The one thing you realize immediately when stepping in as a Game-master for the first time is that creating interactive stories in a role-playing game is difficult. It’s so difficult that even the best prepared story can sometimes only be passed off as an improvised and badly narrated one – especially to anyone not participating in the game.
Creating a complex story with narrative branching is also the most ungrateful writing task imaginable. The more you prepare, the more lines you will inevitably scrap. And the more choices you put in the story, the more content won’t even be seen by the players. Worst of all: if you succeed, against all odds, and the story was successful and engaging, the players will be convinced that their story, their version of events, was the only one the game really contains. The rest – the wizard lost in the realm of dreams, the elves and their relationship to the main characters – were invisible, at least this time around.
But the goal is to make the players themselves believe that they are the author of the story. So the story is successful if the player got lost in thought as they write their inner monologues, not to have them run on your own specific set of events. “Your stories are always better than ours,” as Chris Avellone reluctantly said. Or as one of my experienced game-master friends puts it: “Your stories are really [really] bad! That’s why I’m here for you [fine, imaginative peoples]!”.
Really, interactive stories are a deep and complex discipline in writing. Or at least it should be. And it one day will be an official one, distinct from others. But until then – because of the indirect reliance on audience participation, interactive writing does have an incidental relationship to good movies as well as theater, simply because projecting the audience’s thoughts to particular characters is such an important aspect of the technique.
For example, Shakespeare’s works frequently created setups that deliberately included the pool underneath the stage as a murmuring participant in the play itself. King Lear and Richard the Third both contain parts where the audience visiting the Globe would stand practically in the middle of the stage as the actors would fight over them, back and forth. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play often dismisses the actors and suddenly directs an abstract speech specifically directed at the audience; the playwright is instructing the audience to see a relationship between the words and events that the characters themselves remain blind to. Later, the play ends as Puck directly addresses the audience, urging them to remember the play between the actors as if it has only been a dream. Their dream, not the writer’s dream.
The reliance on the participation of the audience’s internal narrative also features strongly in successful movies or short films. To take one example, Peter Cheung’s Aeon Flux was initially designed as a series without a main character and was meant to have constantly changing viewpoints. The only one that would be aware of all of them was the viewer. And very few episodes of this show features the main character as the storyteller – instead she is often only there to represent a theme (struggle, chaos, rebellion most frequently), or come in as an incidental character in a drama that has already been determined by the other players. So Aeon Flux simply provides grounding and small input as the viewer’s own story and interpretation moves on.
A more commonly used device in “Western” media is to create a strong character that the audience identifies with. Action movies from Cobra to Alien, and various horrors made since, typically follow one character and aim to make the main character’s struggle the viewer’s struggle. The main character sees a danger in their peripheral vision, and that’s the tense situation the director sought to convey on screen. Because it simply is not genuinely the main character’s inner thoughts, but the audience’s adrenaline reaction to the danger the director wanted to fill the scene with.
As Samuel Beckett’s narrator in one of his radio-plays, “Company,” interjects, when indirectly addressing the invisible, distant and mute protagonist of the play in second person: “You are on your back in the dark”. The narrator later explains: “The voice does not say: ‘You are on your back in the dark, your mind not active at any moment, now even less than ever so’”. Except as an ironic comment, since this is clearly not what happens in the mind of anyone who listens.
Because the narrative, even though it is not explicitly explained to be, really does happen inside the minds of the audience.
Can video-games, or interactive entertainment ever achieve this level of reliance on the audience’s internal narrative to successfully tell a story? Obviously, yes. Even better than film, movies and books!