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The past, present & future of interactive narrative storytelling, part 2: back to the roots

Louis Alfieri & Tim Madison discuss interactive narrative storytelling‘s origins, evolution & key role in the future of experience design

Raven Sun Interactive narrative storytelling

by Louis Alfieri of Raven Sun Creative 

In part one of our conversation about interactive narrative storytelling, Tim Madison and I looked at how the pursuit of deeper audience agency is driving a revolution in experience design. In this instalment, we look at the evolution of interactive narrative to better understand where the medium is headed.

Interactive storytelling is not new

Louis Alfieri: I want to delve a bit deeper into the background of interactive storytelling. Understanding where it comes from is a key piece of understanding where it’s going as a medium. Interactive storytelling is not new. 

Tim Madison: If you want to go all the way back, the very first form of storytelling had a major interactive component.  In oral storytelling tradition, a two-way interplay between the teller and the audience forms an important part of the experience. I’m sure the extent of interaction varied widely according to culture.

cave drawing
Cave paintings, like this one in Altamira, Spain, are some of our earliest evidence of the human drive to capture experience through story

LA:  The feedback loop between the traditional oral storyteller and the audience is intimate and instant. The audience was not at all removed from the teller. The oral storyteller formed a  relationship and shared experience with the audience.

We can see this in contemporary oral storytelling. The storyteller reads the audience, elicits reactions, and is in many ways a mentor or guide on taking people on a journey of imagination. Like stage actors and musicians, the storyteller is also reacting to the emotions of the audience. They can sense when something is not resonating and adjust in real-time accordingly. There’s even the option of soliciting input from the audience and then adjusting aspects of the story as it occurs.

TM: Right. So, in that sense, tellers and audiences have been co-creating stories in real-time for tens of thousands of years. Storytelling itself comes from the imaginative space between the teller and the audience. Therefore, to some extent, storytelling is interactive by nature.

The invention of the passive audience

LA: The shift to a different dynamic was comparatively recent. It wasn’t until the advent of written literature that we saw creators delivering “fixed” (as in unable to be adjusted in real-time) stories to passive audiences. 

TM: And even then, it really wasn’t until the 15th century and the invention of the printing press that literature found its way into the marketplace for a wide audience. 

LA: The printing press is a major development in the sharing, democratization, and distribution of knowledge. No longer was it held within the confines of the church or scribes, but was now available to the masses. At that point, the author could exert control (within socially accepted parameters) over the creation of content.

replica of Gutenberg's workshop
A replica of Gutenberg’s workshop at the Gutenberg-Museum (© Gutenberg-Museum, Mainz)

This, to a degree, paralleled the relationship theatre had to its audience. Audience participation in theatre, from the Greeks to today, has been a part of the dynamic to varying degrees. However, the direction of storytelling has been primarily from the stage to a passive audience. 

Then, with the arrival of radio, film, and television, there was an explosion of mass-market popular entertainment. Here, the audience had no direct role in creating the story. They are not present for the creation or sharing a space with the creators. The creation of and mass distribution of linear content became the norm.

The nature of the content being prepared in advance and available on a schedule meant the audience then became passive observers. Their role was to watch and listen and be entertained, enlightened, or informed. 

Story is life made extraordinary

TM: As someone who considers himself to be a writer first, I hasten to say: there’s nothing inherently wrong with static stories or passive audiences. 

LA:  I agree totally. These examples are a reflection of creator-centric mediums, which are valid and valuable.

What we’re seeing now is the elevation of the audience from a passive observer to an active participant and/or co-creator in the narrative. This opening of the doors of creation to the audience is a result of us now having the tools to create a new class of immersive narrative experiences. One where the audience is the final arbiter of the story. 

Borges garden of forking paths

TM: What fascinates me is the question of why humans pursue more and more immersive forms of story. Storytelling has always and forever been about simulating experience. Here’s this valuable experience via story. It’s life made extraordinary, heightened and organized around a purpose—and with all the boring bits removed.

We have access to adventure without real danger or hardship. We can experience anything through a story without the risk, walk through fire and come out the other side unscathed. Stories feed humans something we fundamentally need.

We can experience anything through a story without the risk, walk through fire and come out the other side unscathed.

I imagine that ever since the beginning of storytelling, audiences dreamed about getting further inside that idealized experience of story. We are drawn to the idea of making the teller disappear and living within the story. We want to have a say in how events unfold.

Video game technology has taken us so much further toward the realization of that dream in the last few decades. 

The dawn of Dungeons & Dragons

LA: It’s worth mentioning that branching non-linear narrative in media and open-world experiences pre-date modern video game examples like Mass Effect, God of War or Fallout. 

Dungeons-and-dragons interactive storytelling

TM: Right, the original Dungeons & Dragons is the real granddaddy of open-world games. D&D popularized the tabletop role-playing game in the 1970s. What tends to get overlooked about D&D is that it was a significant evolutionary step in the interactive storytelling tradition.

Yes, the dungeon master might be the creator of the campaign, the referee, and the primary storyteller. But the game pushes the dynamic further towards co-creation, giving the players control over their characters. There’s no story in D&D without both sides interacting.

D&D branching narrative
Christian Erali developed this branching narrative system for a D&D campaign to track the cumulative effect their decisions throughout the game would have on how the final climactic battle unfolded

LA: The dice and game mechanics in D&D are absolutely crucial. They take part of the control away from the storyteller and hand it over to chance. That component of chance brings a dimension of variability to the outcomes. This can change everything: the life and death of a character, the outcome of a battle, the success of a spell or incantation.

It’s not just about an all-powerful storyteller calling all of the shots. Story becomes an experience that unfolds with an element of surprise for all the participants, including the dungeon master.

Choose Your Own Adventure & interactive storytelling

LA: During that same period, you also had the early branching narrative adventures. Gamebooks like the Choose Your Adventure series let readers take their own path through decision tree narratives.

branching story interactive storytelling

TM: I can distinctly remember reading those as a kid. I would come to some dire end in the narrative, then do the whole “Okay, that death didn’t count. Do over!” routine and retrace my steps to get a better outcome.

LA: I think everybody did that. That was part of their appeal. Face death and then get a do-over.

Looking back now, those books may seem a pretty simple form of interactivity. Take door A or door B. Your choice leads you further out onto a narrative branch, sometimes to an ending. Occasionally, your choice leads you to converge with another branch.

However, if you explore the decision tree structure, these actually pack fairly complex branching narratives into their pages. Take The Mystery of Chimney Rock, for example. In 121 pages, there are 44 reader choices and 36 endings. The underlying structure gives you a sense of exactly how complex the exercise of creating a branching narrative becomes. Even with only two paths at every decision node.

mystery of chimney rock interactive storytelling
(Narrative Tree: Andrzej Zarzycki)

Add more choices to a node and it becomes more and more complex with each option. A book would very quickly double, triple, quadruple in size. 

From today’s perspective, those books can seem simple. However, take a look under the hood. Here, you can see how monumental the task of creating a branching narrative with an abundance of choice really is. Today, software makes the job easier. But the essential nature of writing and designing a branching narrative hasn’t changed. Or hasn’t gotten less complex anyway.

The medium and what we are able to achieve is evolving rapidly. The underlying structure of choice and divergence is still the same.

Stepping into the text

TM: That was also the era of text-based computer games, like Zork and The Oregon Trail, an educational game that debuted in 1971 and somehow has managed to find its way into present-day meme culture. Something about repeatedly dying of dysentery as a pioneer really lodged in the collective consciousness!   

Text-based adventures offered the next level of complexity. These had the ability to explore a non-linear narrative (although some games were more linear than others.) Instead of having to flip pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure, the program did that for you. You had more of an ability to explore and interact with environments, albeit through text. You were still walking a set of prescribed paths with only so many consequential options available to you.

Many of these games used tightly self-contained settings to explain the constraints of the story architecture. The narrative boundaries shaped the physical boundaries within the story.

No matter the size of an area you create, it’s always an act of worldbuilding

LA: That’s still a standard convention in game design. Settings are often designed to channel a player’s movement along a particular story path. It speaks to the economy of form and function. In location-based experiential design, we deal with many similar spatial storytelling issues. Even if the parameters of digital and physical space are very different.

How do we tell a story in a particular available space? Whether it’s a theme park land, dark ride, simulator ride, museum exhibit, art space, historic building, park, or any other storytelling environment.

How do we make the boundaries of our “playable area” feel organic and not confining? Can we turn whatever limitations we are faced with into strengths or features of our stories? How can we take the design limitations of an existing space and repurpose them to become assets to our story and experience?

No matter the size of an area you create, it’s always an act of worldbuilding. You are creating a representative space for a larger imagined world.  

Interactive storytelling and gamers in the Myst

LA: Speaking of worldbuilding, Myst in the early 90s was one of the next major milestones for narrative games. Myst represented an intersection of the graphical adventure game and the narrative elements of text-based adventure games. You had this visually rich point-and-click world to explore with an unfolding storyline. You had the freedom to make choices about where to go and what to explore in an open-world format.

TM: Puzzle-solving was key to the Myst experience as well.  If you look at the Myst story tree, it isn’t really a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game. It’s more like an escape room. You solve puzzles to advance and to unlock pieces of a larger mystery. While you have the freedom to explore and approach most of the puzzles in whatever order you want, it’s not a decision-driven narrative.

Myst game narrative interactive storytelling
A story map for the original Myst (Graphic: Matt Giuca)

There’s only one moment at the end of the game where the player must make a decision that impacts the final outcome of the game. 

LA: Good point. Myst is really groundbreaking because of its environmental storytelling. The appeal of the immersion is primarily exploratory. That also touches on something else Amy [Kole] and I talked about in our conversation on Eastern and Western storytelling, the Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types. This says there are four major roles that describe gaming preferences: the Achiever, the Killer, the Socializer, and the Explorer.

TM: Right, Myst was about exploration with a side of achievement. 

Narrative immersion gets graphical

LA: Over the decades following Myst’s release, the variety and sophistication of storytelling in game development grew by leaps and bounds. We saw increasingly detailed 3D graphical environments mixed with stories of greater narrative depth and complexity.

We also saw the pursuit of a more holistic sense of immersion. It’s not really possible to sum up the evolution of interactive narrative storytelling in video gaming by citing just a few titles.

TM: I agree. I do think we can name a few examples that chart some important moments along the way, though. Most games that come to mind as influential and illustrative of change also happen to be parts of larger series. That’s part coincidental and partly because their success unsurprisingly spawned new entries.

GTA plans and artwork interactive storytelling
Grand Theft Auto III plans and artwork in the Game On exhibition at the Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose (Marcin Wichary, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Metal Gear Solid (1998) raised the bar on video game storytelling. It brought a plot of cinematic complexity into a stealth combat game. Grand Theft Auto III (2002) is also hugely influential. It set the standard for open-world video games and established a basic blueprint that’s still being followed today. 

“Open-world” and interactive storytelling

LM: We should define “open-world”. Many gaming terms get thrown around without a great deal of precision and understanding, especially by the non-gamer community. 

TM: A lot of video game terms are also hotly debated even among experts. There aren’t always readily agreed-upon definitions, which can make things murky. I think we can offer a reasonably non-controversial definition of “open-world”, though. 

People sometimes think “open-world” means an absence of narrative, just complete freedom of choice. But that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, it rarely is.  

Open-world describes a virtual geography and game mechanic within which a narrative can be placed (or not.) In an open-world game, a player can freely roam a large setting with distinct sub-locations. So, the player has a certain degree of freedom in how and in which order they approach the gameplay objectives. These are usually linked to specific points on the map.

Skyrim interactive storytelling
The city of Solitude is one of countless settings to explore in the open-world of Skyrim (Image by DasExorcist. Skyrim property of Bethesda Game Studios)

Open-world games often do have a strong narrative element in the form of a main storyline you can play through. They also frequently have any number of side quests. These are optional missions for a player that function as mini-narratives, away from the central storyline.

One common misconception about open-world games is that they’re completely non-linear. Most have big overarching narratives that play out in a fairly linear sequence and arrive at a set ending. Sometimes, those stories are optional. This means that the game won’t force you to play them if you want to spend time exploring or doing other things.

Side Quests can also add a dimension of non-linearity to a game with a linear main storyline. They are almost always separate from the main story, however. They “circle back” to— rather than change— the big story. You really have to think in terms of degrees of linearity when talking about games. It’s not binary. 

Another source of confusion: open-world doesn’t necessarily mean open-ended. You may be able to return to an open-world game again and again. Open-world games mostly have finite stories, objectives, and playable areas, though—and understandably so. The creative focus for most games is about crafting a quality play experience within boundaries.

Destination design as open-world design 

LA: Open-world level design has a few interesting parallels with the design of destinations, particularly theme park lands. In any open space—virtual or physical— that enables free-roaming and offers a variety of choices, the designer needs to understand the psychology of player and guest decision-making and how to satisfy rather than frustrate or overwhelm it. 

Pandora – the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Image: Tim Madison)

By contrast, in linear level video game design, there is only one set path for a player. So, this has more in common with environmental design for a dark ride or a simulator attraction with a fixed media storyline.

We are at the point where a physical experience can be interwoven with a digital experience and extended beyond the traditional confines of a destination offering. 

The point of experiential design is that we are working on creating platforms for the experience. So, in the case of a theme park, the park itself is an open world platform. Here, the guests are free to make certain narrative choices and explorations.

Currently, those explorations usually lead to linear narrative experiences, like a theatrical show, dark ride, or walk-through attraction. We are now, however, at the point where a physical experience can be interwoven with a digital experience. And therefore, extended beyond the traditional confines of a destination offering.

The location-based component becomes just one part of an experience where new narratives are constantly being created and interlinked in real-time.  These interactive narratives can also link all the participants together in a collective dialogue and relationship.

Role-playing is story as experience

LA: One of the games I would also add to our list of milestones in interactive storytelling is Dragon Age: Origins  (2009). It’s a story-driven role-playing game. One where the character you create, the choices you make, the interactions you have with non-player characters all impact the gameplay and personalize the experience. It’s a stand-out among the digital successors of Dungeons & Dragons

Dragon Age Origins interactive storytelling
A screenshot of Dragon Age: Origins gameplay (Dragon Age: Origins is the property of BioWare and Electronic Arts)

TM: It’s certainly up there with fantasy RPGs like the Elder Scrolls series and World of Warcraft. 

LA: Yes, WoW is another great example that offers an even bigger range of freedom to the participant.

Role-playing games—tabletop, electronic, live-action—represent a very important throughline to me in this conversation. RPGs persist because they most closely capture the realization of the dream you talked about earlier. That desire to step into the story and inhabit the role of the hero.

Role-playing is story as experience. When done well, with the right kind of mechanics as well as structure, it’s satisfying. Because it’s a more multifaceted form of engagement and it’s the most empowering for the participants. The basic evolution of role-playing games, beyond simply making them as immersive as possible, has been consistently lowering the barriers to entry for players.

I think with phygital experiences, we’re also going to see role-playing games become increasingly mainstream forms of entertainment. 

The definition of an RPG

LA: Before we finish this part of our conversation on interactive storytelling, let’s also put a definition to role-playing game? What defines an RPG?

TM: Good question. From a casual outsider perspective, you could take the term at face value. So, you could say it’s any game in which the player assumes the role of a character through a narrative.

Character Creation in Cyberpunk 2077 interactive storytelling
Character Creation in Cyberpunk 2077 (Image: Raylan13 Cyberpunk Wiki)

Many serious gamers would argue that leaves out many important elements that contribute to an RPG’s core appeal, though. That also raises some key considerations for experience designers looking to create the next evolution of RPGs. I’ll offer a definition that highlights an important mix of factors: player agency and character development.

A role-playing game is a game where the player takes on the role of a character. And they are able to make meaningful choices that influence the game narrative. The player may create a character from scratch (as in Dragon Age: Inquisition) or control an established character (as in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt wherein players take on the role of Geralt). Player agency extends to certain parts of character building, customization, specialization, and advancement via mechanics like: 

  • Character Statistics – attributes and/or skills are quantified with player-facing metrics
  • Experience Points (XP) – in-game character experience measurably accrues
  • Level Progression – characters advance through levels, improving attributes and/or gaining access to new skills, items, or areas of gameplay 
  • Skill Trees – a hierarchy of potential abilities,  perks, or upgrades a player can earn for their character as they progress, allowing for specialization and character customization.

So, I’d classify a true RPG as one where the player can express themselves through the way they develop a character.

A game like Batman: Arkham Asylum may have many RPG-like features, like levels and skill trees. What stops it from being an RPG, in my estimation, is that the game is about collecting perks. It’s not about crafting a character. There’s not a huge amount of latitude in where you take or how you develop the character. That’s not a criticism of the game. However, it just doesn’t fit what I’d define as an RPG.

LA: It’s an interesting distinction. It’s the thrill of being able to build your own alter-ego instead of assuming the identity of an established, fully-formed character. They’re both different facets of the dream of reinventing yourself. That idea of dipping into a parallel life is key to the appeal of the interactive narrative experience. 

In Part 3 of The Past, Present, and Future of Interactive Narrative Storytelling, Alfieri and Madison explore shapes and structures in collaborative storytelling. 

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Louis Alfieri Raven Sun

Louis Alfieri

For over 30 years, Louis has worked with global brands as an authority in leading, designing, and building experiential entertainment destinations, mixed-use developments, immersive media-based attractions, retail locations, cultural sites, and experiential events. He has a long track record of success collaborating with large multidisciplinary teams on the conceptualization, design, and implementation of location-based entertainment mixed-use resorts, theme parks, waterparks, museums, and cultural destinations.

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