Parallel paths overcome some of the production challenges of a strict branching narrative by reducing the total number of tracks down to just two. This limits the options even further than the constrained branching narrative model but still allowing a level of user choice.
Parallel paths offer the user two distinct paths and ‘junctions’ where the tracks combine. This allows the user to experience consequences of his chosen actions but returns him to predetermined points where the story can advance in a more managed way. By hopping from node to node like this, the user has a high sense of control even if his experience shares much with that of other users. For example, BioShock allows users to decide on one of two strategies: ‘Kill Little Sister’ or ‘Save Little Sister.’ Each option has a unique set of challenges and consequences but the paths come back together at key points in the game, allowing the user to continue with their chosen course or switch approach.
One advantage of the parallel paths approach is that it can, as illustrated by BioShock, offer the user the choice between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ paths. This provides the opportunity for presenting alternative perspectives whether that’s a moral choice or as mundane as a customer-seller viewpoint. In that respect it has a significant level of replayability because the user’s understanding of the environment as a whole is enhanced by the alternative approach.
The whole Interactive Narrative series is:
This instalment of my series on interactive narrative focuses on branching.
In many respects, branching narratives represent the opposite end of the spectrum to traditional linear narratives. Branching narratives are the most common attempt at truly unconstrained and interactive drama where the player’s behaviour materially influences the conclusion.
Instead of a single continuing storyline, branching narratives offer the user consequential choices. Each decision offers a unique path in an ever-diversifying array of events. Although the total outcomes will be finite, branching narratives give the user control over the course of the action. Rather like changing the points on a railway line, branching narratives allow the user to determine the direction of the train, and therefore its destination, but not the path between points. The game designer determines all the available options but the user decides the route through them.
In a truly branching narrative, every decision has a unique set of consequences. This reflects real life where every choice provokes an avalanche of outcomes where future options are a direct result of an individual’s behaviour. There are circumstances in reality when an individual’s choice is illusory and just as when this occurs in real life, the facade of control in games is quickly obvious and deeply unsatisfying. The opportunity to genuinely choose the path of discovery offers the user real control but every true option generates at least two outcomes. The combinatorics quickly become unmanageable from a production perspective. Even offering the minimum of two choices per decision at each stage the number of outcomes multiples exponentially, according to the simple equation o = 2s where S is the number of stages. For example, it is clear that three stages result in eight possible outcomes.
Obviously, with this method of interactive drama, as well as effort required to generate each possible path, there is a large amount of redundancy – the user only explores one of the total number of paths through the material (n), this means every user misses the majority ((n-1)/n*100%) of the content unless he revisits the story multiple times. Revisits can offer rewarding alternatives and genuinely new insights into the game world but this assumes that each option is equally well thought out and credible. It’s not just the practicalities of production that make true branching difficult, it is extraordinarily hard to generate multiple outcomes that offer an equivalent level of satisfaction from an cognitive-emotional point of view. It can feel as though each alternative outcome dilutes the quality of the conclusion for the user with some endings just plain disappointing.
The key differences between the branching narrative of a computer game and the chaos of real life are richness, flexibility and predetermination. In life, there are no certainties of outcome or total control over parameters – it is intrinsically unpredictable. Games, on the other hand, are, at the current time at least, entirely human constructs with little, if any artificial intelligence. Every decision and outcome is, if not totally predefined, the consequence of predetermined models and rules. The constraints of the production mean that narrative cannot be entirely free. Instead, producers regularly draw the narrative back to shared nodes. These nodes appear as the consequence of possibly unrelated decisions and provide a means of limiting the range outcomes.
If you’ve ever read a Fighting Fantasy book or Leila Johnston’s Enemy of Chaos, you’ll be familiar with arriving at the same point from multiple directions. It’s a methodology that works – it’s not entirely free but the balance of control and storytelling is enough to satisfy.
Parallel narratives next…
The whole Interactive Narrative series is:
After much speculation, tomorrow we find out the results of the government comprehensive spending review. It’ll be interesting to see the level of cuts that the government unveils and whether the frenzied talk of 25 to 40% cuts is merely a psychological trick to distort our perspective. If the government announces a mere 20% reduction in key services, even if those cuts cause permenant structural damage, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief.
Perhaps what is more significant is the rationale and motivation behind the cuts. All the economic data indicates that a recovery is well established – corporations are reporting healthy profits again. An improved economy will generate increased tax revenue and boost government coffers providing extra income with which to address the debt accumlated through years of financial mismanagement. Conversely, a reduction in public spending will raise unemployment, reduce the devastate the associated private industries, reduce the tax base and risk plunging us into a double-dip recession.
If the recovery figures are correct then it increasingly looks as though the government cuts are ideologically driven rather than economic: the UK government is using the budget deficit as a pretense for a level of public service cuts that even Thatcher could not achieve.
At the depth of last year’s financial crisis some commentators suggested that we were seeing death of capitalism. As it turns out those same financial institutions that brought the world economy to its knees are now posting record profits on the back of tax-payers bailouts.
The economic crisis initiated by greedy and reckless markets will be the justification for cutting audited, democratically accountable social spending. Far from being the end of capitalism, the economic crisis may well prove its greatest triumph.
In an increasingly multiplatform, multiformat world, the way we combine activity with storytelling fascinates me. Although usually associated with video games, I think the principle of ‘interactive narrative’ applies to all the domains where we punctuate presentation with participation.
[To clarify, I'm using the following definitions: ‘story’ describes characters, events and plot; ‘narrative’ describes how the story is told, or more pertinently how the experience is structured.]
The use of story lines within video games is an established mechanism to improve engagement and provide structure for play. In his excellent blog, Chris Bateman identifies six categories of game narrative which, almost inadvertently, describe the main ways we interact with any content. They are:
Over the course of this series, I’ll try to unpack some of those concepts and identify where real opportunities lie.
Traditional Linear narratives reflect the historical, single path and singe conclusion storyline of novels, theatre and film. Even though there may be periods of user activity, the audience is a passive receiver of information crafted by another’s hand. It is the most common and understood form of narrative where all users travel the same path and come to the same ending.
The linear narrative predominates in single-player video games, exemplified in titles such as Halo and Metal Gear Solid. Within this model, users must successfully complete a stage before receiving the next episode of drama. These stages of player activity exist within envelopes of freedom that offer the illusion of control between set pieces. The dramatic elements of these cut scenes provide both a reward for progress and a motivation for continued participation. These games emphasise the pivotal role of the player in the story by establishing a role-playing scenario – the user plays the central character. Yet the loss of player control, however temporary, during these cut scenes undermines notion that the user determines the games outcome; as a consequence they are not universally appreciated.
Just watching video sequences, even if you pace them yourself, is not fun. It’s not even really a videogame. It’s just stupid remote control tricks. (J C Herz, Joystick Nation, 1997, p147)
Herz identifies the challenge of managing expectations, at one moment the game is reliant on user participation, the next events are out of his control. Indeed if game play is “a series of interesting choices” as Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris say (Game Architecture and Design, 2000, p39) then without this interactivity, the resource ceases to be a game at all. However, even in games that offer a single plot line delivered through cut-scenes, there is opportunity for ‘interesting choices’ and each user’s experience is still slightly different because of the differing pace and depth of exploration. Some users will explore every corner and avenue of each stage, determined to discover every element of the environment. This slow and methodical procedure is in marked contrast to players who race through stages, intent on completing each one as quickly and as efficiently as possible. By choosing the critical path through the resource and charging across the game world at breakneck speed, these lightning players inevitably will miss elements and subtleties of the storyline and context although this may not necessarily affect their personal enjoyment.
This ‘striped’ approach to content is extremely common, not just in games. The approach relies on the illusion of control to maintain ongoing participation – there is relatively little space or opportunity for variation (even during the periods of user activity). It’s the commercial television model for scheduling – break the programme with advertising (when the viewers can do their own thing – so long as it only takes three minutes).
The challenge for producers is making the experience as responsive as possible and that means using the periods of activity to personalise the passive elements before moving on to the next episode.
The whole Interactive Narrative series is: