First published in ‘Storyline’, Journal of the Australian Writers Guild 2013
Book, Theatre, Radio, Cinema, Television… Each of these narrative forms entered the world by building and expanding on their predecessors. Each form added complexity or possibility or diversity to what was possible for the telling of stories. Each expanded the canvas for professional writers. Each one evolved and developed new audience expectations. And yet none of these forms ever disappeared because of the arrival of a new form. Book, radio and theatre are still very much alive, reports as to the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated and TV seems to be among the most popular and vibrant narrative forms on the planet right now. Observing this fact of history tells us some important things about writing in the digital age and the principles that might underpin the vibrant world of Interactive Narrative Writing.
Interactive stories - those where the audience take part, effect, choose, control or play the narrative - are not only part and parcel of mainstream story-consumption but also increasingly, bread and butter professional work for writers. But does working in these forms mean entering a revolutionary new world where the language is foreign? Or is interactive narrative simply part of an ongoing, incremental evolution still grounded in ancient universal ideas?
It’s worth establishing the broad scope of interactive narrative. Very often such experiences are simply called ‘Games’ (prefixed by the words Video or Computer), but ‘Game’ is a problematic name. A Game does not need, nor have to have, a Story. ‘Tetris’ was a massively successful Game and there is no narrative to speak of. On the other hand ‘Bioshock’ is a Game with an extraordinary dystopian, and philosophically compelling, narrative, rich in character and allegory. To call both ‘Tetris’ and ‘Bioshock’ ‘games’ may be technically true but it is decidedly unhelpful if you wish to understand what makes either compelling. Hence the simple descriptive term, Interactive Narrative. A term which can encompass a broad range of experiences where the Audience is asked to play a role, to participate or to engage directly with character and plot through action. An experience that involves game-play but does so in the context and service of telling a story.
It’s a broad church that, like filmmaking, spans from the mega-budget blockbuster to the indie production - from computers and tablets to mobile phones and real-world events. For writers the demands of these mediums can be both foreign and familiar. Too often the focus has been on the foreign; stressing what is new or different and subsequently ignoring or subverting what is familiar - a proverbial situation commonly conjured with images of babies flowing down sinks with dirty bathwater. Writers in the interactive space, I would argue, are better serviced by first engaging with what is consistent across narrative mediums in order to understand how the medium evolves that thinking.
One way to consider this is to look at a mainstay idea often regarded as universal to storytelling - Character Transformation - that we are most engaged by a story’s characters when we bear witness to their transformation through struggle. There are numerous perspectives on this of course - inner and outer journeys, shifts from wants to needs, hero’s quests to fulfill destiny, and so on.
However it is expressed, the idea holds of a character changed by their experiences and transformed as a person by their actions (or as is often the case in TV, particularly SitCom, have the potential to change but are reset in an episodic pattern). The result of being an audience to such character arcs is catharsis; from the greek meaning a ‘purification or purging’, a renewal, restoration, and revitalisation. But there are other ways to think of change and transformation in narrative that have particular value in interactive storytelling.
Take a seminal film like Citizen Kane. The character of Charles Foster Kane himself doesn’t really change or transform at all. He’s a bombastic, self-absorbed arrogant man from very early in the film, and he’s much the same at the end. BUT, the audiences’ perspective on his character does transform dramatically over the course of the story’s telling. We grow to empathize with him and connect with him despite his lack of change - from a newsreel about a figure larger than life we, the viewer, are transformed in our perspective by a confounding and intimate portrait of child longing for a lost snow sled. The transformation in a story like Citizen Kane is much more in the audience’s change in understanding of character than it is of the character’s transformation itself; and the effect is none the less profound.
Of course, these two types of transformation - change of Character and change of Audience Perception of character - are not mutually exclusive; often sitting together or intertwined in complex narratives. However, recognising their differences is particularly useful for considering how such ideas apply to interactive narrative where engagement is most often found in the transformation of the way the player sees other characters, events or the Actions they themselves have performed.
The successful and evocative game ‘Braid’, which tells the story of man looking for redemption and reconciliation with a lost love, is an excellent example. What is otherwise a clever puzzle-platformer with a rewinding-time game mechanic (think, philosophical Mario Bros in whimsical water-colour), becomes something much more effecting and profound in its cathartic transformation. In the finale the player realises that all the actions they have performed, which they thought were ‘good’ and ‘redemptive’, turn out to have been the opposite of that - the player realises that they were the Monster not the Hero.. The player’s transformation is in being forced to see their actions in a way that is fundamentally different at the end of the narrative than at the start. The character we are playing doesn’t change, but our understanding of both changes radically making for a very satisfying narrative experience.
This technique of generating transformation not directly in the Characters of an interactive narrative, but rather in the way the audience views the choices and actions they have performed, is remarkably consistent. ‘The Walking Dead’ game, that extends from the popular TV series, places a great deal of emphasis on moral dilemma choices the player is forced to make. The character the audience controls transforms little, but as the audience is compelled by the narrative to perform drastic actions without moral clarity, they are transformed in their perspective of the scenario and of themselves.
Such transformations in a narrative context require dramatic Stakes and this prompts us to consider broader possibilities for how such stakes can be enacted within an interactive narrative.
In a typical ‘video game’ like an first-person shooter, the stakes are largely clear and simple - life and death, survival or not. Run, jump, shoot, stay alive. But in the ever increasing diversity of interactive narratives there are infinitely wider possibilities. A fascinating example is the hilarious ‘Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone’ - an interactive app from the storyworld of the British comedy TV series ‘The Thick Of It’.
Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone has a simple construct - a character from the show has lost his phone and You have found it. Your phone now acts and presents as that once owned by the character Malcolm Tucker; complete with all the comic farce of the British parliament.
Within the experience, the audience’s actions are linked to real-world actions - Answering Emails, Reading SMS, Listening to voice mail, and so on. And in doing so the audience is not only witness to the hilarious ramifications of Malcolm Tucker losing his phone in an immediate and epistolary way, but they also have an active role to play; to piece together what happened and how Malcolm lost his phone, to work out what machinations are taking place behind Malcolm’s back and to be a part of the story’s complexity as the ‘possessor’ of the phone that everyone wants so badly - You are the holder of the Stakes.
The stakes in Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone are not on the audience as a character but rather on third-party characters who have something to loose and for which the audiences’ continued possession of the ‘phone’ away from its owner, deepens the dilemma and raises the stakes for those characters.
Whilst interactive narrative creates a distinctly immersive quality, we can also recognise that suspension of disbelief only goes so far. As much as audiences may play as an avatar, dramatic stakes imposed solely on them as player rarely contain a tangible emotional kick. The truth is it’s hard for audiences to worry or care about ‘themselves’. In an action game the audience may have self-preservation as key stakes but these kinds of mechanics don’t hold the same emotional weight as those that come from something narratively beyond the sport of player self preservation.
However, players can be motivated to care deeply about other characters diegetic to the storyworld, compelled to be conscious of their gameplay choices as having ramifications and impact on those characters they have come to care about.
Many interactive narratives for games often fail to recognise this idea and all the stakes in the world mounted onto the player’s avatar are worth but a fraction of the stakes mounted on characters the player must care about, protect, defend or save. A superb example of this balance is the game ‘Mass Effect’. Ostensibly a space opera with ‘end of the universe stakes’, Mass Effect writer, Mac Walters, understands that ‘End of the Universe’ holds no emotional weight unless it means losing something the player cares about outside of them self and more intimately than the abstract universe. Mass Effect subsequently spends enormous effort on building very complex characters and relationships around the player’s avatar - continually forcing the player into situations where they must make hard moral choices about the fate of these characters - whilst allowing the avatar itself to be effectively a tabula rasa, a blank slate with very little characterisation.
This might seem an anathema to traditional writers whereby, in effect, the protagonist is a nondescript character with the least amount of defined characterisation, whilst the minor characters are richly detailed. But it comes from a central understanding of interactivity that allows space for the audience to inscribe their own character on the blank slate of the protagonist (which is fundamental to game play) whilst using deeply developed supporting characters to bring emotional weight and transformation (which is fundamental to storytelling).
There’s a lot of complexity in the idea of agency and the role of the audience as an active agent in a story, what they are made to care about and what compels them to interact. But recognising the potential vibrancy and diversity of what’s possible for interactive actions demands we consider the narrative implications for what makes the audience care and how they will be transformed by their experience of actively caring.
Writing interactive narratives that embody the audience in role-play and active choices is no easy task but it’s also not a foreign land where nothing is the same. Interactive narrative is evolution not revolution and the fundamental tenets of good writing - Transformation and Stakes hold a profound universality across all narrative mediums, interactive or otherwise.