Choose your own adventure

A colleague from industry told me today that Hollywood is all abuzz with the possibility of using Virtual and Mixed reality to tell stories where audiences can choose the ending. I think that will lead to a dead end.

I say this because I don’t think the problem with this approach is technological. In fact, the means to create “choose your own adventure” stories has existed for quite a long time.

There is a tradition stretching back through the centuries of story-games. I suspect such things have been tried in many cultures, and in many different ways.

It’s not that they are wrong, but rather that they seem to end up being marginal, culturally speaking. People love playing games, but “playing” is not the primary purpose of telling stories.

We tell each other stories in order to work through questions of shared culture and values. The fictional characters in stories, and the challenges we watch them face, represent issues that are meaningful and relevant to our particular tribe.

Loyalty, ethics, humor, prejudice, metaphysics and mortality, the tension between rational thought and primal emotion, these are the building blocks of narrative. As we watch characters work through such issues, we are being taken on a journey by proxy.

If you remove the proxy and instead ask the audience member to directly make those decisions, then the “characters” become reduced to game tokens.

If you are going to remove the agency — and therefore the power to teach — from story characters, you might as well embrace the fact that you are creating a game, not a story. And if you are going to do that, why maintain the pretense that you are “telling a story”?

A good game is difficult enough to design, without the constraint of pretending it is something else. A “choose your own adventure” experience should be designed, from the ground up, as a form of game, rather than being mislabeled as some sort of alternate version of the protagonist driven narrative.

Designers of such experiences really aught to understand the difference. Otherwise, they will continue to scratch their heads and wonder why interactive stories never really seem to work very well.

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