“Waybinder”: A Game Designer’s Approach to Narrative Design

As I recently wrote about in more general terms: I have released a piece of interactive fiction called Waybinder. The game is available to play for free now, at Itch.io. I’ve not created a game like it before, and so it quickly became a valuable learning exercise in narrative design.

I would not, however, be so bold as to claim I could now churn out a definitive ‘how to’ on writing 30-minute interactive fiction. Instead, in this article I can but describe the means by which I happened to develop this ‘interactive novella’, applying what I know from game design to the act of writing fantasy fiction.

Initial Concept

Waybinder is based on an existing 3D project, but it started out with only a handful of known themes. Waybinder was, in fact, an attempt to ‘flesh out’ such themes before committing any more development time to the larger, 3D action title. Those themes, which will unite both projects, are:

  • use of magic
  • navigating urban environments
  • feeling threatened by a mysterious force, manifesting as cloying crystals
  • conducting rituals as a means of healing the environment, or setting it right

To that I only added one thematic ‘pillar’: to somehow delve into ‘sense of place’.

With all this and a duration goal of ‘short story’ in mind, I started writing a free-form draft over no more than a couple of days. I wrote this draft directly in Twine — an engine which I was already familiar and comfortable with.

A flowchart-type layout from Twine. A path runs left-to-right, branching about halfway along after a couple of brief diversion loops. In all, there are around 30+ nodes on the diagram.

Interrogating the Synopsis

At this point, Casting Foundations told the story of a magical practitioner on their way to a city of their design, whose journey is interrupted by an emergence of mysterious crystals. The player was afforded a few means of reacting to this incident, and I wrote out one pathway which saw them helping an injured party to safety before having to confront a face from their past.

This exercise was straightforward, but it yielded plenty of world-building questions to consider when time came to expand upon each moment. In a game design document, these questions (and answers) typically come to me when writing out chapter headings, or when considering the scope of player interactions and controls. For prose-heavy Waybinder, such considerations came from turning my draft synopsis into a series of miniature chapters. Questions included:

  • What are the limitations of magic in this world, both for the player and the imbued environment? or: What are the physics of the world, and what could the player reasonably expect to be able to do within it?
  • Why was the city built, and why here? or: What is the backstory for this place, and might that affect the player’s motivations now or in future?
  • Who is the player likely to meet? or: What is likely to motivate or hinder the player, and how many relationships can I expect them to manage?

Some of these design queries take on a new kind of importance when working in interactive fiction. For starters, a player’s expectations for agency and relationships within the game will differ greatly from those they might have for more ludic/active games. However, considering the game world and its logic in order to ascertain what the player is likely to encounter is precisely what I do when making other games. I find these to be the most reliable and internally-coherent prompts for any game mechanic, encounter or obstacle.

Refining the Concept

I let the answers to these conceptual questions sink in a bit as I played the prototype back. I should note that at this stage, the prose felt too rough and the scope for interactions felt too narrow to involve any other play-testers. Instead, this was an opportunity for me to test and refine the feel of one ‘slice’ of the game. I kept notes of plot points, environment highlights and encounters which might be most interesting — for this and other potential pathways.

What surprised me about this process is that these notes were not especially useful later on. At best, I could refer back to these ramshackle thoughts if I ever felt a case of writer’s block, and wanted to return to my original inspirations. Generally though, this became more of a space for the ideas I didn’t follow. It was an ideal space to store those sentences and paragraphs which I would cut during later revisions — just in case I’d need to refer to them again, or remind myself why they were cut.

The best design tool which resulted from this process was a basic flowchart, drawn up in Visio. I began by plotting the draft branch I’d written so far, primarily as a means of identifying its key plot points. I kept these broad by referring to them only by their mechanical actions, e.g. ‘establish the scene’, ‘witness the incident’, ‘attempt to flee’. Recreating that one branch allowed me to set up a template, which I could compare to the draft in Twine (also helpfully represented as a flowchart).

Now to fill in the other, unwritten branches. As mentioned in my earlier article: I looked to external prompts to help set tones for each of these. I sidestepped the ‘blank canvas effect’ by drawing tarot cards from a deck (in fitting with the game’s ritualistic theme). I refined the attributes embodied within those cards, in order to fit new directions into the game. These would come into play at the first major incident.

The Tarot Branches

Rider-Waite-Smith images from Wikipedia, referenced here as artefacts within the public domain.

Values were assigned as follows:

Queen of SwordsClear-headedness, smartness, good problem-solving (Proactive)
Queen of PentaclesCalm, grounded, with a clear understanding of place (Focus)
Page of PentaclesIn thrall to beauty within the world, prone to greed (Warding self)
I: The MagicianManifesting change from within (Warding others)
A flowchart with around a dozen nodes, most stacked across four paths. Key nodes at the point where the branches split are labelled as 'proactive', 'focus' or 'warding'.

Waybinder‘s key decision-making moment (The Arkillen Incident) now had four clear paths, but also an overall arc. I decided that this one-time, authorial tarot draw would inform the ritual at the game’s climax. With this plot structure, the player encounters characters and obstacles which change how they may interpret events at the end of the game.

Clearer Paths

After a brief period in which I investigated alternative platforms and began work on a map of the city, I returned to Twine and began writing detailed narrative branches. This process was a repeat of the earlier exercise — of turning a synopsis into fully-fledged narrative branches.

I alternated between freeform writing, and filling in a more detailed flowchart. The latter took precedent whenever I thought to involve other characters, or have the player perform acts of investigation. It was an invaluable tool for keeping the game’s threads straight in my head. It also informed the variables and ‘visited passage’ calls which form most of Waybinder‘s scripted story logic.

The game is broken up into 8 distinct sections, which made it easier to set writing deadlines for myself.

In some ways, all that remained was a straightforward task, to fill in the gaps. Each block of story could be treated as its own, separate entity precisely because the player and game characters appear in distinct areas of the city. My attempts to instil a sense of place would also help keep those places reasonably separate from one another. This distinction between narrative branches also helped me write for a subtly different tone each time; this would refer back to the tarot draw.

The game’s structure remains relatively simple, partly as I saw no particular need to complicate it given its duration. It also felt wiser to do so during a first-time project.

To a Conclusion

As for the final result: it’s early days yet for gauging audience reception, but I feel as satisfied as I can be in the design. I planned Waybinder‘s encounters and overall pathways in a back-and-forth motion between writing and design, based on what I already know. My efforts seem to have happily resulted in an adventure which is consistent with itself. Whether the player tends to flee from danger, investigate the scene or try other routes to discover why a part of Waybinder‘s world is seeking to destroy itself, all paths lead to a ritual which calls upon the insights and discoveries they’ve made up to that point.

I have myself a world in which to build more ‘ludic’ games and levels, and an appetite for further experiments in narrative. Both are sturdy stepping stones on the journey I set myself under the Metrowitch Interactive banner: to explore the intersections of story, play, and ritual.

Joy in the Moment

Death feeding pigeons in an anonymous, American city square. Rayman and Globox swimming loop-de-loops in a wide-open, undersea valley. Kate Kane dancing with a woman she likes at a high-society ball. Countless moments spent rapt by music and atmospheric light, on the coast at Arcadia Bay and in the shade of Kentucky’s more mysterious transit routes.

All these narrative memories which I have taken to heart have one thing in common: I was able to take charge of the flow of the story in which they sat, and metaphorically hit ‘pause’ – remaining in the moment long enough to savour it before I decided to let the story progress again.

It seems basic to remind ourselves that games progress only through interaction by the user, or that comics display a story in frozen moments of time – but I was only reminded of the true impact of this quite recently, in the course of a PBS Idea Channel discussion on single-frame fancomics. In it, Mike Rugnetta explains how a single frame can allow the reader to remain suspended in a moment for as long as they wish.

As a consumer of these media, I believe it’s important not to forget the importance of being able to stop and enjoy a moment – something which a few recent ‘indie’ games in particular have taken to heart. In many ways, Max and Chloë listening to Amanda Palmer on Chloë’s stereo as the morning sun filters through a makeshift curtain is the standout moment from my entire Life is Strange playthrough.

It may be that such moments feel more potent because they appear in linear narratives. Indeed, when such a moment strikes in a game like Minecraft it feels less like a narrative pause, and more like a particular arrangement of an ongoing scene. Instead I think of these pauses in linearity in the same light as Mamoru Oshii’s Niihama-shin montages in Ghost in the Shell:

It would seem that a key aspect of these moments’ potential lays in the player or reader being able to engage with them at their will, and on their terms – and so they are an inherently tricky thing to author. Nevertheless, I hope that game-makers continue to consider these ‘montage moments’ as part of a wider narrative/design lexicon. I find that as I mature alongside games, my own tastes have led to my favouring this technique most highly.

Lyst Summit Write-up (part 1)

I’m certainly embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to get around to my Lyst write-up – things have been very busy in recent weeks – but in some many ways, it’s taken until now for me to actually process the glorious things which happened there. What follows is more of a travelogue than a simple game jam recap, split into two parts for your convenience.

Lyst Summit is a unique gathering on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games, and its first event was held in early June aboard the MF William Jørgenson – a boat moored in København (Copenhagen), Danmark. I was honoured to be able to attend, so taking part in a fascinating series of talks, followed by a 48-hour game jam unlike any other. It was my first time visiting the Danish capital since a very brief change of trains last year, and I’m pleased to say it was as rich in friendship as it was in inspiration and creative output.

The "Love Boat" at Holmen
The “Love Boat” at Holmen

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StarCraft II

I’ve been playing StarCraft II for a few weeks now, and I am impressed. This is the first Blizzard ‘RTS’ (real-time strategy) game I’ve played, and it’s easily changed my perspective on the genre and modern-day gaming. I’ve long enjoyed RTS games, but have typically played the same titles for a few years at a time. My experience of RTS games is pretty limited as a result. I tend to fare poorly in single-player games, and have usually leaned on co-operative modes for fun instead.

StarCraft II is beset by an audience of keen veterans; this much I knew from the beginning. Though I was excited about the game prior to its release, it was really only because the game looked glitzy and because I’d come to enjoy Blizzard games through my time in World of Warcraft. I haven’t played the first game, or any of its fantasy counterparts in the Warcraft series. Fortunately the game has been designed with newcomers in mind, and while the online matches can be a hostile place indeed, the single-player campaign serves up some friendly scenarios to help orientate us.

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Achievements in Digital Media

John “Kaseido” McKnight recently wrote about a proposed ‘achievement’ system for Second Life which, some believe, might help shift online world demographics from a niche, free-form crowd to the lucrative gamer market. So soon after The Internet Crashed had posted an interview with Gary Ballard, this idea had me musing on notions of genre and medium again. I hope to draw a divide where social achievements can and cannot enrich a digital experience, but by doing so I must first separate MMO games from their ‘offline’ predecessors.

A Trio of Media

“MMO’s [sic.] need to be thought of as a medium, not a genre of video games. You take an experiment like Second Life and put it up against a refined, Skinner-box profit machine like World of Warcraft and you’ll see two very different experiences. Both have elements of game, but such widely varying goals that they can’t be considered in the same genre at all. You have to view them as two examples of different genres within the medium of an online multiplayer experience.”

Gary Ballard, for The Internet Crashed

Ballard’s point is a potent one, which Kaseido seized upon too – that although MMOs and games share much in common, it is almost always impossible to win an MMO, and so they are ultimately for play. The only time an MMO defies this is in player vs. player combat, when strict deathmatch rulings and the enclosure of an arena ensure that all play is taken outside the game’s normal flow. A single-player game may instead be completed once its story is run or a series of puzzles is finished.

I consider massively-multiplayer online games to be a medium of their own, separated from the likes of console games and other smaller, online titles. The constraints and opportunities which are made available to a community-driven game are too many to let us treat such work as we would game with fewer or only one player. I currently classify these media by their chief intent: social interaction, gaming within rules, and playing.

  • ‘Console’ games, typically free of social input (save for multiplayer modes), may feature ‘game’ or ‘play’. Examples would include Half-Life 2 (game) and LittleBigPlanet (play);
  • Online worlds feature no overarching goals save whatever the user brings to their own spontaneous play;
  • MMOs occupy a middle-ground, since they feature directed gameplay delivered in a freeform fashion – players are allowed to embrace or disregard quests and challenges at their own discretion, and may in fact ‘level up’ without any heed paid to these features. They are also encouraged to share this experience in a social environment.

It is these differences in function and reach which I think demand careful attention when suggesting new features like achievements. The system as we understand it is, as Kaseido says, a relatively new phenomenon, though ‘offline’ achievements have featured in console games for decades. Hosting these accomplishments in an online environment has allowed players to create ‘game passports’, detailing their exploits and granting them bragging rights.

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