An Approach to Plotting for Interactive Fiction Part I

Scott Jarol

The debate drifts along as to how adventure games may reach their full potential as “Interactive Fiction,” and the arguments focus on what game designers appear to view as the principal device of game design, the puzzle.

But the Puzzle may represent the point at which interactive fiction secedes from Adventure Games. If games are ever to become stories, or to at least attain in an indigenous way the sophistication of storytelling, they are going to need plots; and plots are woven not from puzzles but from problems. In fact, a plot is a problem.

Problems vs. Puzzles
The notion of a puzzle itself denotes an encapsulated activity with a definitive outcome. By stringing together dozens of puzzles the author simplifies his work; his story looks big and broad. But, like Hamburger Helper, puzzles are added to bland stories as extenders, as if the value of a story is measured in minutes of play per dollar. This limited approach to posing problems for the Player will never yield anything more than an adventure game, no matter how cleverly foreshadowed the solutions may be.

Puzzles are generally inanimate challenges — locked doors, labyrinthine corridors, broad chasms, guessing games. But a well developed plot is itself the process of solving a problem — not just to pursue an object or objective, but to understand it. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade seeks not only the statue, but also to discover the motives of the unsolicited clients who want him to find it.

A story problem is an elusive goal. Each time the protagonist approaches his target, it slips away or divides like a trapped bubble. The forces that impede his success are the actions of other characters, acts of nature, or his own errors and hesitations. To sustain an interesting problem for the full duration of a game/story requires extensive linkage from event to event.

The problems of a story are structured. Because we experience conventional print and screen stories in sequence, we tend to think of stories as linear successions of events, or graphically as a simple line, rising as the tension builds, peaking at the story’s “climax” and dropping off as the story reaches its conclusion. The puzzle-filled maze of an Adventure game appears to parallel this narrative structure because it leads the Player through a series of trials on the way to a principal goal. But stories are more complex than this. The linearity of a story graph represents the way we experience the story, not necessarily the way in which it takes place. The author selects those events in the story that are the most entertaining, leaving us to fill in the missing details. Stories are collections of snapshots of many interconnected motivations and actions as seen from a particular point of view, or from several points of view. In movies, the crosscut shows us events happening at the same time at diverse locations, such as the attack of the indians and the charge of the cavalry. Many omniscient novels are written in the form of a diary, jumping from one setting to another (look at Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October). Each event contributes to the progress, and eventually the outcome of the plot. In the best stories, few scenes are used to provide background information. A good story snowballs, dragging along the protagonist deeper and deeper into his dilemma.

This is not to say, of course, that the hero does not accomplish any intermediate goals. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker recovers his lost droid, retrieves the princess from the Death Star, learns the ways of the Force, destroys several Tye Fighters, and finally, as the culmination of all other sub- goals, blows up the Death Star, thus saving the rebellion.

Some of these problems could just as easily be called puzzles. But no points are scored. Luke Skywalker can judge his success only by whether he escapes from each dilemma with useful information and most of his limbs intact. It sometimes isn’t possible to identify the correct solution to a problem until much later in the story, and sometimes problems don’t have solutions, just options. Each escape deposits the protagonist into a new predicament.

To tell good interactive stories you need a fertile imagination. To tell them well, you need to understand first how stories are told, then how the craft of storytelling can be adapted to, and transformed by interactive technology.

What is a Story?
You can’t create an interactive story until you know what a story is and how it works, and the best way to learn that is to study the conventional literature. Interactive fiction need not be constrained to the limitations of the fixed media, but several millennia worth of flops and blockbusters have left us a legacy of obvious pitfalls and useful techniques.

When we analyze the plot of a story, we are asking what the characters do, as opposed to where the story takes place, or what its message, theme, or moral may be. And, in asking what the characters do, we expect some compelling connections between their actions. Each event either leads to or causes another.

An event that just leads to another cannot perform a critical role in the plot. For example, when Luke Skywalker and company escape from one of the Death Star’s trash compactors, that episode is complete. The trash compactor has no further consequence. On the other hand, the overall sequence of which that scene is a part, the rescue of Princess Leia, profoundly affects the outcome of the story by providing the hero with the information he needs to deliver the Death Star plans to the rebels. The rescue and escape sequence performs a critical function in the plot because it antagonizes the antagonist — Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker have entered into a race — and because it leads Vader to the rebel base. The accomplishment of one goal, the rescue of Princess Leia, places the heros in their next predicament.

More than a daisy-chain, the events that constitute a successful plot need a superstructure. The connections between scenes, or between individual actions, will not drive a story to a cathartic conclusion unless they contribute to the big picture. Each of the principal characters pursues his own objectives. Darth Vader’s mission is to crush the rebellion. Leia’s mission is to defeat the empire. Luke Skywalker intends to deliver the Princess and the Death Star plans to the rebel base. Han Solo hopes to evade his creditors and collect a cash reward. When one character’s path crosses another’s, a conflict occurs, the resolution of which affects the outcome of the story. Like the bloodthirsty plant in Little Shop of Horrors, a plot is a problem that sprouts limbs. 

Two intertwined processes take place as a story is spun: discovery and confrontation. From the moment the main character recognizes that he has a knot to untie, he begins to pry at the rope. But in the beginning he rarely recognizes the scope of his problem. When Luke Skywalker agrees to accompany Obi-Wan Kenobi, he has no knowledge of the Death Star. As he confronts whatever forces threaten him, he discovers that the opposition is larger than he had anticipated. Each time a revelation occurs, he adjusts his strategy to compensate. Both his character — revealed through his response to adversity — and his dilemma crystallize before our eyes.

In a handy book entitled Playwriting: How to Write for the Theater, Bernard Grebanier, a teacher of theatrical writing, proposes a method with which to analyze and to create dramatic plots. Grebanier’s definition of plot incorporates the symbiotic relationship between plot and character. He summarizes a complete plot as a three part process he calls “The Proposition”:

(1) The condition of the action.
(2) The cause of the action.
(3) The resulting action.

Grebanier illustrates his theory with an analysis of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and this is his capsule summary of what is considered a definitive tragic romance: 

(1) Romeo, scion of a family at feud with Juliet’s family, falls in love with Juliet at first sight.
(2) Although their families are at feud, he marries her.
(3) Will he find happiness in his marriage with her?

Grebanier defines each of the three points of the Proposition in terms of the actions of the Main Character:

 The condition of the action is the first significant event of the play, the event which holds the root cause of the action. For example..., Romeo falls in love with Juliet at first sight. The cause of the action is the event which follows from the condition of the action, and which raises a question which the rest of the play must answer. For example..., Romeo marries Juliet. The resulting action will answer the question raised by the cause of the action, the question [or “problem”] which is the chief business of the plot. For example, Will Romeo find happiness with Juliet?

The word “action” in the three steps of the Proposition identifies the events that trigger the story. These events all occur within the first “Act.” The “resulting action” is actually the bulk of the play, everything that happens after the main character has committed himself to a serious predicament. The “cause of the action” must never be confused with the “Climax,” which although conspicuously absent from the Proposition, plays a major role in Grebanier’s complete plotting system. The Climax is the action taken by the “Main Character” that determines the outcome of the story.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo marries Juliet — that’s the cause of the action. The Climax occurs when Romeo kills Tybalt. This slaying causes Romeo, the Main Character, to become separated from Juliet, the “Second Character.” After Romeo flees into hiding, Juliet decides that the best way to rejoin him is to fake her own death. She sends a warning to Romeo, but he hears of her death before the message arrives and rushes back to Verona to be by her side. You know how it ends.

The events described by parts 1 and 2 of Grebanier’s Proposition share a major constraint: both must be performed by the Main Character and directed toward the “Second Character”:

 Romeo falls in love with Juliet.
 Romeo marries Juliet.

The Climax must be an action taken by the Main Character and directed toward the “Third Character,” in this case, the unfortunate Tybalt. Furthermore, these three characters are the only ones essential to a dramatic story.

In Romeo and Juliet it may seem arbitrary to say that Romeo marries Juliet rather than the reverse, but this ambiguity is resolved by finding the “common denominator,” or Agent of all the major events. We know that Romeo kills Tybalt, and that this action has a profound effect on the outcome of the story, so there’s a pretty good chance that Romeo is the Main Character. Since it is possible to state the Cause of the Action, “Romeo marries Juliet,” as an assertion by Romeo, then we may guess with some certainty that Romeo is the main character. If our analysis of the plot and our analysis of the character hierarchy correspond then we may assume that they are both correct.

Grebanier claims that every successful drama must cling to a spine as rigid as this one, and in his book he offers numerous examples. The “Proposition”, which he comes as close to proving as any artistic theory can be, is that the foundation of drama is plot and that a well-formed plot necessarily demands and produces strong characterization. While it is too vague to be called a formula, he builds enough rules around this proposition to form an axiomatic system so rigid that it begs defiance.

Next time, in Part 2, we’ll take a look at an entirely different approach to plot analysis and construction, a system designed to aid screenwriters. Then, in Part 3 we’ll begin to examine how these ideas can be used to develop real stories that are truly interactive.