I was a featured speaker at the Second Annual Interactive Fiction Creator's Conference last week. (Videos still online.) Thanks to everyone who joined the session and participated in the live chat! It was such a thrill to see all your comments. I didn't get to answer many of the questions, so this is a post to make up for that.
After introducing myself and talking about the LAST KID RUNNING gamebook series published by Penguin Random House, I shared my approach for coming up with an interactive thriller. It's a really simple way to get started, and lets you check that you have your ideas neatly lined up for maximum impact and thrills. Once you have this, you can go all creative and flesh it out into an epic scale experience.
Here are the 4 T's:
HOW TO WRITE AN INTERACTIVE THRILLER
#1 — TASK
Give your Player a task, basically an urgent mission. Bonus: have it be a little puzzling, intriguing.
pass or fail. Make this really clear, so you can tell at any point of the story whether the Player has succeeded or failed in this Task.
. Player to get X
. deliver X
. find X
. prove X
#2 — TIME
Next, have the Player race against the clock, or a rival.
. find bomb before it goes off
. get key before your rival does
. get key before they catch you
. get out before nightfall
#3 — THREATS
What will happen if the Player fails? Line up some significant penalties, stakes, regrets, etc. This creates narrative motivation for the Player, and helps propel the story forward.
. lose job
. lose life
. lose something valuable
. end of the world
#4 — TELLING
Once you have all the above elements, you can work out how you will tell the story in your own unique creative style.
What different text formats will you use? Eg, unfold the story via text messages, lab reports, news articles, etc.
What sort of atmosphere will you create? Eg, make it creepy.
How will you flesh out your storyworld? Eg, explain money system, elaborate on the architecture, etc.
How will you create suspense? Eg, by reordering events and hiding important information.
What genre cues will you include? Eg, jokes, puzzles, interrogation scenes, etc.
All these decisions will define your unique storytelling style.
And below, my thoughts about some of the comments.
After using Twine for a bit, I found out about this thing called Tweego, which lets you write your interactive fiction in a text file, and when you're done it converts the text file into a proper Twine document. So, from the middle section of my book onwards, I actually worked mostly with pen/notebook and the text editor on my iPhone, to create the first draft. Really love writing IF like this. More about Twee.
re: IF writing tools
My wishlist for an IF writing tool:
. works on my phone, or a tablet, and saves to device
. minimalist interface / screen, with option for dark mode
. able to zoom, so that I can make the text bigger on the screen
. word count, spellcheck
. just one monospace font will do
. able to host this on Google Drive and publish on Blogspot, or something similar, and there's a setting so readers can't download and reverse engineer the thing (which Twine allows) because I feel it spoils the fun somewhat, like having a peek behind your Dungeon Master's screen
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not a software engineer and have no idea what sort of Herculean effort it will take to make any of this come to be, so forgive me, heh.
Fellow conference speaker Andrew Wooldridge is the creator of STIM, aka Super Tiny Interactive Fiction Maker. An app that does what its name says. I'm looking forward to trying this out.
Re: Emotional arcs
I mentioned that on top of having different story paths, I also wanted to have each choice lead to a different emotional experience for the reader. Sometimes this meant different emotional arcs for the character that you're playing as. One choice might lead to a really satisfying sense of completing your mission, while another choice would lead to failure and dismay. But sometimes the emotional difference was in the narrative commentary. For example, both paths lead to very similar outcomes, but in one you find the narrator / Dungeon Master cheering for you, whereas in the other the narrator's response to you is more like, bleh. So that makes it funny and it feels more intimate. Like if you're actually sitting with an interesting Dungeon Master.
Re: Word count
I've noticed some epic commercial IF come in at over 500k words. I'd estimate that CYOA titles are 10k to 15k words, thereabouts. I think 5k IF works might be viable if the concept is clever, fresh and perhaps funny. The equivalent of webisodes, or YouTube shorts, a whole bunch of these compiled into one app.
Re: Creating tension and racing against the clock
I like writing thrillers and creating a sense that there's a ticking bomb in the background, and you the player need to find a way to complete your mission before your time runs out. One way to create such an effect is to keep teasing the player with this.
Eg, “You're looking at the locked door. You recall someone saying that the key is kept back at the main office. It'll take 20 minutes for you to run there and back. You glance at your watch. You have exactly 23 minutes to go, before your oxygen runs out. Decide to run back and get the key? Turn to xx. Try to break the lock? Turn to xx.”
Re: Pacing and rhythm
One of my ideas that got picked up in the chat: A sentence is a soundtrack. This is about using the pacing and rhythm of the sentences to establish a specific atmosphere. For example, take the same scene we have above, the locked door. I could also write it like this, choppy phrasing to convey getting frantic and breathless in the moment:
“The door. You try it. Locked. Arrgh. Where's the key? You try to think. Where? Where? Oh! In the office! How long will it take to dash there and back? You think again. Aaarrgh. Twenty minutes, at least. But your oxygen runs out in 23 minutes. If you can't open this door in time, game over. For good. Go get key? Turn to xx! Kick the door open, worth a try? Turn to xx!"
Something like that. Two different ways to soundtrack the same scene.
Re: Voice of the Dungeon Master
Back when I was playing D&D, I thought the real draw was the personality and expertise of the DM. That really made the difference. I consider D&D a conversational game. The quality of the game conversation was everyone's prize for playing. So, in LAST KID RUNNING, I really tried to create a sense of a DM unfolding the scenes and guiding the gameplay for you, possibly teasing you with the choices. Some IF writers prefer to have an invisible DM, and they do a great job there. Something to explore for yourself.
Re: Converting from Twine to Text
So I ended up writing in Twee text format, then converting to Twine so I could playtest the different paths and make edits, and then I exported the whole chunk to plain text in order to import this into Scrivener, which is a text editing software that many writers of longform works use, and in Scrivener I transformed the text into standard (more or less) manuscript format, and then PDF-ed this for my editor at Penguin Random House. For the next book, I'm trying to simplify all this. Suggestions will be appreciated.
And that's it for this post. Thanks again to the wonderful people at Decision Fiction for organising this conference! I'm looking forward to putting out an interactive fiction title with them. Hopefully before next year's conference. Thanks also to my new IF tribe, passionate writers all over the world, from New Zealand to the US. I've been checking out your work online, and it's totally inspiring. Let's do this again soon.
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