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If a player has considerable freedom in an interactive storytelling experience, it may be possible for her to stall the plot of the story, evade its dramatic climax, or fail to perform the necessary actions required for the dramatic climax to be coherent when it occurs. (If Rick doesn't take his pistol to the airport in Casablanca, he can't prevent Major Strasser from stopping the plane.) This is the Problem of Narrative Flow. How do you make sure that everything is set and ready (including the player) when the dramatic climax occurs in an interactive story?
In my 1995 lecture, I outlined three traditional approaches that we use to deal with this problem, none of them ideal:
During the lecture I shot down these solutions as unacceptable, once again based on some unwarranted assumptions. Like the Problem of Internal Consistency, the Problem of Narrative Flow is caused, at least partially, by the assumption that the object of interactive storytelling is to give the player maximum freedom. In fact, there are several ways to avoid the problem:
Having eliminated those cases, what remain are interactive stories in which the player has a great deal of freedom in a story that does have a predefined plot and a single dramatic climax. In this situation, we're back to the designer-player contract again. If the player accidentally obstructs the plot, then it's undoubtedly the designer's fault; but if the player does it on purpose, then it's her own fault. The more freedom she has, the more responsibility she must take for her own experience of the story.
Now, at this point some of you are probably thinking, "That's it? You got a PhD for that?" No, not quite. First, my thesis is 409 pages long, counting all the work I've done in the past, and it addresses a great many other subjects as well. It's also more rigorously argued, obviously, and discusses the contributions of Brenda Laurel, Chris Crawford, Michael Mateas, Andrew Stern, and many other theorists at length.
As you can probably tell by now, I reject the notion that there's one right way to do interactive storytelling. Different players like different things. Different designers want to achieve different things. I don't prescribe anything, either in my thesis or my teaching or my consultancy; I encourage people to think about what they want to accomplish, and to understand what the trade-offs are. Many game storytelling projects go wrong because the designers are confused about why the story is even there in the first place. A good teacher or a good consultant doesn't drag you through unfamiliar territory in the direction that he thinks is right; he gives you a map and the benefit of his experience with the terrain.
My thesis's biggest contribution, which isn't even addressed here, is my Template and Guide to Writing a Requirements Specifications for Interactive Storytelling. That's my road map. It's an overview, not for designing an interactive story, but for thinking about what you want your interactive story to do. I introduced version 0.1 of the Template and Guide at the 2011 GDC, and version 1.0 is included in the thesis. I have standalone versions available for download in ODT format or in PDF format. It's copyright-free.
One of these days I hope to write a book that puts all this stuff together in a format that's accessible both to working professional game designers and students too.