Challenges In Interactive Storytelling

1. Control

Who has control? The reader or the author? How much control should each side have? How can that even be a question when the author is the one writing everything?

The main goal of an interactive storyteller is to give the reader the appearance of control over the story. There is nothing more exhilarating for a reader than to make meaningful decisions in a fictional world and changing the course of the story. Video games are the dominant medium for delivering this interactive experience, as well as the most immersive form of entertainment on the planet. But written stories, as linear as they are, are a close second, and they beat video games in a key area.

When you read a book/story, something special happens – the words come into your brain, and are transformed by your imagination into a visual scene. This is why the book is always better than the movie. When you read a story, your brain is co-creator

When you make something, anything, that is your own, even if the idea originated from the book’s author, it is more immersive for you. This is why books will never go away. TV and movies are easier and provide great entertainment, but they can’t match the imagination response that a great book can provoke. They spoon feed your brain the entire scene. Now is it clear why TV rots your brain and reading is FUNdamental? :-)

Interactive storytelling in any medium – books, video games, cinema, audio – increases the potential for immersion over a regular version of it. It’s increased by the same method that makes written stories so imagination rich – YOU are the one at the wheel. Now, not only are you painting a vivid world with your mind, but you’re given the opportunity to explore it how you’d like to (or at least, explore a few interesting possibilities) If poorly done, however, it can have the opposite effect of pulling you out of the experience.

Readers of interactive tales want the most control you can give to them. They want to be able to do anything, test the outer boundaries of your fictional world, and see how far out to sea they can go. Unfortunately for the writer, this would literally mean an impossible amount of work. Infinite possibilities exist in every situation, and when you stack those infinite possibilities upon each other… well, you’re still left with infinite possibilities. To try to account for everything a character could/should/might want to do in a given situation is not possible.

What is possible is to give a few realistic options that a character is likely to do in that situation – based on their personality, common sense, and the situation they are in. You could even throw in a couple of crazy choices for fun and variety. This, I believe, is the best an interactive storyteller can do. But even this can get out of hand rather quickly.

Boy goes to canal.

Boy sees gator.

Run away? Jump in the lake? Scream and run in circles?

1. He runs away, and then meets a young girl in his path, and they go off to Spain to run with the bulls.

2. He jumps in the lake and wrestles with the gator and wins, or more likely, dies and has some afterlife excursion.

3. The boy screams and runs in circles, running into a tree, being knocked out, and has a wild dream that the reader explores.

From the simple choice of what to do when he sees a gator comes out three very different stories, which can then branch out themselves into other stories. And soon, the author finds himself with not one story, but dozens or more stories to write! This is the primary challenge of giving the reader control over the outcome. And sheesh, it’s hard enough for a writer to write a single compelling story. I believe for this reason, short stories are ideal for interactive storytelling, unless there is a team of skilled writers who could collaborate on a bigger project.

2. Interpretation And Motive

The first story I wrote for interactive stories online is titled Shawn Brawne Gets Strong. It is in the personal development category, which focuses on teaching and testing personal development knowledge in the wrapper of a choice-based story. In the feedback I have received so far, more than once, people had a different idea of what they or the character they were playing as could/would do with a particular choice.

I can decide to run a marathon, but my motive and execution of that idea are just as important, and likely more so. This is a challenge I’m realizing early on. A possible solution is to base each decision on the character and what he would likely do with each choice, instead of the reader establishing their identity as the lead character. That way you’re in the story, but not the lead character. Otherwise it is too difficult to account for the infinite possibilities of how one could execute a decision. Another possibility is to clarify the motive and planned execution of the decision before a choice is made, but this could turn into hand-holding or spoiling any surprise (though maybe not).

3. Key Events

Key events in stories are often the result of character behavior. In cases that a key event is triggered by a behavior that the reader would not see themselves doing, they may feel “cheated” by the supposed “interactive” story for forcing them down this path. This is unavoidable. The reader cannot possibly dictate all key events or else they’d be writing the entire story themselves, in which case, what are we doing here? Just give them a pencil and paper.

The best way to combat this seems to be making the characters and story as realistic as possible, or on the flip side, establishing the story and characters as predictably unpredictable (likely for comedy or pure adventure). In either case, consistency and expectations management are absolutely vital for this and for many other aspects of interactive storytelling.