Why a New Storyworld Won’t Work

The suggestion has been made that a new, different storyworld unencumbered by the complexities of the Siboot storyworld would have success where Siboot would not. The argument is that a storyworld based on some of the common motifs (Wild West, monsters, space opera, murder mystery, etc) would have instant “grabbing power” and would get the players started on the story.

This is of course true, but there is a much more serious problem that is fundamental to the very notion of interactive storytelling. We begin with the observation that interactive storytelling is fundamentally about the relationships among a cast of characters, and how those relationships change during the course of the story.

Next, let us add the observation that human relationships take a long time to develop. You can’t push a button and make somebody fall in love with you. It takes hundreds of interactions to make a big change in a relationship. In normal drama, those changes are compressed into a shorter space, but they still develop slowly. It took three movies for Princess Laia to fall in love with Han Solo. 

Thus, interactive storytelling, if it is to have any dramatic plausibility, must extend over many interactions. It must be much longer in duration than a typical game. We can keep the dramatic action moving along by mixing together multiple dramatic threads. For example, in an Arthurian storyworld, the player as Arthur will have to deal with his romantic relationship with Guenevere as well as her relationship with Lancelot; fending off the attacks of the Saxons; dealing with the court intrigues undertaken by the cast; coping with the machinations of Mordred and Morgain la Fey; and of course learning from Merlin. By switching from one thread to another, we can keep the dramatic action moving even as each thread moves along step by tiny step.

But here we run into the first killer problem: who will invest three to six hours’ time playing a game that they don’t know? Games these days proceed in baby steps: first you get a quick, easy challenge, illustrating the game play. Then you move to a different level and more complexity. This process continues until you are dealing with the whole complicated thing. You can’t do this kind of thing in storytelling. 

Associated with this is the whole idea of the learning curve. For years, game designers have struggled to build games with smooth learning curves. You learn how to master the game one tiny step at a time. You are presented with a slightly more difficult problem, requiring a slightly more complicated response on your part. You are almost led forward by the nose. It’s easy, and it’s fun.

But in a storyworld, the end results are necessarily the summation of everything that has happened throughout the entire game. There is no simple path from beginning to success; it all accumulates in a discontinuous process. The audience of a story has no problem accepting this arrangement; they can plow through a long novel, patiently accumulating its contents, until the pieces fall together near the end. Game players have never needed such patience, nor are they acclimated to anything like this. Any properly designed interactive storyworld will surely leave the game players demanding to know how they can possibly figure out the game.

I have known this from the beginning of my project. I have based my optimism on the belief that some small number of women would rise to the challenge and appreciate the opportunity to apply their social intelligence to more sophisticated dramatic challenges that take longer to resolve. Of late, however, I have lost confidence that such people exist in a quantity large to comprise a critical mass for viralization.