Brain Tug-of-War: How I Learned to Love Writing Interactive Stories |

Brain Tug-of-War: How I Learned to Love Writing Interactive Stories

Let me tell you a secret. Once you know this secret, you’ll never look at your Game Master the same way again. (It’s a pretty nerdy secret. Stay with me.)

At some point in a recent gaming session your party of adventurers came to a fork in the road, and the GM asked if you wanted to go left or right. “Left,” you said, and the GM looked in her notebook, nodded, and continued: “Okay, around nightfall you come to a castle with a gaping drawbridge. You see a great fire flickering past the gates, and smell roast pork on the breeze.”

Thing is, if you’d said right? You’d have come to exactly the same castle. Ask your GM and she’ll deny this, but it’s true. Come on, who are you going to trust—your friend, or some guy on the internet?

Of course, turnabout’s fair play: when you entered that castle and Duke Twistybeard welcomed you into his court, and within ten minutes that popinjay bard your friend plays challenged the Duke’s son to a duel? The GM can put a castle down any road she pleases, but she can’t account for every player’s madness.

Choice and games have been on my mind a lot in the last six months, as I’ve been writing my game Choice of the Deathless, a choose-your-own-path interactive adventure set in the world of my Craft Sequence books, Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. In Choice of the Deathless, the main character is a junior associate at an international necromancy firm—struggling to make partner, fight off demon invasions, raise the dead, and pay off her (or his) student loans. I went into writing Choice of the Deathless with little experience working on interactive fiction specifically; I’m a good writer, though, and I can run an awesome tabletop RPG campaign. Piece of cake, as Marie Antoinette might have said.

Turns out that while I understood the independent skill sets of writing and adventure design, their overlap was a new beast in which elements of both combined to form an entirely new animal.

Writing fiction is a process of making choices for the reader. Every English speaker on the planet has access to exactly the same tools as I do—paper’s cheap, and so are pens, and the OED’s online now. Bradbury’s public library wouldn’t even charge for computer time these days. And the resulting book is a record of choices made; the writer picked each word because she thought it was the right one, chose this plot move over that because she thought it was cooler, chose to describe their character one way rather than the other, etc. Each individual writer distinguishes herself by making better choices than the next penmonkey. The greats make choices that outstrip readers’ expectations—“I wouldn’t have done it this way, but your idea was so much better.” (About the best thing you can say to a writer is “I have no idea how that worked, but it did.”)

Meanwhile, tabletop gaming is one of the most flexible and responsive storytelling forms in existence. Readers face a record of the author’s choices and the worst they can do is throw the book across the room; players can and do actively interfere with the storyteller / GM. Not for nothing is the default mode of tabletop play “stop the Big Bad Evil Guy’s plan”—this is basically the relationship between players and GM, content mimicking form. That lovingly handcrafted adversary? Ganked on the toilet. Those detailed, high-gloss court politics? Glossy and detailed perhaps, but I hope a reporter’s on hand to take copious notes, because the players skipped the critical masque to join in a brawl at a union demonstration down by the docks. That’s the point of tabletop play: to give players freedom, choice, agency.

The GM chooses the environment, sure, and theoretically has Word-of-God authority over events, but her role is not to make choices. She provides context for the players to make choices. If the GM’s characters are the ones resolving the moral dilemma, or making the best quips, or setting battle strategy, then something’s gone horribly wrong at the table.

(Let’s all observe a moment of silence here to recognize our sore temptation, or at least my sore temptation, to veer at this point from our discussion of interactive fiction and take a HALO jump down the rabbit hole of theodicy debate. Okay? Okay. Moving on.)

Working on Choice of the Deathless I had to bridge the gap between these two storytelling approaches. I couldn’t be nearly so reactive while writing interactive fiction as I can in a tabletop session. Much as I’d love to, I can’t watch you via your smartphone camera and rewrite the game on the fly. (That’s the NSA’s job.) On the other hand, to make the game work as a game, I had to give players choice—ranging from individual dialogue options to large-scale characterization to the question of how, exactly, you plan to confront that dark god. I had to anticipate where players might want to go before they went there.

In tabletop gaming I planned for sessions by knowing what my players wanted, and so how to intrigue and frustrate them. One player loves HP Lovecraft and has a hunger for Deep Mysteries from Before the Dawn of Time? Shove ’em down his throat. Metaphorically speaking, most of the time. Player wants to ham up a seduction scene with one of the lead villains? Cue poison kisses and eyeball-replacement surgery!

I couldn’t anticipate the thousands of players who might come to Choice of the Deathless as precisely as I can my tabletop group, sure, but I could anticipate some general categories of interesting choices. Some people like to buckle their swash, or vice versa. Some like to outthink opponents. Some like romance and charm. Some like honesty and some like treachery. In this way writing Choice of the Deathless resembled composing a game for convention play more closely than building a home campaign—deal with players’ general desires, since you don’t know that a particular player has, say, a love of fine spirits or a fanatical obsession with equipment lists and explosives. Once I identified core approaches to the types of necromantic problems with which I hoped to confront my players, the next question was how to manage the mammoth task of writing the story. Choices, after all, have a nasty tendency to branch. How could I give players freedom and keep the writing task reasonable?

Fortunately, Choice of Games had a good model in place: the episodic game, the series of bushes as opposed to the Recombinant Decision Forest. Rather than a single story, I built a series of episodes arranged in a broader arc—individual cases in the player character’s career at the necromantic firm of Varkath Nebuchadnezzar Stone. In each episode—deposing a god, say, or attending a continuing education seminar—the player can decide how to approach many challenges. Each decision changes the player’s statistics, and a few specific choices—sometimes big, sometimes small—shape future episodes. The angle of the character’s arc depends on the player’s choices. Does your junior Craftswoman descend into the depths of the dark arts? Betray the firm for her own misguided ideals? Engage in romance or eschew the concerns of the flesh? Does she even have flesh at the end of the game? Are you playing The Devil’s Advocate, The Devil Wears Prada, A Civil Action, or Wrath of the Lich King?

Within each episode, though, I had to downshift from high-falutin’ conceptualization to grunt work—actual butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard type. (Okay, butt most of the time in chair. I often work standing up. But I digress.) Each individual choice had to involve the risk of failure, and success and failure mean very different things when a player’s trying to, for example, talk her way out of a conflict and when she’s trying to fight. A story beat which takes two hundred words in a novel might need a thousand in Choice of the Deathless. Writing fiction feels like running a marathon, and ’writing’ tabletop games like building a china shop, filling it with red flags, ordering pizza and waiting for the bulls to arrive. By contrast, writing Choice of the Deathless was a campaign of the war variety: copious notes and maps, fallback positions, retrenchments, supply lines, and plans upon plans.

But the more I worked, the more comfortable I grew with the form. For one thing, interactive fiction allowed me to use a bunch of tricks that would never work in traditional fiction or at the gaming table: hidden jokes, dialogues that play out differently across different paths (people will replay Choice of the Deathless as they never will re-play an RPG campaign, and replays differ much more than rereads of books), pieces of setting information most players will never see and victory conditions that might seem impossible but nevertheless crouch on the Achievements list, tempting the player. I got to use Achievements banners as Statler-Waldorf commentary on players’ bad decisions, which I never could do in a physical book. Yes, I wrote the same story ten times—but on the other hand, I wrote one story ten awesome ways.

Writing the game also forced me to build my characterization chops by thinking of a range of responses to any given challenge, rather than the single right move. I had to let players have good ideas, and bad ideas, and crazy ideas, had to let their bad ideas work sometimes and their good ideas fail and their crazy ideas produce crazy results. That openness, that play, has led to a terrifying pile of new story ideas.

Some caveats: I’m obviously not talking about all interactive fiction here. The form I used for Choice of the Deathless shaped my experience; hypertext fiction has a whole different set of challenges, concerns, and opportunities, as does ‘traditional’ IF of the Zork school. But if you’re like me, a writer and gamer looking to build as well as play, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. It’s not easy—in fact sometimes the tension between characterization and interactivity will make you want to rip your brain in half—but you’ll learn a lot about storytelling in the process, and at the end of the day you’ll be a better writer for it.

So, you come to a fork in the road. Which path do you choose?


Choice of the Deathless debuts today on iOS / Android / your internet browser.

Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. You can follow him on Twitter.


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