In my recent writing about storylet narrative design, I’ve talked about
- storylets and why they are cool
- how storylet systems work together
- how storylet systems can play nicely with gameplay, using casual games specifically as a lens
I use similar methods when working out the large-scale design for a storylet project to do the following things:
- Represent the story concept from start to finish
- Distinguish sections of content that are fairly open and player-controlled from sections that are fairly tight
- Distinguish sections that reuse shared parts of the storylet world from sections that are unique to just this narrative arc
Sometimes storylet passages can be very linear indeed — essentially a straight progression from one storylet to the next.
Alternatively, they can be highly freeform, with a bunch of randomly selected story beats that can advance the player’s goals, move them backwards, or cause/alleviate menaces.
With those things in mind, I make a high level chart that represents these different types of storylet cluster. This is how I might graph out a classic attack-the-Bond-villain sort of storyline:
- Square elements represent shorter set pieces — single storylets or linear progressions
- Square elements with knobbly outlines indicate passages where the player can do multiple actions within a single storylet and has the option to decide when to exit:
- “gear up” lets the player choose how much to spend before deciding she has enough gear to proceed
- the confrontation scene is a risk scene, where more the player tries to gain, the more likely she is to fail
- Round-edged “Wheel” structures represent sections of gameplay where the player is working with a partially randomized deck
- the red menace wheel specifically represents something the player must do to recover from failure — providing a soft gameplay punishment if you push your luck too far and get caught or harmed by the villain, but not preventing you from moving forward completely
- Rhombus “aftermath” elements there are like the squares, but they’re in more of a hurry. These represent storylets that lead straight one into the next with minimal player freedom to create a sense of acceleration towards what will be a cliff-hanger
A lot of the pacing elements common in other types of interactive story apply here. Areas where the player has a lot of freedom tend to feel less intense; more linear, constrained sections are good for climactic moments. Alternating the two keeps the experience from feeling too stale.
There are also some pacing choices about how the design uses elements from other stories or from the game’s system, however.
“Cost” elements require the player to bring in resources from somewhere else. They’re typically slowing features, because if the player hits that point, doesn’t have enough resources, and wants to get them, she may go play another piece of the game for a while before returning here.
That’s good at the very outset of the storyline, and it also works in the cost-linked choice storylet, where the player is deciding how much she wants to pay, in the moment, to increase her odds of winning in that confrontation to come. In that context, I’m effectively asking her to set some mechanical stakes of her own and place a bet about how much an easy success later is going to matter to her.
Meanwhile, the purple “travel” wheel is also using a consistent travel mechanic that turns up lots of places in the game. If this is told via actual storylets, there might be a little bit of customization to make it tell this journey rather than a different generic one — but essentially the player is following a pattern she already knows well. If not, I might be relying on a non-storylet travel mechanic in the game.
Putting this travel segment right before the big confrontation gives us a little time to build anticipation and create a sense of occasion — after the stakes for this particular story have already been set. It wouldn’t have been so satisfying as the first step of the story, though. The story’s up-front hook needs to be new content.
- I’ll be giving a talk about developing with storylets at the London IF Meetup January 29. It’s free, and those in the area are welcome to join. We’re also working on getting it recorded, thanks to a volunteer, so hopefully I’ll be able to share that around as well.