How to Write Interactive Fiction and Interactive Audio Stories - Part 2
Table of Contents
Technical and Textual Requirements
Before you can publish your interactive story, you will have to submit it to Amazon, Google or Samsung for certification where the technical functionality of your story and its contents will be reviewed. In the latter case, the Player Choices and their consequences in particular will be judged.
During this process it is possible that your story or parts of your story will be rated as problematic and thus denied publication. Below we will explain the guidelines on which Amazon, Google, and Samsung base their certification, and we will show you their application with specific examples so that you may shape the content of your story in such a way that the certification process is hopefully as smooth as possible.
Be aware, though, that all of these requirements may change over time, since Amazon and Google are constantly updating their own guidelines. Also, textual requirements may differ between countries and language regions, depending on their individual laws and on how Voice providers wish to observe them. The textual requirements presented here are based on the German language region, but they should be mostly identical for the English language region. If in doubt, opt for the safer choice.
Technical Requirements for Amazon Alexa
There are two ways to present your interactive story on a Voice assistant. For each you will have to observe specific requirements regarding the length of story segments between two user interactions.
Text-to-Speech: Maximum of 8,000 Characters
One option is to use the text-to-speech (TTS) feature. In this case, the Voice assistant will read your text to the player. Depending on the language, the quality of the voice in terms of pronunciation and intonation, can vary.
It is true that huge improvements have been made by Voice assistants on this front. English speech output is of course the most advanced.
If you choose text-to-speech, story segments between two user interactions may not be greater than 8,000 characters.
Audio Files: Maximum of 240 Seconds
The other option is to upload audio files to TWIST that have been recorded by a voice actor. They will be played by the Voice assistant. The total length of all audio files (!) between two user interactions may not exceed 240 seconds.
Technical Requirements for Google Assistant
Google Assistant limits the total length of all audio files between two user interactions to 240 seconds.
Technical Requirements for Samsung Bixby
Samsung Bixby limits the total length of all audio files (!) between two user interactions to 120 seconds.
Textural Requirements for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant
Note: This is only a recommendation based on our experiences and talks with members of the certification teams at Amazon and Google in 2019, and may have changed since then.
Voice assistant providers place great emphasis on family-friendly skills. Voice is an interactive format, its contents are accessible to children at any time once it has been activated, therefore there is a need for interactive stories to meet a series of specific requirements.
These requirements are divided into four tiered categories with more or less severe restrictions:
- Approved for children
- Approved for children under guidance (“Guidance Suggested”)
- Approved for adults (“Mature”)
- No approval (“Amazon”)
Content coming under very close scrutiny relates to violence, sex (eroticism), drugs as well as drug usage, and violations against the current law. Whether your story is a fictional fantasy story or whether is tied to the real world does not matter for this evaluation.
There are three major questions that will be asked during the certification process:
- Is there any problematic content?
- How explicit is this content?
- Are these problematic sections part of active user decisions (active user choice)?
In summary, it can be said that Amazon will deny certification for interactive stories if they:
- Feature a high degree of violence (e.g. torture, cruelty, brutality) or sex (e.g. pornography),
- Show violence or sex in explicit, detailed, and illustrative ways (e.g. the severing of body parts or attacks against the head of a person),
- Are part of active user decisions that lead to persons suffering physical or mental harm,
- Idealize violence, pornography, drug use, or the committing of crimes,
- Incite users to perform such actions in the real word,
- Are written for children and contain violence, sex, or the mere mention of drugs such as alcohol or tobacco.
Keep the description of violence and sex in your story as generic as possible. Avoid announcing negative consequences of active player’s choices, or only hint at them in vague terms. For example, one character in your story killing another character is less legally problematic than putting that choice on the player. Be especially careful when you are writing a story that you wish to publish as a skill for kids.
Practical Examples: “How Much Violence is Permitted?”
Example 20: Generic and Explicit Description
Menacingly, the zombie staggers in your direction. Do you wish to shoot at him or run away?
Approved for children under guidance
Although the use of violence is offered as a choice, its description is kept generic.
Menacingly, the zombie staggers in your direction. At what part of its body do you aim? The chest, the arm, or the leg?
Approved for adults
The use of violence is offered as a choice, but, despite its detailed description, it is not too explicit (see headshot below).
Menacingly, the zombie staggers in your direction. Do wish to shoot it in the head or run away?
The use of violence is offered as a choice and it is too explicit in its description (headshot). The fact that zombies are fictional creatures does not matter in this case.
Example 21: Active player’s choice Leads to Negative Consequences for People
Sarah is lying next to the bomb, her foot trapped underneath a steel beam. Do you wish to help Sarah or run away?
Approved for children under guidance
The consequences of the decision may turn out to be grave, but they are not explicitly mentioned.
Sarah is lying next to the bomb, her foot trapped underneath a steel beam. Do you wish to chop off Sarah’s foot with an axe to save her?
The use of violence is offered as a choice and it is too explicit in its description (severing a body part) even though it is aimed at a positive outcome (saving Sarah).
Example 22: Active player’s choice Leads to Negative Consequences for People
The train is thundering toward the switch. If you change the switch, the train will hit a group of construction workers. If you do nothing, it will collide with an oncoming train. Do you wish to change the switch?
(Also, “Do you wish to sacrifice the construction workers?” or, “Whom do you wish to save? The construction workers or the train passengers?“)
Approved for children under guidance
The choice will lead to negative consequences for people either way.
Example 23: Active player’s choice Leads to Negative Consequences for People
The gas leak under the car is growing and getting closer to the flames. Soon, everything will explode. You can save only one of the children. Do you wish to save the girl or the boy?
Girl → The boy dies.
Boy → The girl dies.
The choice will lead to negative consequences for people either way. The death of the person not rescued is clearly foreseeable for the user, thus they would have to value the life of one person over that of the other. This is not permitted.
Such a Player Choice would only be possible if only the fate of the rescued person is mentioned afterwards, not the fate of the other person.
The train is thundering toward the switch. Do you wish to change the switch?
Yes → The train hits the construction workers.
No → The train collides with another train.
Approved for children under guidance
Although the decision leads to negative consequences for people, it does not include the active use of violence by the user. Furthermore, the description of the consequences is very generic. It would even be possible to mention the number of people killed and other details.
The gas leak under the car is growing and getting closer to the flames. Soon, everything will explode. Whom do you wish to save first? The girl or the boy?
Girl → The boy dies.
Boy → The girl dies.
Approved for children under guidance
Although the choice leads to negative consequences for people either way, the negative outcome for the person not rescued is not foreseeable to the user at the time the decision is being made, therefore they don’t consciously decide to let that person die.
The train is thundering toward the switch. Do you wish and try to save the construction workers?
Yes → You save the construction workers, but the train collides with an oncoming train.
No → The train hits the construction workers.
Approved for children under guidance
Although the decision leads to negative consequences for people, it does not include the active use of violence by the user. Furthermore, the description of the consequences is very generic. It would even be possible to mention the number of people killed and other details.
Not only is the Player Choice framed in an open-ended manner, it is also wrapped in positive terms (save the workers), both making it hard for the user to anticipate the negative consequences.
Example 24: Active player’s choice Leads to Negative Consequences for People
“Finish the blood sacrifice or the dragon will kill us all,” the magician shouts. The woman kneeling in front of you lifts her eyes and looks at you pleadingly. Do you wish to sacrifice the woman?
(Also, “Do you wish to sacrifice the woman or yourself?” or, “Do you wish to slit the woman’s throat or slash your own wrists?”)
The choice will lead to negative consequences for people either way. The negative outcome of the chosen option is clearly foreseeable to the user.
Only the question, “Do you sacrifice yourself?” by itself would be legitimate since it does not involve the use of violence against other persons and since it is phrased in generic terms (in contrast to slashing one’s wrists).
Example 25: Excessive Use of Violence
The suspect isn’t talking and you’re running out of time! Do you order your colleague to torture the suspect?
(Also, “Do you wish to torture the suspect?” or, “How do you wish to torture the suspect? With punches or with electroshocks?”)
The user is offered to actively use violence and the degree of the violence is too much or too explicit in its description.
The suspect isn’t talking and you’re running out of time! Do you wish to put pressure on him?
Yes → You threaten him. (Also permissible: You punch him.)
No → Another murder occurs.
Approved for adults
The user is not explicitly offered to use violence. The degree of the violence is neither too much nor too explicit in its description.
The suspect isn’t talking and you’re running out of time! Your colleague wishes to put pressure on him. Do you allow him to do so?
Yes → You threaten him. (Also permissible: You punch him.)
No → Another murder occurs.
Approved for adults
Even less intense than alternative 2 since the user does not make active use of violence. The degree of violence is neither too much nor too explicit in its description.
Practical Examples: “How Much Eroticism or Sex is Permitted?”
Example 26: Generic and Explicit Erotic or Sexual Actions
Sarah takes you by the hand and leads you to the bedroom. Do you wish to kiss her?
(Also, “Do you wish to make out?” or, “How do you wish to kiss her? Softly, passionately, or kissing with tongues?”)
Approved for children under guidance
Kissing is harmless.
Sarah takes you by the hand and leads you to the bedroom. Do you wish to kiss her or to rip off her clothes?
Approved for adults
The action may be more explicit than in alternative 1, but it is not problematic yet. Also, erotic content will only be approved if the actions are taking place by mutual agreement.
Sarah takes you by the hand and leads you to the bedroom. Do you wish to penetrate her with your penis and have sex with her missionary style?
The wording of the content is too explicit. The mention of genitalia or specific sex positions or actions is not permitted. Erotic and sexual content has to be phrased in very generic terms. For teenagers, the Youth Protection Act or corresponding standards of the respective language region must be observed.
Sarah takes you by the hand and leads you to the bedroom. Do you wish to lie down next to her and spend a beautiful and exciting night with her?
Approved for children under guidance
The actions are being described in generic terms.
Practical Examples: “How Much Drugs and Drug Usage is Permitted?”
Example 27: Drug Usage
The man is smoking a cigarette and having a glass of wine.
Approved for adults
The mere mention of drugs or addictive substances prevents certification as a skill for kids, regardless of whether it is part of a Player Choice or not.
The man offers you a cigarette and a glass of wine? Do you accept the offer?
Approved for adults
The consumption of addictive substances like alcohol or tobacco can be part of Player Choices in skills for adults.
The man offers you heroin. Do you shoot up?
The consumption of hard or illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine, heroin etc. may not be part of a Player Choice. Furthermore, the description of the action is too explicit (to shoot up).
The simple mention of drug consumption (“you see the man shoot up”) will meet approval as a skill for adults as long as the user does not take an active part in it.
The man offers you a cigarette with a cloying aroma. Do you wish to take a drag?
Approved for adults
The consumption of soft drugs as part of a Player Choice is possible as long as the choice and the consequences are phrased in generic or hedged terms.
Practical Examples: “How Much Crime is Permitted”?
Example 28: Criminal Actions
You see that, except for the cashier, no one is in the shop at the moment. Do you wish to pull out your weapon and demand that he give you the money from the cash register?
Approved for adults
Criminal acts and illegal activities are certainly possible as options for Player Choices in fictional stories. The user could even cook crystal meth (“Breaking Bad” style), but they may not consume it herself.
Do you wish to join the Cosa Nostra and take part in the attack on the American embassy in Italy?”
Establishing connections to real criminal organizations (Yakuza, Gomorrah) is not allowed. Furthermore, the user may not make active or conscious choices that lead to violence against the state or state representatives.
Example 19: Hidden Player Utterances – Rewarding Attentiveness
[Narrator] “The crime scene is a small room at the end of the basement complex. The back part of the room is shrouded in darkness, and with the scarce light from the corridor you can only make out a metal locker to the left and a bloodstain on the ground. Your colleagues have already removed the dead body and the crime weapon, but maybe they missed something.”
Player Choice as closed question:
Player Choice as open question:
[Narrator] “The locker is rusty, and there are several tools lying around in the upper compartment. Maybe this is where the culprit got the hammer for his deed. Now, do you wish to examine the bloodstain or leave?”
[Narrator] “It is too dark to make anything out, so you use your hands to blindly scan the ground. Your fingers find a round item stuck in a crack. You pull it out and carry it into the light. It is a large, black button stained with blood.”
Summary – Technical requirements
- You can have your story read by the Voice assistant, using text-to-speech, or upload audio files of the text spoken by a voice actor.
- If you are using text-to-speech, the text between two player interactions may not be longer than 8,000 characters.
- If you are using audio files, the time between two user interactions may not be longer than 240 seconds (Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant) or 120 seconds (Samsung Bixby).
Summary – Textual requirements
- Depending on the desired rating (children, children under guidance, or adults), specific requirements must be met.
- Your stories should not be too extreme or too explicit in their depiction of violence or sex.
- Player Choices that have the player actively and/or consciously harm other characters are to be avoided or should be rephrased in a less problematic way.
- Violence, pornography, drug usage, and criminal acts may not be idealized or encourage the player to engage in such behavior in the real world.
- If you are writing a story for children, violence, sex, and drugs are taboo.
Preliminary Considerations and Planning
The Player and Their Context
Before you start writing your story, you should think about who your player actually is. This not only includes demographic aspects like age or gender, but also the preferences of your players and the situation they find themselves in while playing.
Simple language and simple Player Choices with immediate consequences are best suited for children. Adults may be expecting a much deeper plot and more challenging events.
Also think about what kind of emotions you wish to evoke in your players. Do you wish to entertain them, make them laugh, astonish them, arouse their curiosity, or give them the creeps?
Your Target Audience
You can try to write for everyone, but you will not be able to reach everyone. Opinions on whether it is useful to consider for whom you are writing, differ widely. From “needless” to “vital”, every sentiment can be found.
We at EarReality prefer to keep things simple and goal-oriented, trying to develop an awareness of the core factors of success when writing interactive fiction without making everything too scientific.
Therefore our tip is, try to define your target audience in a single sentence. This will give you a clear focus but will also free you from unnecessary complexity.
Examples of Defining One’s Target Audience
“For female players of age 15 to 55 who like passionate love stories with a good share of cheekiness and humor!”
“For players who love fantasy stories like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’!”
“For children that enjoy pleasant and adventurous stories that always end well!”
“For players who wish to solve tricky puzzles or gather clues and combine them!”
“For young adults who are interested in themes like friendship, first love, and identification!”
“For players who not only want to hear a compelling period piece, but also wish to learn more about the historical events, figures, and places of that time!”
“For players who prefer longer stories with a slower narrative pace and simple choices!”
Types of Players
Besides gender, age, and preferences there is another interesting factor. It does not deal so much with who your player is but the way they are playing your story. We primarily distinguish between three different types of players, though there are certainly hybrids and other categories.
The Kind Player
This player type will always try to do the “right thing” in your story. They want to save the world and become a shining, morally indisputable hero. Though their reward is the act itself, they still need an audience!
Take care to acknowledge and reward their actions on their way through the game. To do this, you can give them game advantages, special information, new storylines, or you can have the other characters give them direct feedback. If the king’s sword master praises them with the words that only they could have accomplished this task, your player will be happy.
The Evil Player
This player type will try to solve your story without adhering to traditional moral principles. They will not help the merchant to upright his toppled wagon nor will they give a coin to the beggar at the roadside. They might even want to give both of them a kick in the butt to get them out of their way.
Make sure you still find a way to convey any information necessary for the progress of the story to this type of player. And reward them for their choices, for example by having other characters tell them how powerful and awe-inspiring they are. But do not overstep the bounds of good taste when doing so. Explicit violence and brutality will usually be censored by Voice providers. That being said, a good writer will shun the use of the battle axe anyway, preferring the use of the subtle blade.
The Independent Player
This player type is wary and reserved. They want to be the hero of the story, but not at all costs. Their reactions will vary and show no apparent pattern. They might help one character, but cold-shoulder the other, failing to find any sympathy for them. They might even let the villain get away because they no longer see them as a threat. For this type of player, the feeling of freedom is very important.
Make sure to always offer them newPlayer Choices and to provide them with a meaningful motivation. Saving the world might not be an intrinsic motivation for them, but if you give them the prospect of receiving a powerful sword or marrying the prince if they accomplish a task, they might just be willing to take on the risks involved.
Other Player Types
They want to win the game. Obtaining victory or reaching the best possible ending of the story should be hard to achieve for this type since they draw satisfaction from their own accomplishments in carefully weighing up the chances and risks of these choices, finding hidden clues, and combining them to come to the correct conclusions.
They want to experience a gripping and emotional story. Whether the story has a happy or bad ending is only a side issue for them as long as the ending allows them to feel along with it and even hold on to it afterward, and as long as the ending follows naturally from the events that transpired before. Plot twists and tragic stories are a perfect fit for dramatists.
They want to discover and uncover everything that is hidden in the story. Explorers are driven by curiosity and want to find every possible ending of an interactive story. Whenever you give them the opportunity to learn some secondary information about the world and its characters, or to turn over that oddly shaped stone in the middle of a chase scene, explorers will embrace this chance with a blissful smile on their face.
You can choose whether you want to tailor your story to a certain type of player. Although it is possible to reach different player types by using many-faceted Player Choices and Player Utterances, if you try to please everyone you might end up pleasing no one. For your first interactive stories focus on the fundamental expectations and motivations of almost all players.
Your player wants to:
- Hear an interesting story (curiosity),
- Experience their own individual story (satisfaction),
- Be able to identify with the acting characters (satisfaction),
- Maybe play the story again (curiosity),
- Experience powerful emotions (satisfaction), and
- Be part of something extraordinary (escapism).
If you meet these expectations, your story should be successful regardless of the different player types.
Active player or partially passive listener? Alone or accompanied? At home or on the road? As a distraction or fully focused? Trigger moments are the situations which players encounter when they are playing your story. Recognizing them is important for your story to work. In contrast to traditional gamebooks, the playing of interactive Voice stories offers new possibilities, not only for writers, but also for players.
While reading a book is a focused and mostly solitary activity, someone may only want to listen to your story on the side while ironing, tidying up, or driving. And there could also be several other people in the room who want to participate in the decision-making because they are fascinated by the story and its interactivity. Decide whether you want to address your story to focused players or to distracted players and design it accordingly.
A crime story with many clues and information that have to be remembered and combined would probably work just as poorly for a distracted player as would the dark atmosphere of a horror story which they only half listens to. Such a player will likely prefer longer text passages that can certainly make use of more elaborate wording.
A focused player will prefer shorter texts and more choices with serious consequences that present them with conflicts and emotional dilemmas. Do not bore them with endless descriptions of landscape, but lead them quickly and directly to the core of your story.
Trigger Moment: the situation a player finds themself in when playing an interactive story, for example lying on the couch, driving in their car, or cleaning their home.
Continued Play and Playing Again
There are many reasons why a player would interrupt their playing of your interactive story. Most of them (internet failure, a sudden call) are outside of your realm of influence. More important is that your player does not abandon your story out of boredom or disappointment because the plot is too tedious, the descriptions are too lengthy, or the player choices have become irrelevant. So be always mindful of the dramaturgy of your story.
We already encouraged you to use shorter text passages and a simple and direct language while also splitting longer stories into smaller episodes. This will automatically force you to approach the narrative pace and dynamic of your story more consciously. But also try to grip the player with the content of your story. The following narrative elements may help you in achieving this:
At the end of your story, will the player character fight an epic battle against a dragon? Great! In this case make sure to spread little clues throughout the story making your player anticipate what you have in store for them. Let them find old texts talking about mighty, all-powerful dragons and their sinister king; let them discover burn marks on a dead body they encounter; let them overhear two peasants in a tavern speaking of a huge, dark shadow they have seen on the horizon. The uncertainty and the desire of your player to confirm their suspicions can be a strong drive to keep playing.
The more choices a player makes in your story, the more they want to know how it will end. After all, they are affecting what is happening with their decisions. So not only have them make choices that have an influence on the current situation and the current actions of the player character, but now and again also let them make decisions about the bigger picture. This can be the fate of certain characters whom the player is helping or fighting against, but also larger story events that you will revisit in the finale. For example, the player could be asked if they wish to win the support of the elves or of the dwarves for the battle against the dragon, knowing full well that this pact could lead to their demise.
You do not have to always reference everything that is currently happening in the world. The consequences of far-reaching decisions in particular are perfectly suited to being summarized later on in just a few words. The actual events surrounding them will still take place in the player’s mind.
We would all love to be the strong, fearless hero saving the world, cracking the case, or conquering the heart of our big love. And interactive stories give us exactly this opportunity. But there is a reason why the hero’s journey is a central element of storytelling. At the beginning, the hero is weak, inferior, and helpless. Make sure to drive this point home to your players by having them encounter superior opponents that always seem to be one or two steps ahead of them. Mock them, humble them, show them the futility of their efforts. Then what will happen? Your players will be dying to show the world what they are really made of! A clearly lasting motivation that keeps them playing your story.
During or at the end of one episode, your player decided to not take the pass through the mountains but travel by ship instead? Great! Now let the old grumpy captain tell them that they should prepare for an encounter with pirates, the immensely dangerous rapids, or a terrible storm brewing. For your player this is a good moment to pause the story and anxiously look forward to these upcoming plot events.
For a long time the belief had been held that interactive stories are only good if they can make the player play through them again, meaning they would find ways to entice them to play a second or third time to make different decisions, solve unsolved puzzles, explore different places, or find treasure that they might have missed the first time around. It is certainly great if an interactive story can offer all of these, but it would require a huge amount of planning and writing. Especially for the first interactive adventure you write, less is probably more.
We believe that a vast majority of players will play an interactive story first and foremost to be able to experience their very own story. And this only really works the first time. Sure, there will always be adventurous and curious players that will play it a second time. But in our opinion, instead of trying to stuff two stories into one, you are better off writing two separate stories. There is one reasonable question you will have to ask yourself: if your player has played through your story once and has made the choices they wanted to make while ignoring any options they didn’t like, why should they play your story again if they already know a large part of it and if the only options left now, from their point of view, are the second-rate options?
Our recommendation: save yourself the effort. Instead, place your emphasis on one single playthrough and design it as best as possible. If you nevertheless want to instill a high replay value in your story, here are some tips.
Incentives for your player to play the story again could include:
- Finding out more about the world,
- Reaching a different or better ending,
- Unlocking new Player Choices
- Making different decisions to discover their consequences.
The Best Ending, or the Incomplete Solution
These are stories that cannot be completely solved in one playthrough, having the player play through them again. For example, they can only then find all evidence for a murder or discover all parts of a code needed to prevent the nuclear destruction of the world if they play the adventure several times. You do this by placing the relevant clues on different, mutually exclusive story paths. Only by playing again will the player be able to reach the best ending, in the most extreme case only after having played through every other ending. Yes, there are players who find this appealing!
Use Random Elements
Design some of the things in your story with an element of randomness, thus creating additional value for a second playthrough. You could, for example, craft secrets with the clues scattered randomly across different places at the start of the game. A valuable treasure was found in the left passage during the first playthrough? Your player will be surprised if they encounter a dangerous monster in the same passage instead!
In their escape from the local mafia goons the player had to choose between two corridors? The hot romance was only possible with either the count or the gentleman? The voyage to Alpha Centauri could be accomplished on board an old navy freighter or with a smuggler’s ship? All these options hint at the possibility of different events taking place if the player had chosen differently. If you want to make use of this element, you should plan many interesting parallel paths from the beginning. Playing through the story is an effort, too, so you should reward your players generously for doing so.
The choices your player makes can also change how they perceive the events taking place, giving them different interpretations of the story during different playthroughs. For example, one time the murder turns out to be a story of jealousy. If the player chooses differently, it could be a conspiracy in the financial world or a suicide because of gambling debts. However, all of these variations will have to be consistent within themselves, since all of them are true after all.
Story Branching Points
You can achieve a good compromise between continued play and playing again by using so-called story branching points. These are points where the plot splits into different paths. By using save points in your interactive story where the player can jump back to at the end, you allow them to make a different decision at these interesting branching points without them having to play through the whole story again from the beginning. This prevents your player from ending the story while still having unexplored story paths in the back of their mind which can feel unsatisfactory.
Inspiration and Insightsn
Interactive stories exist in many different formats. Before you begin to laboriously dig for ideas regarding stories, plots, scenes, and game mechanics, staring in frustration at a white browser background, you can simply have a look at what other authors have done already.
The following is just a short list. For many of these works you can find reviews, YouTube videos, blog entries, and other analyses online.
- “Lone Wolf” – Joe Dever
- “Fighting Fantasy” – Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson
- “Fabled Lands” – Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson
- “Choose Your Own Adventure” – R. A. Montgomery
- “Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland”; “The Wicked Wizard of Oz” – Jonathan Green
- “DestinyQuest” – Michael J. Ward
- Demian’s Gamebook Web Page offers a list of nearly every gamebook ever published: gamebooks.org
Interactive Audio Stories
Interactive Story-Apps for Smartphone
- Delight Games
Interactive Video Games
- Life is Strange
- Last of Us
- Until Dawn
- Detroit – Become Human
- Heavy Rain
- Banner Saga
- Disco Elysium
Interactive movies and series
- Netflix offers several interactive story genres and formats
Target Audience and Player Types:
- Summarize your target audience in one sentence to focus the design of your story to this group. Besides gender and age, players of interactive story formats can be divided into further groups:
- “Good” players want to do the right thing, “evil” players want to act free from moral bonds, and independent players want to choose situationally.
- Gamers want to win the game and perform as best as possible. Dramatists want to hear gripping and thrilling stories. Explorers want to discover every nook and cranny of your story.
- Distracted players want to be able to follow your story even if they are not listening closely. Focused players want to be rewarded for their attentiveness with a lot of interactivity.
- Focus on one of these player types, especially for your first stories. Multi-faceted Player Choices and Player Utterances will allow you to reach several of these player types.
Player Retention and Replayability:
- Use foreshadowing, far-reaching player choices, the archetypal hero’s journey, and cliffhangers to keep your players playing.
- Use different endings, an interesting world, different story paths, random elements, and save points to make your players play the story again. But remember that all the different paths have to be satisfying in themselves in case a player plays through your story only once.
- There are already many gamebooks, web stories, smartphone apps, computer games, and shows out there that feature interactive storytelling and can serve as inspiration.
Setup and Structure
The choices the player makes lead to branches that will result in different story paths. Therefore you will have to conceive and plan different plot threads and maybe also different endings, forming a kind of tree diagram. If you do not plan the setup of your story well, it can lead to your story feeling too one-dimensional or overwhelming your player with its complexity.
Also decide early on whether the player’s decisions will influence their understanding or completion of the story. What happens if the player does not receive some vital information or clues? Can the player still make sense of the plot? Can they still complete the story? And can they still complete it in a way that allows them to reach a satisfying ending?
So it is not just about planning the important story events beforehand, also make notes on where your player can find the triggers and solutions for these events. And make sure that they will actually receive all necessary information and items. There are several ways to achieve this. If a player did not receive or missed a decisive clue, you can have a knowledgeable companion or other character give it to them at a later point in the story. This will enable the player to keep playing, but at the same time will show they their error.
An interactive crime story might not work so well if the player, due to their decisions, never meets the murderer or finds the evidence that is needed to convict the culprit. And a closed door in a dungeon will generate frustration if the player cannot get free because they missed the key earlier in the game or failed to pick it up.
Therefore make sure that your story will not lead to any dead ends. This does not mean that the player should always be able to reach their desired goal. But the different endings have to be designed in such a way that they are each self-consistent.
For the crime story this could mean that a companion points out to the player the importance of a specific clue or piece of evidence necessary to convict the murderer. In the dungeon scenario, a companion could intervene and pick the lock from the outside. Or you just make sure that the player cannot reach the dungeon until they have found the necessary key.
However, such assistance for the player should always come with a price so as not to reward passiveness. There are no bounds for you in how you wish to accomplish that. Emotional consequences are particularly effective. The reactions of the other characters in the world could show them that them did not necessarily cover themselves in glory. Or you could deny them some game elements that are not important for the main story but would enhance the gaming experience (e.g. lore, side quests, Easter eggs, etc.).
If you want to offer your players an elaborate system of game mechanics – for example a combat system or an individual character creation – design it with great care and reduce it as much as possible. Depth is good, complexity is not.
Voice is a speech medium, and even though some output devices have displays that enable the sharing of visual content, words heard are fleeting. Therefore, in your first stories, focus mainly on the plot and from there begin to approach more complex game mechanics. You will gain just as much from this as your players will.
One-Dimensional Main Plot Thread
The player has no possibility to deviate from the main thread of the plot. Their choices do not influence the plot, only the way in which they experience it (or maybe not even that if you did not pay any attention at all to this guide).
The player takes on the role of a princess who marries the prince at the end of the story. This ending is inevitable. However, the appeal for the player lies in how they reach this goal, be it through flirting, playing the girlie girl, or having empathetic conversations with him.
Interactive stories with a linear main plot thread do not offer much freedom. They can still be successful by compensating for this limitation in other ways and allowing the player to act in different ways. This can be achieved through emotion. For example, each Player Choice could offer the player three different ways in which to reply, like “witty, cool, or romantic”. This enables the player to identify with the personality of the character they are playing.
Branching Main Plot Thread
The main plot thread branches several times and is merged again in different ways. The core events of the story are being dictated by the main plot thread. However, how the player reaches these core events depends upon their decisions. Thus the player can experience the main events of the story following very different paths, giving them an incentive to play the story again.
The player has to reach a certain city. To get there, they can either use a sailing ship, take the pass through the mountains, or ride on the back of a dragon. Depending on their choice, the player will experience different adventures on their journey, find different items, meet different people, and so on. During the voyage on the river, the ship is being attacked by pirates, in the mountains they have to take cover from an avalanche, and while riding the dragon, they spot a cave entrance beyond which treasure awaits.
Also, the events of these scenes do not have to be of equal value. A balance can be achieved over the course of the whole story, or maybe you deliberately want to treat these events in very different ways.
The best way of writing an interactive story is to use time-delayed decisions. They allow for a high level of interactivity, a great playing experience, and a lot of replay value without increasing your workload too much. For this you use variables that change depending on the individual choices of the player. At a later point you can check the value of these variables and have according events occur for the player. What variables are exactly and what else they are useful for will be explained in the next chapter of this guide. For now you only need to understand how they can help you to better structure your interactive story.
With the simple use of variables and time-delayed decisions you can begin to write interactive stories that truly come alive and in which every decision the player makes can influence the main plot thread. To understand this, it might be easier to stop thinking of a single plot thread running from left to right and rather start thinking in chapters and scenes.
Let us return to the example of the princess who is going to marry the prince at the end. Imagine there are seven scenes in which the princess has the opportunity to either impress the prince or fail to do so. This can be the attempt to train her sword fighting skills in front of him, the attempt to flirt with him during a dialogue, or the selection of a suitable present for her beloved. The different decisions of the player can lead to different degrees of success or failure. The prince could react to the actions of the princess with great enthusiasm, some interest, or sheer boredom. By using variables, you can now assign specific values to the decisions of the player or the corresponding reactions of the princess which you can then interpret later on.
You could start by creating a variable named “attraction”. Depending on how successful a decision was, the value of this variable either increases, decreases, or maybe stays the same. If the princess’s fencing skills turned out to be decent, the variable “attraction” could be changed by “plus 3”. If the player embarrassed themselves, the value of the variable will be lowered by 3 instead. You repeat this process for all of the seven scenes, coming to a final value between minus 21 and plus 21. At the end of the last scene you interpret the value of the variable. If the princess garnered an “attraction” of minus 21 to minus 5, the romantic relationship ends with the prince falling in love with a different princess instead. If she garnered an “attraction” of minus 4 to plus 10, the prince will tell her that he needs some extra time to think it over. If the player garnered an “attraction” of plus 11 or more, they both marry and live happily ever after.
You can also interpret the events of these seven scenes separately, for example by using variables like “sword fighting” or “present” and giving them the value “1” for success and “0” for failure. If the princess then fails in her attempt to flirt with the prince, it will allow him to give a reply that refers to an earlier decision of the player. For example, “Telling jokes is not one of your strengths, but you make for a passable swordswoman,” if her fencing demonstration was successful. Or, “I should have known that your jokes are as dull as your blade,” if not.
As you can see, time-delayed decision offer you many possibilities to tell your story in a dynamic way, to give your player the impression of freedom of choice, and to surprise her with the fact that the other characters in the story will remember her decisions. This makes your work easier because you can just merge different story paths at certain points in the story. No matter what decisions the player made in individual scenes, they will always reach the same point at the end of the chapter, but it will happen under different portents that again can have different consequences in the later parts of the story.
Here is another example of how you can use time-delayed decisions for telling fascinating interactive stories. In a wild west story the player enters a saloon and is being asked whether he wants to flirt with the barmaid or challenge the local sheriff to a fistfight. Since the main plot thread requires it, at the end of the scene the cowboy will land in jail, no matter which choice they make in the saloon. Without time-delayed decisions this would be a classic fake decision. But by using variables and doing some additional writing, you can turn these events into a gripping and living story. Since, depending on his previous decision, his imprisonment can have different omens.
If the player did flirt with the barmaid, she could have slipped him a lock pick when they were arrested which will allow him to easily escape from jail. In this case, the variable “lock pick” would get the value “1”. If they exchanged blows with the sheriff, they will be watched even closer while in jail, making the later escape much harder. In this case the variable “brawl” would get the value “1”.
As you can see, time-delayed decisions allow you to tell complex stories that are very interactive and varied even if they quickly return to the same main plot thread (in this case the character’s jail time). Not only does this make for a great immediate gaming experience, it also predestines your story for being played a second or even third time.
Apart from the possibility of failing or dying early on in the story, the player’s decisions can also lead to different endings in the story.
An interactive crime story; depending on their decisions and the story paths they’ve followed, the player might end up:
- Convicting the true murderer,
- Having an innocent person arrested,
- Convicting an accomplice while the murderer walks free,
- Finding out who the murderer is, but being unable to catch them,
- Killing the murderer,
- Convicting no one because the evidence is not clear,
- Or being killed by the murderer.
Construct your story in such a way that it features at least one very good and one bad ending for the player. Between these two, there should be more good than bad endings of different nuance and character. In this way, players will feel that their choices are being acknowledged and accepted by the author, but they will also feel the desire to play the story again and bring it to a – from their viewpoint – perfect conclusion.
One More Tip for Writing
In our talks with different authors, one of the most recurring questions was what the best practical approach to writing an interactive story was. Our clear recommendation is to not write one story path all the way to the end and then go back and add some Player Choices, but to always write only up to the next Player Choice and then finish all the texts for the different options offered before moving on. Otherwise you will end up with a very linear story, packed with many uninspired fake choices.
Summary – The Structure of Interactive Stories
- Take care to make your interactive story neither too one-dimensional nor too complex.
- One-dimensional stories only have one main plot thread. Compensate for the player’s restricted freedom in influencing the story by using emotional Player Choices that give the player a lot of freedom in shaping the personality of their player character and the way in which they react.
- Branching stories have one main plot thread that regularly splits into different smaller paths that converge again on the main thread. This gives the player more freedom in influencing the story.
- Time-delayed decisions give you the chance to revisit the previous actions of the player character at a later point in the story to have different events occur and thus vary the plot. You do this by using variables.
- Different endings allow you to tell a perceived broad range of stories with just one story (especially if your story is one-dimensional and if you use time-delayed decisions).
- If the player misses important information on the story path they have chosen, make sure to give them this information at a different place instead.
- Always write up to the next Player Choice only and then finish all the smaller paths resulting from this choice before continuing along the main path again. This way you avoid making fake choices and retain more narrative wriggle room for yourself as you move on.
In TWIST you can save your player’s decisions and have respective events happen later on. To do this, you use variables that can serve all kinds of different purposes. For example:
- Relationships to other characters like “love”, “sympathy”, “reputation”
- Attributes like “strength”, “intelligence”, “courage”
- Abilities like “sneaking”, “fire spell”, “climbing”
- Items like “key”, “gun”, “flashlight”
- Player actions like “lever pulled” (opening a door somewhere else), “evidence photo seen” (for the later conviction of the culprit)
- Resources like “oxygen” (in a damaged space ship), “water supply” (in the desert), “lead” (in a chase), “gold” or “life points”
- Random numbers for random events or actions with different chances of success
In a dialogue, for example, between the main character and the king there are several consecutive Player Choices which all influence the value of the variable “king respect”, recording to what extent the player character gains the king’s respect. Through their choices, the player can choose how to behave towards the king.
For example, they can act “loyally” (“king respect” increases by 1) or “defiantly” (“king respect” decreases by 1), be “truthfully” (“king respect” increases by 1) or “dishonestly” (“king respect” decreases by 1), “offer help” (“king respect” increases by 1) or “forsake the kingdom” (“king respect” decreases by 1).
At the end of this dialogue, the variable “king respect” would then have a total value in the range from minus 3 to plus 3 (the specific possible values are -3, -1, +1, or +3).
After that you can check the variable to have different story paths or events play out. For our example of the dialogue with the king, you could now present the player with one of three new events:
- If the value of “king respect” is less than minus 1, the king has the player character thrown into the dungeons.
- If the value is in the range of minus 1 to plus 1, the king remains neutral.
- If the value is higher than plus 1, the king will provide the player with an additional piece of equipment and some wise counsel for their quest.
Be aware, though, that the player is not making any decision in that moment. This evaluation happens in the background of TWIST without the player’s knowledge, and it is based on the previously made decisions and the accompanying changes of the value of the variable.
The value “king respect” can also be used at later points for other characters. For example, before a conversation with a grumpy guard the player’s reputation with the king is being checked. The higher the player’s standing with the king, the more eager the guard will be to help them, leading to different events.
TWIST also offers the possibility to use variables across episodes. Especially for relationships to other characters this makes sense. If the player behaves in a hostile manner to a certain character in one episode, that character should not suddenly react friendly to them in another episode as if nothing had happened.
Variables for attributes offer the exciting opportunity to experience the same story from different perspectives. At the start of the story you could, for example, offer character generation to the player in which their choices define the personality and characteristics of the main character. These Player Choices can be phrased directly or indirectly:
- “Are you rather strong, smart or agile?”
- “How do you solve conflicts? With brute force, a cunning mind, or a lot of dexterity?”
- “Your father had a huge influence on your early life. Was he a builder, a scholar or a goldsmith?”
- “At a siege, the enemy soldiers were already assaulting the gates with a battering ram. How did you save the fortress from being taken? Did you make a sortie, strengthen the gates with beams, or kill the enemy commander with your bow?”
The player’s decision will lead to the corresponding attributes receiving a certain value. For example, if the player chooses to be a bodybuilder, you could have their “strength set to 10”, “dexterity set to 7”, and “intelligence set to 5”.
During character generation and at later points in the story, you can ask several such questions and increase or decrease the corresponding variables accordingly. The attributes, as defined through this process, can then be used to determine the success or failure of specific player actions.
For example, in an interactive thriller story the player could be taking on the role of an agent who has to infiltrate the warehouse of a gang without triggering the alarm. Based on earlier decisions by the player, this agent will have certain values for the variables “strength”, “dexterity”, and “intelligence” which, in the following scene, will influence the result of two of the three possible player actions.
Example 29: Player Choices with Attributes
[Narrator] You are just about to round the corner when you hear footsteps approaching from the side corridor. It is probably one of the goons patrolling the premises. Do you wish to silently overpower him, quickly hide, or outsmart him?
Continuation – “Overpower”
Strength > 9
[Narrator] Unexpectedly, you step out of the shadows and floor the guard with a punch before he can even make a sound…
[Narrator] Confidently, you jump into the corridor to bring him down with an uppercut. But the bandit just takes the blow like nothing and screams, “Alerrrrt!”
Continuation – “Hide”
Dexterity > 7
[Narrator] Thinking fast, you press yourself into a recess of the nearby wall and hold your breath. The guard strolls past you without noticing you…
Dexterity < 8
[Narrator] You press yourself into a recess of the wall and listen with bated breath. The footsteps stop in front of you, then you hear the trigger of a gun being pulled.
[Guard] “I don’t know who you are and what you’re doing here. But I can see the tip of your boots.”
Continuation – “Outsmart”
[Narrator] The oldest trick in the book! You hurl a stone down the dark corridor and it noisily bounces off a wall. The footsteps move away toward the sound and you seize the opportunity to…
You can also use attributes as a continuous pattern for all player decisions. For every action that implies high dexterity you award dexterity points, for every action implying high strength you award strength points. Similarly, some events can cause these values to be decreased, such as injuries.
So each chapter and each decision should change these attributes. At the same time, avoid too much complexity. Instead of six attributes like strength, health, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma, two such as “body” and “mind” might be sufficient. Ultimately, you, the author, will have to keep track of the values of all these different variables.
Furthermore, it is a good idea to occasionally give the player feedback about their attributes, especially if there is no character generation in the beginning and attribute values are being determined during the course of the story. For example, if the player is trying to break open a door and does not have great strength but is very dexterous, you could tell them, “You are not strong enough for this. With your nimble fingers you might want to try and manipulate the lock.”
The opportunity for the main character to learn or gain certain abilities can make your stories more diverse and immersive. At the same time you can use this element to allow for decisions, or series of decisions, to have a greater influence on the story.
For example, other characters in the story might be able to teach the main character abilities like “sneaking”, “fire spell”, “lying”, or “dancing” if the player manages to have a successful dialogue with them, solves some kind of puzzle, or completes a quest for these characters. Abilities gained in this way can then, by checking the corresponding variable, could lead to new or additional Player Choices for the player.
Example 30: Player Choices With Abilities
The ice dragon stomps through the cave, snorting. Deadly clouds of frost come hissing from its nostrils. It will be near impossible to defeat him using normal weapons. And you have not much time left to reach the mountain top and save princess Jaanja.
Continuation – “Fire spell” = 0
Will you attack the dragon anyway or try to sneak past it?
Continuation – “Fire spell” = 1
Will you attack the dragon with your sword, try to sneak past it, or cast a fire spell?
In this case, the variable is being checked before the player is presented with the Player Choice. Depending on their progress – they either learned the fire spell or not – the player is being offered different options.
In the above example, attacking the ice dragon with normal weapons could lead to the player character’s death. This would be okay since the text told them that this probably isn’t a good option. Sneaking past could allow the player to continue their way to Princess Jaanja. However, she would then miss the loot from the dragon’s lair which she only gets if she defeats the dragon with the fire spell.
This whole passage will of course require some additional work from you, but it makes the gaming experience so much better. The player will feel that it is not just the plot that is progressing, but also that they are making real progress in terms of their character’s development. What is more, their earlier choices give them an advantage later on which will motivate them to weigh up and think through their future decisions even more.
Of course, you will not be able to include such Player Choices based on abilities at every turn in your story. But that is not really necessary. Use them as highlights for your players and they will appreciate them even more.
If the abilities the player gains can open up new options, this does lead to some questions. Do you now have to include them at every Player Choice where possible? After all the player could ask the legitimate question why they are allowed to use the fire spell in their encounter with the ice dragon, but not when they have to face the bear or the bandit.
Should it not be their decision when and where they wish to use their abilities? To cut a long story short, even though this question is legitimate, it is not necessary. We should be clear that in a narrated story – in contrast to most video games – all events have to be manually constructed by the writer. And the player’s freedom of action will be restricted anyway since you can only offer a certain number of, very reasonable, choices.
The few unhappy players who might hold this against you, you must simply ignore. Really. You will not be able to satisfy their demands anyway, no matter what you offer them and how much effort you put into it. Rather focus on avoiding crude mistakes and logic errors, telling a great story, and including occasional highlights.
Another great possibility to improve the gaming experience for your interactive story is to have the player find items. This not only gives you the opportunity to insert more player choices, making the story even more interactive and diverse, but you can also show the player theprogression of their character . More items found usually mean more options for the player character and thus a “stronger” character.
Let us return to the example with the king. In this story the hero might receive a reward from the king. They could be given the choice of either a rope or a lantern. If the player decides to take the rope, the corresponding variable “rope” is assigned the value of 1. If they pick the lantern instead, the variable “lantern” is set to 1.
At a later point in the story you can check these variables and, based on their value, have different events take place for the player. If the player took the rope and then reaches a ravine, you could, for example, ask them whether they wish to use it to climb down. If they do not have the rope, they will either have to climb down the walls of the ravine with their bare hands which could lead to injury or some other kind of damage, or they have to make a detour to reach the bottom of the ravine, prolonging their journey.
This would also allow you to remove the rope from their inventory after they use it since the player has no means to recover the rope once they reach the bottom. An approach like this can help you to keep the amount of items the player has within limits. Otherwise you will get into the predicament of having to offer additional options and paths at every player choice for all of these tools and pieces of equipment. And variables are supposed to give you a playing field to generate exciting events, raise expectations, and reward the player, not force you to write complex stories that are getting out of hand.
Therefore better to use items that have a limited life or can only be used once. Offering the possible use of an item a second time is still advisable, the advantage being that the player has to make another decision.
Thus, in our example story, you could construct another event in which the player can use the rope. For instance, if the player has overpowered an enemy, you could check in TWIST whether the player has the rope in their possession. If yes, you could present them with the option of tying up the enemy and thus completely incapacitate them. If, when you check the variable, it shows that the player does not have the rope (anymore), you could still reference their earlier decision and output a text like, “Bending over the guard, you ask yourself how you can prevent him from sounding the alarm once he regains consciousness. Well, this would have been much easier if you had taken the rope with you.”
Apart from the fact that these items should of course fit within the setting of your story, there are no bounds for your creativity. So use different and interesting items to enrich your player’s experience. And design the obtainment and use of those items in a way that makes it both easy for you and exciting for the player.
You can achieve this by having the player choose between two items, meaning the player is offered two different pieces of equipment but can only take one of them.
One way is to award items depending on the success of the player. If the player manages to convince the king in a dialogue sequence of their noble intentions, the king will give them an item. If they fail, they receive no item or an item of lesser value.
Alternatively, an item can produce a negative side effect. The bright lantern may help the player in finding their way through the dark. But at the same time it will draw enemies to them and involve them in more fights.
Sometimes the player performs an action that has no immediate effect on events, but will be relevant later in the story.
For example, at the beginning of the adventure the player character pulls a lever in the alien base that operates a secret door that the player will only encounter much later. Or the player character sees a picture on the wall in the home of a witness, showing that victim and suspect did actually know each other. You may want to record these things so that you can later have certain events take place that result from these player actions.
You can basically treat these player actions in the same way you would abilities and items. If the player performs action ‘X’, the associated variable receives the value of 1. Later in the game you check this variable. If it has the value of 1, you can either offer an additional Player Choices to the player or automatically lead them on a different story path to incorporate the result of that earlier action into the scene.
In the example of the pulled lever you set the variable “lever pulled” to 1. Once the player reaches the corridor where the secret door has opened, you check the variable and offer the way through the door as an additional Player Choice.
In the example of the picture in the home of the witness you set the variable “evidence photo seen” to 1. In the final confrontation with the murderer, you can check the variable and then put the player onto a different story path where they confront the culprit with the fact that, contrary to his claims, he did know the victim.
In the same way, you can use this method to record different statuses of player actions. Let us assume the secret lever in the alien base does not only have one setting but two, each opening a different door. If the player puts the lever in position one, the variable “lever pulled” receives the value 1. If they bring it to position two, the variable “lever pulled” gets the value 2. By checking this variable later on, you not only find out whether the player activated the lever at all, but also which position they pulled the lever to then offer them different choices depending on which secret door was opened.
While items should only be used at specific points, resources will allow you to include a full, continuous game mechanic in your story.
What does this look like? Imagine an interactive story where the player is stuck in a damaged space ship. Their goal is to reach the bridge to start up the systems again before the ship is being pulled into a black hole or crashes onto a planet. There are several ways to reach the main computer and regain control over the ship.
The crux of the story is the pressure being put on the player. There is only a limited amount of oxygen supply, and each action will consume more or less of it. You should of course, one way or another, inform the player about this at the start of the game. This can be done through a help text, a short tutorial, or be directly embedded into the story. In the latter case, the AI of the space ship could contact the player at the beginning and inform them about this plight. This approach would have another advantage: the AI can occasionally give the player hints or calculate them chances of success for specific actions.
But back to our example. The player awakens in a small cabin and begins with an “oxygen” amount of 100. Only one way leads out of this cabin, but it is blocked by a metal door with a computer terminal beside it. The player now has the following options: they can try to open the door by brute force which will definitely be successful; or they try to activate the door mechanism by using the terminal which may or may not be successful. While option one will use up a lot of oxygen (variable “oxygen” minus 20), option two is physically less demanding (variable “oxygen” minus 10).
The catch is that the player does not know whether the option using the terminal will be successful. If they fail to hack the terminal and has to prize open the door anyway, they have not lost 20 but 30 percent of their oxygen supply. But if they succeed, they would have chosen the best possible path. Thus, the “oxygen” resource has turned a rather inconsequential Player Choice into a meaningful event. In this way, you can generate decisions full of suspense from almost every situation where the player has to carefully weigh up the risk versus the chance of success.
This game mechanic also works the other way around. Discoveries like charge stations, oxygen tanks, or oxygen masks that allow the player to fully or partly regenerate their oxygen supply can make for interesting rewards. And they can also be a motivation to enter a dangerous hanger or risk a difficult climb.
Resources can also be used at isolated points in the story, for example for a chase scene where the growing or shrinking distance between hunter and hunted is recorded with the variable “lead”. Similar to the oxygen example, the player’s actions take different amounts of time, increasing or decreasing the lead. Or the player could occasionally find gold throughout the story that they can use at certain points in the game to buy a weapon or obtain information. As you can see, resources offer many possibilities to continuously and effectively use one specific variable throughout the whole story.
Sometimes, things will happen in the game world that are not directly influenced by your player or their attributes, items, and resources. If the player reaches a certain point in your adventure, you might want to randomly have one of two possible events take place; or the player character participates in a luck-based game to hopefully refill their money pouch.
In a traditional gamebook, the player would use dice to resolve these things. While most people only have the customary, six-sided dice at home, tools like TWIST allow you to randomly generate all kinds of number ranges, whether you want to represent two possible events, each with a 50 % chance of occurring, or many different events, each with a different chance of occurring.
Let us return once more to the example with the oxygen supply and the terminal. Instead of checking the attributes of the player character to determine whether they can hack the terminal, you could leave the player’s success to chance.
But you do not want the probability to be 50:50. Instead you want the player to have only a 35 % chance of being successful because the display of the terminal shows an error that is very hard to bypass. For this situation, you would generate a random number in the range from 1 to 100. If the resultant number lies in the range of 1 to 35, you direct the player to the box where they are successful. If the resultant number lies in the range of 36 to 100, you direct the player to the box where they fail.
As you can see, random numbers give you many possibilities to deliberately influence the game and increase its replay value.
You could, for example, surprise your player if they decides to play your story a second time. Thinking of a specific event at the end of the story, the player might choose to navigate through the character generation in such a way to best be prepared for this event. How big will their surprise be then if, during the showdown, the story follows a completely different course than what they expected and the mafia boss, instead of waiting for them with a shark tank trap, is now being aided by four heavily armed gang members.
Or you wish to write a crime story with different solutions. One time, the butler is the culprit, another time it is the gardener. To achieve this, you generate a variable named “culprit” at the beginning of the story with the value “1” for butler or “2” for gardener. Now, every time when the player receives any clues about the murder or the murderer, you check the variable “culprit” and then give those clues to the player that are relevant to the corresponding version of the story.
If you are using random elements, you should be aware that the player is relegated to the sidelines at that moment and cannot influence what is happening in the story. Therefore, you should consider carefully when the use of random numbers actually makes sense and in all other cases leave the player in control of things.
Four Types of Variable-Influenced Player Choices
Choices that lead to the changing of variables can be used in four different ways:
Defining the Player Character
The character values of the player character are determined by choices. These decisions are especially important in the beginning and the first third of the story to let the player define the traits of their character and outline it.
In an interactive thriller, for example, you could ask at the very beginning how the player wishes to solve a specific conflict: through diplomacy, violence, or cunning. Depending on their decision, the corresponding variable “diplomacy”, “violence”, or “cunning” is then increased by a certain amount. After several of such Player Choices the player character is taking shape and you can start to design the following choices and their consequences dependent on the value of those variables.
Defining the Game World
The player’s decisions not only influence their player character but also the events in the game world. These decisions are especially helpful to determine the fate and future of secondary characters.
For example, if a player has decided to extort a witness to get testimony for a mafia process, at a later point there could be a story segment where the player is being told that the witness was found dead in his cell or that his wife has separated from him. This would not have happened if the player had forgone getting this testimony or had chosen a more diplomatic approach.
For you, including such short events in your story does not require much more effort. But for the player, the game world suddenly becomes much more alive and dynamic. Their decisions not only have consequences for their own character and the development of the plot, but will also influence many other aspects of your story, making it immediately more complex and broader with the player’s decisions having much greater impact.
Defining the Course of the Story
Player choices that influence the course of the story should only be employed very late on and very carefully. Consider beforehand what consequences the possible story paths will have for the complexity of your story and for your additional workload. The downside of many great ideas is that, instead of just one story, you suddenly have to write two stories. With some experience and planning you can often tailor this idea to limit the additional work, for example, by merging the different story paths again at a subsequent point, or by having the consequences of a decision only play out at the end of your story.
Do not hesitate to point out to the player when a Player Choice will lead to a far-reaching decision. In the computer game “Elex”, for example, a warning in large print is displayed that the player is now making an important decision for the further course of the game. This, of course, creates uncertainty and tension within the player.
Defining the Player’s Success
How many different endings can a crime story actually have? Strictly spoken, just two: a good one and a bad one. In reality, however, it can have as many as you want because every ending allows for different nuances and partial successes. These varied endings can be achieved through the use of variables if your story has only one main plot thread.
Imagine the player taking the role of a private eye investigating a murder case. In their hunt for the murderer they meet different people in different locations, questions witnesses, and collects evidence. At the end of the story, they manage to narrow down the number of suspects to just one person whom they can now bring charges against. How the trial ends and what happens to the murderer now depends on the player’s earlier decisions:
If the player managed to win over all witnesses and find all evidence, the murderer is being convicted. If the evidence is not solid, the murderer is acquitted or only receives a minor sentence. If the player violated some laws during their investigation, the murderer might get arrested, but now the player character faces some charges as well, for example for trespassing, burglary, or battery. Further possibilities are that the player survives the adventure unharmed or gets seriously injured, suffering permanent damage that will prevent them from ever working again as a private eye. Or, although the murderer has been acquitted, the player is offered the opportunity to take the law into their own hands, exposing the culprit at least in the eyes of the public.
A very exciting idea is to present the player with a dilemma between two narrative goals. To do this, you only have to think like your player, understanding that they basically wish to accomplish two things: convict the murderer, and be the hero of the story. It will make for a fascinating dilemma if you deny them that second goal in order to achieve the first one. Now the player has to ask themselves the question: how much of my personal goals am I willing to sacrifice to achieve that higher goal?
In practical terms this could mean that the player character will not be able to convict the murderer by their efforts alone. They are dependent on the help of a local crime boss, making a pact with them. Or they require the support of a superior or partner who demands all the glory for solving the case for themselves.
Make sure that, in these dilemma choices, the player realizes that decisions which push them towards one goal might push them farther away from completing others. The best place to use these catch-22 situations is at the heart or end of a story. Not only does this limit additional work; it exposes opportunities to throw your players through twists and turns.
Five Tips for Using Variables
Do not Use Variables for Attributes and Abilities at every Player Choice
If, for example, all the player is being asked is whether they wish to use diplomacy or violence, Player Choices will quickly become monotonous and boring since the players will already have developed their character in one direction or the other anyway. On top of this, you will be taking all agency away from the player. So vary your Player Choices and rephrase them in such a way that the player at least has to speculate which of their abilities will be called upon for it. Only then will the power of the player’s decision feel like a personal success.
Use Personality Traits Early On
At the beginning of the story ask your player questions like you would in a personality quiz, record their answers assigning variables like “honesty” or “friendliness”, and let these influence the later events of the game.
Confront the Player With a Moral Dilemma
Sporadically, present the player with moral Player Choices. The different options offered through these questions should be equally valid or each offer different advantages and disadvantages. Record these decisions assigning variables like “justice” or “loyalty” and confront the player later on in the story with their earlier decisions.
Use Variables to Create a Dynamic Game World
Let the decisions of your player influence the game world and show their these changes. This can be done through the fate of secondary characters or how they react to the player character. For example, if the player achieved their previous goals through severe brutality, tell them that, as they enter the tavern, everyone falls silent. The inn keeper refuses to serve them or an old woman cries out that they are a killer and criminal. If the player wasted too much time because they insisted on also cracking the safe and investigating the basement, then tell them, as they return to the headquarters, that the main suspect has already been released from custody and has now disappeared without a trace.
Provide the Player with Expandable Resources
Every decision that is immediately rewarded with pieces of gold is, to the player, worth its actual weight in gold. The collecting of jingling coins and other objects of value does not only makes them feel like they are making progress in your story, but also lends a concrete metric to this progress. If the player also has the chance to transform these resources into some game advantage, for example by buying a better weapon, you have already succeeded in meeting the requirements for creating a great gaming experience.
Summary – Usage of variables
- To record relationships based on the behavior of the player character towards one or several other characters. Depending on the state of the relationship, the other character (or one of their friends/enemies) will react differently to the hero at different points in the story. Examples: sympathy, love, reputation, loyalty.
- To record the attributes of the character. These attributes can be determined through character generation in the beginning or through the actions of the player character, and they can change throughout the course of the story. Attributes can be used to determine the success of certain player actions, like the breaking of a door. Examples: strength, beauty, intuition, charisma.
- To record abilities gained, either during the character generation or during the game. Later you can check whether the player character has a specific ability to then offer the player additional choices for the use of that ability. Examples: sneaking, haggling, fire spell, healing.
- To record any items gained or lost, either during the character generation or during the game. Later you can check whether the player character has a specific item to then offer the player additional choices for the use of that item. Examples: rope, key, gun, admission ticket.
- To record specific player actions that become relevant later in the story. If the player has performed a certain action earlier, you can then offer them additional choices or lead them down a different path. Examples might include a lever pulled, evidence photo seen, or a meeting arranged.
- To keep track of specific resources that can grow and shrink through certain player actions and will influence the course of the game. Examples: gold, water supply, lead, life points.
- To generate random numbers. These can be used to have random events happen or to determine the success of certain player actions. Examples: weather, traffic density, dice throw, hit chance.
- The deliberate use of variables can help you to define the nature of the player character, changes in the game world, variations in the plot, and the success of the player character.