Characterisation In Interactive Fiction

2016 Artwork Characterisation in interactive fiction

Well, since I still seem to be going through a bit of a “point and click” adventure game phase at the moment, I couldn’t help but think of the interactive gamebook-style story that I wrote and posted online in October. So, I thought that I’d look at the subject of characterisation in interactive fiction today.

Although I’ll mostly be talking about gamebook-style prose stories here, I’ll also be talking briefly about “point and click” adventure games too.

Anyway, interactive stories offer all sorts of possibilities for characterisation that more traditional linear stories don’t.

This is especially noticeable in “point and click” games because the high level of interactivity means that literally every interaction with another character and every witty observation of the game’s world can reveal more information about the characters and their worldviews.

Likewise, because computer games are a visual medium, you can also reveal a lot of character information through the actions, appearances etc.. of all the various characters.

But, I thought that I’d talk about a slightly less interactive, and much less visual, type of interactive fiction for the rest of the article. I am, of course, talking about gamebooks.

Gamebooks are kind of interesting when it comes to characterisation since, although you can include interactive dialogue (eg: “to ask about one thing, turn to page 34. To ask about another thing, turn to page 86”) the limitations of the format mean that this kind of dialogue can’t really be as extensive as the interactive dialogue in “point and click” games.

Likewise, it’s more difficult for interactive gamebooks to include the kinds of witty observations that “point and click” games do. Yes, you can include witty descriptions in the narration but, since these books are narrated from a second-person perspective, all this does is give the narrator (rather than the main character) more characterisation.

Since the main character in a gamebook is supposed to be the reader, there is traditionally very little characterisation in order to allow the reader to immerse himself or herself fully in the story. Although I kind of ignored this rule slightly (for comedic purposes) when I wrote my interactive story, the main character in a gamebook-style story is supposed to be something of a “blank slate”.

What this means is that virtually all of the characterisation in a gamebook-style story has to come from the supporting characters. Although you can pretty much write these characters in the same way as you would write a character in an “ordinary” story, you will probably have to place more emphasis on distinctive dialogue and quick characterisation for the simple reason that your readers are probably only going to see these characters for a couple of pages.

Another interesting thing about gamebook-style stories is that, because the reader can usually take several different paths through the story, it’s possible that they might not meet all of the characters. What this means is that, if a character is essential to the plot, then you have to structure your story in a way that makes it impossible for the reader to avoid them.

On the other hand, you can take advantage of the branching nature of interactive stories to convey the same information to the reader in a variety of different ways. For example, at one point in my interactive story, you can choose to take one of three possible routes to the last part of the game.

In two of these routes, you get to meet one of two different characters ( either the Dungeonkeeper or High Priestess Lachard, depending on the route you take). During your dialogue with either character, they will give you a clue which will help you with a puzzle later in the story. But, more than that, their dialogue also discusses the same event from two different perspectives.

If you talk to the Dungeonkeeper, he’ll talk about a mistake that he once made and how High Priestess Lachard still mocks him about it. If you talk to Lachard, then one part of the dialogue will remind her of this mistake and she’ll suddenly burst into laughter with relatively little explanation.

Since you only get to read one of these two dialogues when you’re reading the story, you get a slightly different perspective on the same part of the story’s backstory. Not only does it provide extra “value” for people who are re-reading the story, but it also emphasises the fact that the characters knew each other and existed before the events of the story. In other words, it makes the “world” of your story feel more like a real, living world.

Likewise, because gamebook-style stories are interactive, you can get a lot of character information across from the way that other characters react to the player’s decisions. You can show whether characters are quick to anger, whether characters are always suspicious etc…

These are, of course, just a few of the advantages that interactive fiction has over linear fiction when it comes to characterisation. But, you’d be surprised at how much more you can do when you’re telling an interactive story.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Plan A Gamebook If You Have A Short Creative Attention Span

2016 Artwork Making Gamebooks if you only do short projects

As regular readers of this site probably know, I have a fairly short attention span when it comes to creating things.

This currently means that I currently can’t spend more than 3-5 days working on a single comic project, more than 2-3 hours working on a single painting and it also means that I consider novella-length pieces of fiction to be “long” writing projects. I also hardly ever pre-plan comics, paintings and writing projects to any large extent too.

Yet, last October, I was able to make a 51-page interactive online gamebook called “Acolyte!” in the space of about five days or so. Yes, this gamebook is only between one sixth and one eighth the length of traditional print gamebooks, but given the level of complexity and planning involved in making a gamebook, I’m surprised that I was actually able to complete it.

After all, back in 2013, I’d tried to write a sci-fi gamebook and I’d given up fairly quickly because of the sheer level of planning and amount of writing involved.

So, how was this gamebook different to the one I tried to make in 2013? Well, knowing more about myself now than I did then, I was able to plan it in a way that made it easier for me to handle

If you’re making a gamebook, then the plan for it will usually look a bit like a flow chart of some kind. For a 300-400 page gamebook, these flowcharts can get fairly large and complex. Hell, even for a 51-page gamebook, the flowcharts can get pretty large. Here’s a mock-up of what the flow-chart for “Acolyte!” would look like if I’d planned out the whole story in one chart:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Dots signify pages, "X" signifies a death/failure scene and "E" signifies an ending.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Dots signify pages, “X” signifies a death/failure scene and “E” signifies an ending.

As you can see, this looks fairly complex. However, you might also note that it’s a little bit on the linear side – it branches slightly, but it still pretty much travels in a single direction. This was an unfortunate side-effect of a technique that I used in order to actually finish the plan, given my short creative attentions span

Instead of planning out one large and unwieldily chart, I split it up into five smaller segments. Most of these segments only end on one point (to make starting the next segment a lot easier). In other words, instead of planning one large gamebook, I planned out five shorter and more manageable self-contained gamebooks which happened to be linked together.

This mock-up is a lot closer to what my plans for the gamebook actually looked like:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] As you can see, the map has been split into five easier and more manageable parts, albeit at the cost of making the story slightly more linear.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] As you can see, the map has been split into five easier and more manageable parts, albeit at the cost of making the story slightly more linear.

As I said earlier, this technique comes at the cost of making your gamebook slightly more linear, but it can be an excellent way to actually plan out a gamebook if you’ve got a short creative attention span.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Narrative Voice And Perspective – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Second person narrative voice article sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I tend to write these articles quite far in advance of when they’re actually posted. So, at the time of writing, I’m working on an interactive fiction gamebook project that may or may not have been posted online sometime around last Halloween.

Anyway, I noticed something very interesting when I was writing this gamebook. My narrative voice was different to how I remembered.

Back when I wrote fiction on a much more regular basis, I was very proud of the fact that I had a distinctive narrative voice. I’m not quite sure when it first emerged, but it was probably sometime in early-mid 2009. I’d gone through a few other narrative voices and I’d finally found the one that was perfect for me.

It was the perfect fit for the fiction that I wrote in 2009-11, since most of these stories were sci-fi/ horror/ detective stories that were narrated from a first-person perspective. In fact, my narrative voice was only at it’s best when I wrote stories in the first person. Whenever I tried to write from a third-person perspective, my narration often just sounded kind of dull and “functional”.

As fans of old-school 1970s-90s gamebooks (eg: “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Fighting Fantasy” etc.. ) will know, these books are always written in the present tense and from a second-person perspective. In fact, this is the only genre of fiction that has to be narrated in this particular way.

Still, having had relatively little experience with writing from a second-person perspective (apart from this, this and part four of this ), the effects that this had on my narrative voice were extremely surprising.

If my usual first-person narrative voice sounds a bit like a twentysomething punk/goth woman from the future, then my second-person narrative voice in the gamebook that I’m writing sounds more like a cross between various American comedy writers, a rather posh old man, Missy from “Doctor Who” and something from this hilariously melodramatic vintage horror movie trailer.

Seriously, the difference really shocked me.

Even so, I can still just about see a few traces of my first-person narrative voice when I’m writing in the second person but, for the most part, my narrative voice is totally different when I write in the second person.

Interactive stories narrated from a second-person perspective have to do both of these things. Not only is the narrator an omniscient figure who is only partially in control of the world of the story, but he or she also has to talk directly to the reader too. I guess that this means that the narrative voice you use for second-person stories has to be tailored to the kind of story that you’re telling.

So, if you’re telling a horror story, then I guess that your narrative voice will probably sound a bit more nihilistic or “evil”. If you’re telling a fantasy story, then I guess that your narrative voice would probably sound more old and wizened. If you’re telling a detective story, your narrative voice will probably sound more “hardboiled”. I’m sure you get the idea.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but my narrative voice is certainly a lot more flexible when I’m writing in a second-person perspective.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Ways To Add Humour To Interactive Fiction

2016 Artwork Interactive fiction humour sketch

Well, after writing yesterday’s article, I was in the mood for writing some “Fighting Fantasy“/”Choose Your Own Adventure“-style interactive fiction.

(Edit: If you’re interested in my interactive story, it can be read here. And, yes, I write these articles fairly far in advance of when they’re posted.)

As you might have guessed, it’s a horror story – or at least it was going to be a horror story. Of course, it seems to be some unwritten rule that whenever I try to write horror fiction, comedy quickly emerges instead.

Still, there’s something awesome about writing comedy in interactive fiction that you don’t really get if you write comedy in “ordinary” fiction. This is mainly because there are a few comedy techniques that only really work well in interactive fiction. So, I thought that I’d give you a few quick tips about how to make your own interactive fiction funnier.

1) Player dissonance: Interactive fiction is typically written in the present tense and from a second-person perspective (eg: “you open the door”), since the reader is meant to be the main character. A good “serious” interactive fiction story will try to make the main character an “everyman” and/or “everywoman” kind of character. They’ll make the main character into a generic, reasonable person that the reader can easily superimpose themselves onto.

However, if you want to add some humour to your interactive fiction, then you can make the main character a little bit more eccentric. You can make them do slightly silly things or even act in a downright bizarre way. Yes, this breaks player immersion in the story slightly, but if it’s handled well, then it’ll amuse your readers to no end. Good comedy comes from the difference between your readers’ expectations and what you actually show them.

For example, most horror-themed interactive stories (like this excellent one by Steve Jackson) involve an “ordinary” character exploring somewhere scary. My story begins with the player enthusiastically preparing to join an evil secret society that lives in a creepy old mansion. No real explanation for this is given, but it’s the last thing that you’d expect in an interactive fiction story.

2) Silly options: This one is pretty self-explanatory, but when it comes to adding options at the end of a page or paragraph, feel free to throw in a slightly silly or random one too.

If you’re feeling really evil, you can make the silly option the one that the player needs to choose in order to succeed. If you’re feeling slightly less evil, you can make this option result in the main character’s death.

If you’re feeling even less evil, then choosing this option could possibly just make the reader loop round to the previous options page or something like that.

3) Death scenes: In most interactive fiction stories, the player’s chances of winning aren’t 100%. If the player makes the wrong decision, then the main character can end up dying or being trapped somewhere or something like that. Like in all games, winning is more enjoyable when there’s a very real chance of failure.

However, these scenes can be kind of annoying to read for obvious reasons. So, they are the perfect place to add humour. If you can make your readers laugh during one of these scenes, then they’re less likely to stop reading. So, be sure to make your death scenes hilariously inventive or make sure that they’re narrated in a humourous way.

For example, in my interactive fiction story, choosing one option can leave you stranded in the middle of a field filled with undead skeletons. The scene in question ends with these lines:

Fun fact: Skeletons are nowhere near as evil or fierce as horror movies often make them out to be. In fact, they’re actually rather hospitable to anyone who happens to stray upon their ancient ground. But, well, what kind of host would leave their guest standing on the roof in the middle of a thunderstorm, when there’s warm tea and crumpets waiting in the coffins below?

In fact, skeletal hospitality is so well renowned that one hundred percent of their guests quickly end up becoming skeletons themselves. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess.

4) Narration: Traditionally, the narrator in an interactive fiction story should be as “neutral” and descriptive as possible.

If you’re telling a serious interactive story, then you want to put as little distance between the story and the reader as possible. This is why the narration in many interactive stories can sometimes be a bit “functional” and “matter of fact”. *Yawn*.

Of course, if you actually want to add some humour to your interactive story, then just give the narrator a bit more personality. Let your narrator make sarcastic comments occasionally, or even “break the fourth wall” every once in a while.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Are Gamebooks Such An Overlooked Genre?

2016 Artwork Why Aren't Gamebooks more popular

[NOTE: Since I write these articles fairly far in advance, this article was actually written shortly before I wrote “Acolyte!” – a free interactive gamebook style horror/comedy story].

Even though this is an article about an old genre of fiction that is often overlooked, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames briefly. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

Anyway, for a few days before I originally wrote this article, I’ve been watching a series of “let’s play” videos for a modern horror game called “Until Dawn”. This is a game that’s based on old slasher movies and the game seems to play out like a movie, but you get to make decisions at various points in the story which affect which characters survive, what happens next etc…

Although the game requires a far more modern games console than any that I own and, looking at the videos, it doesn’t have a huge amount of actual gameplay in it- it fascinated me because it’s basically a modern version of those old gamebooks that used to be popular in the 1970s-90s (eg: “Fighting Fantasy“, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Give Yourself Goosebumps” etc..).

In case you’ve never seen these books before, they start out like a normal novel but – after a couple of pages, you’ll be given a decision to make. If you choose one option, then the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 53. If you choose the other option, the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 75. Whichever page you turn to will also contain another set of decisions etc…. Your decisions affect how the story plays out.

In other words, there are many possible paths through the story. If you were to map out the possible paths through these books, then they would look more like a flowchart of some kind than a single straight line.

When I was younger, I amassed quite a collection of these gamebooks and even tried (and failed) to write some of my own. In fact, I also tried (and failed) to write one as recently as 2013 [It’s the fourth thing on the index in this article]. It’s possible that I may or may not have made another attempt between the time I wrote this article and the time it is posted. [Edit: As mentioned earlier, I did and it can be read here].

And, yes, I also wrote another article about this genre back in 2013 too. Seriously, it’s one of those genres that I keep forgetting about and then becoming fascinated with again.

The thing that really surprises me is how unknown and under-appreciated this genre is. Books in this genre mostly seem to be written for and marketed towards kids and teenagers and they virtually never get any real recognition. Most modern authors wouldn’t even think about writing one of these stories. This is a real shame because these stories have the advantage of being interactive in a way that “traditional” stories don’t.

So, why is this genre so overlooked and under-used?

First of all, it’s probably because of the technical difficulties involved in writing one of these stories. Not only do you have to meticulously plan out the whole story before even writing the first page, but you basically have to plan out many possible versions of the same story.

If there are too many decisions, then the novel can become unwieldy and too complex. If there aren’t enough different decisions, then the novel can become boring quickly.

Secondly, these types of novels require a radically different approach to both narration and characterisation. Since the main character is supposed to be the reader, they have to be a “blank slate”, so there isn’t a huge amount of room for characterisation. Likewise, you also have to write in a much more descriptive way than in a traditional novel.

Not only that, these types of novels are unique in that they’re about the only genre of fiction that has to be written in both the present tense and from a second-person perspective (eg: “You descend the cold slate staircase into the ink-black cellar. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, a sinking feeling fills the pit of your stomach”). Writing fiction in this style can take a bit of getting used to and it’s something that many writers don’t have much practice or experience with.

Thirdly, these types of stories were at their most popular in the 1970s-90s because story-based computer and videogames were a lot less advanced back then. Yes, there were text-based adventure games and – later- “point and click” adventure games too – but these were the preserve of geeks, academics and/or wealthy people during the 1970s-90s.

Back then, gamebooks were cheap and they could tell far more immersive interactive stories than even the most advanced computer game or videogame could. Even today, the graphical capabilities of the human imagination can still surpass the most advanced computers. But, these days, computer and video games have become a lot more popular and a lot more advanced. So, there’s less of a reason for gamebooks to exist than there was a few decades ago.

Finally, like when computer and video games were in their infancy, gamebooks are often percieved to be a “kids” genre. After all, virtually every well-known book in this genre has been aimed at younger audiences. They’re seen as something for kids. Computer and video games only really emerged as something that adults could confidently enjoy sometime during in the 1990s or early 00s, but that was only after decades of experimentation, popularity, marketing and widespread use. Gamebooks never really quite had this opportunity.

So, yes, these are a few of the reasons why this amazing genre isn’t as popular as it should be.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂