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Luke
11 posts / 1 project
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities

I recently watched the interview by "The No-Frauds Club" with Casey Muratori, and he discussed at great lengths the design and implementation of interactive fiction, which got me wondering about my own project that I've been working on for almost ten years now.

It's remarkable after all this time that someone else has been deeply interested in interactive fiction as much as I, and it is incredibly refreshing to hear someone else's opinion on what interactive fiction should be and how it should be demonstrated.

I wanted to expand on this here, in part because of StoryDev (software that I wrote in C# and WinForms (go ahead, poke and prod)) which is specifically designed for interactive story writing which takes on interactive fiction in a completely different way to traditional methods, but also to post a thread which I had wrote some time ago relating to my view on interactive fiction and how it should be written.

Unfortunately, I do not have a link because I was forced to take down the website (due to finances), but I will paste it here.

Apologies in advance for the long post.

Conceptualising Interactive Story Design

Where do you begin to understand story design in a video game, with choices that all branch out and these decisions affect how the story plays out, leading to multiple outcomes and managing it?

You can't have a full hierarchy showing all the possibilities in a complex interactive story, that would be overwhelming. But you need to have an idea on designing your story using some form of hierarchy to know what to do and where to go.

There are multiple ways we could approach this.

One to Many

Imagine relationships in databases, but hierarchically illustrated. One-to-many, what I mean by that, is having one item branch out to multiple items, then those items branch out to more items.

image-2.png

This is a very basic and simple approach to story design. You have a conversation and three choices are presented at the bottom, each leading to different conversations. You might have a conversation that leads to an existing conversation from before, which you could consider part of the "Many to Many" approach.

Many to Many

image-3.png

Not too often would we see this approach, but it is certainly possible in more complex interactive scenarios. This likely involves conditions to ensure no more than one option can be selected, or perhaps once an option is selected it can no longer be selected once we return.

Yes, the above looks complicated but it is typical of an interactive story doing multiple things at once.

You have a starting conversation which leads to another conversation at the top. The following conversation has multiple questions you can ask to a non-player character, let's call them "Person who Talks".

You reply to Person who Talks which leads to either the right or left answers. In those conversations you have choices at the end.

The conversation on the left leads to two choices:

image-4.png

We have one returning to the beginning of the conversation and the other going forwards. The one returning to the start is conditioned to return to a section of the story such that it doesn't feel like the beginning, but you still have that sense you have returned to a previous point. The same applies to the conversation on the right.

The conversations at the bottom lead forwards, but they create two branches of story that continues the story in two different directions.

Not only is this typical of interactive stories, but it is also more complicated. The more possibilities you create for yourself, the less creative you can be on conceptualising outcomes.

Let me explain.

You have a story where you expect to have multiple outcomes but you want to get the player to reach any one of those outcomes depending on the choices you can make. Suddenly, you have to design your story in a way that requires you to cover all possibilities, which actually hinders creativity because you already know the outcome before the story is written.

When conceptualising your story in diagrams, it is important not to overcomplicate the diagrams to prevent over-branching. Over-branching, meaning creating too many branches of the story that it becomes overwhelming, hinders story creativity and prevents meaningful progress, even if the choices to the player feels like a meaningful choice.

In the end, what you get is a story that, despite having multiple outcomes, feels underwhelming by the time that outcome is reached by the player, because all that meaning that was meant to be there in earlier chapters is wasted due to the overwhelming nature of the story design behind-the-scenes. The player doesn't know this, but they will get a sense of this as story progresses.

One to Many to One

My solution to this problem is what I call the "one-to-many-to-one" approach, meaning we have a starting conversation, we have choices leading to multiple outcomes, and then we condition a single conversation at the end to handle all these conversation choices at once but in one conversation.

image-5.png

What this leads to is the above.

We have a way to design our story that isn't overwhelming to ourselves and allows us to be more creative with our story without feeling hindered by overwhelming choices and over-branching. We keep our hierarchy relatively narrow but keep the feeling of choice meaningful.

Ultimately, we want to have a certain degree of outcomes, but you don't want too many outcomes. Getting the balance between the number of possibilities while keeping the story relevant and interesting is one of the most difficult things to get right in interactive story design.

Thinking in terms of writing stories overall, including novels, screenplay and the likes, interactive story design falls in the category of difficult. Novels by themselves are difficult enough since every sentence needs to be coherent, grammatically correct and perfectly paced. Screenplay is difficult since you need to follow a certain industry-standard format, descriptions need to be minimal and explanations need to be done in dialogue, and questions can't be abrupt as that would throw off viewers.

In StoryDev, we are taking the screenplay approach, similar to Ren'Py. The name "Visual Novel" is deceptive. It's not "novel" as the approach of visual novels technically lean towards screenplay than novels. The good news is that there is no industry-standard format for Visual Novels, but that doesn't mean they are any less difficult to make.

Not to put anyone off wanting to create an interactive story, but getting one right the first time takes a long time conceptualising and understanding your story.

Age of Atlantis started out as a novel. Originally, the idea was to create video games but this conception took place ten years ago! When I was 21, I wrote the outline for a series of video games and gave the idea to my dad to review. At the time, I was advised it would be best written in the form of novels, and that's when I started writing a novel for Age of Atlantis.

Concept, to writing, to concept, to writing, it went. It was an idea that was an expanded universe with multiple different ideas going on, and definitely much were incoherent, cliché and, in many cases, downright awful on paper.

A second draft started which involved refining much of what I previously had. Most of the clichés had been removed, and it was eventually narrowed down to a simpler, more coherent story.

Having written the novel four times now, my vision for the story could not be clearer.

If you want to write an interactive story, try writing it as one story with one outcome in the form of a novel first. This is my advice and I recommend doing so because the story idea you have might not work.

Why start writing a novel? The novel doesn't have to be perfect, but the point is to lay out the foundations for your story to bring clarity and coherency. You have an idea in mind you want written down into a screenplay format, but remember that most screenplays tend to be written after the novel, not before.

Successful screenplay that makes it to television screens without a novel behind it takes years of industry practice and a good understanding of telemarketing, and character interactions in dialogue needs to be perfect.

Writing a novel first means you don't just get an idea for your story and writing it down, but novels are easier to conceptualise than a screenplay for the reasons outlined above. You will have multiple characters, multiple scenes, interactions and more. You want all of that imagination in your mind pour onto paper coherently, and then you want to write it over and over and over again until you get the visualisation of the scene written down perfectly. You do this scene after scene, chapter after chapter, and then you revise.

You read through it multiple times, you understand your story inside and out, you get a feel for your characters and imagine you are them in any given situation. You feel the characters themselves as you conceptualise them and write them down. Make them be you, and you them. You are your characters.

The best way to connect to your characters as you write them is to write a novel, because novels open the right brain to so many possibilities. You are open to create, visualise and write the characters as they write themselves.

Screenplays don't open the right brain as much as a novel does, since screenplays will translate into the director's point of view eventually, which is confined to their vision and their ideas.

Despite not having to deal with a director with an interactive story, you are still your own director. When you have your computer screen on glaring at you in the dark of night, and you are constantly figuring out what to do with your story, most of that is down to not having a good idea for the story. And then it feels rushed.

Why was Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and fantasy stories of the likes that all rise to fame and popularity? Concept, writing, concept, writing, revise, rinse and repeat. It's easier said than done, for sure.

StoryDev will prioritise the one-to-many-to-one approach When we eventually reach the point of implementing the conversation system, there will be a method of designing and conceptualising your stories. I have spent the last 5-6 years writing my novel over multiple drafts and now I have a full understanding of all my characters, story, chapters, what needs implementing, etc.

There are no doubts about how the story should progress, it is simply a matter of doing it.

Do you have a story you wish to create into an interactive story?

I'm sure you have tried multiple pieces of software to help with that. Trust me, I have tried many myself, including Articy:Draft, Twine, Ren'Py and Quest.

You have one side of the board containing the minimal amount of story design techniques that make that software what it is but offers nothing else, then on the other side you have something like Articy:Draft which offers a very unique design-conceptualisation experience but is overdone and can make reading the story difficult.

You want a mixture of both, really. You need that conceptual diagram on one side of the screen showing you how the story should come together, and on the other side of the screen you should have your document with the conversation laid out how you would like it, showing all the dialogue, narration and choices. Twine becomes the closest in this respect, but it's output is what hits the nail in the coffin for me, which is HTML5.

Not to say that building a web-based game is bad, but having multiple options is better. Yes, I'm saying that considering I'm building the editor in C# and WinForms – INITIALLY. Perhaps.

Nevertheless, we should consider all possibilities (no pun intended), and one of those is to take a shortcut to help speed up progress so we don't spend too much time on the editor.

Hopefully, this clarifies the approach we will be taking and why.

END OF ARTICLE

What do you think of this? As mentioned, I'm very curious what people think of the approach to interactive fiction. Having listened to the interview as linked above, a lot of what I had described on TwinspireFW.com (certainly before that interview took place before I took it down; apologies that you are only taking my word for this...) is very much what Casey described in the interview. But, ultimately, that doesn't matter.

What matters to me is -- would you agree that having both a design and a text editor to the side describing the scene? What would you expect from an editor for interactive story design?

Simon Anciaux
1194 posts
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities

There probably isn't a lot of fiction writer in these forums, as they are mainly about programming.

What you're describing in the article seems (to me) to be what most "story" games do.

I understand the need to drive to story toward some end goal, and I prefer games that acknowledge that instead of pretending that choice will meaningfully impact the world. I think that generally the more interesting things are optional information (dialogue, scene, details in the environment...) that let me try to construct some narrative or piece things together (even in non story oriented games, like Dark Souls).

Luke
11 posts / 1 project
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities
Replying to mrmixer (#26411)

In the case of a text-driven story experience, dialogue will likely come first. The screenplay format, in my opinion, is likely to be more engaging than walls of text, since dialogue involves interactions with characters.

In this instance, the scene, environmental details and the likes are indeed optional, but having screenplay writing experience would be of benefit to create something that is engaging in a text-based approach.

I have yet to prove this hypothesis with my own game I am making, but like Casey, would hope that it would pave the way for more creative knowledge and understanding of an interactive world. And like Casey said in the interview, an interactive world is technically a world in which the outcomes are purely driven by the player and not with a set story. This, I believe, is the approach that is being developed with 1935.

My approach, on the other hand, is slightly different. Instead of having outcomes that are completely unknown, even to the developer (effectively a sandbox but story-driven), outcomes are known by the developer but the outcomes are dynamically achieved through interactions with the world that is being offered.

A pure story-driven sandbox has the potential to not be engaging enough to keep the player playing the game/reading the story.

34 posts
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities
Edited by Shastic on

I listened to the relevant part of the Casey interview:

"Trying to make a technology for interactive fiction, that lets you interact with the fiction."

"..you have to have the engine deal with a large number of interactions per second."

"and integrate all of the interactions to make it feel like an interactive experience."

On other interactive fiction engines: " they all feel like branching narratives with some sugar coating on top"

He wants to make it "so it feels like a game, where I'm making choices and it is mattering second to second"

He doesn't think much of today's AI, so that's out.

My guess from what he said is he wants to build a game engine, where all the entities in the world are interacting with each other at the same time in real time, and you move around the world like you would if you were using a 3D engine, but it is rendering text instead of polygons.

I'm sure that's totally wrong.

Dialogue trees are terrible to use and to make, so what do you replace them with?

Simon Anciaux
1194 posts
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities
Edited by Simon Anciaux on Reason: typo copy paste error

The screenplay format, in my opinion, is likely to be more engaging than walls of text, since dialogue involves interactions with characters. - Tienery

I like how it works in Disco Elysium, they have a lot of text (the original version didn't have voice for every dialogue/text, and I believe you can enable or disable that in the final cut) but it's presented only a few lines at a time. Dialogue and text description are presented almost the same way. I believe there is a GDC talk where they talk about the presentation of text in the game.

Morrowind had a different way of presenting things with long text with hyperlinks to go to other long text and choosing dialogue options. They also had a list of topics in a column on the left of the dialogue window. It gave better information than in Oblivion or Skyrim (not having to do voice for everything helped) but it was also somewhat confusing: several "link word" could bring you to the same place and than it was hard to get back to the previous "page". And in an "action rpg" I would expect most player not wanting to read a lot of text.

In this instance, the scene, environmental details and the likes are indeed optional, but having screenplay writing experience would be of benefit to create something that is engaging in a text-based approach. - Tienery

In Disco Elysium, depending on the character you create you can get "interrupted" in "dialogues" with additional information, that help you or distract you. There is a player stat that can stops you when exploring to describe the "world" or how it feels to be in the world now and how it felt in the past. That doesn't impact the story (which is set) but helps you understand the world your playing in.

[...] but a game where the choices a player makes don't matter, is not a game it is a movie, or a book, with controls that serve no purpose. - Shastic

I don't agree with that. If the end of the game is the same, but you take different paths to get to it, your interpretation (and appreciation) of the game might be different. Even if the game (movie or book) doesn't offer choices, just the way information is presented can lead you to different interpretation as everybody experience things differently.

The problems you have would not exist, if you replaced dialogue trees with AI, that responds to stimuli with auto-generated dialogue, and actions. Dialog trees are a simple technology that is trying to cope with the fact that what is required to do the job properly, isn't available to the public yet. If you had access to the latest AI, you would not bother with dialogue trees, you would design your game in a different way. - Shastic

There is a AI driven interactive fiction generator. I don't remember the name, but if I remember correctly, you could start in any setting (medieval, space, steampunk...) and just do whatever you wanted. It was far from perfect but even when the AI started to generate non-sense (like rules of physics wouldn't make sens any more but still "playable") you could still continue to explore "crazy town".

It might be this https://play.aidungeon.io/main/home but it doesn't look at all like the thing I tried a few years ago so I'm not sure.

34 posts
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities
Edited by Shastic on
Replying to mrmixer (#26416)

Whoops. Sorry I deleted that post just before you finished your reply, because I when I wrote it, I hadn't heard the interview with Casey yet.

"I don't agree with that. If the end of the game is the same, but you take different paths to get to it, your interpretation (and appreciation) of the game might be different. Even if the game (movie or book) doesn't offer choices, just the way information is presented can lead you to different interpretation as everybody experience things differently."

Imagine if your life was like that. No matter what you did, you'd end up in the same place and situation. Death is certain, but everything else is supposed to be in play.

161 posts / 1 project
Interactive Fiction - Casey, StoryDev, and possibilities
Edited by Dawoodoz on

I prefer how the original Deus Ex did storytelling by separating between the deeply nested storytelling connected to the physical world within each mission, and superficial changes in how the story is told and which rewards you are given based on the outcome of previous missions. This is enough to make the player feel immersed with the story as a whole using long term game theory, while still getting the depth and complexity of limited story arcs.

Save a homeless man being robbed in Hells Kitchen, and get free access to the Molepeople from his friend. Take out Anna using proximity mines on Lebedev's plane and you won't have to fight her when escaping from headquarters. Tell the doctor to come with you, and he will bring a reward to Hong Kong instead of helping you from the inside. Learn a kill phrase in one mission and take out Gunther without fighting him in Paris. Kill the fake mechanic in Paris and the helicopter won't blow up on the last mission. Due to the many alternative endings however, the sequel could not continue where the original game left off.

A story driven game should at least let the player walk around freely, so that one can follow clues to secret areas and find new things each time it's played. Each conversation should have meaning within a context, otherwise it just feels like exploring a tree of options like a file explorer.