Updated: 11 November 2017
16 September 2004
Writing content for shared interactive persistent virtual environments differs from narrative media such as books, stage plays, film or television due to high degree of agency available to each participant. Here, each participant engages on a more literal level than a reader or audience member would.
This interactive nature could be through the apparent simplicity of low bit-rate text adventure games or computationally intensive high-bandwidth Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR).
For our purposes, changes made by any one of the simultaneous participants to a shared virtual world persists and is immediately observable to all others.
Let’s walk through an example story and hypothetical virtual environment software platform called metarealm.
The software aspect assumes minimal conceptual knowledge of what a game engine does. Essentially, an engine comprises rules based upon Boolean logic (statements resolving to true/false), state machines (think: coordinating traffic lights at a major intersection) and rules (if-then-else) that may use weights and statistical methods.
The game design or writing portion requires some familiarity with Robert McKee’s STORY.
Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building enriches that perspective in ways useful for our purposes such as how each generation might add to an existing house.
For those unfamiliar with the enduring legacy of text adventure games, see Get Lamp (2010), “A high-definition documentary about text.”
Strictly speaking, the concept of story implies a narrative structure due to a directed point of view.
For our purposes, we abuse the classic term story by stretching its meaning to encapsulate what one experiences within a virtual environment but also that which literally goes unseen; e.g., because it happened behind the person or otherwise where he/she wasn’t looking at a specific point in time.
Purists might agree that if we record the audio and visuals of someone going through such an experience, the resulting stream may then satisfy the stricter definition of a story.
Much more leeway shall be required, and that is a secondary goal of this document: approaching an expanded notion of story, for which a canonical word or phase has yet to be found.
Virtual Reality implies a head-mounted display (HMD), real-time motion tracking, object-position tracking within the virtual environment and your movement within physical 3D space, such that you can bend down and actually look under a table in the virtual world. Your natural view of the physical world is obscured, such that the virtual environment is all that you see while the HMD is worn properly.
Augmented Reality is the basis for some motion-capture techniques used for movie production, such as when visual tracking markers are placed an actor. More precisely, AR implies real-time motion-tracking, position-tracking of objects in both the virtual world as well as the physical world using a camera/sensor, and a display screen (not necessarily HMD) that overlays a composite image of elements from a virtual world on top of images of the physical world such that the two are synchronized.
In both cases, tolerances of latency must be less than 100 milliseconds for lag to be below threshold of conscious awareness. Otherwise, the participant becomes overly aware of the equipment and more likely to break suspension of disbelief.
Those are not exhaustive definitions or criteria but merely to provide some basis to be expanded below.
An open-course virtual environment of a conventional video game may permit the player to wander off the path and explore freely.
At time of writing the initial draft of this document (2004), Grand Theft Auto franchise offered a well-known modern example. (For contrast, the classic text adventures, Zork and its predecessor Colossal Cave Adventure, only permit traversing pre-established paths because, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”) Half-Life 2 from Valve is somewhere between the those yet still considered enough of an open-course for our purposes.
(A counter-example would be a roller-coaster, which is on rails traversing a fixed path.)
In VR/AR, however, the open-course nature is almost compulsory because to force a view change without the whole body being part of that process can lead to nausea.
Nausea is especially possible in VR where the head-mounted display completely obscures natural vision. Any disconnect between visuals and the body’s inner ear’s indication of motion– or lack thereof– will lead to motion sickness for a significant proportion of people. (That in turn can be accompanied by a “protein spill,” as cleaning staff politely say in roller-coaster parks.)
The level of interactive engagement increases because VR/AR accommodate using one’s body– with minimal translation– as an integral part of the experience.
The line between conventional video games and VR/AR may be thought of as a hockey-stick chart that sharply trends up and to the right for increasing interactivity and sense of presence.
Interactivity increases as lag and latency decrease between motion of head or limb versus the corresponding feedback loop (e.g., move your hand, and then see you virtual hand move).
The sense of presence increases as translation decreases. An example of translation in conventional video games might require navigating via W-A-S-D keys on a “QWERTY” keyboard and controlling view-port via mouse. This takes effort to learn, to develop “muscle memory”, and to become accomplished at this mode of interaction.
VR– and to a lesser degree AR– frees you from these particular elements of translation. Move your head, and the view-port changes. Move your limb, and the corresponding motion occurs in-world.
Eventually, conventional video games will adopt 3-space controllers and VR headsets to blur these lines of distinction.
The continuum of that dividing line, however, might be the degree to which suspension of disbelief is engaged by one’s perceptions when the participant navigates for looking at the underside a table or around objects in the virtual world.
Virtual environments have existed for as long as there have been story-tellers or someone dreaming.
From stories told around a campfire; to lyrics of the bard; to reading a good novel; to Magic Lantern performances; to radio plays; to cinema; to text adventure games; etc., each may be considered to offer a form of virtual environment– a reality in the generic sense.
Suspension of disbelief and some sense of agency for the audience, reader or participant applies equally to all of these.
Differences among these forms pertains to agency: dimensions or degrees by which the audience may actively explore, exploit, engage or modify the environment during the experience– beyond simply imagining. For instance, feedback from a rowdy crowd to the bard could lead to greater agency than what some may label as interactive media.
We can differentiate VR/AR by the degree to which participation is direct– rather than being mediated or translated as explain in the preceding section.
That said, some of the most engaging experiences of a story might still be a printed book.
Here, we’re talking about participation rather than overall experience.
This puts “Lara Croft” (from “Tomb Raider”, 1996) into “The Matrix” trilogy (1999, 2003) with elements of “Being There” (1979) as integral components.
Fundamentals of story-telling still apply, such as having an inciting incident, etc.
Ours starts with intellectual pursuit of pieces to a puzzle– a scavenger hunt, if you will. While Act II is a complex hero journey, Act III involves the transcendent, quantum physics and the purpose of life.
Birth. Life. Afterlife. Begs the question: what is life? Yet it answers: why life is.
As the final puzzle pieces are found within the story’s adventure, the plot emerges as a classic hero journey.
Our character– of which the participant inhabits– must build upon life experiences as well as gain knowledge and possibly tools. The challenge portion of the journey is to change the world or die trying. Grand conspiracies are further revealed along the way for keeping the participant engaged.
The three act structure is less like boxcars on a train than colors of a rainbow that blend and bend.
This story takes us into other dimensions. Either through sufficient spiritual growth or in the event of the character’s death, the unseen is completely revealed. As an apparition– astral projection or ghost following death– you can see all but are otherwise powerless to actually do anything.
The game, however, is not yet over: while the character is incapable of directly effecting change, such as picking up or moving an object, there is the possibility of influencing other characters. This may be done either through suggestive intuition to another or outright possession.
Actions and influences, however, have potential consequences; i.e., consider making only positive karma!
Instructions on how to accomplish each of these tasks are readily available throughout the entire story, much like picking up a book someone may have left behind.
Note the above use of participant rather than any of: player, the more generic audience or from Web parlance, visitor. Those other terms are too passive.
As a participant, you might find answers which invite going again as with any engaging story. “Tell us the story again, Grandpa!”
But it’s more than just that.
This is a hallmark of experiences over conventional story forms, because while a traditional book will always have the exact same words on the page for a given print edition, a participatory experience within a persistent virtual environment provides a unique path each time.
Persistence implies that the world is different each time you begin.
Also, the same person is unlikely to retrace their exact motions each time.
For instance, 3D sound is often a critical component in life for localizing an object, such as when you hear a car horn or your name called. Physically, our heads function as low-pass filter for each ear receiving a unique auditory signature. By turning our heads, we quickly identify where the sound originates in our environment.
Audio for a story experience positioned in 3-space, becomes critically important for highly immersive environments.
One notable exception to 3D audio comes when positional cues are the norm for the experience. Then, judicious use of balanced audio of a narrator’s voice gives the participant a sense that this voice is in their own head.
As story designer, being able to invoke “the voice of God” is of course a very powerful literary device– and now literal, too.
It’s important to consider the impact when multiple people are in a single virtual environment, let alone single story.
The terrain of the world might change due to one person’s actions (or inaction), so the story must adapt as it unfolds.
Coordinated use of “the voice of God” device mentioned above can guide each participant to navigate through an ever-changing world.
This becomes critical for our story, because it is a persistent, durable world. Again, changes become permanent and seen by everyone.
One participant’s actions can and will directly impact another’s.
It’s the person you help along the way that makes you late for an appointment: one-to-one, direct impact.
It’s the situation that forces all traffic to detour around a disturbance: one-to-many, indirect impact.
It’s the planned peaceful protest that gets infiltrated by multiple disruptive agents, causing the original message to be conflated in the minds of observers: many-to-one, collateral impact.
It’s the inclement weather and subsequent effects that eliminates any possibility for safe passage: act of god/deus ex machina, universal impact.
While these conditions make for useful plot devices when a writer intends, these are problematic for maintaining story arcs for a multi-participatory environment.
Rather than linear narrative of conventional story design, the solution involves:
One goal of our story-writer is to identify plot elements for being available and providing multiple scenarios on how events might occur.
Unlike a traditional novel or screenplay, however, there is an absence of control by the author. You can set the trap, but the participant does not necessarily have to take the bait, or the clever ones might figure out how to extract the bait without getting ensnared.
This also means the author must account for “the second mouse gets the cheese.”
Some degree of randomness keeps the story fresh for those returning.
Randomness may be introduced by offering, say, two out of a possible five methods to receive a particular piece of information. It might be the same book left behind by another character, but it could be from a different character or at a different location.
The map of possible branching scenarios expands to an overwhelming number for anything beyond a trivial story.
Instead of conventional story structure, think in granular terms smaller than a vignette.
Focus on dynamics at the level of each scene.
While that may be good advice for giving rich texture to any character-driven story, it is absolute essential for a participatory experience in metarealm.
Beyond the scene, there still needs to be a larger story arc.
Think of the proverbial carrot on a stick to lead the donkey. There still needs to be a purpose or destination. However, the story mechanics would be more akin to the canon of a lengthy television series for which writers of each individual episode must adhere than strict path to be followed absolutely.
Our human beliefs shape our goals and intentions in life. For instance, we see different ways of living throughout the world in part due to some cultures trusting in reincarnation and karma while others reject all that.
The cycle of reincarnation and bounds of karma may be applied to characters within our story.
This can interact with a guiding voice of intuition whispered into the ear of your participant to guide him/her through an overarching adventure continuing from one lifetime to another. This intuition may sometimes be apparently wrong, but it would be for learning a lesson in the journey of life. “Everything happens for the best.”
As writer, it’s your choice whether that applies to the life of the character or experience of the participant.
The huge potential for a writer is this ability to directly impart an experience through active participation.
Now that you have a general idea of what is possible, here are some tools.
These tools are plot devices to move your story– devices in both literal and figurative meaning.
Game engines may be suitable for an ordinary virtual environment, and these typically address physics such as gravity and perception such as perspective.
Going beyond the mundane, we must track status of the participant within the story at micro and macro levels.
Modern game engines of course support Finite-State Machines (FSM, not to be confused with Flying Spaghetti Monster), which can address this.
Next, consider a story with an open-course such as accommodating the participant to visit any room within any building of a dense urban landscape of a square kilometer.
Now, consider multiple participants in the same shared environment.
State machines must exist for each room as well as for each participant.
Layers of complexity need not be complicated, and the difference here is simply a matter of organization and your point-of-view. This builds upon a deep understanding of the “quality without a name” from The Timeless Way Of Building in that what matters most is locality of the scenario happening in the moment.
As Christopher Alexander explains in that book, by having built only for what each generation needed at that time, the building somehow feels more alive to us today than a modern purpose-built tract home in suburbia.
So too with designing the scenario for each room or each step of the story within metarealm.
It becomes crucial to be able to access and update any one of those finite-state machines independently of all others. It’s the difference between looking at an overlapping, intersecting transit map such as the London Underground or New York City Subway versus being on one of the actual trains.
For the formal logic folks: consider the difference between a finite-state machine versus a flow-chart. Both are graphs and may have cycles (loops). Both have direction, like one-way streets in a city. Only the finite-state machine is required to be a closed system. The flow-chart could abruptly terminate at any point, because a single consistent exit is not required there.
Start with your theme as you would with any other story.
Whether your technique is to begin with a short story or to dive right into page one of an epic– elements of plot, conflict, character and symbolism are entirely yours.
What the virtual environment engine must provide is management of subtext and plot cues that may be localized to terrain, timeline and/or triggered by events.
Think of this management as a silly Rube Goldberg device that might be set in motion by any number of ways. (Rube Goldberg was a famous cartoonist, perhaps best known for his overly complicated contraptions that, for example, take twenty-some steps to cook an egg, that gets triggered by a person sitting up in bed. Movies like Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil paid tribute to this with Sam’s morning ritual gone wrong in his automated flat.)
Perhaps your character does something or maybe the “scene” gets triggered because something is not done in time. There would be plenty of opportunities for the character to reach in and alter the machine.
Rather than worry about how your story might be changed by someone participating for the twelfth time, focus on your story’s ideal or “happy path”.
Focusing later on what could play out rather than what is supposed to happen, you accommodate paths for the story otherwise impossible with any other format.
Beginning a cohesive story for open-course environments requires planning in terms of a state machine.
This makes crafting story closer to engineering than pure art, but artistry is certainly prerequisite for making a good story.
This is the domain of interactive fiction, which might be somewhere between a first person novel and a purely visual movie.
For our story, we place the participant inside the head of a main character.
Other participants occupy other main characters, so there is no single central protagonist.
Designers of video games talk about handling “character amnesia”, and that corresponding body of literature applies equally here.
When using real-time 3D audio cues in addition to position tracking, we can literally get inside the participant’s head as the voice of reason, voice of temptation, voice of inspiration, voice of intuition, etc., in the way that “the voice of God” was mentioned previously. (Or voice of Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you prefer.)
Engaging the participant to take immediate action through self-talk of a character provides one of the greatest strengths of this medium.
Based upon the ability for the character’s inner voice to become audio for the participant implies that its speech be informed by the situation– scene, setting and behavior of other characters.
All characters are to have instilled beliefs. These beliefs are in the psychological sense.
From the human perspective, we are more influenced by our belief that gravity exists than details described by science. You’ll get a bruise from falling, regardless of how many decimal places acceleration due to gravity may be calculated.
Likewise, design a system of beliefs for everyone in your story.
This will come easier to those practiced in critical theory or students of Robert McKee’s STORY:
For a given observation, the recommendation or consequence is actionable.
Regardless of how you get there, once a character is developed, you need to understand his/her motivation, intention and background– enough to ensure consistency and to provide dimension.
You already know that characters are not real people but distilled or caricature depiction of select human traits significant for advancing plot, establishing symbolism, illustrating irony, foreshadowing or serving as reflection, etc.
This system of belief can be as elaborate or minimal as necessary to serve those purposes.
Just provide enough backstory to answer the usual questions of who, what, why, when and how rather than merely indicating that he’s paranoid. Give a root cause to this paranoia such as his older brother was always following him as a child, yet omit the brother from the principal story. Then, perhaps, also add a belief that this character doesn’t like discussing himself.
Next, articulate a character’s beliefs in concrete terms.
Again, this is a hypothetical software platform for open-course virtual environments.
It is software much like a word processor or spreadsheet in that it moves data around and lets you control how that happens. A spreadsheet uses rows and columns, and that metaphor works here.
Just like rows in a spreadsheet, you provide rules describing each belief for a character. There are columns for subject (noun), action (verb), object and modifiers (adverbs). In addition to basic grammatical elements, each belief has a weight and list of other beliefs to which there is some relationship. Each belief-to-belief relation has a weight of its own.
This forms what philosophers might call a “web of beliefs”. More formally, it’s a Knowledge Graph, as in applying network effects from Graph Theory.
As this is not a novel or movie, your story will not be conveyed by customary techniques of an author or director of photography. There, you would present several scenes and their arrangement yields emotional cues that the reader/audience picks up as drama.
Within metarealm, however, drama might play out in ways you have never imagined as the writer. This goes beyond planning for a non-sequential narrative.
A novelist might have Anne overhearing crucial information while sipping coffee at a bistro. A film might depict an event then cut to someone’s reaction as the means to evoke an emotion from the audience.
Instead, for metarealm, identify events and subtext.
When an event happens, describe the corresponding subtext in concrete terms.
For example, consider this plot excerpt:
The subtext in metarealm might be understood as base emotions applied to events. Our most basic emotions revolve around needs and wants. Expanding from this base, we have desires and obsessions that lead to the so-called seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. Some desires enable action while others push for inaction: pursuit of a goal versus laziness of the status quo.
Some of the best stories told are when such goals and the status quo are intermingled and in conflict simultaneously.
Many writers already understand that, but authoring here means there will be specific rules accounting for it.
Consider the scenario of the preceding section. What happens to the story if Anne didn’t go into that particular bistro at that particular time?
For our story to progress, Anne needs to receive that important information.
Secondary to that being delivered, the participant is then free to ignore that information. It may be disregarded out of naïveté on part of the participant, but that becomes part of the larger story experience!
This is why subtext being codified becomes crucial for this style of writing than merely having the author better understand his/her own characters.
The answer to our question:
An appropriate time and setting will be found for delivering the next clue to each participant’s character for where they as an individual might be within the overall story and arc for their character.
It’s important to understand how story and an arc for an individual character might be de-coupled. For a multi-participatory story, if one character neglects, forgets or otherwise misses the mark, then “the show must go on”. Therefore, another character might be selected to pick up the torch and carry it through to complete that leg of the relay.
This decouples subtext from scene and setting.
While seemingly complicated, consider the apparent dilemma in cinema before invention of the jump-cut or interleaving of multiple scenes, where previously a strictly linear narrative has since become decoupled.
This is a similar paradigm shift.
Some subtext may be codified as simple rules: if this happens, then do that.
More likely, you will design vignettes of some complexity:
That last item is significant, such as for making enjoyable game-play for new versus experienced players of a game.
For instance: a game involving running and jumping might offer new players more leeway for landing on their mark, all for making a more enjoyable experience on the first few times through. As the player demonstrates higher skill, only then will the game platform make smaller thresholds for success since a game that becomes too easy is not fun to play again. (There is a significant body of literature such as from Nicole Lazzaro on making a fun experience beyond classic game theory.)
Subtext becomes a managed service allowing the story writer to focus upon character motivation and goals within the story.
This service operates like the traffic light control for a busy intersection, and as many drivers can attest, there can be plenty of drama within those intersections: misinterpreting the adjacent lane’s signal for one’s own, another driver running a red light, and yet another jumping the green in an effort to beat on-coming traffic in order to make a crossing-turn.
While the scene might contain rules for traffic light control, characters will have motives influencing each uniquely on whether to jump that green light or not.
There may even be perception filters.
How many traffic collision analyses involve a statement such as, “I thought I had the green light,” or “It was as if that car came from nowhere– couldn’t see him”.
Within a virtual environment, it may be a feature to override or overrule one character’s perceptions for creating a dynamic relevant to the intended story.
Within a virtual environment for multiple participants, all that matters for consistency is that which each of the participants have negotiated with one another.
I might see you as a lobster, and you might see me as a clown. While you might see yourself as a giraffe, it makes no difference that I see you as the lobster. Unless relevant to the experience, such representations are utterly insignificant.
However, if I hand you a document in such a virtual world, in order for that transaction to become meaningful, we must both agree: 1) the document exists; 2) I offer it to you; 3) you accept and take possession of it; 4) at its conclusion, I no longer have it.
Of course, part of that negotiation becomes easier if both parties can plainly see that the item first exists, but that is a detail of setting– not of story or character.
Therefore, mutually contradictory realities are possible on all dimensions except those which are relevant for the story.
This allows for multiple stories to co-exist within the same virtual environment, such that a principal character of one story is merely background in another.
In fact, one story may be taking place on a steam ship during 1904 while another story is set along Main Street of 2004 yet have overlapping characters.
Incidentally, might this explain the occasional person that seems strange to the modern day shopper, exhibiting pantomime of working an non-existent steam valve, and conversely the seafarer observing someone muttering incoherently to themselves because there is no analog in 1904 for personal mobile phone with BlueTooth headset?
Perhaps in the course of fulfilling one story in one timeline, it bleeds through as ghosts to another.
Metarealm not only makes this bleed-over possible, our intended purpose for such a platform leverages it fully for multi-dimensional, cross-over stories.
The point here: anything is possible, literally.
Open-course virtual environments for interactive stories that are shared by multiple participants where changes persist add to challenges for the story writer.
We abuse the strict definition of story here in lieu of a more suitable term, because there is much to explore in this new frontier for a writer.
Using our hypothetical platform, metarealm, for these virtual environments offers mechanisms new to many writers including logic rules, finite state machines and statistical weights– like other game platforms– yet also a “web of beliefs” for each character.
This web or knowledge graph parallels the human psyche while being distilled to its essence, since we are still designing characters– not actual people. Conventional guidance for writers creating a story still applies, of course.
You may use this mechanism as a character’s intuition or voice of God whispering in the ear of the participant.
Liberating a writer, you can actively engage multiple timelines for your characters and participants because mutually contradictory realities become more practical than merely an obscure literary device.