Ahead of this weekend’s seminar on Interactive Narratives, Leena van Deventer shares her top tips for interactive digital storytelling.
1. Let it go! Everything you’ve learned, just get rid of it. Well, some of it. Okay keep most of it, but don’t hold on too hard. When writing for interactivity you don’t get as much control over the player/reader experience as you do in linear fiction. This involves you letting go a little of the “one true path” you want people to take, and make the narrative as interesting as you can in whatever direction the reader is taking it.
2. Start with the world-building first. This might seem offensive to those taught that ‘character is key’ but hear me out; you need to write in 3-dimensional space for the choices to feel real and meaningful. The area your characters traverse will inform the choices the reader will make, on behalf of the characters. In non-linear fiction, your characters are not being taken down a tunnel, they have the choice to roam around the space, so you need to figure out the world they occupy first. The simple thing to remember is that world-building is just rule building. Make sure your world doesn’t break its own rules and you’re golden!
3. Use a mixture of plotting on paper and digital for your first interactive piece. Whatever helps you make sense of it. Plot on paper or post-it notes, or a whiteboard. The first couple of times you will feel like you’re smashing your head against a brick wall – this is normal, this is progress. Soon you will feel good! Modulate your ‘scenes’ into encounters that can be approached at any time by the player, and if you’re using a digital engine (as opposed to making a gamebook or paperback) you can get some of them to do the hard work for you in changing the copy depending on where a character has been, who they have visited, or what they have collected.
4. Jump into a free and simple hypertext-link engine like Twine to play for a bit. Just get one small scene working. From there you can add dialogue, images, sound, variables, and even edit the way it looks in the cascading style sheet. But the basics are sound, jump on a tutorial and make a small scene as soon as you can, to understand the basics and get comfortable with it. You will soon feel an urge to write a huge sprawling work. Resist this urge. Look at me. DON’T DO THAT. That’s for later, dear reader. For now, we go small. If you’re having trouble keeping scope down, I like Anne Lamott’s idea from her book Bird by Bird of having a one by one inch photo frame on her desk with nothing in it. Think of the scene you want to write, and if it’s having trouble coming to life, describe just the fragment that you see in that window.
5. Decide on voice. Will you use first person, second person, or third person voice? Will you have a main character? Will that character be an audience surrogate or a fleshed-out character of their own? Does the reader find it jarring to be making decisions for someone who isn’t them? Is that what you want them to feel? Do you hate questions? How about another? There are many ways to tackle voice in interactive fiction, one of the most popular being the second person voice (“You walk to the cupboard and find…”) and they all have their positives and negatives for the story you want to tell. Find which one feels right and it might be half the battle.
6. Just write. Just go. Here are some prompts to get you started — making a cup of tea, walking the dog, a strange noise outside, US Diplomatic Relations Simulator, anything! Jump on Twine and get started.