Making Interactive Fiction: Interiority

2018-11-13 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Blog / Columns / Non-Fiction

One of the things that sets prose fiction apart from other media is its ability to piece apart the thoughts and feelings of a character in a direct, unmediated way.

In prose, it’s very natural to simply peer into a character’s inner thoughts. But that’s not the only option, and in interactive writing, there are often broader constraints and variant formats that change how we approach character interiority. Interactive writing often needs to be shorter and more matter-of-fact. Often, we want to situate what we’re writing in the here and now and avoid delving into digressions or literary devices like italicized thoughts.

IF can also promote a much fuller identification between protagonist and reader; we have a player character rather than simply a viewpoint character. In some pieces, it can feel intrusive or just clumsy to give that figure thoughts by direct narration.

I come from a film background, and film has developed an entire language of circumlocutions to show what a character is thinking without resorting to overly literal dialogue or overbearing voiceover. Editing, cinematography, imagery and acting are all part of a complex system of signifiers used to give audiences an impression of what a character is thinking or feeling.

The first IF tool we have to communicate protagonist interiority is simply the world. How we describe the player character’s environment is a major element. Film will establish a scene to suggest what is important to the protagonist, or edit an actor with a shot of a prop to communicate something about that character’s thought process.

In IF, we view the world through the eyes of a player character, and that should tint what we see. What’s important to the player character? What are the associations, implicit and explicit, present in their environment? This can be thought of as a matter of editing the environment into what matters; of choosing what to describe, what detail to linger on, based on its significance to a character.

The baseline here is describing the world from the character’s viewpoint, but you can do one better: you can model the protagonist’s interior state and vary description in accordance to that. This can be as simple as changing “the back door is ajar” to “the damn back door is ajar” to “your asshole roommate left the back door open again” as the player character’s aggravation mounts. If a game has multiple playable characters, each might see the same place in entirely different terms.

The other major tool we have is interaction. As always, choices presented to the player imply a lot about who the player character is. About what the boundaries of their action are; about what their beliefs are. There’s a gulf between “Say everything is okay” as choice text, and “(Lie) Say everything is okay.” If the game is mechanically modelling the interior state of the player character, that could change which choices are available or how they are presented.

This raises an important question: How variable is your player character? Is your player simply guiding a defined persona through the story, or are they helping define who this person is through their choices? This is a key issue to consider when designing an interactive story, and it’s heavily highlighted by the question of interiority.

Here are some models for how the player relates to the player character:

Inhabitant: The player inhabits the player character, defines and lives through them. Maybe the player character is created by the player, as in many RPGs. Either way, the player is in the driver’s seat of defining how the player character thinks and acts. Maybe those choices will narrow as the story goes on, letting the player “lock into” a particular path; but either way, the player is building the player character as they go along. Here, evincing interiority is about responding to the player; how the PC sees the world is a function of the choices that the player has made previously.

Choice of Games adopts this format. As the protagonist is developed alongside the player, this lends itself well to tracking the player’s choices and using them to color what they see as they progress through the story.

Actor: The player is interpreting the player character. Reflective choice (choices that are about how you feel or what you’re thinking rather than what you do) are a valuable tool in achieving this. Think of how characters that have been played by many different actors – Richard III, Sherlock Holmes, Superman – draw different interpretations in each telling. Maybe it’s defined that the player character will do something, but the player’s choice is about what that action means, how it feels.

This way of looking at it interests me because it hasn’t been tried very often but seems perfect for short pieces and particularly for adaptations. The Baron is a classic example of this model, but it could be taken in any number of directions. Consider a spy thriller where the player character always does the same things, but the player is choosing whether they are a double agent or not. Consider a game about choosing between a traditional and a revisionist interpretation of a Shakespeare play.

Guide: The player is in dialogue with the player character, suggesting their actions as an angel (or demon) on their shoulder. This is the perspective traditional graphical adventures like Monkey Island adopt; the PC has a clear, fixed viewpoint, and the player is there as a facilitator.

In this model, interiority often emerges from how the player character interprets the player’s directions or even refuses them, argues against them. Classic point-and-click adventure games had a combinatorial mechanical model, where you could “use” any item in the game with any other item; most combinations would fail entirely, usually with some amusing response from the player character. This very clearly creates a separation between player and player character; the PC is acting as a filter on the expressive possibilities of the game mechanic.

In some ways, the traditional parser interface is a reflection of this model, in its error messages and in how it will sometimes filter or sanity-check the player’s input. That, too, is something to consider: If your game has an expressive, mechanical way of inputting choices, what separation between player and character is implied in those mechanics?

This is a complex subject with a lot of room to learn. As always, I encourage you to experiment and think about it deeply as you pursue your own projects. Ask yourself: How does the player relate to the player character? How do I give the player a glimpse into the player character’s mind? And, most of all: What tools do I have to do so?


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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