Thinking about interactive storytelling

Like a gear finally catching, and the machine lurching forward, a couple nights ago when I stumbled across inklewriter, my mind and momentum were altered. I’m still depressed, don’t get me wrong, I’m still overeating, feeling like crap, and being generally nihilistic – but instead of being distracted by video games, now I’m spending much of my time engaged in actual creative pursuits. The upside of which is much better than the upside for video games. My sleep schedule is off-the-charts weird, things have been extra stressful and difficult with my wife lately (she’s a teacher, it’s the first week of school, which I think is an obvious factor, plus her first attempt to get a reading endorsement didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, so she’s having to sign up for additional classes… it’s a whole thing and I’m not posting about that right now, but I am dealing with it in my life), but at least I’m thinking about getting back to some creative work. Actually, I’ve been digging in a bit and getting my hands “dirty” with the tools.

Well, err, tool, anyway. inklewriter. It’s an authorship and hosting/sharing tool for choice-based interactive storytelling. (This is, apparently, as opposed to the sort of interactive fiction you got in the old text adventures, where your inputs were freeform and parsed; in the most recent popular, web-based wave of interactive storytelling, the reader is presented with explicit options to choose from, rather than a command line.) My brother has also been looking into creating interactive storytelling of his own, but where I want to create things closer to books or short stories (ie: longform narrative, closer to literature than to games), he wants to create things closer to the video games end of the spectrum (he’s a big fan of failbetter‘s Fallen London). failbetter themselves are working on adapting the tools they used to build Fallen London into StoryNexus, a platform for creating very game-like interactive fiction. Another developer associated with that team has been working on Varytale, which is geared toward more book-like interactive fiction, broken into small chunks they call storylets. (I recommend you read one of their sample interactive books, How to Read, about how to read interactive fiction but more importantly about the uses, implementations, and value of interactivity in storytelling.) I am also obliged to mention additional tools/platforms like Playfic and Choice of Games, both of which are very deliberately wading in the games end of the interactive fiction pool.

Some of these tools are publicly available now, some require you to request access or submit a book/game/project proposal, and others are still in closed beta. Some of them have very user-friendly, GUI interfaces that require little or no coding, others were clearly designed by programmers who think everyone thinks like a programmer, and a few explicitly require you to code all the interactivity in your stories by hand. The three I’m most interested in are inklewriter, Varytale, and StoryNexus – in that order. inklewriter is the only one of those which is open to the public right now. It and StoryNexus don’t require any real coding. It and Varytale are designed with more-booklike projects in mind. None of them, unfortunately, offer any tools/capabilities (yet) for exporting/saving/backing-up your stories, or hosting them on your own site. They’ve all got plans to integrate monetization, but none is actually up and running with those features, yet.

Of course, my books (especially my digital books) don’t actually make much money, anyway. So I’m seriously considering making my next project an interactive fiction project. As I said at the beginning of the post, I’ve been tinkering in inklewriter for the last few days. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to be able to have meaningful and responsive conversations with their Twitter account about the current features and future plans for the service. I’ve made several pages of sketches of plot structures made possible by the technology (most of which would be unimplementable on paper, ever, and unlikely to work within existing eBook formats), I’ve actually used the tool to implement one of them fully (though it’s just a skeleton, without much of the flesh of the story itself, so far), and others partially (to see how my initial ideas had holes in them, mostly, though also to wrap my mind around meaningful logic implementations for coherent narratives), and I’ve begun brainstorming about what sort of very-large (for interactive fiction) project I’d like to build.

I could flesh out (and design logic for) my initial insane idea. I’ve determined that for a target average-story-length of 3k-5k words, I’ll probably have to write 40k-60k words to fill out every possible path/branch/intersection/insanity I initially mapped. It’s only about 200 discrete story chunks with about 100 total decision points, but getting them all to play nicely with one another, the way I’ve designed it, would be … challenging. Probably what I’ll do is play with another few short projects, and share them freely with everyone (maybe enter them in one of the ongoing interactive storytelling contests – I’ve never really submitted anything to contests before…), and then do something … big.

What I’ve been thinking about most recently is building my possibly-pending adaptation of Dragons’ Truth as interactive fiction, in one way or another. Actually, it would be the whole trilogy (yes, I’ve been planning on turning it into a trilogy when/if I re-write D’T), and then the problems become things like producing print and audio editions. If I had a larger, engaged fan base and appropriate analytics tools, I could do something like tracking which choices readers make most often or polling people about their preferences, and let the readers decide what the “definitive” version of the books will be for the audio version and the limited-edition print runs… though if I do it this way, to me the interactive version will be the truly definitive version. And then later I can release a “director’s cut” eBook with the version I get from my own responses…

Of course, I’ve still got a huge backlog of research and planning to do before I can tackle that project, and then I’ve actually got to sit down and write it. (And write several times as much as “normal”, if it’s interactive.) So … it’ll be a while. But that’s what I’m thinking about now. My decisions in the coming days and weeks will certainly shape the nature of my research and planning in coming months.

As always, your responses are welcome, though not expected. Feel free to comment, email, text message, call me, or send a letter with your thoughts. Bonus points if your letter arrives by post and was typed on a manual typewriter.

Published by


Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

Leave a Reply