enough grounding in the work to care about their outcome.

Further reading:

In general

“That Darn Conundrum” is an old but valuable post about three competing elements of interactive storytelling — freedom, agency, and well-formed story. Freedom, here, is the reader/player’s ability to do whatever he wants; agency, the degree of influence he has over the outcome of the story. These concepts are essential in analyzing and designing interactive narratives. The rest of the blog is good value as well. See also this post full of further references to work in interactive storytelling.

Marie-Laure Ryan’s Avatars of Story is an academic work and sometimes heavy going, but her chapter “Toward an Interactive Narratology” addresses many of the ways that fiction has been made interactive in the past. (My review of the book is here.)

“Homer in Silicon” is my biweekly column on interactive narrative in games. Of most general interest are probably the columns on interactivity misused in the HBO Imagine project; on interactive romance stories.

This list introduces a number of games and game-like works that I (or other commenters) thought were worth checking out for their interactive storytelling potential.

On choice

Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling is directed at authors of computer-based interactive stories, and some of Chris’ ideas are decidedly outside the mainstream of the computer game industry. Nonetheless, he opens with a very strong discussion of choices — well- and badly-formed — which is worth reading regardless of the medium of interactive storytelling you choose. (My review of the book is here.)

“The Mechanics of Morality” discusses video game approaches to moral choices, and some of the pitfalls that arise from these when they’re presented as black-and-white options. It’s very much a guide to what not to do.

Victor Gijsbers is a philosopher and game designer interested in the presentation of nuanced moral choice. He has a a website where he discusses his own text-based games about morality, “Fate” and “The Baron”. His blog is full of reviews and essays.

On exploration

The Reprover (from the French Le Reprobateur) is an interactive story that uses text, still drawings, and video to present a story from multiple angles. It is an excellent example of the power of exploration, because the open structure allows the reader to choose for himself what themes to pursue through the work.

Tale of Tales publishes odd, avant-garde video games that verge on not being games at all, and that reveal their meaning primarily through exploration and atmosphere. In my opinion, their most successful work is Fatale, a response to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. (My review is here.)


Emily Short is an author of text-based games, conventionally called interactive fiction. She maintains a blog, writes about narrative-rich games for GameSetWatch and PlayThisThing, and is part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for creating interactive fiction. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.

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6 Responses to “Exploring interactive storytelling”

  1. Robert Nagle

    This of course is a great collection of links. I’ve always been a fan of that Chris Crawford book — I envision some bright 15 year old kid is reading it and hatching an idea to build an amazing storytelling engine using Crawford’s methods.

    By the way, you might not be aware that Milorad Pavic died on the very day you published your blog post. (And in fact, I was just in the process of ordering some of his ergodic experiments from Amazon).

    I can’t wait to check out the rest of your links….

  2. Steven Deschain

    “Authors and publishers alike are beginning to think more about the interactive possibilities of fiction.”

    Can you name some? I work in the publishing industry, going on about fifteen years now, and I have not really come across anyone talking about ‘interactive fiction.’

  3. Steven Deschain

    Okay, so that’s one. And that’s interesting. But I think it’s a bit misleading to say “Authors and publishers alike are beginning to think more about the interactive possibilities of fiction.” Rather: One group seems to have done … something. Looking at the site, it’s not exactly clear to me what they did. There’s also zero indication as to how audiences responded to this, which is really what I’d be concerned with as a publisher. I’m also unclear about the nature of the “interactivity” being described here. What you describe in some of your links does not seem to match what I’m seeing on the Penguin site.

  4. Emily Short

    Besides Penguin’s project, I was thinking of the following (some of which are advertising projects tied to books, others new fiction in their own right):

    http://teresaslack.blogspot.com/2009/10/interactive-fiction-series-for-girls.html
    http://www.mifiction.co.uk/
    (reprints from the 80s, but also new material)
    http://www.prleap.com/pr/130080/
    http://www.alagaesia.com/game/index.php
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/jul/17/choosethefutureofinteracti

    My discussion and links are about what’s going on in interactive storytelling elsewhere — in commercial and indie games, and in academia. I’m not particularly arguing about what publishers should be doing, market-wise; only that for those people who _are_ interested in presenting stories with some interactive component, there already exists a fair body of discussion about what forms that interactivity might take, and what it might do to the craft of storytelling.

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