Saturday, 17 October 2015

On Writing an Interactive Narrative (with constraints)

I've always loved stories, whether it was reading them or (as I got older) writing them. It was always something that came fairly naturally to me (I have a half-finished but fully outlined first draft of a fantasy novel waiting for me to have a break from research, and a few years ago I wrote and illustrated a children's book as part of my non-IT Honours elective), so when it came time for me to design the interactive narrative that would be used in my research project, I figured it would be fairly easy.

Sure, there was a limit on how long the story could be, since its main purpose is to act as a learning tool and most people tend to lose interest in such things after an hour at most. And yes, there were only about 100 (or just under) signs in the library for me to choose from that I could actually incorporate into the narrative, and which had to be used as the 'catalyst' for the learner to move through each part of the story. "But I'm a WRITER," I told myself, cuddling my ridiculous number of notepads and journals to my chest. "None of those things will be a problem for ME! I'll finish this off in a day or two and then go and play Nintendo games or something."

Armed with a sizable stash of energy drinks, I sat down to plan the story. The idea for the story itself came fairly quickly; the main character (the player) would wake up to find their younger sister missing, and upon investigating, would discover that her disappearance was likely the result of her playing with supernatural forces that should have been left alone (obviously more detailed than that, but I'll save the extended outline for my thesis). Once I knew WHAT had to happen, I needed to work out HOW it would happen.

Though the beginning and end underwent a few revisions, they mostly came together almost fully formed and the words flowed pretty easily, like squeezing honey onto a pancake. Writing the middle, however, was like trying to shove a watermelon into a toaster; no matter how I turned and twisted it, it just refused to happen. The more I struggled to wrestle my plot into something that was concise but which still made sense, the more my writerly ego deflated like a balloon (I could almost hear the sad little PFFFT sound as it did).

One of the challenges was making the scenes short and concise. I have a tendency to waffle sometimes (exhibit A: this blog), especially in fiction, which I usually blame on having to do so much academic writing over the years. While this is helpful for reaching word counts, it's not so helpful when I'm trying to keep the story broken up into bite-sized chunks. Each 'scene' is basically one paragraph (or less), though sometimes there would be two or three paragraphs between the user making signs to move forward (with the user doing the equivalent of turning the page or clicking 'next' to get through the two or three paragraphs to the point where they make a sign). For the beginning and end, this was manageable, but for more complicated sections in the middle of the story (eg. where explanations of some of the supernatural occurrences were required), the first, second and subsequent drafts always ended up being several paragraphs for one scene. Technically this could still be fixed with having lots of 'Nexts' but it would seem clunky and out of pace and would ruin the pacing, possibly boring the user.

Another thing I found challenging (more so than I thought I would) is the limited selection of signs I can choose from. The signs in the library are mostly pretty basic ones, like colours and foods, places and family members, animals and vehicles, most of which don't lend themselves especially well to fantasy narratives. Even though it's not a full blown sword-and-sorcery fantasy (more like an urban fantasy that starts out as a mystery), it would be good to have a few more interesting signs to work with. Then again, the idea is to help beginners learn signs that will be the most useful to them in basic conversation, so I suppose there's no real educational value in teaching them the signs for 'dragon', 'magic' or 'wizard'...

My process for actually writing the story basically involved having each scene as a paragraph in a Word document, with a choice of signs at the end of each one which would take the user to the next paragraph. Some of the scenes only allowed one 'choice' and had a linear progression, while others had two or three signs to choose from. Some choices would result in the user going to a different scene depending on what they chose, while others would take them to the same scene regardless of which choice they made but would store their decision until later in the story, at which point it would affect their path. One thing I found helpful was to have a sketchbook with post-it notes laid out in a more visual representation of the paths, with lines showing the connection between the scenes (pro-tip: if you're going to do something like this, don't buy the crappy blue-label post-it notes from Big W. They don't stick to anything for more than a minute or so and if you so much as look at them the wrong way, they all fall off). Though I could "cut and paste" scenes to move them around in the document, having a more pictorial view of what was happening in the story helped me organise things more easily and decide when scenes needed to be moved, shortened or deleted.

Though all the scenes have been written, I am a little concerned that the story as it stands may be a little long in terms of playthrough, so I will have to see how the users go when I test it for the first time as a paper prototype. If it is too long, cutting it down without butchering the story entirely will be difficult, but I'll fall off that bridge when I come to it.

The next thing I have to do is start on the illustrations and interface design for the interactive narrative, which I can do in conjunction with finalising the story.

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