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Interactive storytelling

Interactive storytelling is a new way of telling stories, which presents new challenges for writers. Here, we'll explore what skills you'll need.
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© University of York; Teodora Fartan

Interactive storytelling is a new way of telling stories, where a viewer is able to change their own experience of a story by interacting with the digital work themselves.

An interactive story is very carefully planned by the author, who creates a set of rules by which the story can change in specific ways; at the same time, the participation of the player within the story and their choice to interact in a specific way can often be unpredictable and is based on the player’s own instincts and emotion. Interactive stories, therefore, need to be crafted with both elements in mind.

An author of interactive experiences needs to consider setting up a story system that allows certain events to be unlocked or to happen in a specific sequence, but must also keep in mind the different ways in which a user could choose to interact with the work and the number of different paths that are possible.

So, we can think about the authoring of interactive stories as a process of creating story systems, which can sometimes be challenging and complex. Creating story systems involves designing a structure that, based on player choices, can offer different narrative sequences. It also means the author has to think about the narrative content of the different scenes that can be put in our sequence system, and also test the possible ways a user could choose to navigate the story.

Interactive storytelling blurs the lines between creating a rule-based system and expressing ourselves artistically, becoming a hybrid experience that blends scientific and creative approaches. The user is placed at the centre of the unfolding narrative and given a degree of control over the story through interactive decisions. This allows interactive storytelling to be a new type of personalised media experience which can allow each individual to experience a story based on their own actions.

To understand interactive stories, we need to look at some characteristics of the term ‘narrative’. Throughout the past decades, many interpretations of the ideas of “narrative” have circulated, stretching its meanings in various directions.

The classical definition of narrative as an act of recounting certain events, or as Marie Laure Ryan puts it:

Telling somebody else that something happened

is not sufficient when we work with games and interactive media. In her book Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling Ryan points out that this classical definition is well-suited for text-based stories, but does not work so well for digital and audio-visual stories, especially when interactive elements are introduced into the work.

For media-based works (stories that are told through film, virtual environments, animation, etc), we cannot think of narrative as a simple re-telling of a fixed string of events that have already taken place.

In an interactive story, we need to approach the idea of narrative as a structure that can produce a particular order of events in response to a user’s actions. It is for this particular reason that Ryan proposes that we need to move away from the classical definition of narrative when creating interactive stories, and embrace an approach that stems from the cognitive sciences. Stories themselves do not reside within the narrative text, but rather become alive and take shape within the human mind as we use mental constructs to understand the text.

Interactive storytelling artefacts like video games do not simply recount past events in a linear fashion, but they assemble real-time events in response to player input. Interactive narrative, therefore, is not focused at all on a linear sequence of events, but rather it creates a dynamic sequence of events, which means that the progression of narrative scenes can change in real-time, based on the player’s input.

In the next step, we’ll consider what this all means for authors of interactive stories – and we’ll begin to work towards putting your own interactive story together.

Over to you

  • What do you think are the main differences between writing a linear narrative and a story system?
  • What do you need to consider if you are writing a story system?
  • What do you need to be aware of for a linear narrative?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

© University of York; Teodora Fartan
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