Some thoughts on planning interactive stories

Got a fun question over on Tumblr recently about how to plan a branching, interactive story. I liked how the answer turned out so I thought I'd put it over here too:

Step one - Figure out your beginning!

Typically the easiest part. Coming up with a premise, worlds, characters, etc. is fun! General storytelling tip: Make sure you have a character for your player who has both an external problem (“Baron von Badguy is trying to take over the world and I am the only superhero who can stop him!!!”) and an internal problem (“I lack self-confidence in my non-costumed identity to properly date anyone…”) The external problem will give your story structure, while the internal problem will give your player Reasons that they want to see your character succeed and grow.

Step two - Figure out your endings!

A much harder step!! Make sure you have endings mapped out ahead of time. DON’T make them just “the good ending” and “the bad ending.” These should all have different flavors of resolution to your internal and external problems. (Hint hint: Remixing those internal/external goals is a great way of coming up with these) For instance!

  • An ending where our hero focused super hard on defeating Baron von Badguy… but zero time was spent on self-growth! The world is saved, but our hero is still lonely.
  • An ending where our hero focused super hard on self-growth and dating, but at the cost of tracking down von Badguy’s evil plot! Our hero is happy, whole, and finishes the story surrounded by love and cuddles… but Baron von Badguy is still out there threatening the world.
  • An ending where our hero works on himself and realizes that, even though he is worthy of love and respect as a civilian, he needs to put those desires on hold for now for the greater good. Healthy mindset! World saved! Still lonely.

Step three - Figure out your midpoint twist or turn!

Are you sketching this out on paper yet? If not you probably should. Or at least some flow chart software. Look at your beginning (let’s call it A), then each of your endings (let’s call them C1, C2, C3), Now we need to define the midpoints in each of those stories (B1, B2, B3). These midpoints, like any good story, should be where new information is learned, or a big decision is presented, someone new comes into the story… some big twist or turn.

Now the tricky thing with an interactive story is you need a twist or turn that the player can either accept and continue with… or change tracks. What I mean by this is if you’re on the track towards love and self-acceptance at the cost of stopping Baron von Badguy (ending C2) then midpoint B2 should probably be a moment where our hero (and the player) are clued in to what’s going on. Off the top of my head, they’d probably be getting ready for a romantic date… and hears that Baron von Badguy is threatening Oak Tower!!! At this point the player can either say “That skyscraper will be fine. This date’s more important” (thus continuing towards ending C2) OR they can rethink their priorities and call off the date with that handsome man to go save the day (thus diverting to either ending C1 or C3).

So basically, figure out where your switching points are, accounting for as many possibilities as you can.

Step four - Figure out the rest of the branch points!

Hope you had fun doing step three, because now it’s time to do it again and again and again. A1a, A1b, A1c… You want to find as many places as possible for your player/hero’s actions to be questioned, nuances explored… and the best way to do that is usually by continuing to twist and turn the world, your hero’s priorities, and the ways that other people feel about their priorities. It can be daunting for sure, but the more you dig deep on this stuff the better the end result will be.

General tip! Emotional choices are better than tactical choices!

What do I mean by that? A tactical choice is where the player is given the option to pick “go through door A,” “turn right,” “run up the ladder.” These kind of choices feel like easy branching but they’re emotionally cheap and not that much fun.

Emotional choices are more like “I’ve forgotten to buy my sister a gift for her birthday. Do I go to her birthday party and apologize, promising something later, or pick up a gift card on the way?” Those are the kinds of choices that people really have a hard time with.

A cheat to make tactical choices feel like emotional choices is put another character in the world who cares about the tactical choice. “Do we go through the door or up the ladder?” is a tactical choice, but “Do we go up the ladder, even though my sister is afraid of heights?” is suddenly (more of) an emotional one.