At its core, narrative design is the art of bringing story and gameplay together. There are many facets of story to think about when building for interactive experiences—characters, dialogue, game mechanics, world-building. One of the best places to begin is by asking this question: “What kind of story structure will best serve this experience?” To determine structure, we must first visualize the story into its most basic form. From there, we can play with the story’s building blocks to find what kind of structure best serves the interactive experience. These exercises will focus on using linear and branching structures to create interesting, dynamic experiences for players.
Organizing interactive stories
One way to begin thinking about interactive story structure is by creating a story flowchart. This will help you visualize the structure of your story in the game and experiment with how players will impact the story, and perhaps what long-term ramifications player decisions may cause.
Here are some tools you can use for your flowchart:
Exercise 1: What is your core story?
If there is a story idea for a game or piece of interactive fiction you have been sitting with, this exercise will provide space for you to begin introducing structure to your idea. In this exercise, you will break down your interactive story into its most simple beats—in other words, the core story.
The purpose of this exercise is to determine what is the minimum narrative content you need to tell your story. Using any of the tools mentioned above, create a flowchart demonstrating your core concept. Remain focused specifically on the linear storyline without any branching.. Understanding the core story allows the interactive experience to remain focused and helps to prioritize aspects of the narrative, which becomes especially important as the level of interactivity becomes more complex. In other words, knowing your central storyline is just as critical when working on a Twine game as it is when designing a major digital role-playing game.
To demonstrate what a core story flowchart may look like, I’ve included an example using a fun, light-hearted story idea: A fantasy adventure game about a dog who has been separated from their owner and journeys through an enchanted forest to be reunited.
Exercise 2: Creating player agency
Player agency is the player’s ability to impact the story through their choices and actions. Often, we play games because we as players want the freedom to vanquish foes, follow the storylines we care about, and make meaningful choices that change the world. Branching storylines are a tool we can use to give players that power. In branching narratives, players are given a choice that may affect other portions of the game. In reality, most branching narratives return to the main storyline at some point—otherwise you may end up with endless branching.
In this exercise, you will revisit your core story and add branching elements to it. Are there any parts of the story that would benefit from a meaningful decision, like choosing between a best friend or a family member in a high-stakes situation? Or perhaps there is space for a moral decision where the player can ruminate over good and evil, or right and wrong. Consider including side quests that will allow you to explore storylines that are not pertinent to the core story, but add value to the overall narrative. Remember, interactive stories do not need to be complex for the sake of complexity. Player choice is most impactful when there is a clear purpose and value for its inclusion.
To demonstrate what a branching flowchart may look like, I’ve added new stakes and decisions to the example story. Though I’ve only added three branches and two decision points, these additions have significantly added to the story’s size and complexity.
Let the story dictate its own complexity
Having a solid understanding of your core story will help you determine the level of simplicity or complexity your narrative requires for it to be impactful. Allow the story to drive its own complexity.