Story in Space

This is a post for my Story class students, posted here in case it’s interesting to my readers. They are working on making an Interactive Fiction piece set in a dystopia. Interactive Fiction (IF) is a text-based game in which you explore space and story using a command-line interface: “You are in a room. To the west is a heavy oak door. To the south is a iron door. to the east stands a battered old wardrobe.”

This is how I think about mapping plot elements into a physical space. 

You’ve decided on your dystopian world based on an existing trend that worries you. Now you have to flesh that out into a real world and a story.

Most Interactive Fiction plots take two forms: mystery and adventure.
(Note: I wish I’d found Jenkins sooner! There are 4 types listed in Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture)

Mystery IF is when the story has occurred in the past, and you as a player try to puzzle out what occurred by exploring the space. You pick up clues, find notes and imagine what had occurred in the place you now inhabit. A hit game using this approach is Gone Home (while not Inform7 IF, definitely IF IMO). Wikipedia has a decent plot summary.

Adventure IF is you experiencing escalating challenges as you try to achieve the goal. A satisfying story is created by increasing difficulty of the challenges you face.

Of course these can be combined, and other elemental genres can be added in, such as romance, horror or more. But the core architecture of most IF is you discovering a past event or you experiencing it in real time.

Because IF allows you to explore the space freely, you will have to be very thoughtful in how you place the plot elements in order to make sure the story unfolds in a semi-linear way. By that I mean, you want to assure that the player gets the easy/early clues and easy challenges first, harder ones next, and key clues and truly difficult challenges last. You can just imagine if a player managed to trip over the boss monster first or the one clue that reveals everything. I think the best approach is using a combination of distance and locks.

The story arc

Obviously space is the first approach to ordering plot elements. The inciting incident should be right in front of the player and the crises as far away as possible.  Yet some players may want to map the entire space before interacting with things, or may simply wander out of your expected order, ignoring or skipping key moments. After all, without a GUI, it is easy to overlook a clue.

You’ll want to consider locks to ensure somethings are experienced early and some are experienced later.

Locks open with a key. A key can be literally a key  to open a locked door, or it can represent another object or challenge.

Some examples:

  • The hen wants a worm. The fox wants a chicken. You can’t proceed until the need is met.
  • Ask the right question of the cop to get the right clue to proceed.
  • Solve the riddle set by Gollum. (Puzzles are often used as locks in IF)
  • Find a knife to cut the strap.
  • Find a seed and water it. Use the plant to see something, learn something, bribe someone.

It can simple, or complex. It can be one object, or a combination. Solving these small-to-large challenges allows the player to access the next plot point, or even act as plot points.  Scott Kim wrote a great article on puzzle design.

So how to go about placing plot in space?

I find world-building can be quite seductive. Designers can spend hours making a world, and forget the story drives the pleasure of play.  Try to move back and forth between creating the world and shaping the plot.

Once you’ve roughed out what you think your world is like (a paragraph or two), then spend a little time on roughing out your plot.

  • Who is your character? What is her goal and motivation?
  • What is the inciting incident what kicks the story into action?
  • List 2-5 struggles. Ways the world can stop your protagonist from getting her goal. How can she beat them?
  • What is the biggest challenge? How it can it be overcome?
  • What is the resolution?

Next, sketch out the locations for this plot, and what their relationship is (by relationship I mean that literally. North, south, east, west. In the next room? Down the street?) Place the plot elements onto the map. Then place the locks to ensure a satisfying escalation.  Not every element needs to be locked so the player is forced into strict chronology… I think it’s more elegant if the player can do some challenges out of “order.” for example, you could place all simple challenges in the living room, all hard ones in the kitchen, and place the boss fight in the locked basement.


Learn more: Great essay by Emily Short on making sure player get all of the story.