Interactive Narrative Techniques for Developers

Reading novels can give involvement, but the fictional world in which we feel engaged is created by our immagination while receiving informations from written words. Cinema uses temporal sequences of images and sounds for depicting real or fictional worlds and telling stories, but we have no interaction. Video Games create presence, embodiement, immersion, interaction in virtual worlds generated by computational processes and represented through opto-electronic devices. Now we want to merge storytelling and interaction for creating “absolute” art through Video Games. Not so easy. It’s not only a matter of art.  When games are able to tell stories embedded in gameplay, with no interruption of interaction and no cut scenes, you have a double effect of immersion, immersion to the square! 3D games and in particular VR systems can enhance such feelings.
Let’s see a series of tips focused on interactive storytelling and useful for developers.

First rule: players have always to move or click, to be active, to make choices, to interact, to explore, to move camera, etc. Just a few exceptions are allowed. Developers have to avoid interruptions of gameplay as much as possible.

Second rule: interactive mechanics must be varied and different. You have not to base your game on just one or two repetitive mechanics. Challenges aren’t the core of narrative experiences. Every real interaction, action or gesture can be translated to interactive mechanics for narrative purposes.

Third rule: think of story, plot, content, characters, narrative situations, etc. and use processing, algorithms, environmental and NPCs AI, engines, etc. to create your own interactive narrative language and get the best immersiveness and embodiment. Don’t focus on challenges and other traditional ludic features.

Cut Scenes

Cut scenes should be exceptions. They have great narrative role, but they “kill” interactivity and gameplay. Nevertheless I can agree with a very limited and specific use. E.g. cut scenes can be particularly useful for the introduction of characters. For players to become acquainted with characters and get emotionally involved, it helps considerably if they can witness the characters’ facial features and expressions thanks to close up. A cut scene with (extreme) close-ups can provide emotional cues; seeing the villain’s eyes in close-up makes considerably more impact than seeing them from meters away. But I think that it is better to use some interactive escamotage for not breaking gameplay. I’d like to play games with no interruption of gameplay at all but with the same expressive and narrative power of Cinema! E.g. if you want to observe in detail the facial expressions of your avatar from third person view (TPV), you can impersonate another character in FPV (first person view). That’s “avatar exchanging” (look below). Avatar exchanging is not the only escamotage.

In Video Games player can even be a sort of director, taking control of the camera in the game world, flying through space and zooming on items, details and characters.  Allowing player to move camera is an important trick in scripted scenes. More and more games allow for zooming by pushing buttons on the gamepad. You can also have close up through zooming with binoculars or watching tv screens in virtual worlds; you can even  reflect yourself in mirrors and so on.

Time manipulation

Players can move through spatial dimensions; but why not through the 4th dimension: time? Manipulation of time is one of greatest interactive narrative resources. See Life Is Strange (2015) and The Invisible Hours (2017), games where you can even change time rate or time direction pushing specific buttons or moving sticks. For manipulating time you don’t need superpowers (as in LIS) or to be outside the story (as in TIH).

E.g. you can move through time by activating flashbacks. E.g. observing particular items can bring back some memories and you can re-live them: scenery around you abruptly changes by means of graphic and audio transition effects, now you are elsewhere in space and time. Obviously you have to keep control of your avatar in flashbacks, with no interruption of gameplay. You can also have visions anticipating the future or concerning present events happening in a different place; the same here: you have never to loose avatar control or break interaction; no cut scenes allowed. It’s up to the creativity of developers to imagine new ways to move through time and space with no lost of interactivity, so that you can continue to tell story without interrupting gameplay.

Scripted sequences

Even when you are focused on storytelling, gameplay can be sustained by means of interactive scripted sequences. Well, first of all we have to dispel the myth that players can do all that they want in games! VGs are always scripted works, you can do only what developers want you to do! Someone says that Video Games allow for players to be totally free, even to create their own stories; it’s wrong, bad analysis indeed! Even our physical and social reality, our life, is somehow “scripted”! Developers create virtual worlds coming with a lot of restrictions and allowing only for some interactions; freedom is an illusion because computational processes are necessarily scripted and limited! Here we are talking of sequences more scripted than others. Scripted sequences often restrict player’s displacement, actions, and perspective, or alternatively, allow motions, actions and perspectives the player has no access to outside the scripted sequence. It is not necessary for the player to always have complete control of avatars in free 3D space; often it is enough that player can change the status of  few elements according to the narrative and expressive needs, such to keep interactivity and immersion high; at the same time player can move story forward and enjoy expression of deep contents. 

E.g. quick time events are interactive scripted sequences. I’m not fan of QTEs, but they are better than passive cut scenes. Another example: in Half Life 2 (2004) player can fully control camera and avatar when speaking to other characters, but he cannot shoot or fight.

Scripted sequences are the keys for compelling and immersive storytelling. I don’t usually refer to them as scripted sequences; in my opinion they are particular cases of “alternation of interactive mechanics and points of view“. Scripted sequences introduce new points of view, different interactive mechanics, disable some actions and gestures and enable other actions and gestures. For narrative purpose you should be allowed to change game mechanics and point of view anytime you want; it’s up to developers establish what kind of interaction to privilege, limit, add, modify, etc. Authors can create infinite original scripted sequences with peculiar interactions and points of view in order to move story forward or express contents. E.g. in State of Mind (2018) you can decorate and transform the environment around you or take the role of laser devices and drones! In seminal games Shenmue I &II (1999-2001) there are innovative interactive sequences. In the first title you are working as longshoreman moving boxes with forklift: a game mechanic based on a job experience. We are witnessing the interpenetration between narration, content and game mechanics. It’s has the defect to privilege challenging and ludic purposes, but it’s one of the first cases of Video Games becoming life experience. In the second title you have to tail a villain without being seen! You can see that in such way the concept of game mechanics becomes “liquid”; what matters are the different ways you can make a story interactive! Mechanics have to fit storytelling, not the contrary! E.g. Detroit: Become Human (2018) puts you in the shoes of a rebel android leading a pacific march through the street of Detroit. Almost no cut scenes here (just one or two very short exceptions), you’re leading the protest and recruiting followers in real time: great interactive scripted scene making you feel all the emotions of the moment! What Remains of Edith Finch (2017) comes with a lot of scripted scenes and really original and meaningful interactive and narrative solutions; see the Lewis sequence (double mechanics on splitted or pip screen) or the Molly sequence (avatar and mechanics metamorphosis) or the Gregory sequence (childhood flashback).

I am tempted to imagine a scripted scene, just to make you understand what I mean and the narrative and interactive potential of such technique. Imagine a first person view, you are sitting at the table in a coffee room and you have in your hands an opened newspaper covering you and separating you from the rest of the environment; you only see your arms and the newspaper; but you can move the newspaper in all directions, lower or raise and browse it by means of the controller; every time you lower or shift the newspaper you can focus your attention on people sitting at nearby tables by zooming with the triggers; in this way even the voices of spied people are more evident and understandable. Here’s the way to put players in the shoes of a detective, quite different than passively watching noir movies!

Dialogues and monologues

Narration can be achieved through dialogues  and also through avatar’s monologues expressing thoughts of the main character (see Deadly Premonition). Many games use dialogues through radio, walkie talkie, telepathy, conversation with AI assistant. See Firewatch, Subnautica, The Talos Principle, Tell Me Why, etc. Avatar’s thoughts can anticipate and drive player action. Dialogues can be interactive by using multiple choices, see Telltale and Quantic Dream interactive drama ; thinking to the past, see Deus Ex Human Revolution dialogue system where you use persuasion skill for obtaining precious info. Thanks to the technological development of interactive dialogue systems in terms of artificial intelligence and computer-generated semantics, more complex forms of interactive dialogue can be expected; see Facade (2005), The Talos Principle (2014), Event 0 (2016). It’s very important to use acting voices in dialogues, better to avoid texts or balloons.  Many games request big collection of documents with a major narrative purpose; that’s not good, in this way you’re giving narrative a secondary role. When you cannot do without, remember that documents can be annoying to read, so it’s better to provide voice over, or to use human talking holograms or audio & video files instead of written pages.

Interactive Editing

Editing is not only a cinematographic technique. You can have interactive editing in games too.
Switching in short time from action in one place to action in another place is possible even in games if player mantains control of the avatars and/or camera in both the scenes or interaction is not interrupted. It can even be a pre programmed cut managed by in-game AI, triggered by specific place, time and previous events; gameplay is interrupted for just a few milliseconds. See Virginia (2016).

Flashbacks, visions, split or pip screen

As said above, flashbacks or pre-cognitions and visions are good forms of editing in space and time, but player have not to lose control of avatar or camera. No cut scenes. See The Town of Light (2016)Conarium (2017). You can also see events in different places through binoculars, monitors, tv; two different places can be linked through conversations by radio, walkie talkie, phone etc etc. As said above, you can also switch between different characters . Split screen is also a good idea, (Heavy Rain (2010), Faharenheit (2005)): one half is always under player control, the second half is a cut scene; or player can control both the characters or camera in both the screens . I like also picture-in-picture (pip) screens (the Lewis sequence in What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)).

AI and interactive narrative

AI is very important. Not only NPCs AI, even environmental AI. NPCs and environment have to react to players input in convincing, realistic, complex and smart way  in order to sustain immersive storytelling. No need to use learning machine algorithms, today they’re still too demanding. Even more traditional AI techniques come in handy. I’m not talking of stupid things like “make your own story“; several developers sell their games promising that players are free to act and interact in the open world, they can experience their own story, story emerges from choices and actions of players. Bullshit! Sorry! To get something like that, you’d need very advanced AI based on evolved learning machine algorithms that don’t currently exist! The truth is that such developers are fooling you! The truth is that their games are just based on usual mechanics and challenges (fight, shoot, jump, run, etc.) and have no story or at most a trivial and skinny storyline as motivational background. They are just sand-boxes. As consequence you can just choose to accomplish missions and quests whenever you want, destroy or kill whoever and whatever you want, talk to whoever you want; you can even following different timelines; at most developers insert some alternative cut scenes for giving you the impression that story is in your hands. In the end you have accomplished just usual challenges, but experienced an ugly, poor, insignificant story. We are analyzing interactive narrative techniques for creating games meant as expressive artworks. We must assume that the narrative is complex, meaningful and profound, based on intense and peculiar relationships and interactions. Players cannot do whatever they want. Whatever degree of interactivity, freedom, and non linearity might be provided, the role that the player is assigned to play always has to remain inside the boundaries thus defined by the author, and which convey the essence of the work itself. The purpose of interactive storytelling is to make players embodied, present, immersed in the virtual world, engaged in the virtual story and ready to experience contents, messages, emotions, drama, etc. Developers have to plan everything, even eventual alternative choices and situations. It’s better to not exceed in alternative scenes; fragmenting story in too many interchangeable pieces can lead to inconsistencies and can waste quality of story and expressive purposes. It’s better to focus on high-quality single story and offer just few alternative scenes concerning secondary elements of the plot and relationships with minor characters. Gamification of story, as in game-books or textual adventures, is just another challenging mechanic not compatible with expressive purposes. Developers have to use AI for helping players to immerse in story, not to disrupt story. NPCs behavior is very useful for driving players action, NPCs can give precious informations through triggered dialogues or actions.

Triggered events are very cheap but effective solutions. Specific real time events are happening in the environment or NPCs are doing specific actions, both in correspondence of player inputs. Events and NPCs can be triggered by time, place, actions, dialogues and only under specific conditions (previous events). See Subnautica for clever triggered events in game world sustaining narration with no interruption of gameplay (e.g. the “firing cannon” sequence). The web of triggered events can be huge: players inputs can trigger NPCs and events, in turn events can trigger NPCs, and NPCs can trigger events. Most important think: triggered events and NPCs can influence, change, reduce or increase the interactive options available to players; that’s very useful for interactive narrative. You want players to feel protagonists of the story, inside the story, and at the same time you don’t want players to feel constrained to do preordained actions; players agency has to be naturally induced by context and environmental and NPCs AI. The key for satisfactory interactive narrative experiences is not fragmentation of story through alternative scenes, but smart management of environmental events and NPCs behavior through AI. Usually, for activating real time triggered events and behaviors, player’s avatar has to be in specific place at specific time while doing specific actions, saying specific words and only after accomplishing previous specific tasks. See The Suicide of Rachel Foster for several examples of triggered events.

AI can also partially control avatar in tandem with the player. Player must feel complete control in his hands, however AI can move parts of the body, e.g. hands or head. AI can trigger monologues or speech of the avatar. AI can manage some gestures, postures, animation and facial expressions. Be careful: player have never to lose the feeling of control.

Implementing AI for several NPCs and environmentl events is very demanding, you need huge library of animations, behaviors, actions and a lot of programming; however it’s the key for very good interactive narrative.

Environmental storytelling

Don’t overlook environmental storytelling: events happening or people acting in real time in the background can help player to understand story and keep it going on, see Inside (2016) or Bioshock series or The Last Of Us (2013). Many elements in the background can help:  voices in the crowd or from radio and tv, posters, architectures, furnitures, urban environment, natural environment, landscape, etc. And no, reading a lot of documents is not environmental storytelling, you must avoid to relegate story in documents.

Mental reconstruction of scenes

Many games use reconstruction of scenes through collection of clues; see Batman series, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014), Call Of Cthulhu (2018), etc. It’s an effective tool for interactive narration. It’s a trick that can be used even in games with no investigation, e.g. memories of the past or future plans can be reconstructed in the mind of the protagonist while overlapping with actual game world.

Avatar

Avatar acts as a virtual prosthetic, the connecting point between the player, the virtual environment and NPCs. But why limiting to one single avatar? As said above, you could play several avatars in the same game for narrative purposes. So you can experience different stories of different characters in different times. You find one of early example in Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy (2005) You can even control not human avatars or transit from avatar to avatar, just like taking possession; I loved Beyond: Two Souls (2013) for this reason! In State of Mind (2018) you can put yourself in the shoes of different characters and even control drones and lasers. Everything (2017) by David O’Reilly is based on avatar exchanging, you can be also an animal, an insect , everything! However it’s not a narrative title. There are even games where you can simultaneously control multiple avatars while doing multiple tasks (Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons (2013), What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), 11-11: Memories Retold (2018)). As said before, avatar exchanging can have a major role in storytelling.

Virtual camera

Camera movements can be controlled by in-game AI (reacting to player inputs or to triggered events) or by the player himself; you can have also mixed situations. In certain scripted scenes camera can be fixed. I would like to see an updated version of old fixed camera games (Alone in The Dark, Resident Evil, etc.). See White Night (2015) for a passionate tribute to old fixed-camera games. Fixed camera allows for spectacular perspectives and image compositions. You can also have hybrid situations with camera partially driven by AI: simple AI algorithms could help players to fix the better camera positions and angles depending on avatar position, locations, furnitures, lights etc. That’s important for aesthetics, but it’s also functional to have the right composition and flux of images for better immersion and aesthetics. In Embracelet Mattis Folkestad directed the beautiful “running for love” interactive sequence. It succeeds in mixing so well cinema and video games. It reminds of celebrated running sequences in movies like The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut or THX 1138 by George Lucas; but you’re not watching filmed actors, you’re Jesper, the main character, you’re running while the camera follow you along the wild rocks of the Slepp island with epic dollies from afar and you can feel on your skin the desire to embrace your beloved Karoline.

Multiple architectures and points of view

And why not multiple architectures or alternation of points of view in the same game? Today we have games classified as 2D or 3D, Third Person View or First Person View, platform or isometric 3D, etc. etc. Why not alternating 3D & 2D or first person & third person in the same game depending on the specific narrative purpose? Basic architectures can even be narrative and expressive languages! Alternating 2D environments in a 3D game can give the idea of something flat, oppressive, or be useful for indoor scenes, e.g. an apartament observed from the outside and scrolling along the horizontal axis, or an apartament observed from above, flattened like a 2D maze. Such radical changes of perspective can be very expressive and useful for storytelling. For alternation of FPV and TPV, see Beyond: Two Souls.

Speaking of different point of view: is there difference between first and third person view in terms of narration? FPV allow to experience the world as seen through your eyes, it’s more immersive, it’s useful when you want enhance game world and environment. In third person view, virtual camera is usually behind your avatar, and you can also rotate it around the avatar, so you can see it and have a better perception of interaction between your avatar and environment or other characters. A well defined and detailed avatar in TPV can enhance empathy, relationships, interaction, action, exploration, etc. It’s useful when you want to enhance the main character. I like both the configurations! They could also coexist in the same game, depending of the situation and of the expressive context. It’s up to the authors to make the better choice. Many developers prefer to put player himself in the shoes of the avatar through FPV, so they don’t need to create a detailed avatar. Player is the avatar. But in different moments of the game, you could also show the avatar in third person view, so you can define more details and build a complex character useful for narration. In this way player can experience empathy and embodiment also in a third character and immerse in story, not only in game world. FPV is more useful for action moments, when you are not focused on main character and his relationships, but on the game world, actions, events and characters around him. VR games are better suited for FPV, but exceptions are allowed; eventually camera could follow closely the avatar, e.g. behind shoulders. Many VR titles in FPV doesn’t allow to see the body of the avatar when you look down; that’s a great limit breaking immersion and embodiment.

Going beyond action mechanics

In traditional games, gameplay is aimed at action mechanics: jump, run, fight, shoot, climb, fly, throw, cast, etc. We have to go beyond. In narrative games searching for expressive art, mechanics must relate to emotions, drama, psychology, human relationships, inner feelings, etc. Characters of movies and novels can do the same actions as in video games, but they are of secondary importance; more than anything in movies and novels characters talk, ask, negotiate, convince, argue, shout, plead, complain, cry, love, hate, think, etc. We must develop mechanics for expressive and narrative purposes. Small gestures can be very effective: kissing, caressing, hugging, looking in the mirror, petting, turn the teaspoon into a cup of coffee , playing with kids, walking hand in hand, slapping or spitting someone’s face, taking care of plants or flowers or pets, creating or admiring artworks, exploring environments, observing and analyzing people or landscapes or items, having a psychoanalytic session, shopping, getting dressed, taking bath or shower, eating, drinking, attending party, writing, drawing, playing music instruments, etc. etc. They are just few examples of more intimate gestures and situations with expressive and narrative purposes that can be accompanied by internal monologues or dialogues. It’s plenty of such narrative situations in the games I quoted above; btw there is an infinity of situations to invent and experiment yet.

Following the three rules at the beginning of the article, we must entrust narration and expressiveness to gameplay, to interactivity, not to elements extraneous to the medium, taken from other media, such as cinematic cut scenes or comic book illustrations. Our goal is to create drama, thrilling, atmosphere, suspension of disbilief, engage and immerse players in credible narrative situations and emotions, make them present and embodied in virtual worlds, etc. Let’s avoid interruptions of interactivity.

Going beyond challenges and related features

Let’s get rid of challenges, bonus, score, game over; and even of tutorials, HUD and pop-up messages. Interactive narrative doesn’t need short breath tasks as overcoming challenges, showing skills, gaining score, bonus, extra-life, avoiding game over, etc. Immersion and emotions are sustained by the flow of narrative events in real time, triggered by player agency itself. You must create mystery, thrilling, drama, curiosity, atmosphere, shift attention to relationships and affections, etc. Let’s make an example. Protagonist/player can be involved in shootings, just like in movies or novels; however shootings have not to be meant as challenges for showing ability, overcoming enemies and avoiding game over; you must enhance the dramatic and thrilling context, the feelings, the anguish of the characters, their fears, their concern for the safety of loved ones; you have to design interactive narrative expressive sequences, not challenges.

Interactive narrative doesn’t need instructions, pop-up messages, tutorials, HUD, etc. Acting, interacting, following the flow of narration, managing relationships, exploring, discovering, analyzing, talking, etc. all this must be spontaneous, easy, immediate. It’s a matter of interactive vocabulary. I know, it depends on technological evolution; luckily actual technologies already allows it. Environmental triggered events or NPCs behavior can drive players agency. Let’s think of some interactive narrative sequences in The Last Of Us and its DLC Left Behind; appropriate shots, lights and particular sounds, the design of the rooms, graphic details, elements of the musical accompaniment, the internal thoughts of the protagonist, the behavior of the NPCs, particular events in the background, etc. etc. they can guide the player’s action spontaneously, naturally, to make the story flow without interrupting immersion and pace, making the player still feel as master of his own actions and will. Remember: art is illusion, you must give player the illusion to be protagonist, the illusion that his actions and choices are free and can have consequences.

Expressive mechanics?

Yes! In the Lewis sequence of Edith Finch you cut fishes head while taking control of Lewis in his visionary dream on a pip screen; cutting heads mechanic expresses Lewis alienation while working. In Beyond Eyes the little blind girl discovers the game world by touching, hearing, sniffing while walking; you can see the artistic visualization of game world as brush strokes on a white canvas depending on the movements of your avatar. That’s a poetic representation of blindness and little girl’s feelings. In The Unfinished Swan the main mechanic is the representation of the creative act of artists, of artistic creativity. In ICO you can take the hand of the AI-driven princess while walking, running and solving puzzles; that enhance characters empathy and relationship. You can find similar empathetic mechanics in The Last Guardian.

Memorable interactive narrative sequences

I have described at least two memorable expressive interactive sequences above: The March for Freedom in Detroit: Become Human, and the “running for love” sequence in Embracelet. There are many other sequences worth of your attention. The ending of Inside is epic and reminds of the ending of the movie The 400 Blows.

I loved so much the ending visionary scene of Brukel.

Conclusions

Do you see? Video Games have to search for their specific narrative language, just like Cinema did in one century of evolution! The more you search, the more you find! What are you waiting for? Yes, you, dear young developer searching for glory and success! Put narration at the center of your game and free your imagination; search for interactive narrative solutions, build your interactive “vocabulary”. Enough of usual mechanics and “re-heated soups”; who did say that Video Games are just suited for challenges and ludic purposes? Children to bed, now its time for mature and serious gamers searching for “total” artistic and narrative experiences! 🙂 🙂 🙂

L.F.

PS: this article is periodically updated!

PS: If you need to go deeper in relationships between narration and gameplay, read my articles here.

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