Writing Interactive Fiction

In my last post I looked at inklewriter, one of a number of interactive or branching fiction writing systems that are starting to emerge. I concluded that the only way to really get to grips with it would be to knuckle down and actually write something with it. Well, I’ve done that now, so I think I’m qualified to report that inklewriter is a pretty wonderful thing.

Fork in the Road Literal

First thing to note is that it’s surprisingly easy and intuitive. The programme very quickly disappears from your mind as you write in the same way that your word processor (should) disappear. Having assumed that a more top-down, flow chart based system would have made more sense, I can now see why they have gone for this ‘here’s a blank page, get on with it’ approach. You quickly fall into a similar ‘flow’ to writing linear fiction.

This is not to say that writing interactive fiction itself is easy, of course, just that the challenges are creative rather than technical. And there are more creative challenges in interactive than non-interactive, as I’ll discuss. It’s like a chess player being presented with a bigger board that has more pieces – more or less the same game, but there’s more to think about. However the whole point of writing, as far as I can tell, is because creative problems are a real buzz, so this is clearly a good thing.

Basically, I loved it.

So, given this new tool and time to write a short story, what did I do?

Firstly, I had no interest in writing something where the reader can affect the plot or steer the story. You may recall when I wrote about the interactive Frankenstein app I admired how the reader’s role had shifted from that of an observer to something more akin to the narrator’s conscience. I wanted to experiment with this (although other options, such as a recounted narrative like Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner, or a trial/judgement/murder mystery format also seem promising.)

Starting to write such a story, however, quickly made it apparent that the ‘narrator’s conscience’ model wasn’t quite right, because a conscience doesn’t constantly need to be informed of back story or motive. The reader, then, is still the observer of before but they have somehow become more involved. It is like the veil of paper that separates the reader from the story is just a little thinner now.

So, my choice of story attempted to capitalise on that. The story I wrote, First Against The Floor, came from the idea that with terrorism or revolution, it’s not who you kill that’s important, but how you kill them. It’s morally dubious as all hell, in other words, but it does thrust the poor reader into an unacceptable situation and force them to think and react. I was trying to use the interactive format to help me ‘drag the reader in’ to an absurd situation, as the saying goes.

I’m not saying I succeeded, of course. Only that that was the intention.

The other major factor that I was exploring was pacing. In particular, I was thinking about the almost hypnotic rhythm you got from old turn-based games such as Civ II – that ‘decide, act, observe, decide, act, observe…’ rhythm that is hard to break and makes it almost impossible to stop playing. I’d noticed a similar rhythm when reading graphic stuff a panel at a time in the Comixology app: ‘move to next panel, absorb image, read text, move to next panel, absorb image, read text…’ My thinking here was that if you could get a rhythm like that going in interactive fiction, combined with the more involved observer described above, then people would really get absorbed in these things and they would have a qualitative difference over regular fiction. As a result I found myself using lots of tricks like adding ‘fake interaction’ in order to keep that rhythm.

With hindsight, however, I may have made it too pacey. Aiming for this rhythm changed my writing style quite noticeably. I would recommend reading a couple of pages of my novel from here – you can download a free sample – and comparing it to this interactive short. In particular, I found myself being far less descriptive, in order to keep these bite size little chunks of plot small and self-contained. I suspect that despite everything I said about the format drawing the reader in, this lack of description may have had an opposite effect and cancelled that out a bit.

Another surprise was the tone completely shifted. When I started, the intention was for it to be a bit of a farce. With the reader suddenly added to the mix, however, the protaganist was put on their back foot and had had to justify himself. He had to believe in all the extreme politics that was originally going to be glibby sketched over. Jokes were then cut because they no longer fitted the tone, and the amount of suspense kept growing. I was aiming for Chris Morris but ended up with Jack Bauer. Short stories rarely turn out like you planned of course, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the finished result.

Still, you live and learn, and that’s what’s experiments are for. I also recall I had some obsession with the amount of text that fits nicely on a smartphone screen when I was writing, although with hindsight that’s a fairly dumb thing to focus on.

So, have a read of my effort and if you sense the potential in the format then consider writing something yourself. Reading the tutorials on the site will set you up nicely. The software is still in beta so there will be options that you will find yourself missing, such as a word count (writers do love their word counts) and the ability to save locally and export. I’d suggest using Chrome instead of Firefox as this has a built-in spellcheck, which inklewriter currently lacks. It’s early days – I think tracking variable are currently being introduced – but if you want to see how you write in a different landscape you will have a lot of fun.

I’m also curious as to how such a system could be used for non-fiction.

Click here to read my first interactive short, First Against The Floor (Warning: bad language and unacceptable politics, but hey.)

2 comments on “Writing Interactive Fiction

  1. I just found your blog, and I really like your exploration here for the role of interactivity in fiction. There’s a wide space between the reader-as-protagonists of gamebooks and their ilk, and the wholly un-interactive experience of a novel, and that space has been widely unexplored. I’m very curious about what will be found there, now that technology has opened that frontier.

    Also, I enjoyed Try the Swan. Although I have to admit, I got a bit mixed up with use of pronouns and exactly what role the reader is supposed to be playing. It started out sounding like a conversation between two humans, but later the protagonist began to speak in ways that were more descriptive of his actions, rather than being anything that would ever be said in words. That threw me, and then later the “you” pronoun was used briefly to refer to the protagonist character himself

    The section “Agree” opens with, “’If that is the burden that falls to me,’ you start to say, but then fall quiet.” Is that an error? I think that’s an error.

    But nitpicking is beside the point. Regardless, this is a very interesting experiment, and I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on your blog and seeing what else you come up with.

    • Hi Ashton, yeah that is almost certainly an error. That story was bashed out as an experiment one afternoon, so it’s rough in places, and branching fiction is fiddly as all hell to proof read. I was probably working out exactly what the role of that ‘voice’ was as I went along.

      The approach that interests me – and the one I will use if/when I write something more serious in that form – is to use branching fiction to force the reader into the position of the narrator’s conscience, engaging with him and forcing him to justify his actions, but ultimately powerless to affect the story events that unfold.

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