Monday, 22 July 2013

Fixing Gamebooks 6: Don't break the story spell

What happens when we add interaction to story?

I've been reading Alan Moore's Writing For Comics. It may be wafer thin but it's a dense, insightful read. One statement got me thinking about my musings on gamebook interactivity...

A successful story of any kind should be almost like hypnosis
Alan Moore

He goes on to argue that a well crafted story pulls you deep under its spell, warning that 'violent' or 'clumsy' elements can easily break the readers self induced hypnosis, snapping them back into reality. For comics, he cites switching between scenes as a particular problem area, it's a moment where a narrative thread is cut and spliced with another. It is a storyteller's duty to handle the transition well and preserve the suspension of disbelief.

What then, would Mr. Moore make of narrative intrusions such as skill tests, dice fights or even just a simple multiple choice menu?! Adding meaningful interactivity to digital stories is an interesting challenge in itself, but even the inclusion of 'desired' interactivity could be disruptive to an audiences sense of immersion. How would a reader react when they suddenly hit a point of interaction like a brick wall?

The interaction wall

I'm calling the point where a reader abruptly switches from receiving feedback (reading the story) to providing input (making choices) the interaction wall. It's the rude interjection of interactive elements into a story that disrupts the hypnotic flow of a story.

Secondly, the addition of interactivity has usurped the importance of story in gamebooks. I'm not just talking about designers neglecting the craft of storytelling but also about how readers become apathetic towards story and gravitate towards the interactive elements.

For example, Dave Morris has noted there is a propensity for gamebook readers to skip the text in order to get to the next decision point, the reader merely seeing the text as an obstacle to progression. He argues that well written prose may be a way to reduce skim reading, but this does not help us lessen the distancing effect of colliding with the interaction wall (and may even make the effect more pronounced)

So what's the answer? Write brief, scannable text so readers can get quickly to the next interaction point? or perhaps reduce interactivity and allow the story a chance to grab the attention? Both seem unsatisfactory. Diluting the quality of the story or the richness of the interaction both seem like an unfavourable compromise.

We could instead think about how we might smooth the transition from feedback to input. How we might provide continuity of experience between these two states, to shift the reader seamlessly from passive to active.

Blurring the line between reading and playing

Although receiving feedback and providing input into a system are discrete mental processes, we could aim to create experiential parity between them, to create equally satisfying but complementary experiences. What the hell am I talking about? I'm not entirely sure but here's a random collection of thoughts on the subject:

1) Increase the frequency of interaction
It is reasonable to assume that when a reader (after long periods uninterrupted consumption) is finally expected to interact with the story it will, in fact, come as a bit of a shock to them.

One solution might be to include small, frequent interactions. Interactions need not be a choice or sub-game, but could simply be a next or proceed function. In print gamebooks I saw these choice-less paragraphs as unnecessary and was annoyed at having to flick to the right page just to read on. But on screen it's a different matter. The simple 'next' button would normalise clicking as part of the reading experience. It would also help to moderate the rate at which the content is consumed, potentially minimising skim reading. But, most importantly, when a slightly more heavyweight interaction is required it will be less conspicuous.

Evidence in support of the 'frequent click' theory is apparent in Versu which delivers the unfolding story sentence by sentence. Clicking is part of the fabric of play. There are of course other factors at play in Versu which necessitate the delivery of information in this way (multiple narrative threads to monitor, dynamic feedback, etc...) but the collision with the interaction wall is less apparent.

(Note-to-self: Maybe some fast-foward ability to choice's might be allowed for replays.)

2) Allow reader to do nothing.
Both Versu and Walking Dead provide the reader with the ability to do nothing. If you are immersed in the story or frozen by indecision the reader can opt-out and play a passive role, allowing the story to unfold naturally. This option is not available in traditional gamebooks but its inclusion has two unique benefits:

i) It creates the illusion that the story world is a machine that is whirring on, with or without the readers participation.

ii) It allows storytellers to engineer experiences that instil readers with regret at not taking decisive action sooner (All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing and all that).

3) Don't give readers too much to think about.
I'm slightly conflicted on this one, but I've included it for discussion purposes. On one hand interactive stories feel like they should be pulling you into the midst of moral/ethical dilemmas and provide complex inputs to reflect the situation (after all what other medium enables this) but, on the other, maybe simple choices that keep the user pushing forward may preserve the suspension of disbelieve better.

Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice champions keeping it simple. Keeping options limited would help readers make decisions and retain the forward momentum of the story. Could we write a compelling gamebook if the decision engine was limited to Agree, Disagree or No comment? I'm not advocating Krug's 'mindless, unambiguous choices' but surely an interaction model that has predictable parameters would less disruptive than one that is constantly inventive (as proposed by Mory Buckman in his GDC 2013 poster session: Interactive Fiction: Traditions vs Potential)  

4) Break the fourth wall
I've already proposed the option of breaking the fourth wall in my post on gamebook characterisation but it could deliver another benefit. If gamebook characters are directly interacting the reader (as opposed to the reader assuming the role of the hero) the inclusion of interactivity would appear natural, expected even. By being explicit about the readers level of participation we've flipped them from being a passive recipient to an overtly active role, a decision maker. Here there is no hypnotic spell to break. This approach seems the most unlike traditional storytelling and therefore is an area that appears relatively unexplored in interactive literature.


Whilst I've not arrived at any solid conclusions, we must rise to the challenge that one day (with a lot of trial and error) we might be able to tell great interactive stories in a way that Mr Moore would approve.

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What is this Mysterious Path?
Mysterious Path is half comic, half 8bit RPG, half choose-you-own-adventure. Mysterious Path will be an interactive experience playable on your phone, tablet or desktop... eventually. Imagined by the one man army that is Grey Wizard (and some occasionally helpful retainers)


  1. One possibility is adding interactive elements prior to the final "Go to" choice at the bottom. So a section might look like this: prose, player picks one of three items, more prose, player is given a hint to remember, more prose, then a choice. But this might be annoying or sputtering. It helps with the "people want power" rule, but is dangerous because of the "people are lazy" rule.

    An extremist solution is to have each section 2-3 sentences followed by a choice. It's step-by-step action, total control, but inevitably leads to some meaningless choices. Think of Dungeon Master for SNES where you have precise control of where everything goes in the backpack, though it doesn't matter except after many such decisions. This and related clickfests were weeded out where now we see running replacing walking, autopickup, and autoarrange. One charm of the older gamebooks was getting encounters and situations over with fast, moving quickly to the next idea. The human brain seeks novelty. People want only remarkable experiences, so how do you provide chains of those that with little text?

    Players are definitely less patient (lazier) these days. Should this mindset be rewarded, or is the accomplished feeling of reading long patches of text part of the challenge people seek in a game?

    In short, how do you get remarkable, novel experiences in short blurb form? These are difficult to generate, only to have players blow through them fast.

    1. I'm all for reducing an interactive story to its essence. Any burden on the reader beyond following/controlling the narrative could be deemed superfluous. Junking the 'solo RPG adventure' format will see the exorcism many of the tabletop pleasures (dice, stats, character advancement) but will lead to a more focused user experience. This usually a good thing. Do one thing well etc...

      The jist of this slightly confused post is about how we might position interactivity within a narrative in a way that is complementary (or less harmful), and that there may be some mileage in attacking this problem from a UI/UX perspective. The map was transformative for Sorcery! for instance.

  2. Considering the point that readers would find choices "shocking" after long swathes of text: which readers? Only those new to the medium would react that way, I'd wager. Experienced gamebook readers will be expecting choices. This of course throws up the question: who are you writing for? You can't please everyone, after all.

    I have more thoughts on your other points but am on mobile, and interacting with Blogger in this situation is very painful...

    1. You're right of course, but thinking about the needs of battle-hardened gamebookers tends to limit my ambition (love them as I do). I am more excited by the questions that get thrown up when you consider the post-fighting fantasy generation. With re-invention you need to challenge assumptions.

      Also I lazily use the term 'gamebook' but really mean interactive digital stories. This broadens the design horizon too.

      Look forward to hearing your other thoughts!

  3. Sorry for 'being late' but today I came across this post and I have to say that it's a great question to talk about. We (Cubus Games team) have been discussing about all this matters when trying to decide who are we writing for, and certainly, as Matt says above, you can't please everyone.

    1. Better late than never! Would love to know more about your teams view on these matters!

  4. Good points.

    1) I agree with the premise here. I've played through a fair amount of gamebook apps, and sections with too much text can very quickly get very boring. Certainly, I'm never going to read those sections a second time in a possible second playthrough. Keeping things short and to the point is a big advantage.

    On the other hand, simply replacing this with a "Next/Continue" button doesn't help. Unless you want to not only bore but also annoy the reader. The "line-by-line" visual novel approach (and apparently also Versu, if I understand you correctly) is a terrible UI pattern.

    2) This is always a good thing, but it doesn't really solve the issue where you possibly have too much text.

    3) I don't agree with this one. In the famous words of Sid Meier, a good game is a series of interesting choices. A good interactive story; IMO, is a story where your actions matter. This doesn't mean that your players need to think (acting on feelings is equally valid - better even), but it does mean that everything they do should potentially have an impact.

    4) I'm not a fan of breaking the 4th wall, but of course it's something one can use if appropriate to the story and mechanics. I don't think it is a specific solution to this issue, though.

    My own theory:

    - Brief, well-written prose. The text should not be too long; if the reader can skim it (I'm a speedy reader myself), that's a bonus.

    - Make sure that there is a point to the prose. We really don't need five pages detailing the journey to Timbucktu if nothing of importance to the game/story happens on that journey. Ideally, IMO - the text should be directly informative for the player wrt current and future choices.

    - Frequent interactions that mean something. In an electronic format, it is possible to keep track of everything - make use of that.