My wife convinced me to watch the PBS show Downton Abbey, and she bought all the episodes of the last four years, which we have been watching; it has engendered some thoughts.
This is pure soap opera of the highest kind. We tend to think of soap operas as trashy entertainment, but that characterization works only for the large number of soap operas that focus solely on sex and romance. Occasionally we get a well-done soap opera, and Downton Abbey is definitely such a work.
Definition of soap opera
I think of a soap opera as a collection of related stories without an overarching plot. Downton Abbey is precisely that. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some of the many secondary plots that are woven together:
Mary’s relationship with Matthew Crawley
Matthew’s injury and recovery
Sybil’s romance with Tom; nursing service; marriage; pregnancy; death
Mary’s scandal with the Turkish rake
Edith’s first romance
Conflict between Mr. Bates versus Mrs. O’Brien and Thomas Barrow
Mr. Bates’ murder trial, conviction, imprisonment, and release
Mr. Bates’ romance and marriage with Anna
The rape of Anna
Financial problems of Downton Abbey
Edith’s second romance
There are plenty of other subplots intertwined through all this; these are only some of the most salient subplots. My observation here is that there is no higher story; the entire series is simply the conflation of all these intertwining small stories.
This suggests a possible structure for interactive storytelling: a sequence of short stories. Each short story is small, but they combine in interesting ways. Such a structure would utilize something close to my interstitial story concept. The trick would be in coming up with a big set of interstitial stories AND a system for linking them together. That linking system is the killer problem. You don’t want it to be narrowly limited; the only constraint you want on an interstitial story is that it cannot occur until after some other stories have appeared. This permits some threading.
Somebody attempted a variation on this back in 1999: King of Dragon Pass (my thanks to Joseph Limbaugh for pointing this out to me). Sadly, the game sold just 8,000 boxed units, but cost $500,000 to build — a bad loss. However, it was revived in 2011 and a new version exists for Windows, iOS, and Android. Happily, the iOS version alone has sold 30,000 copies at $10 a pop, so they’re profitable now. What I call “interstitial stories”, they call “scenes”, but the two appear to be very similar in structure. The game boasts 575 of these “scenes”, which strikes me as a definitely large enough to provide plenty of rich interaction. It’s really a big RPG game (with all the requisite cliches) that is augmented with the interstitial stories, in much the same fashion that I used them in Trust & Betrayal back in 1987.