Adding Interactivity to Narrative: Beyond Branching Paths [Part 1]

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Branching paths have always been one of the pillars of interactive storytelling.

The premise is compelling: give the reader or viewer agency over the narrative’s path. Let the audience choose where the story will go next.

It sounds like the perfect solution to storytelling in the digital age.

The trouble is, while it’s an interesting and theoretically exciting possibility, in actuality, branching paths present as many narrative hurdles as they do potentials.

While we want to interact in ever more engaging ways  — and we have the tools to do so — when it comes to interacting with stories, the most obvious solution may not actually be the best one.

I spend a lot of time thinking about interactive narratives, and talking about it with my peers, collaborators and students.

For those of us who were part of the generation(s) that grew up with “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, we all have a nostalgia for the format.

And given the surplus of capable digital formats — from iPads to Xboxes  — it can seem to be too good to be true.

So maybe it is.

After all, for a format we have such a fondness for, where are the classics?

Where is the choose your own equivalent to Catcher in the Rye, or Great Expectations?

The answer, perhaps, is that it’s hard enough to tell one good story.

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Story is craft.

As sculptors work with stone or clay to bring their masterpieces to life, storytellers work with words, with characters and with conflict, to create something compelling, captivating and immersive.

As audiences, we are curious.

We are drawn to the notion of seeing what is “behind door number two” or where a divergent path may lead us…

But, when it comes to story, we want to be immersed in a narrative and emotionally engaged in a character’s journey.

Done well, their journey becomes our journey.

If we are truly fully immersed, the choices they make become our choices.

The pleasure we get from engaging with a narrative like this, is getting to feel what the hero feels, vicariously.

We cry, our pulse quickens, we laugh out loud.  We are pulled into that world, not through the choices we make, but through the choices the characters make.

As we look beyond branching paths, it’s time to explore the difference between different content and more content, and how those can be best used for the sake of a story.

 





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