Thursday, June 20, 2013

True Intelligence: Player-Led Narrative Design

In this article, writer and indie games developer C.Y. Reid describes a recent experiment with player-led branching narrative on Twitter and invites you all to explore the richness of impromptu branching narrative.

When considering how to lay out a branching narrative structure, it can sometimes become difficult to choose just how many parallel universes one wants to appear in the finished, playable world. However, one of the easiest ways to circumvent this, and indeed to establish which areas of each scene are the most interesting points of focus, is to allow players themselves to branch your narrative for you.

Last week, I tweeted the following:
“You are in a dark room. There are two doors. One is red, and one is blue. Which door will you open?”
I had almost ten responses within a minute or so. Out of those, five led the story through to its conclusion, but what was interesting was the variety of responses. One chose blue, one red, one turned the lights on, one opened an orange door, and so on. I responded to each by giving them a new room, a new set of objects to explore and people to talk to.

As the tweets continued, I began to interweave their stories. One player was trapped in a large iron room, and another had the key to a safe. Eventually, player two’s curiosity was peaked and they opened the safe revealing player one. Allowing their stories to mesh caused them to worry. Many of the players did not follow each other, and as a result, they were usually completely ignorant of the coming interweaving of their respective narratives.

It was exciting, both for me as a writer and for them as players. In giving them complete freedom of choice and acting as dungeon master for what became an interactive text adventure. Their story ended and all of them were happy, sated. “That was awesome,” said one, not long after they had been cast as a murderer and had the other four players turned against them. It was exciting to watch: Would they judge them, or would they check each other’s timelines and discover my manipulation of them into interesitng situations?

What I did afterwards was ran all their tweets through Storify, and I’ll soon be inputting their choices and the resultant scenarios I gave them into Twine, a text adventure engine available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Its visually straightforward flowchart and Wikipedia simple code allow even the most inexperienced game designer to output deep, complex adventures full of branching narratives, each easy to follow.

In a sense, I cheated the Twine writing process. Rather than coming up with which areas of the story to offer to the player as new roads to walk down, I gave players the option to point out which areas of each created scene they wanted to explore. It’s a lot faster than endlessly putting yourself in their shoes, and you’ll find it’s no different to level design.  You’ll only truly learn what innocent minds will want to see in your created universes once you watch them explore. Your omniscient knowledge of your own built narratives are the fatal flaw in learning where to take people next, if you’re aiming to reward someone’s curiosity.

Branching narratives are intricate, fickle things that can sometimes be the genesis of many a headache. At the same time, they’re also exciting ways to explore the mind of the player. So give it a shot, jump onto Twitter, throw out a starting scene and see where your followers take you. Perhaps follow your own path first and see how theirs diverges from yours. Don’t forget to invite me into the tale @failnaut - I wouldn’t mind doing a little less storycrafting on a social media platform, this time around.  

C.Y. Reid is a writer and indie games developer living and working in London. He has written games journalism for IGN UK and The Escapist, and has made games such as Hug Marine and Grindstar. You can find him at @failnaut or at


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