This is a post written for Games Versus Play.
I write both novels and interactive novels, and I’m fascinated by the style differences between the two.
(This is how fascinated I am.)
When I write novels, I often write in first person (“I don’t deliberately make things explode”), and sometimes third person (“She doesn’t deliberately make things explode”). It is extremely rare to find a published novel written in second person (“You don’t deliberately make things explode”). Most people find second person very jarring. The famous exception is “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and I’ve seen a couple of modern children’s books written in second person.
The great thing about first person is that it’s easy to use a quirky writing style, and to see inside the main character’s head. In my opinion, it’s particularly good for young adult or crossover writing, when internal thoughts are often an important part of the plot. On the down side, you can’t see the thought processes of other characters, or any information the main character doesn’t know (such as, there is a bushfire coming).
Second person is favoured by a lot of interactive fiction, because it emphasises the reader’s involvement in the story.
It’s also common to have a different style for the text of the choices themselves. For example, Choice of Games uses second person for the main text, and first person for the choices (which is reversed in the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” serial story app).
The overwhelming majority of novels use past tense (“Quit it!” said Bob), but quite a few interactive novels use present tense (“Quit it!” says Bob). When I’m writing a first draft, regardless of the form, I tend to switch back and forth between the two, which is always the most obvious thing I have to fix when I edit. It’s never okay to release a story like that.
This blog entry is in present tense. It feels more immediate to the reader—more like a face to face conversation. That’s useful for interactive fiction, which is a more conversational reading experience than novels. Quite a lot of writers fall into present tense in a first draft (whether they mean to or not) because they’re watching their own story as it happens in their head.
A story in its simplest form involves an interesting character with a serious problem who faces obstacles and then either succeeds or fails in solving their problem. The crucial structural elements are:
- How to make a character interesting. Flaws? Features? Quirks? Relate-ability? Pain (physical and/or emotional)? Unusual skills? Danger?
- What is the problem? It needs to be serious to the character, so it can be as simple as being thirsty or as complicated as saving the universe.
- What are the obstacles? They need to appear unsurmountable, and costly. The most difficult part is often having the character attempt to solve the problem in a way that should work (so the character doesn’t come across as an idiot) but instead backfires (raising the tension in the story). It’s a tricky balance.
- An ending must feel satisfying, even if the character fails or the problem has grown worse.
There are plenty of other elements to the story—worldbuilding, themes, scenery, subplots, etc etc—and of course other characters.
The greatest difference between a novel and an interactive novel is #1. The main character of a book is entirely under the writers’ control. They grow and change during the story. A crucial issue for any interactive fiction writer is how to make an interesting main character while also giving the reader control over the story. Often the solution is to make the main character a “Blank Slate”, an effect that works very much like a prototypical “Mary Sue”. That is, the reader can project their own personality onto the character.
Companies like Choice of Games work hard to allow the reader to fill in the blanks—choosing their own gender, sexuality, personality, and even the type of story. A single story with the same general ending can tell multiple stories eg a story ending with a prom can be a romance (the main character gets the girl/guy), horror (Carrie), action (Buffy), or tragedy (the main character doesn’t get the girl/guy) depending largely on the climactic scene. This means the writer needs to be able to think of their own main character and plot in several contradictory ways, and write their scenes accordingly.
A good interactive story writer also needs to think about the tangled fictional ethics of non-player characters. This is especially true in stories with a romance. Most interactive stories offer several romantic options, which immediately begs the question, “How are so many different people all attracted to one person? And is everybody bi?” NPCs really ARE just pieces on a board designed to make the player feel good, but good writing makes them feel like living, breathing individuals.
In the “Dream Daddy Dating Simulator” one of the potential romances is doomed no matter what the player does. This is frustrating to experience, but also makes the game more satisfying, because—as the creators point out—not all romances end well.
Some writers use statistics to block or allow romance, eg Kevin is only attracted to players who have shown high levels of empathy. Others have different sexuality for different NPCs, eg Kevin can only fall for male characters. That can be problematic, because far too much entertainment is pitched to a straight male setting. In my opinion, it’s better to have all bisexual NPCs than to give players less choices based on their gender.
The other tricky style element of interactive fiction is the dreaded “block of text”. In general, interactive fiction writers often aim for less than 300 words between choices. That means long passages of description or dialogue are a no-no. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general readers want a LOT of choices, and will get bored with lengthy prose (no matter how beautiful or profound). IF can be beautiful and profound, but it needs to use less words to do so (or to use the same number of words, but break up paragraphs with choices).
The experience of reading an interactive novel is both more and less involving than reading a book. As an interactive fiction reader, you can have a huge amount of control over the story—who to love, who to kill, what to learn and how to use your skills—but you are also constantly breaking the fourth wall as you pause to consider your choices along the way. I tend to read non-interactive novels at night, because the decision-making process of reading IF is too stressful.
Whether you’re writing, reading, or playing… good luck!
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