A successful story of any kind should be almost like hypnosis
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 wallI'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 playingAlthough 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.
ConclusionWhilst 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.
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)