Storylets Play Together

Storylets encourage narrative designers to think in terms of systems, and allow story arcs to affect one another in memorable ways.

In my previous post on storylets, I showed how storylets can replicate standard interactive narrative structures that are familiar from video games or CYOA.

This post gets into the other things storylets can do for your narrative structure that would be harder to achieve with a conventional method. Specifically, storylets let you build a system where

  • episodic stories can feed into a larger narrative arc, and it’s easy to add new episodic content without ripping out all the existing stuff
  • the player is guided within, but not constrained to, a story they’re currently playing
  • different episodes interact with each other in fictionally and mechanically interesting ways

To take those one at a time:

Large and small narrative arcs

A big storylet-based story might have a long narrative arc and then a bunch of smaller internal stories inside it.

Bee was written for the Varytale platform, which is, alas, no longer available.

My game Bee, for instance, takes place over several years of the protagonist’s life. There’s an overall arc about her growing up until she’s no longer eligible for any more spelling bees, and the changes in her life that go alongside that. Within each year of her life, she experiences traditional holidays, trains, does chores, and develops relationships with the members of her family.

To track where the player is in this story, I tracked several different progress stats:

  • How many years have passed?
  • What month is it?
  • How far has she progressed with character relationships and their associated story arcs?

“How many years have passed?” controls high level progress through the story. When it reaches a high enough number, we’ll get to the endgame, a story about her last spelling bee ever.

“What month is it?” makes seasonal content available, and of course advances the year count. This means that

  • A storylet about Christmas has “month=December” as a prerequisite
  • Every storylet advances the month after it’s played, as an effect
  • If the month is December, the new month becomes January and the year stat is also advanced by 1

The character relationships, meanwhile, are mostly detached from those temporal measures. A player might progress rapidly through all the stages of a character story during the first “year” of the main narrative.

To generalize from that a bit, we can have episodic progress stats that track where we are in a small story (like the character relationships) and other stats that rise more slowly, or have much larger values, that track our progress through the main narrative arc:

In some games, completing an episode is what drives the main arc forward. Neo Cab works a bit along these lines: you can pick up 3-4 passengers a night, and it’s up to you which ones you want to drive.

But when you’ve ended your shift, the day ends and your overall progress ratchets forward, opening up new elements in the main storyline.


Guided but not constrained

A branching narrative struggles to tell the player more than one story at a time. Typically, the player has a tightly defined set of options at any given moment.

Conversely, parser-based text adventures and a lot of open world games can confront the player with a bewildering amount of freedom, leaving them unsure what they ought to do.

A storylet system can offer a happy medium here: contextually relevant options from all the stories you’re currently in the middle of, plus any “always available” elements. Making this comfortable for the player depends on some good UI design, as well, but the underlying system supports it.


Stories that interlock

Month, year, and character story progress are not the only stats in Bee. The game also tracks spelling skill, motivation, and family poverty.

These other stats aren’t progress stats, though. Motivation and spelling skill are resources. The protagonist needs motivation to be able to play certain storylets that improve spelling skill. And she needs spelling skill at a certain level to be able to pass the end of year spelling bee.

Meanwhile, poverty is a menace — something the player doesn’t want to increase, but which may rise as a result of events in the story. When poverty is too great, certain storylet options become unavailable, and others open up.

Seasonal events in Fallen London introduce new happenings in existing game locations, and unlock new elements within existing storylines.

This is still a fairly systems-light representation — other storylet games have lots of resources and menaces in play. In Sunless Skies, for instance, gaining too much terror unlocks Nightmare storylets that plague the protagonist with unspeakable visions.

Thanks to these abstractions, one story can meaningfully affect what happens in another.

Here’s the branch and bottleneck storylet diagram from last post, except this time we’re including the idea that the player will sometimes need to go outside the episodic story she’s in if she wants to get the means to unlock the next episode. And conversely, sometimes she might need to do some other, unrelated activity to prevent a menace stat from going too high:

Some lovely storytelling dynamics can arise from systems like this, dynamics that echo the effects you find in long-running series television.

Suppose this episode is about tracking down a family of werewolves, but in order to unlock a midgame storylet, Mulder needs clues from an informant. That’s his source stat. Fortunately, he already has an informant available, unlocked through earlier play. He does have to go back through a familiar action or two of putting a signal in his apartment window in order to get his informant to show up — but that’s the kind of content reuse that feels fictionally justified.

Now suppose that in the midgame, one storylet has Mulder insist on sitting out in the woods in a convertible to watch the full moon. But nothing happens all night long except they get a lot of mosquito bites, and in the morning the menace stat “Agent Scully’s Exasperation” ticks upward a little. Or a lot.

Now Scully’s exasperation score unlocks a whole new episode when this one is over, a Mulder-and-Scully-fight episode. Alternatively, Mulder realizes he’s gotten himself into trouble and engages in a menace-reducing activity of buying her an apology gift, as a beat between the plot beats of continuing to hunt werewolves.

All of those are elements that someone could bake into a traditional branching narrative as options at the critical points. But building the system of storylets means that there’s a whole reusable economy of menaces and resources.

It means that I could have holiday seasonal events where Mulder has extra options for cheering Scully up on her birthday, or where she’ll read his intentions differently if it’s around Valentine’s Day.

Or maybe the identity of Mulder’s informant changes depending on what has happened in the top-level narrative progression. Maybe any informant will do for getting the Information resource commodity, but the costs of doing so and the fictional tonality of the interaction shift a lot.

In fact, we might have a scenario where there are multiple sources available for information, and the player has to decide how long Mulder will spend investigating each of the sources before trying to move on from this point — the more intel-gathering storylets he plays, the better the outcome he can unlock:

…but other things might be happening at the same time. Menaces might be climbing; a time stat might be counting down.


At its core, this is standard game systems design advice: make sure your systems affect each other.

It’s possible to design with this kind of systems thinking in mind for (say) a branching narrative system, but storylets make it particularly natural to do so because they foreground the stats — what are you tracking? Which storylets become available, and which are locked, as a result?

This presentation by Tadhg Kelly, and this post on his blog, talk about four kinds of numbers in games — currencies, metrics, tools, and territory. Some of his definitions feel a little alien to me — I wouldn’t think of a tennis ball as a currency in the game of tennis. But using these broad categories and thinking about how they apply to stats in narrative design, we might divide them like this:

Progress stats, menaces, reputation, and relationship stats are metrics, advancing the storyline and opening up optional events.

Money, inventory items, consumable “favors owed” by other characters, and subtler items like energy are all currencies. Currencies are most fun if they have a backstory: the currency of Hell might not be acceptable to churchgoers. Creating fungible, convertible rewards allows different storylines to affect each other in fun and fictionally surprising ways.

Most of the storylet-based games I’ve played have at least some metrics and some currencies.

Some, but not all, also have a sense of territory — a stat representing the player’s location in the game universe, for instance. Territory works well with investigation or exploration gameplay where the player needs to figure out where to look next for something.

Tools, we might understand as things that open up new affordances and actions that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Some storylet games use personality traits or skills this way, for instance by letting the player learn lockpicking in order to defeat any forthcoming locks. The challenge is that, to pay off properly, this really requires the content creators to be disciplined and make sure that there are regular opportunities to show off a particular skill or trait throughout the rest of the content. (There are procedural ways to help make sure that’s the case; that’s a more advanced design solution, though.)

Another interesting but less common way to design “tools” in a storylet system is to have something that affects how other options play out.

  • Reduce risk. Fallen London gives the player a supply of “second chances”, a resource the player can spend to guarantee herself a second roll of the dice on a risky attempt where she wants to increase her chance of succeeding.
  • Modify core metric stats. Inventory items and outfits might increase the player’s stats in particular areas, temporarily making certain storylets accessible.
  • Multiply / divide consequences. Make a storylet produce double the currency that it otherwise would! Make a compliment twice as effective on your relationship stats with the Countess! Etc.

Storylets: You Want Them

Storylet systems are a way of organizing narrative content with more flexibility than the typical branching narrative.

Very frequently, when I’m called in to suggest a narrative delivery system that will work for a particular game, I find myself sketching out some form of storylet-based solution. Storylets are simple, atomic, robust, and recombinable.

Here’s my basic definition of a storylet (though many systems may call them other things: events, snippets, etc):

  • there is a piece of content. It might be a line or a whole section of dialogue, it might be narration, it might be an animation or scrap of film
  • there are prerequisites that determine when the content can play
  • there are effects on the world state that result after the content has played

I’ve written some before about how this structure lets one get beyond standard branching narrative, with quality-based and salience-based structures. It is the concept underlying StoryNexus. It also underlies Threaded Conversation, the conversation library I wrote for Inform (eventually released, and now maintained, by Chris Conley).

You could even understand conversation elements in Versu and in Character Engine as a type of storylet. In those cases, there is quite a lot of other procedural work determining what content should be presented next and how it should vary. Quite a few procedural narrative systems work by defining some kind of model for stringing storylets together — so this can be an approach that will support an ambitious AI-driven concept.

At the same time, this design method isn’t only for the procedurally ambitious. You can make and explore the affordances of a rudimentary storylet system by writing your storylet content and quality rules on a set of index cards. And in fact I do sometimes do exactly that as a paper prototyping exercise.

This definition leaves a lot else out. It doesn’t say how much content is inside a given storylet, how that content is structured, or how it’s selected. Max Kreminski’s overview work explores a lot of the nuances here.

But for the present article, I’m looking chiefly at how many standard ways of structuring game narrative content can be rendered in storylets.

Common Branching Structures and Storylets

Storylets can be used to replicate a lot of classic structures from branching, Twine, or Choose Your Own Adventure contexts, if you give yourself a progress stat or quality to count how far you are through the story, and perhaps also allow for a menace stat to represent how much trouble the player is in.

For instance, here’s a gauntlet storyline, linear except where the player makes a mistake, as it might be represented in Twine and then as it might be represented in storylets:

Continue reading “Storylets: You Want Them”

Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama (http://naam.itch.io/apotu) and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

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Not Exactly Mailbag: Worldbuilding from a Mechanic

Monkey graphicsTwice this year I’ve spoken about matching story and mechanics — once for the Oxford/London IF Meetup, and once as a keynote talk at the Malta Global Game Jam. Both times, I mentioned the idea of using mechanics as the basis of world-building. I’ve done this both with the letter-changing powers of Counterfeit Monkey and the Lavori d’Aracne sympathetic magic of Savoir-Faire and Damnatio Memoriae. (I’ll talk a bit about all of those games below, so beware moderate spoilers, if you care.)

In Malta, one of the questions I got after my talk was “how do I know what questions to ask when world-building?” and I suggested having a look at conventional fiction guides for world-building. It seemed like a fair response at a time, but as I’ve had a look at some of the world-building guides out there, I felt that most of them didn’t necessarily translate directly to the types of strategies I use for this cause. So I’ll belatedly go into a little more depth about that now, in the hope it’s useful to someone (whether or not ever seen by the original questioner).

If you’ve got mechanics, that typically means you’ve got

  • an action/set of actions for the player to perform
  • some kind of world state that is affected by those actions in some way

And that’s all we need to ask world-building questions.

Continue reading “Not Exactly Mailbag: Worldbuilding from a Mechanic”

Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction (Andrew Glassner)

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 2.36.51 PM.pngInteractive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction (Andrew Glassner, 2004). Glassner’s book is rather more effort to read than most of the other guides to interactive story I’ve covered so far: it’s hundreds of pages longer, and in a somewhat more pedantic style. It begins with two long chunks on the nature of story and the nature of games.

He begins the section on stories by introducing many standard concepts of writing from scratch: character, plot, scenes. Conflict and stakes. Three-act structures and inciting incidents. The monomyth, again (though mercifully he admits that it is not necessary to use and is not the guarantee of a good story). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Viewpoint and dialogue. At the end of this section — about a hundred pages, much of it consisting of example narrations from film and other sources — Glassner proposes a “Story Contract,” which he will use throughout the rest of the book to make value judgments. The contract contains the following clauses:

  • The author is responsible for the psychological integrity of the main characters.
  • The author is responsible for the sequencing and timing of major plot events.
  • The audience must allow itself to be emotionally involved.

 

Glassner later uses this contract to evaluate various works and forms of interactive story (about which more below), so baking in what the author is “responsible” for gives him a way to dismiss a lot of techniques in existing work. In many other respects, the story segment is largely a not very edited overview of basic writing advice.

In the section on games, Glassner also offers quite a bit of review. Like late 90s IF theory, he distinguishes puzzles from toys (this is something that we talked about quite a lot back then). Here, again, he offers a bunch of broad background: types of games, game loops, participation vs spectating, the nature of rules; the uses of scoring; the types of resources that can be included in game design, and the ways resources are deployed. He also gets into individual vs. team sports, competition and cooperation, applications of chance, some basic game theory chestnuts like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and a section on terminology from Go.

All of this discussion is on the more abstract end and includes examples from sports and board games as well as computer games; it’s by no means focused purely on executing a AAA first-person shooter experience, and much of his game typology is not focused on the video game industry.

Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction (Andrew Glassner)”

Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 9.36.06 AM.pngLast seen on this blog because Chris Crawford panned itInteractive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach for Creating Memorable Character and Stories.The main body text is written by Josiah Lebowitz, but with interleaved commentary and examples written by Chris Klug.

This book is aimed at relative beginners, starting with a chapter on video game history and then three more chapters on basics of story in general (a point it has in common with a few other how-to-write-games books I’ve surveyed in the past). Each chapter ends, in textbook fashion, with a short list of questions for the student to ponder for later.

And, inevitably, there is a detailed breakdown of the hero’s journey, the references to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, the examples from Star Wars. However, despite Crawford’s shade, they’re pretty up front about recognizing when they’re talking about standard tropes and clichés, and discussing them as such with the reader, as well as recognizing how those elements are most commonly applied in games. Klug makes a pitch for why the Refusal of the Call phase of the monomyth is important — something I would agree with (though grudgingly, since I wish people were in general less hung up on mapping every game to this formula). (See also Skolnick’s remarks on the Refusal of the Call.)

In some places, though, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games does get pretty dogmatic about things that I would like to hope are flexible. For instance:

…video games tend to focus on fighting and strategy, exploration, puzzle solving, or some combination of the three. These types of external conflicts are far easier to portray in a game-like fashion than the more internal emotional conflicts that are often the focus of things like romance and sitcoms. Therefore, a “proper” game story needs to support a large amount of external conflict. (44)

Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)”