Making Interactive Fiction: Adapting from Other Genres

2018-09-11 · by Stewart C Baker
tagged Blog / Columns / Non-Fiction

The best kind of interactivity in a story is interactivity that resonates with its themes and characters. One useful approach to thinking about design issues is to adapt models from other genres. Even if the result doesn’t much resemble the starting point, it’s productive to have a guide to direct where you’re going.

Emily Short’s First Draft of the Revolution is a pretty straightforward example of how to do this. It’s an adaptation of epistolary fiction, where the interaction consists of drafting and redrafting letters. The story uses the interaction prompts themselves to reveal more and more of its characters and its world, a complement to the core idea of the epistolary novel as a narrow window into the lives of its characters.

Not all genres lend themselves so readily to this kind of translation, of course. Many attempts and iterations have been made on constructing an interactive mystery story, and those have met with difficulty. In a way, the mystery novel already relies on a form of interactivity (given the expectation that the reader might tease out the solution ahead of the characters), which, when made explicit as actual interactivity, loses its expressive power. Jon Ingold’s Make it Good presents itself as a detective story, but contains a twist that recasts it into a different type of narrative entirely — that twist enables it to have the trappings of a detective story while shaking off the expectations that might render it nonfunctional.

For the sake of an object example, I want to walk through adapting in a different direction. Rather than looking to literary genres and adapting into interactive fiction, I want to think of video game ideas and adapt them into interactive fiction. To pick up on last month’s column about building climactic moments, I’d like to consider the boss fight.

Boss fights work poorly in a lot of games. Often they seem tacked on, nothing but an enemy with an exceedingly long health bar. But where they work well — as in Dark Souls’ gallery of grotesques, or in the Monster Hunter series where the entire game revolves around elaborate boss fights — they can be a real anchor for what a game is about and how it feels to play it. I’m not interested, here, in the fiction of fighting a large monster, but in the underlying mechanical ideas and how we might plunder them for our own use. Maybe the Monster Hunter hunt could be a basis for something else — an emotional confrontation with a character, perhaps.

Monster Hunter’s monsters are, in themselves, complex systems with many mechanics attached to them: they can become enraged, exhausted, or hungry; they can flee in fear; hunters can stun them, make them flinch, mount them, trip up their legs to bring them down or attack their wings to keep them from taking flight. But what makes the hunt a useful example to me is that each one of those systems is individually very simple and straightforward, and they all work in orthogonal ways that are comparable to each other. Stunning the monster is done by dealing “KO damage,” which comes from hitting the head with an impact attack. Mounting the monster is done by dealing “mounting damage,” by attacking it from above, and so on. Those values are hidden to the player (indeed, Monster Hunter tells you almost nothing about the monster’s state explicitly, preferring to use animation and diegetic cues), in much the same way a lot of IF uses underlying variables that are hidden. Tripping, stunning, or toppling the monster creates a big opening to deal damage and move the fight towards its conclusion, but the special damage needed to bring it down increases each time, making it hard to repeatedly employ the same tactics.

How do we think about this in terms of a different kind of story? When trying to persuade someone, or walk them to some emotional catharsis, we might have different weapons we can bring to bear: appealing to their reason, their guilt, their emotional attachments, the opinions of third parties, their better angels (or worse devils). Maybe some of these choices are made ahead of time, before the confrontation even starts; we choose what we bring to the table, much like a hunter chooses which weapon to take into a hunt.

We build a cycle of threat-response-reaction. The adversary starts to make a move, argument, or direct the conversation; the player character responds in some way; the adversary reacts to that response, concluding their original move. In a way, the two characters are talking past each other, each one trying to make their point separately — mimicking plenty of real arguments I’ve been in.

Successfully reacting to a move might create an opening for the player character to insert their own appeals into the conversation, whatever it may be; concluding that argument might break down a barrier that allows the conflict to progress. The characters start by circling around each other warily, but their responses gradually get more aggressive, desperate, and involved. On the adversary’s side, as they approach exhaustion (or catharsis, depending on your story); on the player’s side, as they employ and then discard each tactic available to them in turn.

Of course, this is a very adversarial, even cruel, framework to apply to interactions between two people — maybe that’s right for your story, or maybe not. But I hope the underlying idea is helpful: You can find models for building story mechanics in strange places, and sometimes there’s serendipitous consonance there.

Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere

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