Montage, Narrative Deckbuilding and Other Effects in StoryNexus

empressshadow_smallIn a previous post, I wrote about design considerations for quality-based narrative systems, and mentioned that there was probably room for a standalone article about frequently-used patterns here. (This article in many ways mirrors one I wrote years ago about scene types in parser IF.)

When I write for Fallen London, I find myself using and reusing a couple of standard structures.

Straight choices tied to a progression quality: the storylet is available as step 1 (or 4, or 10, or X) of the story; there are two or more things you can do within that storylet; when you’re done, the narrative advances to step X+1. Maybe some of the things you can do in the storylet depend on secondary qualities, but this is basically recapitulating a fairly tight branch-and-bottleneck CYOA structure.

Must sequences: a storylet is available at step X of a story, but immediately leads into another storylet, creating a sequence from which the player can’t break out until they’ve made several decisions in a row. In Varytale, this wasn’t as necessary because a storylet could have internal (hypertexty) structure.

Must sequences are good for high-risk, high-intensity moments within the story; this correlates with other interactive fiction structures where the player’s choices become extremely constrained at moments of stress.

Conversation storylets: the player can stay within the storylet and ask as many questions as they like before moving on, often for 0 action points (meaning that there’s no disincentive to full exploration, though there may be other effects of asking certain questions).

Sometimes I track what topic was most recently introduced and use that to reveal new options in the storylet; sometimes it’s just a selection of questions from which the player can choose whatever they like, a way of exploring as much or little lore as they find interesting before moving on to the next stage of the story.

Conversation storylets tend to be low-pressure opportunities with relaxed pacing, since there’s not much that the player is likely to be able to do “wrong” here, and there’s little risk associated with any of the decisions.

Wheels. A bit more complicated than the others, wheels are sections of a game where the player gets a special opportunity deck with a unique set of cards and can’t leave that section without some penalties, so they need to play storylets from that deck until they either finish or pay a penalty to give up.

Elsewhere in the game, the player is free to move around, go to new locations, and work on storylets from whatever portion of the narrative they like. Inside a wheel, the player has to focus just on the much smaller deck of opportunities currently available.

At its simplest, this gives you a card deck narrative with a bit more dependency and control, still heavy on randomness and evocative incident. With a bit more structure, the author can turn it into actual deck building, where the player starts out with some introductory opportunities but uses those to shape what other opportunities will become available next.

Sinning Jenny’s Finishing School, in the Empress’ Shadow story, is an example of a wheel: the player begins by choosing three of a possible eight students to educate, then draws from an opportunity deck of storylets about how they train those students. Positive opportunities allow the player to increase the quality that tracks student progress, so we know how well trained the students are and how much longer they have to play. Negative opportunities (students having fights with each other, other problems) annoy the headmistress and make her less likely to extend you much leeway in the future, and (in the worst case) might even cause you to fail the wheel.

The more “troublesome” the students you select, the more negative or problematic events appear in the opportunity deck. And a couple of specific students have unique interactions with each other.

The narrative deck-building structure offers the player a combination of chance and intention: there may be some sensible ways to play in order to minimize risk or maximize possible rewards, but each trip through the wheel will play out slightly differently. Chris Gardiner uses this to very good effect in Below, another StoryNexus game that does not belong to the Fallen London universe.

I consider this structure one of the more interesting possibilities in the QBN space. For one thing, it allows the designer to create an interactive montage sequence — representing a long period of time containing repeated failures and successes — better than most other interactive narrative structures I’ve encountered. (When the IF discussion club covered time, we explicitly called out montage as something hard to do well.)

It’s also great for letting the player approach the same problem in different ways: you can use a wheel to represent selecting your tools for a cat burglary, or pick out a team for a mission.

Epilogue storylets. These are often done with opportunity cards that come along randomly some time after a main story arc is basically complete, and allow the player to put a final capstone on what has happened: they might represent one last encounter with a key character, or a chance to reflect on what has happened. Because Fallen London is such a big, rich world, there’s plenty else to do after finishing a major story before an epilogue storylet comes along; and this gives us another way of simulating the passage of time and the backward-looking perspective one has on a situation.

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