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.)

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Inklewriter launches

A few weeks back I got excited by the Dave Morris‘ interactive take on Frankenstein. What struck me as significant was that, while I had been expecting something similar to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, what he had done was far more subtle. You can read my thoughts on this here, but overall I was struck with a new sense of potential about branching fiction.

And guess what? A writer-facing version of the tech has been placed online by inklestudios of Cambridge. It’s still in beta, but it allows anyone to write and share similar interactive fiction. You can find it here: http://writer.inklestudios.com/

So what’s it like? Well, first impressions are very good. There’s a bunch of tutorials which take you through how the system works and constantly challenges you to experiment with it. These tutorials make it seem pretty simple and useable. There’s no conditional logic or tracking variables – yet – and there’s no way to export your story as a stand alone .epub3 file, but all in all it’s a pretty unexpected and wonderful little gift from the Internets.

Of course, putting this online makes complete sense. If branching fiction is to move away from the quest-based ‘adventure’ model to the more interesting things that Frankenstein hinted at, then giving writers the ability to play around with the form and see what they come up with is a necessary step.

What surprised me most was more what it wasn’t. I expected something with a top-down, flow chart structure, rather than the ‘here’s a blank page, start at the top’ approach. This may be more a quirk of my approach to writing, or a side-effect of having a background in computers. For my own fiction I tend to write in Scrivener, which matches my way of thinking – I think in structure and I tend to ‘build’ stories rather than let them flow out. For most writers, however, I suspect this would be a far more comfortable approach.

But the big question is, what’s it like to actually write branching fiction in? And the only way to find that out is to roll up your sleeves and write something. So, that is what I will do.

*checks schedule*

I’m not entirely sure when I’ll do that, admittedly, but do it I shall. Wish me luck!