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Friday, 27 September 2019

Connecting with stories

Dramatic irony occurs when the viewer or reader of a story knows more than the characters. It can be an effective way of making you connect with the story (“Look behind you!”) though if sustained for too long it tends to distance you from the characters (“Doesn’t that numbskull realise the danger?”) and then you've got the opposite effect.

A less immediate form of dramatic irony might plant a seed that will build over time. For example, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe we learn about Thanos’s behind-the-scenes involvement long before the Avengers even know his name. That doesn’t create emotional distance because for most of the saga he’s not the problem they have to face right away. He’s an oncoming storm, but it’s his proxies and allies who present the immediate threat.

Most film and television dramas aren't like first-person novels. There are scenes that don't feature any of the protagonists -- like those early tease moments with Thanos, for example. But when you're telling an interactive story, jumping away from our heroes to another viewpoint gets tricky. The characters expect us to advise and guide them, and the story really only works if we pick a side. (Even if that side might change.) We form a bond with our viewpoint character and that tends to frame how we expect to see events in the story -- not first-person, exactly, but close third. Under those conditions can dramatic irony serve any useful purpose?

An example: in the opening episode of Mirabilis, I cut within the first three pages between Jack Ember and Estelle Meadowvane, both lead characters, and inserted a scene (above) in which we see series baddie the Kind Gentleman in his true devilish form. The Kind Gentleman closes a web of dangers and intrigues around Jack’s life, but it’s nearly two episodes – that’s 50 pages – before they meet face to face. If we’d been interacting with Jack all that time, and knew what we know in the comic, and hadn’t warned him then he’d legitimately want to know why.

Well, let’s think about how we would interact with Jack and Estelle in an interactive version of Mirabilis. We wouldn’t want to do a lot of head-hopping, because interactivity favours a close relationship with one character, so probably you’d let the reader/viewer choose which of our heroes to follow each episode. The more the reader sticks to the same viewpoint character, the more they'll bond with them – but at the expense of not knowing everything the other one has been up to.

What kind of interaction would this be? The “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror reportedly entailed shooting more than five hours of story content. If you’re working in a medium where extra scenes cost money (anything but radio or prose, basically) then you’ll want to steer clear of that Choose Your Own Adventure model – oh, and don’t call it CYOA unless you want to get sued.

Luckily there are more rewarding ways to interact with characters than telling them what to do next. You can chat to them, get them to reveal their backstory (cf Lost), find out how they feel about each other, make subtle hints about what they should say or how they should behave that will influence other characters’ attitude towards them over time. These are the kind of subtle nudges and inputs that we get from interacting with people in real life.

To make that model of interactivity work, you’d have most backstory strands only accessible when cued by something that happens in the story. Jack, thrown in prison, talks about how he used books to escape loneliness and poverty as a child – and that leads him to a realisation that feeds into the plot. In the interactive version, there might be several breakthrough moments when you could get him to talk about that, and several different eureka plot developments as possible outcomes.

So the plot as it is in the comic remains largely unaffected by the player's choices. That's not only to avoid drawing the thousands of extra panels needed for a diverging story, but also because interacting with plot is not what's really interesting. The linear surface story is fine as it is. The interactivity can instead be about exploring interiority, discovering more about the character, and building a closer relationship with them so that they start to share their hopes and fears.

In other words, we can't (and don't want to) change the plot, but we can enrich it with foreshadowing. For instance, maybe Jack confides in the player that, "If anything were to happen to Estelle I'd die." When Estelle is captured by the Big Bad, that moment will now land with even more impact. And, yes, you could do that in a linear story too: Jack just tells somebody else how much Estelle means to him. But in the interactive version it’s a shared secret. It’s something you earned from your relationship with the character. Maybe you even encouraged him in those feelings, and because of that he’s now more vulnerable. Now you’re not just watching the story; you’re part of it. And that's what interactive storytelling is all about.

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