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Some Definitions About Interactive Storytelling

by Emanuel Montero on 05/06/09 09:45:00 am   Featured Blogs

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 Following the wake of interactive storytelling, a more precise look at interactive story-driven videogames is needed. Let’s get a bit technical and conceptualize some definitions (yikes!) to share a common understanding about interactive storytelling. I’m not a game theorist so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

What is interactivity? Following Chris Crawford’s definition, interactivity is a three-phase cycle in which the game and the players alternatively and metaphorically listen, think and speak to each other. Players communicate to the game through various input devices such as keyboard and mouse, joysticks, console controllers, etc.

The game communicates to the players basically through two output devices: the monitor and the speakers. The game system processes the player’s inputs and generates outputs. The player reads the outputs and re-generates his inputs. This is the essence of videogames: interactivity.

What is a story? Following Robert McKee’s definition,a story structure is a strategic sequence of events from the characters’ life to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life. Note that this definition includes both interactive and non-interactive stories.

Going further into McKee’s definition, a story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict. Values are the universal qualities of human condition that may shift from positive to negative (or vice versa) from one moment to the next.

Conflict, following Chris Crawford definition of games, are challenges with purposeful opponents, i.e., games are conflicts in which players directly interact in such a way as to foil each other’s goals. So there’s a link between stories and games: both revolve around conflict.

How to play an interactive story? Rules define gameplay. Structure defines storytelling. My point is that videogames can enforce both gameplay rules and story structures, allowing players to freely control gameplay and story at the same time.

The story-world structure encloses all possible well-formed stories. Gameplay rules define all possible interactions in the story-world. Players interact with the story-world and create a unique story with each game session.

How to design an interactive story? With a deep knowledge of the myriad of possible story structures in a videogame. When a writer creates a story for a non-interactive medium, he arranges only one sequence of story events in a beautifully crafted story-line.

When a story designer creates a story-world for an interactive medium, he arranges an abstract story template which will generate innumerable story-lines with every play session. Obviously, this requires a deeper knowledge of the story structure. A non-interactive writer creates one story. An interactive writer creates all possible stories within the same structure.

Let’s see an example. Vladimir Propp analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest and recurrent narrative elements. Re-using Propp’s deep understanding of a concrete story structure (Russian folk tales), we can build an interactive story-world of Russian folk tales.

Note that its gameplay can be designed independently. It can be a platformer Russian folk tale videogame, a light-RPG Russian folk tale videogame or even a puzzle Russian folk tale videogame. Either way, players will create their Russian folk tale stories through gameplay. By the way, this leads to a clear differentiation between gameplay genres and story genres which I found very useful.

How to implement an interactive story? I’m still working on this one. Chris Crawford gave some snapshots of this process in Interactive Storytelling. A story system keeps track of the player’s story progress and gives the player the available story choices.

The player chooses between the options through gameplay. The game system informs the story system of the player’s actions. The story system processes the player’s action and re-calculates the available story choices. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?


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