5 Tips on Interactive Storytelling: Insights from Max Lincoln

5 Tips on Interactive Storytelling: Insights from Max Lincoln

Hello, I’m Max (sometimes also known as M.K.). I’m a game developer from the East Coast of the US who wears many hats, including composer, writer, and sensitivity reader. I’ve written in almost any genre one might be able to think of, but my favorite work so far has been in journal/single player RPGs and interactive fiction

My background is in music ( B.A. in Music, composition focus), but I’ve been writing for fun and catharsis for nearly as long as I can remember. My ideal future project would marry music and storytelling in a neat blur.

Hooking Your Audience

Understanding your audience is the cleanest and quickest way to hook them. In games, every player seeks something from what they play, and figuring out what that is and how to highlight it is a big part of our job as developers. Also known as “player motivation”, this is especially important in the early stages of development–knowing what kind of players are most likely going to be attracted to your game (and thus, hopefully, your story) will help you set the tone and applications of any storytelling you want to do. 

John Randoff has a simple set of quadrants that most player types fall into, and understanding the general area of players you want to aim for will also usually dictate how and when your story can be told. A looter-shooter with high-octane, energetic gameplay will need a different type of delivery than a whimsical, idyllic farming simulator.

Mastering Plot Development

Don’t get in your own way–both as an individual and as a dev team. Nail down your big, showy, emotional moments first and give them plenty of space to breathe, both in the narrative and in the gameplay. 

Two examples of moments in games that do this really well: Undertale‘s scene right before you encounter Sans for the last time, and Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s main story quest: “In Your Heart Shall Burn”.

5 Tips on Interactive Storytelling: Insights from Max Lincoln

Effective World-Building Strategies

Over-building is a very real possibility, and not all of us can be Tolkien. Having an intricate master document for your world-building is a swell idea, but bear in mind that not every player (in fact, few players) will revel in every single detail. It is wise to only put the details that matter in the game proper–and to provide them in a way that makes sense for the tone and pace of the game itself. 

This could be through voice-over, through collectables, environmental storytelling–there are many options that aren’t a big (and expensive) cutscene. Having an NPC deliver a very wordy line about something that isn’t crucial to the plot while the player is in a higher energy state (like a boss battle, or a tense stealth mission) can absolutely shatter immersion, and become a meme (not in a good way).

Techniques for Character Development

5 Tips on Writing: With Max Lincoln

Figure out the function of each character early on. Will they be a constant pillar of support for the player? An unruly and aloof antagonist? A stalwart mentor with a mysterious past? Tropes can be a really fun thing to play with, if you’re willing to do some mask switches and not overly rely on them. 

Also, be aware that any investment into a character’s development is also an investment of resources–we may not want to over-invest in the story of the shopkeeper if they don’t fulfill a major narrative role, and if we do, we risk under-investing in one of our major party characters.

Crafting Meaningful Decisions

Choices need clearly defined stakes. Toying with the unknown is fine, so long as it’s contrasted with a known option, whether the player perceives it as positive or negative. Say we offer the player the choice between opening a door or taking a portal though it–this choice isn’t really a “choice” if the end goal is the same. We could assign it some stakes later on–perhaps an NPC comments on whichever option the player chose, but too many of these not-choices can start to wear on the player’s immersion over time, making them ask “Do my choices really matter?” How do we avoid this? By either making sure every choice the player makes has some effect on the state of the game’s world, or by using some sort of approval system that tracks the players choices over time and weighs them against either the world or NPCs.

Especially meaningful choices can lock players into or out of future scenarios, but it’s especially important to make sure the player knows of these stakes beforehand. These can also encourage replayability.

5 Tips on Interactive Storytelling: Insights from Max Lincoln

Max's Work & Experience

I work best in introspective, exploratory pieces, as well as in fleshing out dynamic characters. I especially enjoy working with characters who hide their motives from the player until the very last possible moment!

Writing & Narrative Design Skills

Most recently, I worked as a composer on Small Loan Studio’s The Ouroboros Express. I also helped with the studio’s previous project, Santa’s Secret: A Chrome Steel Mystery. Previously, I worked on Video Games Beast Breaker, as well as several solo interactive fiction projects.

Exploring Favorites

I’m incredibly fond of the whole Sherlock Holmes series. I can hardly imagine living in the time of their writing and having to wait for the next volume! The series has impeccable character development of its two leading men, and the reveals at the end of each story are masterclasses both in voice and in delivery.

A Wish for Interactive Audio Stories

Easily something from the Destiny series. It would be amazing to experience a story set during the time before the formation of the Last City since we have so little information about what it was like before the current major characters came into the fold!

Register for our Free Writing Workshop now!

If you are interested in creating your own interactive audio story, you can apply for our free webinar! It will introduce you to our interactive story game engine, TWIST, and teach you how to use it to create interactive audio stories.

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About the Author
Chris Mahnke
Chris Mahnke

Christian Mahnke is the author of the most successful interactive audiobooks “Iron Falcon” and “The Magic Forrest”. He has also written branded interactive fiction stories for companies such as Disney and Audible. Currently he is stuck in the tutorial of The Witcher 2.

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