Theme and Interactivity

In our last episode, I explained that one way to come up with interactive dramatic architectures is to list all the possible conflicts and then spread out laterally from those conflicts. In this installment, I'd like to present an alternative approach that might work better. For this approach, I will start off by presenting an example, and then generalizing from there. I begin with my topic, which is the broad area of human behavior that I wish to address. To keep matters clean and simple, I'm going to choose a simple topic: adultery.

Next comes my theme. The theme shouldn't be too narrow. For example, the theme "Adultery is a bad thing" is too narrow. The theme should be about a collision of desires, and every collision has repercussions that bounce both ways. Thus, in the forgoing example, the positive illustration of this would be the spouse who rejects temptation and lives happily ever after. If this were the actuality, then adultery would not be so vexing an issue. What makes it a collision is the fact that the spouse who rejects temptation will always wonder at the opportunity that was missed. Sexual tension between the partners might well rise as the saintly spouse realizes that the marriage relationship lacks the sexual passion that beckoned in the affair. Stories are about hard choices, not easy ones; if a choice is hard, then there must be negative repercussions with either path. The real point of any story might be reduced to: "Kid, someday you're gonna have to choose between A and B, and it'll look like a tough choice, but you really better take path B. Yes, path B has its downside, but path A's downside is worse in the long run."

So now my theme has become something like "Adultery represents a collision between marital duty and sexual desire". No, we need to reformulate this in more colliding terms: "Adultery represents a collision between marital duty and sexual growth." No, how about this: "Adultery pits love for spouse against sexual learning." The idea here is to delineate the internal strife represented by the choice.

It seems natural that the next step is to specify some climaxes that represent varying degrees of success or failure for each of the two competing drives. Here's my stab at the adultery case:

Sexual satisfaction, but:

  • happy marriage retained at price of self-delusion
  • secrecy maintained, slight tinge on marriage
  • marriage undergoes painful crisis that makes it stronger.
  • marriage slowly disintegrates
  • marriage suddenly collapses
  • severe guilt triggers internal crisis
  • illicit partner demands that adulterer get a divorce
  • spouse retaliates with counter-affair

Partial sexual satisfaction plus all of the above possibilities
Unrewarding sexual experience, plus all of the above possibilities
Slippery slope to near adultery, plus many of the above possibilities
Nonadulterous dalliance, plus some of the possibilities above and below
Strict fidelity:

  • but sexual resentment destroys marriage
  • but sexual resentment weakens marriage
  • triggers sexual demands that lead either way
  • followed by counter-affair by spouse
  • gains rewards from grateful spouse

This is a pretty good group of results, and I don't think that I've explored the possibilities deeply. There's plenty more where this came from.

The next step, I think, is to list some openings. These will not be as dramatically important as the resolutions, but they provide a useful intermediate step in the outlining process. All the openings are essentially the same: guy meets gal. The only variations possible are in the context of the meeting. Guy meets gal in bar, at the bowling alley, in the supermarket, at work, etc.

From this point forward, the task is to identify intermediate points in the process. Imagine lining up all the endings on the right side of a big piece of paper, and all the beginnings on the left side of that paper. Now, it shouldn't be too difficult to imagine lots of intermediate points: eye-contact games, body language games, flirtatious behavior, verbal encounters, getting-to-know-you events, expressions of goodwill, teasing behaviors, physical contact, low-key sexual behaviors, and so forth. Once all these intermediate steps have been put down on paper, it's a fairly straightforward process to link them up. How many different ways can you get from those beginnings to those endings?

There must also be a group of storyatoms dealing with the sexual frustration that drives the player toward adultery. These cover the player's relationship with his/her spouse, its daily grind and boredom, its lack of passion. These develop even as the potential affair brews.

But let's get our priorities straight: The big idea here is NOT to draw lines connecting beginnings with endings. The core idea here is to imagine lots of intermediate states that could conceivably exist between any pairing of beginning point with endpoint. In other words, we don't ask, "How can we get from GuyMeetsGalInBar to RetaliatoryAffair?" Instead, we ask, "What are interesting moments between the two?" Thus, we certainly must have that critical moment where the player makes a decision. Even so, such a critical moment need not be confined to a single event; there are a thousand tiny steps to infidelity. Can we list such steps? Fantasizing about illicit affairs, serious eye contact, dancing together, private but nonsexual meetings, being together in the presence of a bed, and so forth.

My goal in this exercise was to step through the creative process by which a storybuilder creates a web of storyatoms, and I think that I can now see the "Adultery" web clearly. The crucial steps were:

  • establishing a topic.
  • determining a theme, expressed in terms of the internal conflict that the player is meant to experience.
  • listing many possible outcomes of such a conflict.
  • listing many possible openings for such a conflict.
  • listing many possible intermediate points.
  • flesh out the web

In other words, we ask the storybuilder to create a bunch of endings, a bunch of beginnings, and a bunch of middles. You see, interactive storytelling doesn't dispense with beginning, middle, and end -- it has lots and lots of them! Once all those beginnings, middles and ends have been created, the storybuilder starts linking them up, including additional twists and variations.