So I’m getting better about writing fiction every morning. I missed a couple of days last weekend, but I went to a funeral, so sue me, shoulder-angel. But I’ve already cleared out the queue of stories that I had in mind, so I need to find something else to write. Turns out when you set yourself a daily BUTT IN CHAIR goal, you become less picky about story ideas. I haven’t lost sight of the doubt-story that I’m researching for, but there are some things I want to play with first to test that out. Like conscientious worldbuilding, but that’s another story.
Here, the important thing is, I went to Lee and Ray and said, “I need subjects for boy-middle-grade stories to write, to fill out my next Tales Told Under the Cover collection, because I have ONE boy story and four girl ones.”
I wrote one of the stories already, and it hared off in an unanticipated direction of such scariness that I don’t know that I can use it. It’s more Stephen King than Goosebumps. Even though I think it’ll be good for kids (especially kids who have lost a family member), it doesn’t seem like anything I can sneak by parents. No cussing, no sex – but lots of violence. A dead brother comes back to haunt a kid who just wants some Halloween candy. There are guns. That kind of thing. I think it’s a great story. But I’m going to sit on it for a while. If nothing else, I need to come up with a title for it. It was supposed to be about a kid who goes trick-or-treating and gets attacked by evil caramels.
On to the next idea: a kid gets sucked into his computer, into a video-game world.
Wellll, I’m working on finishing the first BioShock. (I just started it this fall; FPS used to make me ill, but I think framerates have improved enough that I don’t need to avoid them anymore.) And I looked at the list of stations for the submersible and said, “Those look like nice choke points for a CYOA story.”
The problem with writing a CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure)-type story is that the emphasis isn’t on the story, but on the branchings. How many branchings can you have? How many deaths vs. lifes? How can we maximize the amount of page-jumping? The mechanisms of how to lay out options are there, but not how to design the story itself.
Pfft. Game designers have to deal with story design in a kind of multiverse, a story-space with multiple choices, all the time.
Personally, I think you have to have an overall story arc that can be adapted to the multiple choices that a character can make (either in games or in CYOA-ish books). As a creator, while you’re controlling the kinds of choices your characters can make, the reader/player makes the choices for the characters. The kinds of CYOA-style books that eventually frustrate me are the ones where the choices don’t matter; they’re just split points where the choice leads to an arbitrary outcome. “Go right or left?” kinds of choices. Or the choices where you think you’re doing something smart, but something pops out of nowhere and kills you. Whoop de do, how satisfying is that? Not very. However, I often find that controlled game play is often satisfying: I’m playing a lot of Torchlight II lately, too, and I really enjoy the choicelessness of it. You have all this freedom to wander around in any order that you like…within a certain area. You have to complete XYZ before you can pass a chokepoint, though. It’s an illusion of choice, while forcing an action. The choices only seem arbitrary; you can only be killed by your own stupidity or lack of skill.
BioShock, I think, deals with the problem of choice vs. not writing a game the size of a multiverse by telling a story about control vs. freedom, backing you into places where the game takes over for you. What’s the one choice you really get? How to deal with the little sisters. Everything else is “how can I survive this using the fewest resources?” Which isn’t choice, but optimization.
In the end, you can’t get away from the reality that you can only give the player/reader so many real choices. You have to railroad them down certain paths. You don’t have an infinite amount of time to build a world for all the possible options a player might want to take. So how do you deal with providing an illusory freedom (or even meaningful choices) in a limited environment?
Writers have been dealing with the problem of providing the illusion of freedom without meaningful audience choice for a very long time. Nobody in a story is free to act the way they want. Nobody. They’re written creations, and they only have one option, which is to do what’s on the page. The writers, we have a lot of choices to make…but once you’ve set up the story, there are only so many types of ways it can play out, in order for the story to be satisfying. The more I study structure, the more I know how limited I am. Which, to be honest, I kind of like. I used to go, “How will this story end? Howwwwwww?” No I go, “Eh, I forgot what I put in the beginning again, didn’t I?” And I go back to the beginning, see what kinds of tools I left lying around for the character to play with, apply the lessons learned in the middle to the tools they had in the beginning, voila, an ending.
So. Let’s say that games and stories have things in common and things different that they do, and that a CYOA-ish story might be a good place to play with the tools at hand for both. My rules: all paths must be satisfying. That is, they must either have a beginning, middle, and end, or they must end unsatisfyingly due to a poor, believable choice (not random crap). All choices must have meaning, either a substantial choice about the way the character will develop, or an optimizational choice that makes the character better or worse at what they do.
The story will be organized by structure that reaches across all choices: choke points. For example, the first phase will be the setup of the story, the debate between major options in a decision (admit to love and get shaken up or stay single and safe; try to defend your current way of life or leave it behind in search of something new–whatever). The second phase will be entering into a new world or state of being of some kind. The third will be the ramifications of the new stuff–the problems/bad guys closing in restrictively, taking the character down to a moment of death. The fourth will be resolving the problems of the new way using tools from the old ways of doing things: a synthesis. I intend to have multiple paths through the choke points in order to keep continuity, but the choke points must be passed through.
Most MMORPGs don’t do this; they don’t admit to nice structures like this (well, not that I know of). You set up the character and choose your specializations, and that’s the extent of your substantive character choices. After that, it’s all in how you optimize your character, including your gear, skillset, and style of play. Game play changes depending on what level you are, but you can get to different levels using different methods (like by not actually killing anything, or by not actually completing any quests, etc.).
MMORPGs get repetitive, and add things like new character classes or new play areas or new abilities or whatever to keep people interested.
Books, on the other hand, never have to add more material (except as sequels of one kind or another), yet people will go back to them repeatedly, if they like them. Nothing ever changes, yet they are still satisfying. Fiction writers have to know how to control readers who had no choices, and yet make it feel impossible that the character could have made any other choice, to the point where you will reread a book on purpose, even knowing how it will come out. Movies, too.
BioShock has worked really well for me so far, because it uses fictional techniques to railroad me, mixed up with some satisfying gameplay. (But, again, I’m no FPS expert, so maybe it’s just me as far as how good the mechanics are.)
I wrote the intro up to the first choice on this kids’ story this morning. The first choice is whether the kid enters the video game world or not; if he doesn’t, boink! Out of the story he goes. I think I’ll give three or four fantasy MMO class choices for the character he “plays,” then carry him through a structured story, using each of those classes. I’m debating over whether to use specializations or not. –And, if he makes it through the challenges in the game (which will be of a fantasy quest nature), he will get booted out into the real world (I’ll force this, but provide a couple of options so the reader can try to avoid getting booted out first), deal with his real problem, and THE END. I may even use the turning points in the game-world to give the character a couple of thoughts about his real-world situation, because I’m all clever like that.
We’ll see how it comes out, though.
And I have NO idea what to call this story, either. Oh, well.