“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.

Exploring New Pathways with “Waybinder”

Last weekend I launched my first entirely-self made project. Entitled Waybinder, it is a work of interactive fiction which I developed over the course of a few months. Just as with the other games I’ve worked on in the past 10 years, the process has been educational. But as well as being in a genre which is new to me, this endeavour has given me a lot to think about in terms of project scale, working with narrative, and even new angles on self-publishing.

The Project

It would of course be remiss of me not to suggest that one can discover what Waybinder is about by playing it. I released the game for free/donations on Itch.io, and because it is browser-based, it can be played on whichever device you’re using to read this article.

But to summarise: I describe this as ‘an interactive novella’ given that Waybinder is text-based, and much more narrative than ludic. The ‘game’ aspect of it comes through in the choices you make, and in a lightweight set of encounters with the Scots Gaelic language. Its overall plot culminates in a ritual which has variable outcomes.

Building Small

I would be lying if I said that Waybinder was built to any solid sort of plan. Above all it was intended to be a novel (and fun!) experiment, and as such I wished to leave myself enough room to work out how to write. I wrote it in Twine, much as I do for any other game projects — in iterations:

  • I started out with a few rough passages written in freeform style, to establish the protagonist and understand the tone I wanted to strike. These included the train journey into Baile Arainn (pacing), meeting the city’s Director (character interactions), and the train crash at Arkillen (action). By this point I already knew that the project would skew heavily towards prose, and that interaction would be facilitated by buttons containing short dialogue and actions.
  • Having now referred to a number of locations in this rough draft, I looked to a transit map I’d drawn up for the Metrowitch project. This formed the basis of a more detailed map, which I would draw alongside writing the game over the next few months.
  • I identified key locations I’d want the player-protagonist to visit over the course of the game, establishing what events might happen there and how they might be connected. This is also where I began to get some idea of possible mechanics, motivations and forms of ritual to be played out.
  • What followed was the bulk of the work: alternating between cartography and narrative design, making use of flowcharts and copious notes. I explain this in more detail later.
  • Finally, there was about a month of proof-reads, bug-fixing, story polish and UI work on the game’s presentation in HTML5. I worked to a checklist of features, either implementing them or crossing them off after realising they’d require a more substantial re-write of Twine’s engine than I was willing to commit to.

Shifting My Understanding of Narrative Design

Though I have worked narrative design before, most of the games which called for it were much more mechanical in nature than Waybinder is. In A Planet Wakes, for example, the narrative drives players from one terraforming site to the next and makes the effort feel more intense each time. But the game and environment still tell the game’s underlying story, even when this narrative is removed.

From the beginning of this project, I wanted to try making interactive fiction specifically because plot and character interactions would be much more prominent concerns. In games of this type, the experience is not (typically) broken by imbalanced obstacles or resources, but instead a more loose, organic type of flaw in the way words are arranged. My biggest challenge with Waybinder was, therefore, plot-holes and logical consistencies. Amongst the challenges I’d set myself:

  • paths when characters have either already met, or have not yet done so
  • actions which occur differently depending on the items you’ve found, or prior conversations you’ve had
  • maintaining player agency whilst striving not to write a passage for every street corner
  • constructing what is essentially a single ending, flavoured by the singular path taken up to that point

As mentioned before, I used plot notes to manage much of this — not least those which describe the game’s variables. I also considered a flowchart, but at first this presented me nothing more than an intimidating blank canvas. It was at this point I realised I could incorporate ritual into the game’s design as well.

Design by Tarot

Flowchart with four branches, leading to a single conclusion.
Fearing that even these few story beats might spill over into a much larger game, I designed what would turn out to be 80% of the final game as the first of at least two ‘acts’.

I began with the rough draft of Waybinder‘s story, which established one possible path. I based other branches upon four tarot cards, drawn at random. The imagery from these is what’s shown on the game’s UI, and one particular branch (The Magician) is directly referred to by one of the game characters. Each of these was drawn with only one goal in mind — to put the player in a particular frame of mind (hopefully the same as my own) when they would come to perform the ritual at game’s end.

I subtly re-interpreted these four cards (I: Magician, Queen of Pentacles, Page of Pentacles and Queen of Swords) in order to establish loose ‘moods’ for each branch: pro-activity, focus on details, and warding one’s self and others. The path I’d already laid out focused on character interactions, and an encounter from the protagonist’s past; this seemed a good fit for the two ‘warding’ branches. The other two branches would engage more with the world and events happening within it.

It’s here that I also devised the idea of using artefacts for the actual ritual. These would act both as a focal point for the player, and an easy means of tracking which path they had taken. This would prove useful for later, diverging conversations.

Real-world examples of artefacts found within the game: a chair screw, railway token, sprig of heather and wild thistle.

With the plot arcs now in place, I was free to write whatever might come to mind for the characters and the world. I did so whilst populating a much more detailed flowchart. This in turn ensured that if a character, object or piece of knowledge entered the story at any point, I could cross-reference that with the more granular flowchart presented by Twine itself:

From Release, Onwards

All of this has happily led to Waybinder‘s completion and release. I kept it a small undertaking, making use of Itch.io’s platform with a smattering of promotion via bespoke Twitter and Instagram accounts. I have also begun submitting it to relevant games festivals in the hopes I might glean wider feedback, but also to see how play-testing is likely to be different.

I’m conscious (in theory if not in practice, yet) of the ways in which a piece of interactive fiction could succeed or fail at engaging its players, keeping them entertained, and bringing their time and effort to a satisfying conclusion. These factors are true for all interactive media. This is, however, by far the most ‘authorial’ project I’ve made. Its interface and play sessions also call for a different level of engagement, as it’s not a piece of work which could easily or satisfactorily be demonstrated within 1 or 2 minutes.

My basic hopes are that Waybinder is entertaining, and that the lessons I learned (and can now demonstrate) from its making may continue. I certainly intend to incorporate more narrative design into my generalised game design toolbox. Waybinder has, however, also served its initial purpose: to help realise an imaginary world which I intend to keep exploring. My next solo project began before this one: a 3D adventure, set some hundred years in Baile Arainn’s future. Having never before had a game world I could explore from multiple angles, I look forward to whatever lessons come from that as well.

Here’s to that journey.

Panoramic poster of a coastal scene, entitled "discover Bàgh Ceònomara". A line below reads "Hillcrest line 14, 28 mins from Central". After 5 seconds the graphic glitches, and briefly reveals Swedish text laying underneath before returning to normal.