When you hear the word “story,” you probably think of a linear story—one with a beginning, middle, and end, that unfolds completely indifferent to audience member’s expectations. A book doesn’t shapeshift around readers’ experiences, a film doesn’t adapt to fill in gaps in viewers’ knowledge, and a TV show doesn’t change its ending to account for the desires of its audience. This is linear storytelling—it relies on finding the best version of your narrative, and relaying it to your audience.
This ideal is vital to traditional storytelling, but it works against the give-and-take relationship in the best interactive narratives. Branching-path narratives turn over a certain degree of control to the user, by introducing choices that often affect both the storyline and the experience of the story. The most impactful branching narratives offer multiple versions of the same story, each one engaging to different audience members.
When branching-path narratives are at their best, they draw the user in, empowering them to shape the contours of the story. This is not the same as being the author or writer, but it’s a step towards it.
Creators of branching-path narratives have a measure less autonomy in shaping exactly which aspects of the narrative the audience will see (if there are two pathways, only one will be seen). They must then have a heightened sense of trust in, and empathy for, the user. This relationship is at the core of the best branching storytelling—whether in intimate character dramas like Firewatch or sweeping space epics like the Mass Effect series.
Unfortunately, this necessary give-and-take is too often ignored by creators who are reluctant to (or, just as often, unaware of how to) give partial control of the story over to the user. From interactive television shows to choose-your-own instagram stories, branching-path storytelling is proliferating onto platforms where technological limitations once made them unfeasible. But we’re seeing habits from linear storytelling pop up on these new platforms, making early experiments within them interactive in functionality while still attempting to deliver one perfect version of a narrative. The result is narratives that forcibly push users down a given path, providing only the illusion of agency.
This often manifests in branching narratives that repeatedly tell their audience their decision was incorrect and, then, ask them to go back and make the creator’s desired choice. This can take a variety of forms, but from TV shows to conversational chatbots to interactive audio, viewers will often be told to make what seems like a plot-driving decision, only to be told, “no, go back and try again.”
If we’re going to open up avenues in our stories, we need to make sure they don’t ask users to return to prior points and play through their choices again until they make the decision we wanted them to. If you’re going to present “incorrect” choices, you have to imagine the “bad” outcomes and let the user live with that choice. If you don’t want to write those out, don’t include them as a choice. Find another way. (After all, you are still the author, and in charge of which branches you do and don’t include.)
At the Bot Studio, we imagine that we’re telling our readers a story directly. This allows us to let users pick and choose avenues they are interested in, while also reacting to the story that’s unfolding. This way, if there’s an avenue we need our users to go down, we can still bring them into the story by gauging their reactions or emotions—selections which respect the user’s opinion instead of focusing on right or wrong pathways.
We ended last year with a weeks-long series on exploring video games. Bot Studio director Emily Withrow said the goal of the piece was to “help you (and us) better understand gaming and ourselves.”
We wanted to design an experience that would appeal to both those new to gaming and more experienced gamers. We knew this would be difficult as the two camps have different interests, needs, and desires. Those new to gaming might want to gain a general understanding of the different categories, for instance, while seasoned gamers might instead prefer to go deep on a few unfamiliar genres.
To account for this, we built modular content each week, which allowed the users to follow a nonlinear path tailored to their interests and expertise. These typically consisted of an intro/feedback section, a few deep dives, and a preview of what was to come. So, for example, during our puzzle game week, we had a standard intro/feedback section, a module on the early history of video games, a section on the legacy of Tetris, and a preview of next week’s game. Throughout their play-through, users could travel down whichever portion they wanted, or skip them altogether. They were never forced to go back if their choices didn’t match up with our expectations.
At the same time, we built each larger week to be optional (other than a brief section checking user participation) so that more experienced gamers could skip an entire week if they knew they were uninterested in a specific genre (like puzzle games). Our goal was to make sure users would be able to travel down our narrative in a way that most likely led to them gaming—not any single pathway that we thought was the “best.”