Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

Adventures in Time and Space: linearity and variability in interactive narrative


Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with choice-based stories. I haven’t played a new IF work in a long time – but this weekend I picked up Emily Short’s brief-but-beautiful Speed IF Indigo and it got me thinking about what I mean when I say “interactive fiction”.

(This isn’t really an article about that game, incidentally, which you should try out; rather, Indigo was such a very clean example of what text IF does well that it got me thinking.)

It’s an interesting time in the IF world right now. After that initial spurt and lull in the 80s, the world of IF has been small but stable. People have picked up the writing and playing of text-games and at a similar rate, people have moved on, leaving the size of the community behind the IF Comp and the XYZZYs not appreciably changed in size or scope: certainly not as far as one can make out from the fuzzy data of games written, sites dedicated, and forum posts made.

But that is, perhaps, changing. Over the last few months, large-scale publishers – who now have dedicated “digital editors” whose focus is the electronic form of the written word – have started to become interested in the concept of stories that aren’t static. I’ve been lucky enough to hear what some of these guys have to say (I wrote up some interesting ideas from Book Hack Day earlier), and they’ve talked about “3D narrative”, interactivity, and “stories that go like this”, the latter said while waving both hands in the air, as if playing the accordion or describing an hourglass figure.

The last concept – “stories that go like this” – is something I’ve been following up for the last ten years. But I still don’t have a good name for them. Are they non-linear? Are they flexible, braidable, 3D? Are they “on rails”? (Perhaps, but not as much as a novel). Some have even argued they’re not really interactive at all, because if a story always joins up then the player has, in the final analysis, very little actual agency. But if they’re not interactive, what does a story require to be interactive?

My first few parser-IF games (Break-In and The Mulldoon Legacy) were not “stories that go like this”; they were old-school adventure games in the manner of Curses: puzzle-boxes designed to be tinkered with, beaten on and finally tossed away in furious disgust when the player was defeated by a problem they couldn’t solve.

But with My Angel and All Roads I started taking a different path, looking much more at stories that moved forward of their own accord – stories in which becoming stuck was as close as possible to being impossible. Stories in which the way problems were overcome was down to the player, but hopefully not the fact that they would be.

The structural difference was huge. The adventure games were built around a map; the map was then stocked with items, challenges and goals. The player’s job was to cross and recross the map until all the problems were resolved and all the goals complete.

With each goal, there would usually be some “reward text” – a character beat, a moment of story, something to justify the effort required. Over the course of the game, these “reward texts” were collected like treasures into a trophy cabinet in the player’s mind, and that cabinet became the story. Reading was transformed into a process of collection, with the act of collection – the solving of puzzles – providing the time-axis over which the tale was told.

In one way, the other games – “the stories that go like this” – simply followed a more restricted version of the same model. Instead of a wide map, they restricted the player to a couple of rooms at a time. Instead of range of problems to sift between at one time, the player usually faced one.

The challenges themselves were often simpler, often more intuitive, often with multiple solutions (and often with a possible solution of inaction: with the game stepping in to resolve the situation itself if the player did nothing).

Still, on overcoming an obstacle, some reward text would dutifully appear to be collected, and the story would move forward.

But to view those games as “simplified adventures” is to miss the point – these games had a different fundamental structural principle. While the puzzle-games were built on top of a map, this second type of game used the axis of time as its graph paper: instead of rooms, I laid out scenes, and then injected those scenes with content.

(All Roads mucked about with linearity, sure, but it did so in a totally linear – and somewhat deliberate – way. There were even alternative routes, but these were still written to be read in the way they appeared.)

You might argue that all map-based games use time. The environments adapt, with doors opening and bridges collapsing, and there are narrative events that can and do only occur after other particular narrative events. Not all map-based narrative is made of story nuggets that can be assembled freely, in any old order, while still making sense.

(Indigo, which is a map-based game at heart, even goes so far as to make a thing out of time, which is what started me down this line of inquiry.)

But in a map-based game, the map always comes first. There is a setting, and then that setting is animated. The setting is often the key draw, and the key reward. The player is allowed, and requires, wandering time – exploration – purely to establish and understand the map. This exploration makes no narrative sense, and the game does not explain it or track it. (No real tomb raider would explore all the side passages first before proceeding to the exit; the protagonist of Indigo wouldn’t wander up and down stairs when the moment of escape is almost at hand.)

The majority of parser-IF is map-based, as are most 3D games, because both gametypes have a physical model of the world at their core.

Then in the opposite corner is choice-based fiction, which is generally time-based, because a CYOA has no model world but it does model cause and effect. Every choice is a set of other choices not taken, that – in general – will not be offered again. As steps of narrative are taken, other steps are discarded, be them large or small, important or redundant.

I suppose I’ve always felt that choice-based games were a simplified version of map-based games; that choice-based games were a starter-pack for “true” game experiences.

But the insight I had playing Indigo was that map-based games, while non-linear in gameplay, are inflexible in narrative. There’s nothing variable about the story that emerges in the player’s head: it’s authored, split up, and distributed across the game like pennies in a Christmas pudding. All that changes is the pace at which it appears. But in time-based games, everything the player does is story, and so that story is constant flux.

To put this another way:

Map-based games are ludicly non-linear but narratively inflexible.

Time-based games are ludicly linear but narratively flexible.

(Of course, these are spectrums: some games, like Rameses or Photopia are ludicly linear and narratively inflexible, and some, like Mass Effect, at least endeavour to be ludicly non-linear and narratively flexible.)

So, if the wider world is going to become interested in interactive fiction, this raises a question: which kind do consumers reading on modern digital devices want to see?

Do they want experiences akin to those of a console-game, in which the reader/player can lose themselves in an immersive world, uncovering nuggets of story? Or do they want to be pushed forward, with constant momentum, through a story which flexes and warps around what they do?

Do readers want to interact, toy and play with fiction, or alter, bend and shape it?


Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

6 thoughts on “Adventures in Time and Space: linearity and variability in interactive narrative

  1. I suspect there is an audience for every kind of interactive narrative. You don’t want to limit your options. Moreover, in my experience, by far the most memorable computer games did not clearly belong to any one genre; they were either combinations of 2-3 genres, or else didn’t fit in any category at all.* Mobile devices are a new frontier for IF; let’s wait and see what they afford.

    *Count on the industry to ruin that with their new mono-genre, one-size-fits-all shooter/RPGs.

    • As Dan’s comments below, I think affording is often the problem! What’s interesting me here is that, while maybe the concept of “interactive narrative” is seductive, there’s levels below that to be mined into: what do we mean by interactive?

  2. I think this is one of those cases where, sadly, it matters fairly little what consumers want, because the economics are almost entirely driven by the cost of developing games of different types.

    Let’s start by distinguishing map-based text games (such as traditional parser IF, but also including Roguelikes) from map-based 3D sandbox games (such as Grand Theft Auto). Similarly, we can distinguish choice-based text games (CYOA) from choice-based 3D games (of which I can hardly think of an example; Heavy Rain, arguably?)

    Nobody makes choice-based 3D games, because they’re orders of magnitude more expensive than map-based 3D games. In a 3D game, you have to build the gameplay/environment either way; in a map-based sandbox game, you’re mostly done at that point, minus a few cutscene story nuggets. But in a choice-based 3D game, once you’d built the environment, only then could you BEGIN telling the choice-based story you wanted to tell! And you’ll probably need a lot more environments, too. Many consumers may well prefer high-quality choice-based 3D games a little, but the difference in cost is so huge that those customers will probably never be satisfied.

    In text games, choice-based games have a big cost advantage, because you don’t need to design a map or define a collection of objects that can interact. This makes them much cheaper to develop than map-based games; as a result, even if customers do somewhat prefer their text games to be map-based, they can’t afford to keep map-based text-game developers in business.

    CYOA has always been a mildly profitable activity, supporting multiple companies with full-time employees at any given time over the last 30 years. Map-based text games are purely a labor of love. In 3D games, it’s map-based or bust, but 3D games can support huge studios with hundreds of employees.

    FWIW, I think consumers mildly prefer time-based games over map-based games, because in map-based games they get stuck, unable to figure out how to make the story progress. (This problem is aggravated if the map-based game has puzzles integrated into its story. It’s even more aggravated if the user has to wrestle with the parser to make anything happen.) But consumers overwhelmingly prefer graphical games over text games, and they prove it with their wallets.

    • Thanks for the detailed response. I think I agree with your analysis, although I’m not sure that making a map-based sandbox game is quite as easy as simply making the environment, since sandbox games have a habit of being easy to break!

      I also agree that the “stuckness” factor of making a map-based games is a negative point, and I think people developing those games spend a lot of time trying to patch that up. But as you say, there’s clearly something attractive to consumers in the concept of a map and exploring a world. Simple escapism, maybe?

      I wonder, too, if it’s not impossible to merge the two concepts a little more closely. On the 3D side, LA Noire sort-of tries to; and on the text-based side, I think Echo Bazaar tries to as well, though their interface is so streamlined neither model really seems to apply to them. (Maybe they’re card-based, which is a third type that I don’t know anything about.)

      • I wouldn’t say, from my standpoint of having seen all the content so far, that Echo Bazaar has any map exploration. It uses map locations as a way of organizing the choices.

        Regarding the card-based system, there are two parts involving cards that come very close to simulating an Oregon Trail-narrative style journey.

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