So you want to write for video games?
Or maybe you want to write an interactive ‘fighting fantasy’ novel of your own?
This type of story writing is known as interactive fiction.
There are important techniques used when writing interactive fiction that are different to those used when writing a “classic” novel.
It’s important to know that the point of view and authorial voice used by a writer can greatly affect how a narrative is perceived by the reader.
I’ll explain this in more detail later.
First, let’s investigate narrative voice and its use in The Novel – both classic and interactive.
“Much of the work in narrative theory has involved attempts to discriminate among differed kinds of narrators (first person or third person, objective or subjective, reliable or unreliable, so-called ‘omni-scient’ or not, together with questions concerning his or her ‘point of view’, his or her ‘voice’ and so on).” (Bennett and Royle 2009, p58-59)
In the above quote Bennett and Royle state that most narrative theory revolves round understanding the type of narrator who is telling the story. After all it is important to remember that a narrative is “someone telling someone else that something happened” (Smith 1981, p228) this is true even when using Ryan’s theory of narrative defined in the article “What Is An Interactive Narrative”.
If you haven’t read that article yet then I recommend reading it first.
The most common points of view (POV) used in classic novels and storytelling are the 1st person and 3rd person narration. However, when it comes to techniques that increase the interactivity in a narrative the POV will often change to 2nd person.
The easiest way to show you why second person aids interactivity...
...is to take a passage from the fighting fantasy game book City Of Thieves and use it as a base for analysis.
“Looking up, you see that the staircase goes all the way up to the top of the tower. You stop off at the first floor and walk along the landing to a door. The door opens to a large room which contains a comfortable, made-up bed.” (Livingstone 2002, Event 21)
A 2nd person narration places the reader directly in the shoes of the protagonist.
It gives the impression that the reader is not looking through that character’s eyes, as in a 1st person narration, but that they actually ARE that character.
This is achieved by directly addressing the reader with the pronoun “you” and using a present tense to keep the actions active. Also because the reader is ‘being’ the character they can assume that the story they are experiencing is from a reliable narrator.
So from the above extract the reader is being told that they are looking up a staircase. There is no mention of a character nor does the text say ‘your avatar is looking up’. It says “Looking up, you see”.
The “you” is important.
This is continued in the next sentence where it says “You stop off” – the language makes it seem as though the reader has made a conscious decision themselves to step off the staircase.
This also reveals the great disadvantage of interactive fiction.
Despite the interactive advantages a 2nd person narration has over 1st and 3rd it is also important to mention the limitations.
Firstly, the reader has been placed in the position of the protagonist but they do not have free will.
Their experience of the story world is limited to the rails that have been created by the writer; this can create a voyeuristic experience for the reader where they are forced to watch events unfold but have no direct power to change the events.
Sure, they can make a few decisions about which rail to go down but they have no power (also known as agency.) to do anything outside of those rails.
Also the reader can feel detached from the main character if they personally don’t think the same way the main character is portrayed to think.
The thought pattern of a character is something that could become an issue in a more descriptive and longer form story where the writer may try to deliver information to the reader by using their senses and internal thoughts.
The little paragraphs found in an interactive novel or gamebook rarely mention the opinion or thoughts of the reader as there is not enough space for them to do more than provide simple facts about the readers location.
However, in a digital format such as a video game or ebook interactive novel there is not the same limitation of space that there is in a printed book.
How Interactive Fiction In A Video Game Overcomes The Same Disadvantage
David Gaider was the head writer for Dragon Age, a popular and successful Role Playing Video Game created in 2009 by Bioware, and in an article on how to become a writer for video games he said the following:
You’d be surprised how hard it is for people to wrap their head around the notion of branching dialogue. Often what happens is that the writer has a very particular path in mind and fails to account for different player “voices”: the player who’s trying to do the right thing, the player who wants to be a bastard, the player who is the suspicious and reluctant hero, etc. (Gaider 2009)
In the above quote Gaider touches upon one of the advantages video games have over The Novel when it comes to interactive narrative - branching dialogue.
Branching dialogue is where a gamer/player makes their avatar talk to an NPC and in response to the NPC they are provided with a number of different replies.
These different replies can affect how the conversation will continue. Certain replies will open up further dialogue options or ‘branches’ and this can continue on and on.
The power of branching dialogue is that it allows the writer to provide the player with different responses depending upon how that player wants to role play their avatar.
If they want to be an evil character then the writer can provide a contextual option for an ‘evil’ response or if the player wants their avatar to be noble and good a contextual option can be provided in the same dialogue option box for the good response as that of the evil response.
It’s then down to the player to select the response they would like to give.
This is one way video game narrative gives greater agency to the player and overcomes the voyeuristic experience held by the reader of the interactive novel. Though, even in video games there are still rails within the narrative.
A video game also has the capability to track these different options and provide writers with the power to change events in the storyline or world depending upon the choices made by the player.
In this regard writing a branching narrative can be quite Boolean. A very simple example is below:
“If player response is good option then give player safe passage to castle.
Else If player response is evil option then attack player avatar with the castle garrison.”
This is in essence where the interactive narrative of a video game takes off.
The video game has no limitation of paper or physical space that it would have if it was printed in a book, nor does the writer have to worry about how to visually present all of the different options to the player on a page.
If the novel writer attempted to provide the reader with 3 different options that each branched out into another 2 or 3 options etc. then it would become very confusing for the reader to follow.
In a video game the screen can change and present new information to the player where as the only way to present new information in a printed book is to print it on another page and have the reader physically turn the page.
In a branching narrative that has well over 1000 lines of dialogue, as many of the modern RPG video games do, the limitations of a book become quickly apparent.
Having said that, this strength is also a weakness for production.
The more options a player has the more work required to plot, write and piece together a successful video game narrative.
What will you write?
The goal of this article is not to say that writing interactive fiction in either the novel or the video game is “better” but rather show you, as a writer, the pros and cons of these two mediums. And, more importantly, how you can write your own story by using the techniques of interactive fiction.
The point of view used in a text can add greatly to the perceived interactivity of that text. By simply switching from the traditional 1st or 3rd person narrator to a 2nd person narrator it gives the reader a real sense of being thrust into the heart of the action.
The reader gains a sense that they are actually the character and reading a set of actions that they themselves are performing rather than reading someone else’s point of view. It’s these little touches that can help to increase interactivity, and most importantly, immersion.
In video games we can take the same techniques for point of view however due to it being a digital medium there is not the same space limitations. This means a writer can create many different branches to a story and in doing so provide options for different player “voices”.