Be Chosen By Your Own Adventure

A couple of years ago I was meant to be writing an open-ended narrative for a live project - that is, one starting point led to many endpoints, creating a story along the way. I found it really difficult to write anything I found satisfying. In my endearing way, I insisted to a colleague that it just wasn't possible to write meaningful, moving stories when the ending was transparently arbitrary and the reader knew that. You could build a roller-coaster ride, sure, but nothing that dumped you off somewhere other than where you got on. In retrospect, I think I was being a bit more insistent than strictly necessary. Anyway, by way of apology, I thought I might explain why I'm still right.

Well, not right exactly. 'Meaningful' is obviously a very subjective term, and this is largely going to be a subjective discussion. I do however, think there is a clear difference between those stories (or narrative experiences, let's call them) that move or transport or unsettle me, and those that I absolutely find entertaining, but ultimately quite disposable. For me, the open-ended narratives just seem unable to cross from one camp to the other.

An example from mid-air: I remember reading Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms on a boat journey in Italy and being destroyed by the ending, distraught, with nobody to talk to about it. Obviously, a fair amount of romanticism was enhancing the experience - being in Italy (Venice, in fact), in my early twenties, sat on a boat - but nonetheless, this was one of those stories that just completely haunted me thereafter. One of those works that you don't want to end (or maybe you want to leave you alone, but it refuses). To do anything else immediately afterwards, to see another word, hear another word, watch the news, whatever - anything else will dilute and diffuse the state to which you have been transported.

And then there are roller coasters - you go up, you go down, you get thrown around, and it's great fun - and you get off and say: 'That was amazing! What shall we do next?'

Now, I love roller coasters, and this piece is not about creating an artificial hierarchy. Building an effective, successful roller coaster is a very hard thing to do, and I'm not sure that I've ever done anything other than that as a writer myself. In fact I've built plenty of roller coasters that look a bit too rickety for people to want to try out.

But it is just that, for me, with any experience where the ending is movable and mutable, or there are that many routes to it that the endpoint seems arbitrary - these I have always found to be, at most, great roller coaster rides. It seems a shame given the potential for real collaboration between storyteller and story-told, and I have been reflecting upon why this should be case.

A few other things recently have directly prompted this. One of those occasional pieces you read on 'interactivity' in theatre and video gaming popped up in The Guardian recently. Coincidentally, I have been enjoying the latest Telltale Games epics, The Walking Dead: Season 2 and The Wolf Among Us, alongside a few other games recently that have been making some exciting departures in how games treat stories. And I also recently re-discovered a stash of Fighting Fantasy paperbacks from my youth, intending to sell them on eBay (they are still sat under my desk).

The Fighting Fantasy books have an immediate smell of nostalgia and escape to them. Long car journeys to Wales would be broken by stops at motorway service stations, and at the age of about nine or ten, I think this is where I first came across them, buying one at the service station each time we passed, and then later on amassing a whole collection. They are similar objects of affections for boys (probably boys) of a certain age, and in the smartphone age they are being re-worked into playable apps for those looking to escape back into them. Around the same time there were many other similar genres, publishing offshoots of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying world mostly, but also into less fantasy-orientated teenage fiction. Most people my age remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These books eschewed the dice-based RPG elements, and were simply second-person narratives broken into numbered paragraphs where you chose your own route and that led to a wide variety of endings of the story.

The endings varied from clear dead ends ('You are dead') to pyrrhic victories, to clear triumph. My recollection of reading both the CYOA books and the Fighting Fantasy books is that you had to know every possible ending, but also that you clearly ranked these into the 'right' ending, and all the others. There was a satisfying end to the story in one of those routes - all the others were diversions. In trying to trace all these routes you ended up using your fingers as a series of bookmarks to allow you to retrace your steps, so that reading one of these books looked like this:

In fact, I think the FF stories were written pretty much with this hierarchy in mind - there was one clear route out of the maze, mostly dead ends, and then a maybe a few less satisfying ways out. The CYOA books proudly boasted of lots more possible endings, and I don't seem to remember ever being that into them. Certainly the FF stories stuck with me more. But with both, at no point did I pick one up, make all my choices and either die or succeed, and then put down the book and forget about reading it ever again. Choice in itself was not satisfying. You wanted to make the 'right' choices, and to know if you had made the right choices, you needed consequences. You needed to know how it would all turn out, and how that connected to the choices you've made.

It is a very escapist urge. Because adult life is fraught with choices, many of which seem arbitrary, many of which will never be resolved in terms of their consequences, many of which will be inconsistent in terms of their consequences. And there are no multiple endings. There is nobody at the end of the journey who can categorically reassure you: 'you did the right thing'. And you can't go around again to try something else out.

Video games have always fallen pretty firmly into the 'roller coaster' camp for me. They are all inherently 'interactive', but on narrative terms, there have been two main flavours. First, there are those games that find themselves (just like a roller coaster) 'on rails' in terms of the narrative (if not always the game mechanic) - from the brilliant Half-Life series, through to the bombastic Call of Duty, or the recent Tomb Raider reboot (with some pseudo-sandbox retracing of your steps). The cinematic skill in the telling of the stories improves alongside processing power, but basically, these are stories to serve a game - you play for the reward of the cutscene, then onward you plod through the narrative (actually the storytelling in Half-Life is much more dynamic than that implies, with the story occurring around you as you play, rather than cutscenes, but my main point is that the narrative pretty much happens, whether you stop to look at it or not - see the video below).

The other model is the background of a story to a more abstract game mechanic. At bare minimum: 'there once was a basic looking spaceship, and everything else in the universe, wanted to destroy it. It resisted its inevitable doom until it could not fight no longer. And then, caught in a Sisyphean cycle of unending doom, tried again'. Some early classics explicitly felt the need to bolster their world-building with a good old yarn. The great Elite (about to be gloriously reborn), when first published was packaged with a novella, The Dark Wheel by Robert Holdstock, that fleshed out the universe of the game. In actual fact, the brilliance of Elite's game design was that, even with the very basic wireframe graphics of the ships, stations and planets, you felt utterly immersed in a game world without reading a word of the book.

Elite was perhaps most notable as one of the earliest manifestations of a 'sandbox' game mechanic that allows players to set their own objectives. At first glance, the objective of the game is to become 'Elite' in status, but the routes to attaining that objective are many and varied, and it's not as if the game breaks down if you stop pursuing that objective, and you decide you just want to pootle around asteroid fields or something. Narratives emerge spontaneously out of algorithmically generated encounters with space pirates, or traders, or cops.

These mini-narratives that occur in open-ended games (just as in 'open' theatre experiences) can be fascinating. I went through a recent binge of watching DayZ gameplay videos by FRANKIEonPCin1080p, where our genial host Frankie leads us on various sorties in a zombie apocalypse wasteland, meting out justice against other online players more interested in banditry and preying upon the less experienced. Frankie's headshot-driven moral code though is a solution to the central problem of sandbox environments - you have to give yourself purpose, even if that's just consistent out-and-out anarchy and rebellion. Otherwise the sandbox can get pretty boring, pretty quickly. A good game helps by giving your actions direct reactions. Aggressive play might engage NPCs (computer-generated non-player characters - like say, the police in Elite or Grand Theft Auto) to balance that out by attacking you, or the Frankies and bigger sharks of your game world will have a go too. Or, it might be simple logistics - 'I can't just pick up everything because I run out of backpack space'. At both scales, these balances help give your choices weight - but nonetheless when you've outrun the police you're back to the same point of doing whatever you want to again.

Many big-name games today fuse both these models of game-world backstory and slice-by-slice narrative in gameplay that combines sandbox activity with linear story. So in a game like Assassin's Creed, or the current Batman strain, or Borderlands or the big daddy of the multi-genre genre, Grand Theft Auto, you can just run across the game world and get going with the next mission that progresses the story, or instead there are numerous mini-missions that unlock achievements or extra content. You can just play the story through to the end at breakneck speed, or you can be the completist obsessed with exploring every nook and cranny ever programmed, or something in between. It's your choice.

(This speed-run of Half-Life is the logical extreme of the completism urge, at the expense of coherence of the whole shebang:)

Again, don't get me wrong, if I'm sounding negative. I love playing these games, it's just that some of them have still never felt as satisfying as their potential. Recently, however, I have enjoyed a few games that have really raised the bar in terms of storytelling, and I think they point the way to some new directions. The Last of Us was a quite amazingly well-told story of a trip across a post-apocalyptic zombie world, from the perspective of a young girl, and her grizzled protector. In Journey a slightly abstract figure travels across a desert to climb up a mountain towards a strange light pointing skyward. In The Unfinished Swan, a small boy in grief for his dead mother chases the titular swan that has escaped from one of her paintings into a strange story world of a withdrawn king.

Even from my pretty glib summaries (there is a wealth of story in all of these I can't go into here) it is fairly obvious that these are quite linear story experiences. This might seem to go against the current tide of video games towards interactive storytelling, creating experiences increasingly shaped by the choices and actions of players. Playfulness is about creation and imagination, isn't it? You get to try out new roles, test your choices, test boundaries and see what might happen. It's a very serious business (Although I still often see adults mistaking playfulness for states of anarchy and action without consequence. Personally, I have never quite understood the search for an 'inner child' when my predominant memory of being a child is desperately wanting to be an adult. Play needs rules and limitations as much as a trampoline needs springs).

Well, yes, playfulness is great, and perhaps that is what those roller coaster experiences are for, and in a lot of games, 'choice' maps onto this. Consider every game that starts with you micro-managing 'your' appearance, right down to the distance between your avatar's eyes or the jut of his or her chin. I am not as interested here in the question of identity and on-screen character ('Am I Pacman's friend? Or his master? Am I Pacman? Is Pacman me?'), I think there's way too much distance between player and character (of movement, appearance, behaviour) for it to be a true source of gamer angst. But when confronted with those appearance menus, what's the objective? Make an avatar that looks like me? That can be amusing. I'm not ashamed to admit it always brings out a certain puerile streak (my current Dark Souls character is named 'Huw Jerrekshun'), and I certainly don't feel any amount of empowerment or agency pricking at me particularly.

My childishness aside, I do like being a grown-up, and that comes with a need to confront some fairly grown-up themes and ideas. One of those, sadly, is that the world just might be a completely arbitrary and unfair place. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (spoiler, sorry) tells the story of a romance between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in Northern Italy as they manage to dodge most of the horrors of the First World War, only for Catherine and their unborn son to die in childbirth. The bleak and simple reading of this story: shit happens. Or, perhaps, more refined, your struggle and your choices mean nothing. The Stanley Parable is a satirical video game exploring choice and follows a fairly nihilistic line in that vein. Your choices and motivations, in conflict with an unseen narrator are gradually revealed as increasingly arbitrary and futile, and the outcomes dissatisfying. In its bleakest moment, the only way to 'end' the game is to repeatedly climb a diving board without a pool to throw yourself at the concrete until dead. It is a witty game - although for my money, there's a more subtle and substantial exploration of all of that in Portal 2 (which also looks very similar given that they both use the Source game engine).

A Farewell to Arms, however, is much more than simple nihilism because the reader is tempted to have so much hope of peace and escape for our characters, and the bleakness arrives in counterpoint to the quite deliberate horrors created by men during the war. You need to be first seduced by the notions of justice, and fate and righteousness to have them taken away from you (HBO's Game of Thrones mines that brilliantly, although it has to walk a tricky path of diminishing returns). There's no hubris if the hero suspects that all their choices are arbitrary from the get-go.

Now, tragedy is not going to sell many video games, I get that, but there is a flip to the tragic hero I think, in the 'reluctant hero'. Rather than the hero doomed to fail, the modern action hero is doomed to succeed, and be stabbed, burned, beaten up and thrown around as much as possible along the way. You wouldn't buy John McClane if he wasn't quite so weary about his predicament and attacked the terrorists with gleeful abandon ('How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice? I'm so lucky!'). The reluctant hero appeals to our own everyday situations, being thrust into conflicts and complications that were not of our choosing - and we need the same hope that we will inevitably get past them. Fundamentally we deal with as much shit as John McClane, just smaller scale, and with less Alan Rickman.

As far as video game story goes, the reluctant hero is quite easily incorporated. In The Wolf Among Us (and admittedly this is from the source material, Bill Willingham's Fables comics), our antihero is Bigby Wolf, ironically appointed sheriff in a land of fairytales transplanted to New York. The Big Bad Wolf, as we immediately understand, has done wrong by many of his fellow Fables in the past - there are easier paths to the quiet life than being their sheriff. And in the post-apocalypse world, as in The Walking Dead or The Last of Us, having lost their whole world, pretty much everybody is a reluctant hero.

Both the tragic and the reluctant hero story tropes end with good old Aristotlean catharsis, be it a purging of negative emotions or terrorists from Nakatomi Plaza. But more subtlety again is possible in the more qualified consequences of a protagonist's actions. Joel in The Last of Us loses his daughter in a zombie apocalypse outbreak (as a result of the panic rather than actually the nifty fungus which is behind all the zombification in this instance) and we find him a couple of decades later as a grizzled, ruthless survivor. Tasked with ferrying a young woman, Elly across dangerous open country, their journey escalates into being a save-mankind-from-itself epic, but with a fantastic twist at the end.

It's too good to even risk spoiling here, so I won't explain any further, but there is another aspect to The Last of Us that heightens our identification with Joel's decision at the end of the story. At first glance, the game is conventional cutscenes sandwiched between a third-person beat/outrun the zombies/badguys mechanic along fairly linear routes. It also soon becomes obvious that you will be switching between Joel and Elly in certain sections of the game. Now, the combat mechanic alone is actually pretty clever in how it visually incorporates listening by both the player-characters and enemies - but even more interesting is the choice over when you switch between Elly and Joel. The switches are completely story decisions (most early levels are Joel, then you switch perspective depending on the action), and are completely married to the storytelling, much as in cinematography when a shot 'favours' a character - but so much more than that. They connect with moments when a question is being asked of a character ('Does she have what it takes to survive? Will he tell the truth?') - and switch the player themselves between asking those questions or answering them. The player moves the characters, fights with them and runs with them, but this is always within the context of the story, not between or beside it.

(This is a great keynote speech by the creator of The Last of Us, Neil Druckmann:)

This might all sound like a crush on interactivity and a move back towards much more passive storytelling, which to some extent it is, but it is still hugely satisfying as a game. It is not about co-existence between a game mechanic and a layer of story, however - the two are intrinsically bound up in each other. The Telltale games take this further. They are essentially stories with a game element (the games are even released as 'seasons' comprised of 'episodes') - interactivity comes in dialogue decisions (you have a few seconds to choose from a few general directions for your character's dialogue, or to say nothing), or in action sequences. Some of the action boils down to getting a sequence right through repetition, or in Wolf they determine the direction of a fight sequence - (hit opponent with a statue or an anvil? Think fast!). There is also a suggestion that your choices change the story. When you make a choice that will upset/please a character an in-game alert tells you 'Such-and-such will remember that.' At the end of each episode, certain choices you have made are revisited with an analysis of how other players approached them.

How much you can actually change the outcome of the story is limited, however. Initially the dialogue can be frustrating as you realise how little immediate agency you have, but it soon becomes obvious how the choices are not about playing the game, but playing the role. You get to decide how gruff, hard-boiled or compassionate Bigby's responses are, or how bravely, coldly or considerately our young heroine Clementine talks to her fellow survivors in The Walking Dead. That said, there are some consequential decisions. At one point in an episode of Wolf, I opted not to corruptly pocket some stolen money. It seemed like I was being asked in that moment to 'do the right thing', which would have been the simple moral choice in many lesser games. A few scenes later, however, the money was needed to help out another character. Good could have done been with the dirty cash. Not a completely story-diverting event, but a nicely complex consequential moment.

Journey contains a fantastic multiplayer dynamic where your hooded character is joined by another character identically dressed, controlled by a randomly assigned player, online somewhere else in the world. They join you for a while, help you, follow you, and then maybe log off and disappear. The pair of you can only communicate with abstract pips. (I gave my young two-year-old daughter the controls during one session - my accompanying player pipped away, confused by my suddenly erratic movements.) When you reach the end of your journey, you are given a list of handles of the other players that joined you along the way (BigDog94, SuperTim15, that kind of thing). Considering that was as much information I was given to their identity it was surprisingly affecting. We hadn't directly chosen to play with each other, we hadn't communicated articulately with each other, we'd just played together, and shared the journey, and that was moving in itself.

In these ways, walking deliberately limited paths, with deliberately finite and considered choices, I found I ended up deeply involved with these characters - more so than I ever have inhabiting an avatar in an 'open' world where I can look however I want, steal any car or climb any building. The limitations create the identification. Choices have consequences, rather than actions simply having reactions. And in this way, great stories can be played as much as they are told.

What then are the implications for interactive storytelling outside of video games? Theatre experiences are inherently different from video games in that there's a certain amount of built-in linearity and a lack of replayability because both running a show for a less-finite-than-usual duration or returning to it again and again as an audience member is time-consuming and expensive. That said, as explored in the Guardian piece, certain strands of interactive and immersive storytelling are mirroring those mainstream structures of video game narrative I discussed.

The work of makers such as Coney (with whom I have worked on a few projects) probably goes the furthest interactively in giving the audience a chance to shape the whole show experience, shows where the audience is the performance. A Small Town Anywhere by Coney hinges upon content generated by audience members - everybody is given a 'role' in the life of a small town (loosely inspired by the film Le Corbeau) and a game is set up of gossip and intrigue, all while an unseen external threat to the town approaches. The variations between each night's show will have nothing to do with the performers on stage but entirely be about everybody else 'sat' beside you. Now, an old hand of the stage would argue that of course every theatrical performance is different and dependent upon the quality of that night's audience - but I remember a room-mate who had only ever been to the theatre four times in his life, and three of those were Les Misérables. Commercial theatre has strived for a certain reproducibility of theatrical experience to satiate an audience that really does want to hear very particular songs in a very particular order - there is no 'degree' of interactivity in comparison. The innovation in the truly interactive theatre experience is dramatic changes of content as much as delivery.

This looks at first glance similar to the 'sandbox' game design, and to those games that result in 'emergent' gameplay (either deliberately or accidentally). There is a big difference however, in that the mini-narratives that emerge in sandbox games are still ultimately governed by programmed rules (or created by programming bugs in some cases). As such, they can be even more amusing and engaging than the main game narrative itself, but they remain at the level of reactions rather than narrative consequences, and the overall 'freedom' of choice dilutes the possibility of a satisfying experience in its totality.

To say the same of a live experience, however, with good old human beings generating the chaos would be pretty naive. My personal experience of Small Town was that I thoroughly enjoyed it, but was too distracted by the game to feel much impact of the over-arching story. That said, in a situation where so many stories are being created, (not even open-ended stories as such, more 'open-begun'), a whole range of experiences are created, and some audience members may well come away with something pretty haunting. The potential of this kind of experience is that you actually get closer to a Sartrean existentialist state of being 'condemned to be free', rather than the 'bad faith' of a West End musical. Or maybe you do even get to glimpse that endpoint in the distance - 'if I can do absolutely anything I want at this show, why am I at this show?' - and that in itself is healthily unsettling. Put a bit less dramatically - I think this interactivity is about creating a multitude of stories - which is not the same as the one-beginning-many-endpoints frustration I mentioned at the outset. It is closer to genuine collaborative writing, in the realm of process as much as product.

The other strain of interactivity, progressively more a feature of mainstream shows, is the immersive 'walk-through' experience. In these, audiences are generally invited to move through a performance space choosing their own route, exploring at their own pace, as opposed to sitting in one spot and passively viewing a stage picture. Now, promenade performances are hardly new (as in, medieval) but by virtue of being able to place themselves differently in the physical landscape of performance, these audiences are being encouraged to perform a cut-and-paste operation and create their own narrative, unique to themselves.

Except of course, it's not that simple. There is plenty of gentle direction in the movement of those audiences, often to a completely shared climax. Everybody's route to the finale will be different, but there's a finale all the same. With 'walk-through' theatre, there's 'interactivity' by virtue of stumbling upon this portion of the performance or missing that bit, although I would contend that the conventionally chair-bound audience member still chooses where to look (I remember once somehow offending an older audience member with one of my plays so much that she made a grumbling show of looking anywhere but the stage).

In terms of actively influencing the content of the show, however, the closer proximity of the audience to performers is going to have an effect (and give audience members much more opportunity for disruption, which might need to be subtly managed - Punchdrunk audiences, for example, are asked to wear masks for the duration of the performance - I would say that the mask is the chair that the audience member carries around with them, providing safety and restraint in similar ways.) Even if each member of the audience arrives at the same final point, their journeys are entirely individual, as is the 'baggage' of previous scenes they bring to bear in viewing the end scenes of the show. There's no reason an immersive experience like this does need to have a single point of exit, of course. A company could easily create multiple endings for an audience, and encourage them to have another go and find another route through and out.

And that sounds like it would be great fun - but I still feel that interactivity interpreted baldly as 'free choice' is going to be limited in the depth of the stories it can tell. These kind of shows have always felt more like roller coasters to me. I might want to ride them again (and actually, the accumulation of multiple passes through might start to create a deeper story), but a showgoing budget only stretches so far. There is always a lingering suspicion that the best seats in the house belong to those who get to experience the variations of the show night after night - the makers themselves.

But, really, don't get me wrong - this is not a simple lament for 'proper stories' travelling linearly from A to B. I think there is huge potential in narrative interactivity, just as long as that interactivity springs from a deep consideration of choice and consequence and whether audiences/readers/gamers should always be given what they want.

In life, I don't know if we do want to choose our own adventure. Or, we have to make choices every day, and our constant struggle is the assessment of the wisdom of those choices, in the moment, in the short term, in the context of our whole lives. By either accepting them or rejecting them, the stories that we tell each other (in religion, in literature, in everyday conversation) are our best guide to making those assessments. But a guidebook that wants you to lead it is no guidebook at all. I think our basic hope, whether you believe it can or should be fulfilled, is that we will be chosen by our own adventure, and the best stories, whether destructively or constructively, embrace that with passion.

June 2014