Managing Uncertainty

Last week, I talked about uncertainty in interactive narratives – how, once you give the player influence over events, things can spiral out of the writer’s ability to predict the shape of the story.  In this brief (there’s a hurricane outside) entry, I’ll list some tools for keeping that spiral in check.

Constrained Setting – the Dungeon Map

If the whole story takes place within a single area, and most of the decisions offered to the player involve a choice of direction (which, effectively, means picking the order of events), then the timing of the climax is determined by where that climactic encounter is in that area. The classic example here is the dungeon crawl – the player enters at one end of the map, the big boss is at the other end, but the player has freedom of choice within that labyrinth. Go right, and fight the orc; go left, and sneak past the dragon, but both passageways eventually meet up outside the dark lord’s lair.

However, once players start actually talking to the dungeon denizens, and the choices become more complex than “go left or right”, this solution won’t hold complexity in check.

Chokepoints & Checkpoints

This solution uses a scene or encounter that the player has to go through to progress through the story. They funnel those possibilities, squishing many different possible narratives down to a predictable common thread. A chokepoint is usually implemented as a goal that the player is supposed to make for, no matter how they choose to do so; a checkpoint might be left unstated, but blocks progress to the next part of the story until the player fulfils its requirements.

Take The Lord of the Rings – Frodo’s initial challenge is to get the Ring to Rivendell. There are many, many different paths he could have taken to get there,  but he’s always trying to reach that sanctuary – and once he’s there, there’s a narrative reset.

In effect, these break the story into sub-stories. Each segment begins at a predictable place, there’s a period of growing unpredictable craziness, and then all those possibilities converge to the chokepoint. The trick here is providing a sufficiently compelling chokepoint that the player is interested in going there eventually. Chokepoints, therefore, really only work for really big narrative elements.

Floating Clues & Challenges

Here, the writer carves out some key elements that have to be in the story, and declares that the player will always encounter them. These floating elements get popped into the narrative when opportunity arises. The player’s “destined” to find the diary – it might be in the library, or the bookshop, or in the dead man’s writing desk, or somewhere else, but the player will always find it if they look. Floating elements are nicely flexible, as they can be worked in to fit with the unfolding story and give the player the impression that their decisions led them to this diary, but that flexibility restricts the sort of interactive narratives they work with. They’re great in tabletop games; harder to make work in computer games.

Narrative Myopia

In this strategy, you just ignore anything that doesn’t fit with your planned narrative. You need the player to be a hero, so you gloss over their non-heroic actions. You assume the player is in love with the love interest, so you have her declare her affections.

On the face of it, this sounds immensely clumsy, but it’s surprisingly effective. The trick to making it work is to leave enough ambiguity in the events and dialogue that the player is willing to fill in the gaps. So, the king says “only you can save us”: the player who”s been playing their character as a heroic do-gooder nods enthusiastically, while the player who’s been playing as a cruel opportunist thinks “they must be in trouble if they’re turning to me“. The maiden fair might be revealing her true feelings, or showing herself to be a deluded innocent, but the story can progress either way.


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