Last month I went to this year’s London Games Festival and attended one of the panel discussions on narrative in games, with representatives from The Imaginarium, Interior Night and Flavourworks. These three companies use interactive storytelling in their own distinct ways, but some interesting collective learnings emerged.
- Players want more than a linear storyline
For many, from hard-core gamers to dabblers, the old-school linear (A-B) narrative just doesn’t cut it for an engaging game experience. Players need agency: they want to make meaningful choices that have consequences in the game, instead of simply carrying out a set of actions that leads them down the beaten path. This is where interactive storytelling comes in, it is a form of digital entertainment where each stage of the storyline is not fully predetermined.
Allowing the player to make choices in gameplay that influence the outcome adds depth to the story as it helps to create a truly immersive experience, where the player is the story.
The Imaginarium, for example, are developing an interactive storyline where the player has to play both the ‘good side’ and the ‘enemy’, so they feel the consequences of their choices when they switch – adding a new level of emotional complexity to the player experience.
Developing the story cross-platform and cross-category can also create a deeper experience: the apps and games based around Stranger Things has pulled in many who wouldn’t even consider themselves as gamers, all thanks to investment in the story.
- But it shouldn’t be overly complex
As Flavourworks’ Jack Attridge said: knowing the core of the story and having constraints in order to really stick to it is critical.
When thinking about the gameplay experience, player motivations and goals should be clear and front of mind. The story is key to creating the social experience that is, in some ways, as important as individual real-time play: players need to know they’re playing the same story so that divergences feel unique and exciting.
Thinking about at what point in the story the player is given major choices is also important. Caroline Marchal believes that too many choices early on won’t be very meaningful to the player as they are yet to fully understand the characters so they won’t understand the stakes or the consequences of their decision.
So, is there a right way to develop an interactive storyline?
In short, no: it depends on the medium for play, the type of game, and most importantly the experience you want the audience to have.
An AAA video game might have a complex web of choices, interactions and consequences that unfold slowly over time within an overarching narrative, whilst a VR experience might relinquish all control to the player to determine their story in a game that’s only the length of a feature film.
What these experts could agree on, and is a lesson in gaming innovation that should not be forgotten, is that coherency is fundamental to an interactive storyline; the complexities will emerge naturally.