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Making Interactive Fiction: Scenes
2018-08-21 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Blog / Columns / Non-Fiction
Whether we outline first, or just start writing, any prose story longer than a short vignette will break down into distinct scenes. In interactive narrative, this works a little differently: IF and games sometimes make it hard to cut from one story beat to another; stories aren’t necessarily one continuous line of events where we never leave the viewpoint character. Even in these cases, though, natural breaks in the story develop: A character entering or leaving the stage, the viewpoint moving to a new place, a shift in perspective from the exterior to the interior.
When a specific scene plays a pivotal role in the story – a key bit of setup, a major confrontation, a climax – it’s often valuable to give that scene a different interaction and mechanical treatment from the rest of the story. Changing how the player interacts can highlight a change of stakes: two characters that were dancing around each other enter open confrontation; a situation that was merely worrying turns dangerous; the monster steps out of the shadows.
This change in the language of interaction we’re using opens up some risks. New mechanical ideas might seem tacked on or underdeveloped, and in a choice-driven story where underlying mechanics (like variables tracking the story’s direction) aren’t shown to the player, the change in rules can seem arbitrary or hard for players to grasp.
But it’s also an opportunity to harmonize the story to the interactivity. A significant scene might have more variability and offer the reader a different class of choices from what they’ve been used to. This consonance between having some richer choices, and the significant story moment surrounding those choices, is very useful in simply allocating your resources. We can only include so much variation and branching in a project, and having the most pivotal story moments vary more dramatically across playthroughs is a good rule of thumb.
Here are a few common ways of thinking about climactic scenes in interactive narratives:
Cashing in chips: The player spends the entire story building up to this moment, accumulating something that feeds into this confrontation. This is a classic adventure-fantasy structure — we spend the book collecting macguffins that all feed into the final boss fight — but you can use it in other ways, too. Mystery stories (how much evidence do you present at the moment when you accuse the culprit?) are another example.
Sorting: The player’s overall decision-making is judged, and the story branches (possibly into an ending) from there. There’s a complex continuum in IF between role-playing as a character making choices and making choices to define who your character is. In stories that lean towards the latter, it’s often helpful to have an explicit moment when those choices are “locked in” and we find out what this person really is made of. Marrying that moment to an climactic story beat makes it read as logical and earned.
Shifts in interaction: If a story is mostly about wandering and exploring, transitioning into a conversation sequence can immediately suggest that the rules have changed. Similarly, moving from conversation to an action sequence, or to a different scale of decision, can reset the stakes and the expectations for a new scene.
Freedom (or constraint): Changing how wide-ranging the viewpoint character’s actions are can highlight a tense moment. If up until now we’ve only had dialogue choices, and suddenly we’re given the option to scream, or throw things or run away, that helps raise the tension. Conversely, the player character might find themselves suddenly constrained – suddenly a game with a variety of moves available to the player turns into a strict dialogue funnel. This can reflect some diegetic element of the plot (eg, the player character is tied to a chair), but it doesn’t have to.
Gauntlets: Climactic scenes often involve self-contained choices that have significant effects on the subsequent story. If done poorly, this can make the rest of the story seem inconsequential as it gets flattened by the outcome of the endgame. But it’s still a useful tool for raising tension. Having the bulk of the story feed into the climax somehow – by opening up more alternatives, by shifting the attitudes of different characters, or just by coloring how this section is viewed by the player character – is a good way of tying everything together.
Hopefully these examples get you thinking. A lot of IF establishes its mode of interaction and its mechanics right from the start and never shifts them, which can make those interactive components feel like they don’t have an arc to complement the arc of the story. Thinking both from a big-picture perspective, and in terms of each individual scene, can make for a stronger composition of interactive elements.
In essence, you can think of key scenes as miniature interactive narratives within your overarching narrative, with their own rules and preconditions: working this way can help you use a broader palette of ideas about interaction and agency without those getting muddled.
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