How to Write Interactive Fiction and Interactive Audio Stories
Table of Contents
In June 2018, we released our first interactive audio story, The Magic Forest: New Friends, for voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Despite its shortcomings, such as limited choices and flawed logic, it became popular among kids and showed the potential of interactive storytelling.
We put more effort into our next project, Iron Falcon, which boasted 60-70 minutes of gameplay and two hours of audio content. Innovative features like Alexa humorously misleading players earned us first place in the 2018 Amazon Alexa Games Skill Challenge.
Our success encouraged us to continue improving and exploring the possibilities of interactive audiobooks.
After introducing our interactive storytelling tool, TWIST, to over 100 writers, we sought to improve our skills by researching writing guides for interactive stories. However, we found limited resources and decided to create our own beginner’s guide.
Our comprehensive guide, developed over three years, covers structure, storytelling, and marketing for interactive audiobooks. While not all-encompassing, it serves as a solid foundation for authors entering the world of interactive storytelling.
Using the guide, implement tips and techniques to enhance your writing, such as avoiding fake choices and focusing on immersive experiences. Treat each story segment as unique and aim to evoke emotions, creating truly engaging interactive stories.
Our guide is divided into three parts. Part one focuses on structure, emphasizing player choices and effective question phrasing. Part two covers storytelling aspects such as characters, plotlines, and worldbuilding. Part three discusses marketing and monetizing your stories.
Use this guide for inspiration, and begin by implementing a few techniques, like avoiding fake choices. With practice, you’ll be ready to create engaging and immersive interactive stories.
Interactive audio stories offer new possibilities in terms of storytelling and interactivity compared to traditional gamebooks.
With the help of tools like TWIST, every author can easily create and publish interactive stories without any prior technical knowledge.
Very few manuals currently exist for writing interactive stories. The intention of our guide is to change this.
The growing technologization of our world promises a great future for interactive storytelling.
Interactive stories require a different approach in their creation than linear stories.
This guide details the process of writing interactive stories so that you will be able to write great interactive stories yourself.
Immersion: the player delving completely into the story and the game world to the exclusion of the world around them.
Player: a user who determines the course of an interactive story on their Voice assistant device via Voice commands.
Skill: application that makes use of Voice technology.
Voice: technology that a user can control with their own speech to access mainly auditive online content and applications, also called skills (e.g. audiobooks, games, information).
What Are Interactive Audio Stories?
Voice is the descriptive term for the technology and concept behind Voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, which we use to tell our stories, RPG games and more!
Users are able to interact with them by speaking to them and, in this way, use the apps (“Alexa Skills”, “Google Actions”) available on both platforms.
Audible content is presented to the user through a speaker, sometimes with visual support (displays, smart TVs etc.).
Interactive audio stories have no linear story or passive listener. Instead, text segments are being read to an active player, ending with a Player Choice.
By voicing predefined commands – Player Utterances – the player then decides how the story should continue.
Making it an absolute interactive and immersive experience on every story you hear!
Example 1: Text Segment With Player Choice
[Narrator] “The magic sword in your hand starts to glow as the dragon lifts its head. Do you wish to attack the dragon, negotiate with him, or try to flee?”
[Player] “I attack the dragon!”
[Narrator] “With a battle cry you raise your weapon and charge the dragon…”
[Player] “I want to negotiate with the dragon!”
[Narrator] “You sheathe your weapon and lift your hands in a calming way to show that your intentions are peaceful…”
[Player] “I flee!”
[Narrator] “You turn on your heels and start running. The dragon spews a cloud of flame after you, almost incinerating you…”
Player Choice: question at the end of a story segment where the player is being offered several options of how the story should continue or how the player character should react. (See also closed and open Player Choices.)
Player Interaction: the moment a player interacts with the story by making a choice.
Why Interactive Audio Stories are an Exciting Format
In interactive stories, passive consumers are transform into active players. They become the heroes of their own stories.
Regularly engaging players with consequential decisions locks in their focus and establishes an inherent level of suspense and anticipation upon which to build.
This can become a valuable tool in building strong emotional connections to your world, plot, and characters. Teasing your players with what could have been contributes to the replay value of each story, enticing them to go back and explore alternative outcomes.
Presented in the form of traditional gamebooks, interactive stories have been a niche market for a very long time.
But what only reaches a small readership in printed form thrills millions in other media formats. Video games like Mass Effect, story apps like Episodes, and shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch tell their stories in an interactive way.
Players, users, and viewers make decisions about the course of events and experience their own story in the role of the player character. The success of franchises such as these has seen an increased demand for personalized, immersive gaming experiences where you get to choose your very own adventures.
Through spoken Voice commands, virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa, Samsung and Bixby now offer a new medium which is perfectly suited for interactive storytelling.
Positioning Yourself as an Author and Reaching New Audiences
Since Voice is still a young market, it gives you the opportunity to position yourself as one of its first interactive authors early on to make yourself more widely known and to reach a new audience.
If you have already created and established your own worlds with your novels and tales, you can now expand upon them and strengthen your brand by writing interactive stories in these worlds.
Using Interactive Audiobooks as Marketing Tools
Active engagement with players of interactive stories can be used in different ways. Players will form a close bond with your story, world, and characters through their decisions. Writers can integrate surveys into their stories and gain valuable feedback about player behavior by using a statistics feature.
You can also use Voice to promote books, eBooks, audiobooks, or websites or sell them directly via upselling. Players can order books directly and conveniently from within the story using Voice commands.
Interactive Audiobooks as Standalone Products
Interactive audiobooks can be monetized using in-skill purchases (ISPs). Similar to how the Google Play Store enables monetization for smartphone apps, Voice enables freemium, premium, and subscription-based revenue models. Amazon awards payouts for frequently and heavily-used Alexa Skills.
Summary – Description and use of interactive audiobooks
- Interactive audiobooks are non-linear stories in which Voice commands determine the plot progression, turning passive listeners into active players.
- These and similar apps for Voice platforms are called “skills”.
- The market for interactive audiobooks is young and brimming with potential for writers who are able to establish themselves early on.
- Interactive stories can be used as a marketing tool to promote other books, eBooks, websites, and products. They can be monetized by selling products directly within the skill (in-skill purchases).
In-Skill Purchases (ISP): purchases that the user can make directly from within the Alexa Skill or Google Action, for example to unlock additional content or features.
Freemium: a Skill or application that is free-to-play (but can have additional, paid content).
Premium: paid Skill or application.
Subscription: A monthly fee to unlock certain content which can be canceled at any time.
Creating and Playing Interactive Audio Stories
Interactive Audio Stories are immersive narrative experiences driven by virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
TWIST is a simple and convenient tool for crafting immersive experiences without investing the time and effort on programming applications yourself. You can easily build tree diagrams, writing your text straight from your browser. You can then publish your story at the touch of a button on Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Samsung Bixby. It’s that simple.
The Dialogue Between Audio Story and Player
To play your interactive story, the player starts by addressing the Voice assistant. For our story “Iron Falcon” the command on Amazon Alexa would be: “Alexa, open ‘Iron Falcon’.”
The audiobook starts with the Voice assistant reading the first text segment or playing the corresponding audio file. After offering the Player Choices, the Voice assistant falls silent. Now the player has 8 seconds to continue the story with a Voice command (Player Utterance).
The Successful Dialogue
If the command the player speaks is one of the stated choice and is connected to a subsequent text box, the next segment of the story and the next Player Choices will be read.
The Failed Dialogue
If the player does not answer at all, or if they speak an unknown command, the Voice assistant will tell the player that it did not understand and does not know how to continue.
After that, the player has another opportunity to continue the story with a valid Voice command. If the dialogue fails again, depending on the platform, the Voice assistant will read the available Player Utterances stated by the author to the player..
Thus, the player does not have to remember all of the Player Choices to know what options are possible, because they will be explicitly told. If, after that, it still doesn’t work, well, sometimes the fault is simply on the player’s side…
Do not worry too much about this rather technical chapter. It is enough to imagine your interactive story as a dialogue between the player and the Voice assistant, with the limitation that the Voice assistant can only tell the player what you have specified previously as story texts, the Player Choices and the Player Utterances. What you have to watch out for with these three elements when telling your story will be explained in the next chapter.
Summary – Building an interactive story
- An interactive story begins with a text box in which you present a Player Choice.
- By stating Player Utterances you decide which valid options the player has for these choices. The keywords from these utterances should be included in the Player Choices to let the player know which terms they can use to trigger these options. Synonyms help you to handle deviations in the player’s answer.
- For each Player Choice you state you have to create a subsequent text box with the next Player Choice at the end. This way, an interactive story emerges step by step.
- If the player does not voice one of the stated utterances or synonyms when answering a Player Choice, or if their words cannot be understood by the speech recognition, the Voice assistant will, after two failed attempts, read out the utterances you set.
- TWIST is a simple and convenient tool that allows you to create interactive audio stories for Voice and publish them on Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Samsung Bixby.
Fallback Intent: the Voice assistant reads the stated Player Utterances or plays back the corresponding audio files after the player repeatedly failed to say one of the stated words or synonyms.
Reprompt: the Voice assistant prompts the player to make a decision or tells them that it could not understand them if the player does not answer within a certain amount of time or did not answer with one of the stated Player Utterances.
The Craft of Telling Interactive Stories
The main distinction between interactive content and linear texts are the different paths the story can follow, with different events happening on those paths. An interactive story consists of either parallelly or sequentially ordered story segments. Based on their decisions, the players therefore construct their very own story.
To an author of interactive stories this presents one problem: even if every story segment of an interactive story only provides two options that a user can choose from, leading to two different new story paths, you would have to write 128 text segments for just seven choices, and 256 segments for eight choices. With twenty choices you would even have to write more than a million text segments. Obviously, this would be impossible.
The simple trick is not to keep forking your tree diagram to infinity, but to merge different story paths back into one main thread, or to bring certain story paths to a premature end.
How you achieve this without limiting your story too much and without frustrating or boring your players will be explained in the following subsections.
Story Segment: the events between two Player Utterances. Story segments can be subdivided into smaller text segments for technical, narrative, or gameplay reasons.
The Four Types of Player Choices
The most important element of an interactive audiobook are the choices available to the player. They allow them to actively influence the plot and to become part of it. The story alone will not create immersion, player identification, and player emotions; this will be achieved, first and foremost, by the choices made available to the player.
However, these choices and their consequences lead to the biggest problem of writing interactive stories: the ever-expanding tree diagram. Your Player Choices should allow players to make real decisions. This heightens the tension and forges a stronger connection with the plot. Players have to feel that their choices are meaningful and have consequences, otherwise your story will lose its appeal. At the same time, you cannot open a completely new story path every time the player makes a choice.
When writing interactive stories, it is very helpful to already have a good idea of the larger story paths you wish to offer to the player and what ending you wish to work toward (this will be covered in greater detail in Chapter 9: Plotting).
For now, we will just look at the four types of choices interactive stories can have, and we will show you how you can use them to control the escalating growth of your tree diagram while at the same time increasing the quality of your story.
Identification: specifically the identification of the player with the Player Character and their choices to create high immersion.
Fake Choices: Avoid them
Fake choices are choices that are in fact not really choices. No matter which decision the player makes, the story will continue with the same event. This is especially frustrating if the player is being offered options that are explicitly denied to them afterwards.
Example 2: Fake Choice - The Door
[Narrator] “You reach the second floor. Do you wish to take the left or the right door?”
The player chose to open the left door. However, they are told this door is locked and that they have to use the right door instead. From the player’s viewpoint this means that they consciously decided against one event (using the right door), but that this event occurred anyway. At the same time, their actual wish (taking the left door) was ignored. This makes for a bad gaming experience and only leads to player disappointment and frustration.
Example 3: Fake Choice - The Autograph
[Narrator] “Your favorite star is getting swarmed by a horde of screaming girls. Do wish to get an autograph too?”
In one of our very early stories the player is asked whether they wish to get an autograph from their favorite star. Since the autograph will be important later on in the plot, the player has to be “forced” to get it.
We solved this problem in a clumsy way, using a fake choice and the question whether the player wants to have the autograph. If they say yes, they receive it directly; if they say no, their best friend persuades them to get it regardless. For the player, this means that they decided against doing a certain thing but then does it anyway. Not great!
If you look at interactive stories in all their manifestations, you begin to notice that they are full of fake choices. Many writers do not wish to start new, sprawling story paths, or they get the feeling that some text segments are too long.
Depending on the platform, there are also limitations on the time laps in interactive stories between two user interactions (more on this in Chapter 5: Technical and Textual Requirements).
All of this leads to writers weaving Player Choices into the text where the story does not really offer a choice, thus forcing the author-intended decision upon the player in any case.
Usually, the player will only learn if their decision was a real or fake one if they play the story again. But many questions are already surrounded by the aura of a fake question. Therefore, avoid the use of such questions from the beginning.
Your goal should be to have as few fake choices as possible. Only this will ensure a high replayability where the decisions the player makes have real meaning for the course of the story.
One fake choice might be excusable. But several can frustrate your players and lead them to abandon your story. So avoid offering an action to the player in the first place that you do not want them to take anyway. The next point will show you how you can solve this issue in a much better way.
Flavor Choices: The Better Fake Choice
A flavor choice is not a decision on WHAT action the player wishes to take but on HOW or WHY the player wishes to perform that action. The player is not being asked, “What should happen?” but, “How are you going to do it?”
Flavor choices have one big advantage over fake choices. They offer additional emotional value to the player and give them the opportunity to add distinct attributes and personality traits to their player character.
Use flavor choices instead of fake choices to contain your tree diagram. They do not require much effort from the author while at the same time improving the gaming experience considerably.
Example 4: Flavor Choice - The Door
[Narrator] “You are standing in front of a door. Do you to wish to storm through or open it noiselessly?”
Just as with a fake choice, both actions lead back to the same path without the tree diagram branching any further. However, the flavor choice is much more engaging for the player. Firstly, they have to weigh the option to “storm through” against the option to “open noiselessly”, deciding which action will have a better chance of success. They also have to choose what kind of character they want to be in the story. Do they want to play the role of a fearless daredevil or rather that of a cunning hero, striking from the shadows? By using flavor choices, you can therefore create meaningful identification opportunities for the player.
Lets take a look at how the other fake choice (Example 3) can also be reworked into an emotional and meaningful question:
Example 5: Flavor Choice - The Autograph
[Narrator] “You desperately need to get an autograph from your favorite star. How will you ask for it? Boldly or timidly?”
Despite the rearrangement of the Player Choice, the author ensures that the player will receive the required autograph. In contrast to the fake choice, the question has now emotional and meaningful value.
With their answer, the player decides on a personality trait for their character. Furthermore the question creates suspense. It could very well be that one of the options offers a greater chance of success or entails other consequences for the plot. At least at the moment of decision, this question offers twofold tension for the player.
Use flavor choices instead of fake choices to control the growth of your tree diagram. In this way you prevent the player from becoming frustrated and also offer them greater opportunity to identify with the player character and shape them to their liking. This creates immersion and a strong connection with the player character.
Progress Choices: Player Progress
Progress choices refer to the player’s progress in exploring the world and developing their player character. Similar to flavor choices they do not have a huge impact on the story or the branching of the tree diagram.
Progress choices can make the player character stronger or better equip them to face the upcoming challenges in the story. Through them, the player can gain background information about the game world, the events of the story, and other characters, or they can experience the satisfaction of having made a morally correct decision.
Progress choices can also lead to particularly emotional experiences by confronting the player with unforeseen events, touching them deeply, or making them laugh.
All of these have one thing in common: they make the player’s decisions meaningful and enhance your story without further fanning out the tree diagram.
Example 6: Progress Choice - The Door
[Narrator] “You reach the second floor. Do you wish to open the left door or the right door?”
As you can see, the fake choice from example 2 can also be turned into a progress choice. The knowledge about the gods is not relevant to the plot, but it contributes to the immersion and the deeper understanding of the world and its characters. This could just as easily have been scenery provoking terror hiding behind the left door; maybe a torture chamber (thriller), a secret lab (sci-fi), or a creepy museum of dolls (horror). Then the progress would lie in encountering this oppressive atmosphere and the immersion tied to it.
Example 7: Progress Choice - The Dagger
[Narrator] “Despite your haste, the footsteps of your pursuers seem to get ever closer. You notice something glinting in the bushes beside the path. Do you wish to investigate or do you keep running”
The Player Choice confronts the player with a dilemma. The pursuers are already closing in and any delay could have severe consequences, even lead to the death of the player character. On the other hand, the player naturally wants to know what is glinting in those bushes.
The dagger they find could give the player an advantage in their next fight or enable their later in the story to cut themselves free. This acquiring of information or items, as in Examples 6 or 7, leads to the practical problem of how the game can remember these things in case you wish to make use of them later in the story.
To track anything relevant to the plot, you can use so-called variables. An in-depth explanation of game variables can be found in Chapter 8: Variables.
Progress choices can lead to just a single story segment or short story arcs before joining the main path again. They serve to merge story paths without compromising the quality of the story.
They can also be used to convey information to the player that puts past or future events in the story into a new light or that permanently influences upcoming decisions the player makes based on the information and items acquired.
Use progress choices to create suspense, immersion, and atmosphere, to reward the player for their curiosity, and to send them on their hero’s journey.
Story Choices: Branching Out the Plot
The tree diagram of an interactive story consists of several main story paths. Through story choices, the player can select their way along these bigger paths and decide how an interactive story progresses. They determine what happens in the game world and which part of the story they are going to experience.
Complex storylines are a great incentive for players to play the story again, exploring it from a different angle or with a different approach. At the same time, they mean more work for you since the tree diagram will have to consist of several main story paths.
Example 8: Story Choice - To the Sea or to the Mountains?
[Narrator] “Your previous dates went extremely well. Now it is time for your first trip as a couple. Where do you wish to spend a romantic and exciting weekend with your new darling? At the sea or in the mountains?”
The question of the locale for the further plot leads to two different story paths, each with different events, different places, and different characters. The weekend at the sea could involve a sailing trip where the boat gets caught in a storm. In the mountains there could be an avalanche. Or a rich businessman could invite the couple to an island or to a secluded chalet.
Example 9: Story Choice - Normans or Saxons?
[Narrator] “England in the year 1193. You decide to seek your fortune by becoming an adventurer and mercenary. Do you wish to join forces with the ruling Normans or the rebelling Saxons?”
This Player Choice, too, makes it obvious that the story will follow very different paths depending on the player’s decision. As a Norman knight, they will fight with a full suit of armor on horseback and become part of the English upper class, advancing the conquest of the British Isles and probably hated by the common people. As a Saxon warrior, they could join Robin Hood and his band of robbers, participate in raids, and experience the suppression of the common folk first-hand.
Both paths can certainly have shared plot elements, like a battle the player can experience from the other side as well if they play again, with different objectives and different events.
To have the player choose between two factions with differing or opposed disposition, goals, and prerequisites is a classic approach to motivate the player to play the story a second time. But it also means more work for you as the author.
Story choices mean the writing of the story will require more effort the earlier you use them. Consider carefully whether and when to use them. In a longer interactive story, for example, it can be very interesting to position a story choice right before the final events.
In this way, you can contain the scope of the new main story paths while still creating a great incentive for the player to try out the other options.
Phrasing the Player Choices
For interactive audio stories, especially for Voice, the phrasing of the actual Player Choices is very important. Words heard are more fleeting than words read. Questions have to be phrased in such a way so that the player understands:
- That the question is directed at them,
- What their options are,
- What the consequences of their choices are likely to be, and
- What utterances (Voice commands) they can use to continue the story.
These requirements vary depending on the target audience. For children and newcomers, narrow and simple questions are better. In contrast, adults and experienced players appreciate wide-ranging and complex questions.
Limit the Player Choices
Only use two or three options per question. Too many possibilities that are also hard to remember overwhelm the player of your interactive story. They will not be able to remember all the options or will not have sufficient time to think their decision through.
When it comes to Player Choices, less is often more. Suspense and curiosity are not achieved by the number of options but by their content and impact.
Separate Player Choices from Other Types of Questions
Example 10: Phrasing Player Choices - Obscure Formulation
[Narrator] “Your journey takes you into the castle. What do you wish to do now? Do you visit the king? Or rather the queen? Both have their advantage. Or do you prefer to just leave? What is your decision?”
In this example, hearing several questions before the actual Player Choice confuses the player. They will struggle to comprehend what the actual choice is and what exactly their options are. This issue can easily be resolved by rewriting the text passage as follows:
Example 11: Phrasing Player Choices - Separate the Question
[Narrator] “You can visit the king to ask him for a favor. Or you can meet the queen to win their affection. Do you visit the king or the queen?”
The consequences of the available actions are presented to the player beforehand. The valid utterances can be easily deduced from the subsequent Player Choice “Do you visit the king or the queen?”.
Announcing Player Choices with Fixed Phrases
Your story will not only comprise choices directed at the player, but also rhetorical questions and questions asked between characters. This can be misleading for the player. To avoid this, you might want to use a recurring phrase to announce a Player Choice. By always beginning the sentence of a Player Choice with, “Do you wish to…” or, “Do you choose to…” you can create a clear signal for the player that a player directed question has started.
Open versus Closed Player Choices
For a particularly successful gaming experience you should use as few yes-no questions as possible. Instead, ask varied closed questions or even open questions.
An open question does not contain the actual utterances anymore. They will only be hinted at in the text. The player has to determine themselves which options are obvious and permissible.
Open questions create the impression of great freedom. But they also hold the risk that the player will fail with their reply if the author did not anticipate their answer and state it as a possible Player Utterance.
Most Voice assistants counter this problem by reading the available utterances to the player after two failed attempts. Even though invalid answers do not lead to a termination of the story on Voice, the player will fall out of the story and the flow of the game. Therefore only experienced authors should employ open questions, and only use them occasionally.
Example 12: Phrasing Player Choices - Open Question
[Narrator] “Faint light enters the room through the shutters. Next to the desk stands a dusty shelf full of books. The painting of a young woman hangs on the opposite wall. What do you wish to examine?”
[Narrator] “The picture shows a young woman. She appears to be the daughter of the earl. […] Do you wish to continue examining the room or do you want to leave?”
🗣️ [Player] “I want to look around further!”
[Narrator] “Next to the desk stands a dusty shelf full of books. The painting of a young woman hangs on the opposite wall. What do you wish to investigate?”
🗣️ [Player] “I want to have a look at the shutters!”
[Narrator] “The shutters can easily be opened. Do you wish to climb through the window into the garden?”
🗣️ [Player] “The bookshelf!”
[Narrator] “The books are written in a language you cannot read. You are not sure, but it could be Russian […] Do you wish to continue examining the room or do you want to leave?”
🗣️ [Player] “I want to leave the room.”
[Narrator] “You return to the corridor and climb the stairs…”
The open question in this example gives the player the opportunity to mentally move through the room instead of just clinging to keywords. However, as the author you will have to set all obvious and interesting objects as possible actions, namely “desk”, “shelf”, “books”, and “painting”. And to make it even better, also the less obvious ones like “wall”, “shutters”, and “window”.
Use open questions with caution. If the dialogue with the player succeeds, they can offer a fantastic gaming experience. But they can also dampen it if the player voices commands for which no utterances have been set. In this case, the Voice assistant will tell the player that it did not understand them and will read them the available options. But immersion has been disrupted and the player has fallen out of the story.
How to safeguard open questions with so-called “default ways” in TWIST will be explained in Chapter 4.3: Phrasing the Player Utterances.
Consider carefully how you use Open Player Choices and how to write the corresponding text passage. You can, for instance, create situations that would allow for only a limited number of logical answers. This could be the question “How are you?” to which the majority of players will answer with “great”, “okay”, or “terrible”. To ensure the success of this dialogue you should also use synonyms for the corresponding options, like “good”, “fine”, “bad”, and so on.
The question “What do you wish to examine?” makes the player choose between the objects and items mentioned beforehand. A player will always find themselves within the specific context of a story from which they can make their choice, and thanks to existing language conventions you can assume that they will not answer the question “How are you?” with the word “telephone”.
Therefore, make sure that your player knows the context of their possibilities and that they have a rough idea of what the obvious and valid actions in the given situation could be.
Use the Same Part of Speech
Player Choices and their elements should differ in their content, not in the way they are phrased. Always use the same part of speech for your key terms, for example three adjectives, three nouns, three verbs, or three phrases of equal structure. This makes it easier for the player to remember the possible Player Utterances.
Example 13: Phrasing Player Choices - Same Part of Speech
[Narrator] “The eye witness hesitates with his answer. It’s obvious that he does not like to talk to cops and snoopers. However, his knowledge could be very important to you.”
Player Choice – Alternative 1 (Verbs)
Player Choice – Alternative 2 (Adverbs)
The three stated options “threaten”, “flatter”, and “lie” are not only easily remembered, they also imply the chances and risks of the three different approaches.
Example 14: Phrasing Player Choices - Phrases of Equal Structure
[Narrator] “The woman eyes you suspiciously for a moment, then she returns to reading her book. Do you wish to ignore her deliberately to catch her attention, or do you wish to approach her directly to impress her?”
The more specificity with which you formulate the Player Choice, the fewer options you should offer. Also make sure that you add these details (“catch”, “deliberately”, “attention” for ignore; “approach”, “directly”, “impress” for impress) as synonyms to the Player Utterances to make it easier for the player to remember and respond correctly.
Encourage the Player to Use Natural Language
Interactive stories are told as a dialogue between player and author. You should not only design your side of this dialogue as best as you can, but also the player’s side. Encourage them to make decisions using natural language.
It contributes greatly to the immersion and emotional effect of your story when the player voices their commands in whole sentences instead of single words.
Example 15: Phrasing Player Choices - Cause Natural Language
[Narrator] “Upon seeing you, the dragon flaps its wings heavily and lifts its head. Do charge at him with a battle cry, or do you dive for cover behind a rock?”
The elements of the Player Choice are formulated as epic and vividly as the scene demands. The way the question is phrased almost eliminates the possibility of players answering with single words like “charge”, “dive”, or “cover”. Instead, it encourages the player to loudly proclaim, “I charge at him screaming,” or, “I draw my sword and attack.” Speech recognition of complete sentences also works if only single words like “screaming”, “sword”, or “attack” have been set as Player Utterances and synonyms.
This ensures that the player strongly identifies with the story and really becomes part of its world. You can therefore use natural language to also increase the emotional bond between the player and the game world and the characters on a verbal level.
Use Multifaceted Player Choices
Player Choices should give players the feeling that they are making their own decisions and that they are being offered many possibilities to play and experience your story. If you put too many yes-no questions into your story, players get the impression that it leaves no room for them and that it is very linear. Avoid this by changing these questions into either-or questions.
So don’t ask, “Do you bow before the king?” but rather, “Do you bow before the king, or do you remain upright?” By reformulating the question in this way, you are not changing the course of the story or the amount of content you have to write, but it noticeably improves the gaming experience. Now the player can choose between two true alternatives. Before, the player had only one option which they could merely accept or refuse.
Offer Important Player Choices
Player Choices are especially good if they confront the player with a dilemma. They have to be able to recognize, understand, and weigh up the chances vs. the risks for their character. This creates suspense and draws the player into the story. It also places responsibility on them and really makes them actively engage with the story.
For example, the question, “Do you wish to save the helpless neighbor’s child from drowning?” does not actually require a real decision from the player. No one would just let a child drown. One could even argue that this is a fake choice. Although the story offers the possibility to just stand by and let the child die, the player (or player character) would, for emotional and moral reasons, be highly unlikely to pick that option.
Example 16: Phrasing Player Choices - The Drowning Child
[Narrator] “The neighbor’s child is in danger of drowning. Do you throw yourself into the perilous waters to save her or do you try to rescue her from the riverbank?”
[Narrator] “The cold torrents swirl around your head as you jump into the water. When you reach the child, she desperately clings to your body and thus drags you down as well. Do you try to free yourself from her clutches or do you continue your attempt to save her?”
[Narrator] “The situation is extremely dangerous. No one will gain from both of you drowning. Hastily you run along the river bank to search for a tree branch to extend toward the child. After you have found a suitable branch, you look up. The girl is nowhere to be seen…”
This juxtaposition of danger and safety makes the player realize that his decision will have serious consequences, either for their player character or for the drowning child. Even if both choices lead to the child and to the player character surviving, this is not known to the player at the moment of their decision, making their choice meaningful.
Another way to make the original Player Choice more meaningful and morally clearer would be to offer several options for saving the child, each with different risks and chances of success, for example “jump into the water”, “call for help”, or “search the bank for a long branch”. This alternative will also make the player weigh up the consequences of his actions.
Example 17: Phrasing Player Choices - The Witness Interview
[Narrator] “You visit the ex-lover of the main suspect to question her. How will you introduce yourself? As a police officer, or as a distant relative of the suspect?”
[Narrator] “The woman eyes you skeptically and raises an eyebrow.”
[Woman] “A cop? If you don’t got a search warrant, I don’t have to talk to you. Just get lost!”
[Narrator] “The last you see of her is her giving you the finger, then the door is slammed shut.”
[Woman] “I didn’t know that Frank had a cousin from Wisconsin. Would you like some coffee?”
[Narrator] “With an inviting gesture she beckons you inside. As the door closes, she scrutinizes you from head to toe.”
[Woman] “No wonder Frank never mentioned you. You look way too sweet. Well, how can I help you?”
The Player Choice at the beginning of the dialogue makes the player face a dilemma. Should they be truthful and thus risk to get fewer or no answers from the witness? Or should they lie and risk being found out which could also lead to an abrupt end of the conversation?
Furthermore, the player does not really know the true extent of the relationship between witness and suspect. Would they try to protect him from the police and refuse to answer any questions? Or do they have a score to settle with him and thus would rather help the police than a relative of his?
This Player Choice gives you the opportunity to build suspense and present the player with two completely different conversations depending on their decision. These conversations can also have overlapping elements, thus reducing your workload and limiting the growth of the tree diagram.
Use Foreshadowing Player Choices
A Player Choice like, “You stand at a crossing. Do you want to go left or right?” does not create suspense. The player is missing hints of upcoming events that would allow them to get an idea or make an assessment of the possible consequences their decision might have.
Thus the player cannot really choose but rather has to make a random guess. It is much better to use specific and distinct questions like, “You stand at a crossing. Do you wish to follow the path through the forest or the path along the river?” or, “Do you take the steeper path or the easier one?”
Phrasing the Player Utterances
The Player Utterances are the Voice commands with which the player can continue the story. These can be single keywords like “left” or “right”, or phrases and sentences like, “I sneak down the stairs.”
You as the author have to set these Voice commands. On the one hand, they will have to be part of the Player Choice to let the player know how they can answer. On the other, you have to state them as Player Utterances so that the Voice assistant can determine, based on the player’s answer, which part of the story to read next.
If the player answers in complete sentences, it is sufficient if these sentences contain the utterances. If, for example, you have set “walk” as an utterance, the Voice assistant will be able to discern the intention of the player even if they reply with, “I walk,” or, “I walk into the forest.” Be aware though that the player might also use variations of the stated word, for example, “I’m walking into the forest.” To provide for this possibility you should also include “walking” as a synonym of that option, just to be on the safe side.
It becomes a major problem when different utterances have been stated using similar words or phrases. Voice assistants can have trouble deciding which option the player has replied “run” to if they have to pick between the utterances “run ahead” and “run away”.
Only state two or three different utterances per question that humans and machines can easily distinguish between. Use precise terms like “threaten” or “negotiate” instead of just “talk”. This helps the player to better determine the consequences of their decision.
You have to phrase the Player Utterances in such a way that
- The player knows exactly what the possible Voice commands are,
- They understand which choices their commands trigger,
- They can easily pronounce the utterances
- The Voice assistant can understand and match them correctly.
Avoid Player Utterances that sound too similar, like, “Whom do you wish to fight? The gorilla or the guerrilla?” Also avoid Player utterances that are too complex or too hard to pronounce, like “Yggdrasil” or “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.
Taboo Words for Player Utterances
Although some words are allowed to appear in the story texts read to the player, they cannot be used as Player Utterances since they are Voice commands for the Voice assistants themselves:
- “Alexa”, “Google”, “Bixby”
- “Start” or “Stop”
Take care to state numbers that are Player utterances as both word and numerical, for example “one” and “1”.
TWIST Feature: Synonyms
In TWIST you can easily add synonyms to your Player Utterances. This increases the chance of the dialogue between player and Voice assistant succeeding even if the player’s answer to the Player Choices deviates from the Player Utterances that have been stated.
Simply write the synonyms underneath the corresponding Player Utterance. For “attack” this could be “charge”, “fight”, and “storm”. For “flee” this could be “escape”, “scarper”, “bolt”, and “run away”.
TWIST Feature: Hidden Player Utterances
In TWIST, you have the opportunity to set hidden Player Utterances by using the box “Hidden Continuations”. The player can use these as Voice commands, but they will not be read to them by the Voice assistant if the dialogue between the two fails and the Voice assistant has to read the stated utterances to them.
Hidden Player Utterances are Voice commands that are not mentioned in the Player Choices. This allows you to insert riddles or Easter eggs into your story since these options will never be read to the player by the Voice assistant. For a riddle, it would be counterproductive if the player only had to give two wrong answers before they would be told the solution by the Voice assistant anyway. Thus, hidden Player Utterances give you the opportunity to reward particularly attentive and keen-to-explore players.
Example 18: Hidden Player Utterances - The Password
[Narrator] “You stand at the entrance to the thieves’ guild. You knock and a peephole is opened. ‘What’s the password, stranger?’ a gruff voice asks from the darkness. Do you wish to randomly guess the password, or do you wish to just leave?”
[Narrator] “You go through a whole host of words, but the only answer you receive is the sound of the peephole closing. You decide to continue your way through the city.”
[Narrator] “As you step away from the door, the peephole closes. You continue your way through the city.”
[Narrator] “You hear the sound of a bolt being drawn, followed by the door opening. You enter.”
At an earlier point in the story, the player could learn the password for the thieves’ guild, “Long live the king,” and receive the hint to just say it should they be asked for it. So if they found out the password and was able to remember it, they can now use it to trigger the hidden Player Utterance that gives them access to the thieves’ guild. Otherwise they have to pick one of the other options without even knowing that this hidden option existed.
If the Voice assistant is forced to read the available options to the player, it will only cite the openly declared Player Utterance “guess the password” and “leave”, but not the hidden one, “Long live the king.”
TWIST Feature: Default Way
We already explained that it can lead to a so-called reprompt if the player replies to the Player Choice with a Voice command that the Voice assistant does not understand or cannot assign to any of the declared Player Utterances.
Using the “Default Way” feature in TWIST, you can absorb these kind of player replies. Any answer the Voice assistant cannot assign to any of the utterances will be assigned to this default way. This default way can lead to a completely new text box or to a text box to which one of the other options already points.
The use of a default way is recommended for open questions like, “How are you?” or, “What’s your name?”, or for terms that are hard to understand or pronounce like “Yggdrasil” or “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. In the former case, it will be impossible for you as the author to guess every possible emotional state or name of your players to declare them as Player Utterances. In the latter, the player may not pronounce the option in the way the Voice assistant would expect.
TWIST Feature: Yes-No Question
TWIST offers the convenient option to declare a Player Choice as a yes-no question by selecting that entry from the drop-down menu “Type”. The advantage of this is that you do not need to set any Player Choices because they will be determined automatically, namely “yes” and “no”. Furthermore, this feature already comes with all conceivable synonyms, for “yes” among other words “sure” and “of course”, for “no” words like “never” and “rather not”.
Your story should not follow a classic Aristotelian structure (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement), but should rather go in medias res. Get straight to the point and establish the three C’s: conflicts, choices, and consequences!
The beginning of your story is important, and that in every sense. Because your players want to play your story to be able to make decisions. Therefore, offer them this possibility as quickly and often as possible, otherwise you will fail to meet their expectations and they might leave the story before you had the chance to captivate them.
Refrain from using longer text passages to slowly unfold your story in order to build atmosphere or convey background knowledge. Instead, allow your players to quickly and actively take part in the story. Three or four subsequent story segments with Player Choices, each with a short follow-up text, will successfully suck them into the story and make sure that they keep playing.
Your first scene should grip your players immediately. Keep your text segments short and surprise your players, unsettle them, or have their first decision be a moral conflict. More detailed explanations about the initial situation, the character of the hero, and the world can be given later. Instead, create suspense, making your players wonder whether their first decisions are “correct”.
Ever since we have been designing the beginnings of our interactive audiobooks following this mantra, the bounce rate of players has dropped considerably. Previously, 33.4 % of players left our stories during the first event, and only 46.3 % continued to event five or beyond. After switching to shorter text passages and more frequent choices, the bounce rate at the first event dropped to 12.7 %, and the number of players staying until event five or beyond increased to 79.6 %.
Originally, our interactive teenage love story “Herzklau” (“Heart Thief”) started with the main character’s best friend picking them up to go to the mall. After the first Player Choice came a 170 seconds long text passage, detailing the back story of the two best friends. To improve upon this verbose beginning, we rewrote that passage into a dialogue which we splitted into three story segments, each of them presenting a Player Choice and consisting of only about 30 to 40 seconds of text.
Not only does the dialogue now reveal the back story, players can also choose between ironic, friendly, encouraging, mocking, or neutral answers to respond to their friend. This immediately turns players into active participants and allows them to identify with the main character and develop an emotional connection with them. In other words, within a short amount of time, players become part of the story and make it their own.
So try to make the beginning as interactive as possible and start your story with providing the first three to four Player Choices as fast as possible. These choices do not have to be, and seldomly are, relevant for the overall plot. But they can have a huge impact on the situation at hand, on the relationship to another character, or on the personality displayed by the player character.
The following scenarios offer a dynamic beginning and can happen before the actual plot starts. The examples all have one thing in common: they immediately place the player within the action, but they also give them a rough idea of the world they have entered and what kind of character they are playing.
Dialogues are interactions. If we are in a conversation, we do not just passively listen for several minutes, rather we interrupt our counterpart, take stances, present objections, and answer questions. This generates a high dynamic which you can use for a simple, but effective entrance into your story.
Examples of a quick dialogue entrance:
“Without telling you why, you have been brought before the king. He eyes you appraisingly. ‘They say thou art the best fighter of my guard. Be that true?’”
“The door swings open and an attractive blonde storms into your office, seething with rage. ‘Was it you who had Frank Shellington arrested?! That man is my client!’ Do you wish to justify your actions, or do you ask the woman to introduce herself properly first?”
“Before you can even put a foot down on Mars, one of the customs officers of the empire confronts you. ‘Your signature identifies you as a cargo vessel of the merchant class. Do you have any goods to declare?’ Do you wish to tell him of the secret load of frost emitters, lie to him, or try to bribe him?”
If you dream, you often cannot remember how it started. A dream usually starts in the middle of things. Where you are, how you got there, and who the other people in your dream are, often remain vague, not to mention specific details. Still, our dreams work. While we are dreaming, we accept the lack of any such prior knowledge. Despite that, we still more or less know what we need to do. You can use this for your interactive story and have players start with a dream of their player character. The great advantage is that you can end the events of a dream at any point you wish. Once the player character is awake, you can use longer text passages to roll out your actual story.
Examples of a quick dream entrance:
“You are dreaming. A great plain spreads in front of you. There are mountains looming ahead, a sea is glistening to your left, and to the right you can make out the edge of a forest. In which direction will you go?”
“You are dreaming. A giant tree towers above you. Do you wish to climb it, or do you wish to have a closer look at its trunk?”
“You are dreaming that you are standing in the corridor of a shabby hotel. In the flickering light of the neon lamps you can see two doors at the end of this corridor. Which one will you open? The left door or the right door?”
The Action Scene
A dangerous fight, a thrilling chase, or the secret infiltration of a building. There are many ways to start your story with a scene that demands quick and important decisions from your players. Strike a high narrative pace and enthrall the players with the events of your story!
Examples of a quick action entrance:
“It seems that a private eye like you is not really welcome in Joe Molese’s Night Club. As the doorman recognizes you, he charges at you with his fists flying. Do you try to sidestep, or do you try to land a punch?”
“The loud yells of the city watch erupt behind you. All of this just because of an apple? Will you try to disappear in the throng on the market square, or do you run into the nearest alley?”
“You crouch behind the bushes without moving while the eyes of the goblin warrior scan the edge of the forest. As he turns away from you, you see your chance. Will you sneak away behind his back, or will you try to overpower him without a noise?”
Exploring The Past of the Player Character
By putting three short Player Choices about the past of the player character at the beginning of your story, you not only provide the player with a quick entrance, they also get an idea of who the player character actually is and what their motivation might be. This definition of the character’s past can, but does not have to be, important throughout the later course of the story. But it will certainly remain in the player’s mind and influence their future decisions in the game.
Examples of a quick past history entrance:
“You were lucky to enjoy a carefree childhood. How did you spend it? In the library, at the training ground, or in the streets of the city?”
“As a child you were witness to soldiers burning down the farm of a peasant who had not paid his taxes. What was it that you swore back then? To never be poor, or to always fight against injustice?”
“Your first love left you for someone else long ago and that hurt a lot. Who did you blame for it? Him, yourself, or no one?”
Defining The Personality of the Player Character
Moral Player Choices at the beginning of your story have three advantages. They can offer an insight into the game world (genre, setting), they have no influence on the later plot (being a flavor choice), and they allow the player to determine the personality of the player character and find out who they want to be in the story.
Examples of a quick personality entrance:
“Your commander gave you the task of looking after his horse during the battle. But you wish to aid your comrades in combat. What is more important to you? Follow his order, or proving your courage?”
“A friend of yours erroneously believes that it was he who shot down the enemy spaceship. Do you allow him to keep believing so, or do you explain to him that the credit belongs to you?”
“Your best friend is arguing with another friend, but she is in the wrong. Do you stand by her or do you criticize her behavior openly?”
As you can see, there are many ways to quickly jump into the story, grip the player, and from there roll out the greater plot. But do not cling too much to the examples given here, instead find an entrance that is special and unique to your particular story.
Here is a little mind exercise to achieve this:
If your story were to immediately begin with a Player Choice, without any further context, what would it be and what story would it tell your players?
For the beginning of your story we presented you with a clear recommendation concerning the length of the texts. For the following parts of your story, this choice is more ambivalent.
To begin with, there are some technical limitations depending on the platform you want to publish on. On Amazon Alexa, for example, no more than 240 seconds may pass between two user interactions (more specific information for each platform can be found in Chapter 5.1: Technical Requirements).
TWIST offers a simple feature to gauge the estimated reading time of a text. In the text box as well as in the simulator, you will be shown the expected duration of the corresponding text or story segment. Based on our experience, the voice actors are usually faster than the calculated time. Still, you should never completely exhaust these 240 seconds rather stay below them.
But what is good segment length from the player’s point of view? Interactive audiobooks for Voice are an exciting format which enables players to lie back on their couch and actively play a story with a high narrative pace, many Player Choices, and a high degree of attention required. These players might enjoy crime stories in which they themselves are doing the investigation, searching for clues and drawing conclusions. This player target audience wants to be active and occupied, making decisions as often as possible.
But there is also another audience, the audiobook listener. They might prefer to just listen to a story, zone out, or have some diversion while tidying up the house, driving around, or while they are otherwise occupied. They favor longer intervals between Player Interactions as well as stories that do not require too much attention. For them, the story has to work even if they are not absorbing every detail of the plot. They prefer to be entertained and only want to make decisions at certain points in the story.
Thus, the length of your texts will depend on your target audience and on the story itself. For a story addressed to “gamers” we recommend not to exceed 90 seconds of text between two Player Choices. For a story addressed to “listeners” those segments should be probably 150 to 200 seconds long. Of course you can also mix and match, especially if your story boasts an appropriate dramatic composition where action-oriented passages alternate with quieter ones, or where longer explanations for better understanding of the story are occasionally necessary. Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that it is better to gear your story to one of these two audiences instead of trying to please both.
As a general preference, we recommend you write shorter stories. For interactive audiobooks addressed to children we have had positive experiences with audio material totaling 30-40 minutes and an average playing time of about 12-20 minutes.
Stories for adults can be somewhat longer. Our prizewinning fantasy story “Iron Falcon” boasts a total of 115 minutes of audio material and an average playing time of about 50-60 minutes. Despite having received the distinction of best Amazon Alexa Games Skill, today we would split the story into 3 episodes instead of packing that much plot into one big episode. The reason for this is simple:
Words heard are more fleeting than words read. This is not only true for the time during which the player is experiencing your story, but also for the time between playing sessions. When a reader puts a book aside and returns to it three days later, it is usually not a big problem. If in doubt, they just flip back a few pages, shortly skims over what happened last, and is quickly up to date again.
When playing an interactive story for Voice, this is not so easy. The listener cannot just jump back a few paragraphs or skim over part of the text again. If the time interval between two playing sessions is too long, your story runs the risk of not being finished because players cannot find their way back into it. Shorter stories mitigate this risk.
This does not mean that you have to forgo telling longer stories. Our storytelling tool TWIST enables you to simply create several episodes. It also lets you define whether players have access to all episodes from the beginning, whether the episodes have to be played in a fixed order, or whether players will have to reach a certain ending in one episode to gain access to a different episode.
Rule of Thumb
The ratio of one playthrough to the total amount of story material should be between 2:3 (sufficiently interactive) and 1:2 (very interactive). The smaller this ratio, the greater the replay value since the player will only experience a small part of the whole story in one playthrough. On the other hand, you will have to create a lot of additional content that might never be seen or only be seen by a small number of players.
For your first interactive stories you should certainly focus on the plot, the characters, the world, the language used, and the choices offered and try to make these as appealing as possible. When you first start out, less is often more!
Length of Sentences and Words
There is no clear recommendation for the length of the sentences and words you should use. We analyzed the first 10 minutes of a lot of German interactive audiobooks and stories, and we had a look at their user numbers and ratings.
Number of Sentences
Words per Sentence
Number of Player Choices
Tag X (Day X)
Der Zauberwald (The Magic Forest)
Der Eiserne Falke (Iron Falcon)
All of these stories had very good ratings and strong user numbers. “Tape Stories” and “Tag X” offer a high narrative pace. Both are action-heavy, suspenseful thriller stories, quickly gripping the player. This is good. But we also saw that stories with a slower pace worked just as well.
Since we cannot prove it yet – we are working on further breakdowns which will take time – we can only assume that players will have different preferences here and will pick those stories that they like while aborting those that do not appeal to them.
Nevertheless, you should make a conscious choice about the narrative pace and dynamic with which you tell your story since, unlike with regular books or eBooks, the player does not have any influence on the reading speed of an interactive audiobook.
Just like the beginning, the ending of an interactive audiobook is of great importance. The reason for this stems from the unique appeal of this kind of storytelling: players play your story because they can influence it and thus can experience their very own version of that story. And how they rate a story very often depends on its ending.
There are many books, movies, TV shows, and video games that have been lambasted for their unsatisfactory endings and have left many disappointed consumers in their wake. For an interactive story, the danger of this is even greater because players will experience it as their own story to which they will have a unique and intimate connection.
Your last scene should therefore offer a grand finale. Your player has probably spent some time in the story and carefully made their decisions. Reward them for this investment and give them the feeling of having accomplished something out of the ordinary.
If you are writing a series consisting of several episodes, take care that the ending of each episode rounds out that episode in a conclusive way but also provides a cliffhanger for the next episode, giving the player ample satisfaction and, at the same time, motivating them to keep playing. Cliffhangers can be hints at future conflicts in the story, or rhetorical questions about characters or events that might not have been the focus of this episode but will play a more important role in the next one.
Your stories should also – depending on the player’s success or failure – offer different endings. Some story paths might lead to the death of the hero, others can see them defeated or fleeing, but at least one ending should culminate in a spectacular triumph.
So make sure not to write just one satisfying ending, rather make every ending as satisfying as possible! To achieve this, you should first and foremost avoid the following few key mistakes.
The Premature Ending
In the traditional fantasy gamebooks from the 80s and 90s, deaths of the player character come quickly and frequently. This creates permanent tension which can be very appealing, something that is not much of problem when reading a book since the reader can choose how fast they read, and they can simply turn back to the last entry and make a different decision.
In interactive stories for Voice, players cannot simply turn back to a previous page. Therefore you should avoid Player Choices that can lead to an early end of the story. Having the player character die, is usually a convenient way for authors to insert Player Choices without having to spend extra time and effort on writing a completely new story path. But is it a constructive approach? In most cases not. You want your story to be played and you want your players to have fun doing so. So do not let your player characters die early on, and in particular do not have them die in an unnecessary way, or without pointing out beforehand the dangerous consequences their decision might have.
Also, use choices that can lead to the death of the protagonist very sparingly. In the interactive story “Die Meisterin” (“The Mistress”), in five cases out of twelve, the first three Player Choices lead to an abrupt end of the story, without warning or the chance to avoid this. Later in the story, deaths are frequent and sudden as well. You only reach one of the two truly positive endings of the story if you are very lucky. Consequently, in their reviews in the Amazon Alexa Skill Store, players criticized it for being a rather frustrating and disappointing gaming experience.
We recommend you avoid letting the player character die before you are at least two thirds into the story, or before players have reached the next episode. And even then, not without pointing out to the player the probably dangerous turn their decision can take. Do not let them pick an option that seems completely reasonable but which in fact just leads to a random death.
A premature end of a crime story, for example, could be that the player fails to identify or capture the true killer because, though they manage to rescue one of the victims, they missed an important clue or made a bad decision along the way. In this case, players would miss the last part of the story, but they would still end the story with a conciliatory partial success after a sufficiently long playing time.
Of course, we have made such mistakes ourselves. In our very first story, “Der Zauberwald” (“The Magic Forest”), the second Player Choice was whether the player wanted to go on an adventure. If they said no, the skill would just end, which players perceived as very negative, and rightly so. This resulted from our own complacency and lack of forethought. We had not worried about how we would want to draw players into the story, how the beginning should be structured, and what a premature ending would mean to the player. Furthermore, players had absolutely no idea that the answer, “I do not want to go on an adventure,” would lead to the immediate end of the story. We hope that this guide will help you to avoid mistakes like this.
Does this mean that early failure in interactive stories is not permitted at all? No, of course not. You, the author, decide the rules of your own stories. It is very easy, for instance, to turn a supposed weakness into a deliberate strength by elevating failure to the core concept of the game. The video game series “Dark Souls”, that sold a gazillion copies, advertises itself with the fact that every wrong move or decision will result in death. Here, the high level of difficulty is a consciously designed part of the gaming experience and thus works extremely well.
If you want to write a challenging story where death looms behind every corner and is the rule rather than the exception, you should communicate that clearly in the story’s description or in an intro text at the beginning. Go with a dynamic narrative pace and carefully devise your story. For an interactive audiobook, an approach like this would certainly be exciting and innovative.
You should also use save points. In TWIST, you can easily set such save points to give your players the opportunity to jump back a short way in the story and continue from there with a different decision without having to play the whole story again. Do not hesitate to make use of this feature. In Voice, unlike in a book, it can be tedious trying to find and reach a certain point in the story again; this can be frustrating for players and might lead them to abandon your story.
If you want to make it especially interesting, you could write alternative texts for your save points. Choices that led to the death of the player character will not be offered anymore once they reach that point in the story a second time. This certainly means more work for you, but it will provide an incredibly fascinating gaming experience to the player because the story will react dynamically to their decisions. (For a detailed explanation of the practical implementation of save points, we offer coaching to our authors; see Chapter 21: Coaching for Writers.)
The Illogical Ending
Take care to avoid logic errors. If a player’s decision leads to the death of the king or to the marriage between princess Miralda and prince Kasimir, your story should not end with the king knighting the player or Miralda proposing to him. We can see that even experienced authors can easily slip such errors into their stories since it can sometimes be difficult to keep all possible variations of the events of an interactive story constantly in the back of your mind while writing.
Most players will rarely excuse such logical errors, and your story will leave a sour taste in their mouth. To prevent this, have your story playtested to discover and quickly mitigate such problems.
The Incomplete Ending
If you introduce exciting storylines and establish interesting character relationships in your story, you should revisit them or bring them to a conclusion at the end of the story. Again, “Die Meisterin” (“The Mistress”) can serve as a negative example here.
The events in the main part of the story are indeed very thrilling. The player character receives mysterious calls on his cellphone and comes into a conflict with werewolves. Both, player and player character, are unexpectedly drawn into this situation while the reasons for the things happening are only hinted at. All done very well. However, most endings of the story have the player character simply leave the building and take a seat in a café to have some cake. The events do not seem to bother the player character – in contrast to the player – very much. Things that just moments before were fantastical, extraordinary, life-threatening, and incomprehensible are not worthy of further consideration when coffee and cake arrive. A short inner player character monologue would have immensely improved these endings for a comparatively small amount of extra work.
A much better example gives us the computer RPG “Fallout”. In each part of the series, the player has to make decisions about the life and future of secondary characters or whole factions. At the end of the game, every decision relevant to the plot gets some closing credits, telling the player what happened to this or that person and what their life looks like years later on. This is nice, because the story does not end so abruptly. And it is even ingenious, because it allows the player to relive the whole game with all their decisions one final time.
So make sure that each of your endings feels complete, capping off all the central story events and providing emotional closure for the player. Even fairy tales do this with one simple sentence: “And they lived happily ever after.”
The Good Ending
A good ending for the player does not necessarily have to be the best possible ending of the story. It is legitimate to make only the most triumphant ending hard to reach. This can be an incentive for players to play the story, or part of it, again to reach the perfect ending. However, the ending should always feel good and justified, no matter what. This can even be a premature death of the player character if it is told in a fascinating way, for example an epic battle in which the hero dies amidst his enemies, bleeding from multiple wounds, but having fought bravely to the bitter end.
Just bear in mind that the ending will have a huge influence on how players will rate your story, and thus on whether they will play it again or even play some of your other stories. So take your time to carefully check and revise your endings. They should give the player a feeling of “Wow! What an ending!” regardless of whether the player reached all their story goals or not.
A good voice actor can contribute immensely to that feeling. In the interactive story “Das Finstertal” (“The Dark Vale”) by Jörg Benne, the player character can be killed by a demon. The corresponding text passage is very short and simple:
“You cannot bear it any longer and jump out of your hiding place. The monster hisses and stalks toward you. You try to edge your chair between you and the monster, but it sweeps the furniture aside like a small toy. Before you can even scream, its claws close around your throat and bring your life to an end.”
The voice actor, Bodo Primus, recorded this passage, and especially the last sentence, with a hissing voice and so much pathos that you can actually feel the claws being wrapped around your neck, making the listener wonder if it might not be the voice actor themself who has turned into the demon. A great idea, enhancing the ending and reconciling the player with their failure.
You will certainly be able to come up with many more ways to write or design a great ending. Do not hesitate to try out new things and use different means like content, language, voice actors, music, or sound effects to surprise your players and reward them! They will appreciate it.
In interactive stories, the narrative pace plays an important role in the balance between creating suspense and ensuring listening comprehension. By varying the narrative pace and keeping the flow of the narration dynamic, you can create great tension.
At its core, narrative pace means the ratio between the actual duration of events (narrated time) and their presentation in the story (narration time). The more detailed the events, the setting, and the characters are being presented, the slower the narrative pace will be. However, if the actions taking place predominate the narration, the narrative pace will be higher. There are basically three possibilities.
The ratio between things happening and their presentation is balanced. If you are using time-congruent narration, the events taking place are told in real time. This is mainly the case for dialogue.
This is the extended presentation of things (slow narrative pace, “slow motion”).
If you are using time-stretching narration, then pauses or decelerations slow down the narrative pace, bringing events to a halt while you are giving a detailed description of a room, an action, or a character.
In interactive stories, time-stretching narration should only be used if it serves the plot or the comprehension. This can be for the implementation of back story, the framework plot, or flashbacks. Very often you will also have to describe a place or character in more detail in which case the narrative pace will also slow down.
This is the sped-up presentation of things (high narrative pace; “fast forward”).
If you are using time-tightening narration, things are accelerated by summarizing events and leaving out anything irrelevant. The omission of unimportant time stretches is usually accompanied by phrases like “soon after that” or “several days later”.
Time-tightening narration is best used if you want to quickly progress the plot.
The types of Player Choices
- Fake choices in which the chosen option is subsequently denied to the player should be avoided by all means.
- Flavor choices ask the player how they wish to perform the action you want them to perform. Many fake choices can easily be transformed into flavor choices.
- Progress choices add value to the story by allowing the player character to upgrade, by sharing background information about the world, or finding items. Information and items gained in such a way can be picked up on later in the story by using variables.
- Story choices branch the plot and can lead to vastly different story paths. Story choices require additional work from the author. By using such choices at the end of your story, you can reduce and limit this additional work.
- Lead the different paths from Player Choices back onto the main story thread to contain the size of your story and better control it.
Phrasing efficient Player Choices
- Player Choices should be formulated in a clear and comprehensible way. Players should understand which Voice commands they can use to progress the story. For children and people new to Voice, Player Choices should be kept very simple.
- Do not offer more than two or three options per Player Choice.
- In closed Player Choices you tell the player exactly what their available options are. In open Player Choices like, “What would you like to do?” the player will have to deduce the available options from the situation presented. Such open questions have to be designed very carefully in order to work properly, but they offer great immersion.
- The Player Utterances should all be embedded into the Player Choices with the use of the same part of speech (adjective, verb or noun) or equally structured phrases. This makes it easier for the player to remember them.
- Encourage your players to answer using natural language instead of using single words.
- Present the player with specific and distinct Player Utterances instead of only using yes-no questions.
- Player Choices should be meaningful and offer Player Utterances of equal value, confronting the player with a dilemma or a moral challenge. The player should be able to understand or at least guess what the consequences of the different Player Utterances are. Only in this way will the player be able to make conscious decisions instead of choosing blindly.
Limitations and assistance
- Speech recognition is able to recognize single words in the player’s reply if they have been stated as a Player Utterance or a synonym.
- Avoid similar words for different Player Utterances as well as words that are hard to pronounce. This will enable speech recognition to correctly assign the player’s reply to the correct option.
- Built-in Voice commands in the Voice assistant system (like “Help”, “Alexa”, “Google”, “Start”, “Stop”) cannot be set as Player Utterances. Numbers as answers should be stated both in word and numerical form.
- Make use of the possibilities of tools like TWIST:
- Adding synonyms to Player Utterances allow speech recognition to handle variations in the player’s reply.
- Hidden Player Choices / Player Utterances enable you to incorporate riddles and secrets without the Voice assistant reading the hidden option to the player.
- Default ways catch all player replies that cannot be assigned to any of the stated Player Utterances.
- A feature for yes-no questions makes your work easier since you do not have to determine Player Utterances and synonyms.
- Your story should begin with short text passages and three to five quick (but meaningful) Player Choices to immediately draw the player in. Great scenarios for a fast and gripping beginning with many possibilities for varying choices are dialogues, dreams, action scenes, a quiz about the character’s life, or moral dilemmas.
- For “gamers”, who frequently want to make decisions, the intervals between two Player Choices should not be longer than 90 seconds. For “listeners”, who prefer to listen to your story on the side, the intervals between two Player Choices should be 150-220 seconds long.
- Interactive stories for children should have a playing time of 12-20 minutes. Interactive stories for grown-ups can have a playing time of 50-60 minutes, but should be divided into shorter episodes of 15-20 minutes each.
- Your story should have different endings, at least a bad one and a very good one. All of your endings should be satisfying since they will have a great influence on the players’ rating of the skill. Avoid premature endings, illogical endings, and incomplete endings.
- If you have a story with several episodes, each episode should feel complete but also end in a cliffhanger.
- Use time-congruent narration for dialogue and action, time-stretching narration for the description of scenes and the conveying of background information, and time-tightening narration to make time jumps and move the plot forward.
Closed Player Choice: the available options are explicitly stated to the player.
Open Player Choice: the player has to deduce the available options from the scenery or situation presented to them.