The Narrative Paradox

The Problem of Decision Making In Stories

There are two major problems with decision making that have plagued interactive fiction efforts for a long time.

Issue 1

The first is that making a decision makes one think about themselves and that decision, and not the story.

If players aren't trying to role-play, then interactive fiction work often fails. It becomes an unengaging experience full of near-random selections and bored, impatient players. Without testing the player, and without the player playing by their 'heart' (i.e. Roleplaying), there is little knowledge of what the choices mean, and what effect they have - and what's more, the player is trying to figure out exactly that.

Interactive fiction often presents concrete decision points, and then the story continues, and the player doesn't get to understand what happened. Working around/with this is a matter of getting the players to care about the character's choices, and who that character is. Getting the player to role-play is to make them say "my character would be making this choice because of who they are and/or who I want them to be, so that's why I am making this choice".

If one doesn't get the player in that role-playing mindset, then the player is continually reminded that they are making decisions and that these decisions.... what, exactly? It's an unsatisfying experience.

Issue 2

The second is more detrimental and inherent in the medium of interactive fiction, often called the 'narrative paradox'.

...However, how to do this well from a design perspective remains a difficult question. The reason for this is that there is a problematic tension between interactivity and story. This tension is sometimes called the narrative paradox: offering the interactor [sic] choices breaks right through the notion of the carefully orchestrated plot 1.

and

The well-known ‘narrative paradox’ of [Virtual Experience's] is how to reconcile the needs of the user who is now potentially a participant rather than a spectator with the idea of narrative coherence — that for an experience to count as a story it must have some kind of satisfying structure2.

Essentially, once the player starts mucking about with the plot, how are they to believe that what they are experiencing is coherent or directed?

Stories need to create tension and suspense with an audience, and if the audience is interfering, the story may not be executed well. What really messes things up, is that even if the audience can't mess up the plot, the audience feels like they could! Or perhaps they feel like they did - even just a little.

If they made any choice at all that affected the story than something is different now. Perhaps worse, the audience may believe. The audience also may merely become curious about the other paths the story could have gone. These thoughts disengage the audience.

The player starts thinking about their choices, whether or not they matter or to what degree. Why go right, not left? What was the reason? Traditional video games don't have this problem because they are 'testing' the user - the user performs their decisions. They went right because they chose to, and now will face the consequences, and hopefully be rewarded.

Narratives don't test the player, so what would have happened if a player went left? There is little other than role-playing or avatar empathy that interactive fiction gives the player that inherently encourages them to commit to their decisions.

Decision making by the audience makes the audience aware of the structure of the story, or lack of structure. It takes them out of the role of mere audience, and with no other clear role for the audience to assume, they become unsure of the story.

There are a variety of strategies for dealing with this paradox, and they involve the same core strategy: change the perceived role of the audience, somehow move their state of mind away from the decisions, the causes and effects. Usually, this is done by understanding the player as a collaborator of some kind in the story creation/telling process, or through the mentioned role-playing perspective.

Where 360 video and Immersive Media fits

Our approach to this challenge is different. We tell (convince) the players that their decisions do not affect the story at hand. We aren't even lying, much.

Because the player knows that no matter what they do, the story still happens the same way, the player does not worry about how their actions have influenced the narrative in a possibly negative way.

To be clear, I do not propose this as solution to the problems facing interactive fiction. One solution to these problems is to just tell "normal stories". I more precisely cut away the issues that face interactive fiction, and we are still left with plenty to tell immersive stories with. Audiences can still make some kinds of decisions.

There are still problems, which come from the extension of this paradox from the narrative space into the mechanics of the telling of the story: the medium.

The audience may not be worried about messing up the story, but they can still worry about messing up their experience of the story.

For example, in 360° video, audiences can (and do) frequently worry that they are looking the wrong direction. The audience can still worry that they "did something wrong".

If the problem of interactive fiction is losing the sense of a crafted narrative, then the problem facing immersive storytelling is losing the sense of a crafted medium experience.

Dealing with the problem of Immersive Storytelling

The solution presented in this work is simple: It's not about the decisions.

The player having the experience should not be thinking about their decisions, the consequences of these decisions, or so on. Doing this is not easy.

First, one must tell the story well. The creator's goal is to have the audience experience the narrative engaged with the medium and not worried about the telling, or their "meta" experience of the narrative. Much of this work is dedicated to specific approaches to dealing with this problem. In other words, this work is almost entirely about how to tell these sorts of stories well. See the section "Stuck In Spheres". It starts with understanding the audience's experience.

Primarily, we will attempt to hide the fact that the player is making decisions at all. Not hide, so much as to remove the idea of decision making (testing, performing, interacting) from the understanding of the narrative experience that the player has. We aim for their experience to be one of story. We want the engagement to be driven by tension, curiosity, empathy, character, and plot. We want this engagement to be motivating the player to perform their various actions, make their various decisions. The fact that the player makes decisions (such as where to look, in 360) should be a result of the storytelling, not a factor into the storytelling.

Thus, we will tell stories that survive the problems of choice by keeping the player's experiences away from 'choice' and fixed on story.

From here on out, they are the 'audience', not the 'player'.

Conclusion

By taking the focus away not just from the effect of decisions, but from the importance of decisions at all, we aim to circumvent the above narrative paradox entirely. In doing so, I confidently claim that 360 videos and immersive media are not games, and we are not trying to make games.

Thusly, It is possible - although not easy - to tell stories where the user can make decisions, these decisions affect the narrative experience to some degree, and this decision-making process does not dismantle or ruin the narrative experience for the player.

What's more, not only is it possible, but it can be leveraged to great effect too.


  1. Swartjes, Ivo, and Mariet Theune. The Virtual Storyteller: Story Generation by Simulation.  

  2. Aylett, Ruth. “Emergent Narrative, Social Immersion and ‘storification.’” Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Narrative and Interactive Learning Environments, 2000, p. 35–44.