Interactive storytelling is still in its infancy. The closest it’s gotten to mainstream is video games, but gaming is a very specific and unfocused version of interactive storytelling as most games focus on gameplay.
My interest is primarily in the story-driven interactive experiences, and everyone does this wrong.
The Meaning of a Choice
First, I’ll explain what’s wrong. The formula used today is based on the ancient Choose Your Own Adventure model of “here are two random choices, one of which is the wrong choice and the other which is the right choice.” So it becomes a coin-flipping experience in which you hope that you choose the “right answer.”
But is this what we really want? Giving right/wrong answers certainly “gamifies” the experience by giving win/lose scenarios, but it does not draw the viewer into the world. And why? You can’t expect the viewer to be drawn into a world when the mechanism of interactivity is formulaic, superficial, meaningless, and shallow.
How is it meaningless if it’s win or lose? Doesn’t that give it meaning?
Winning and losing is not the meaning choice. Making a choice is choosing a direction, and very very rarely is that direction going to immediately result in a dead end/game over. In life, the meaning of a choice is to 1) experience the initial consequences of it and 2) see where else it leads. This is what makes life exciting, and the same holds true for interactive storytelling.
It’s flat out lazy to present the viewer with arbitrary win/lose scenarios until the story reaches its conclusion. There’s no mystery in it. There’s no point in it! The only arguable point to this line of thinking would be if the choices had predictable outcomes, if you could say to the viewer, “you should have known to grab the knife instead of the gun because you’re an expert knife thrower but can’t shoot a gun accurately.” This would present an element of skill in observation, but this is difficult to do given the vast reasoning behind different choices. The viewer could say, “Regardless of my knifethrowing, the gun is the better choice because of its range and speed and multiple bullets.” This ambiguity is exactly what ruins an interactive experience. The viewer had a valid solution in mind but your story pretended that it didn’t exist.
The viewer must not feel cheated by the result of their choice. They may feel cheated within the world you’ve created, but not by you! When choices are arbitrary win/lose paths, this is unavoidable. It never feels good to pick the wrong choice.
With win/lose scenarios, the only saving grace is seeing a brief “what if” scenario within your fictional world, but this is like pouring a glass of wine and spilling 90% of it outside the glass. It can be much better!
A Richer Interactive Experience
For a better interactive experience, real life provides the answer. The joy of making choices in life is that there is not one single way, but multiple ways to live successfully. Even if a person makes a poor choice, it can almost always be overcome, and sometimes it will even turn out better than if they had made the smart choice.
In the interactive stories I create, I want the viewer to experience the mystery, the consequences, the ripple effect of choice.
In an earlier poll I did on this site asking them which type of interactive story they would like most, more than half of the 800+ respondents said that they liked the “Adventure story,” in which there were no wrong choices, and every choice materially changed the story. This was compared to just 16% of people who chose “Deadly Choice,” which is the standard interactive tale in which there’s a right/wrong answer.
People don’t want interactive stories to be a coin flip every few minutes, they want to explore the “what ifs” of a story world. They want to reach new places, meet new people, and see the exciting consequences of choosing differently.
Interactive stories don’t need to be gamified into win/lose scenarios, they need to be fleshed out. Instead of one meaningful story with a lot of dead ends, how about several meaningful stories within the same world, separated by decisions?
And this is not to say that there wouldn’t be dead ends in the story, there would, but they wouldn’t be formulaic and unpredictable.