The Path Less Taken...
Non-Linear Ways To Get From A to B

Q&A with Non-Linear Designer, Ryan Fitzgerald

We all crave stories. The art of storytelling is one of humanity's oldest traditions. From paintings in caves and hieroglyphs on papyrus scrolls to the invention of the printing press and the advent of the internet... What's evolved over time isn't necessarily the narrative itself, but the sophistication of the platform used to share that narrative and immerse ourselves in it.

Ryan Fitzgerald works as Lead Designer / Lead Narrative for Evodant Interactive, a group of "transmedia artisans that are fanatical about revolutionizing the interactive experience." And his job takes "writing" to a whole other level.

logo from Gyre, a game that Ryan designed

Ryan was gracious enough to sit down for a Q&A to help me wrap my brain around what it is exactly that he does for a living.  :)

ALR: How did you first come to write "non-linear" fiction?

At first, I went into film & TV. I had some luck with it and had the fortune to get increasingly more and more impressive people rejecting my screenplays. But eventually, I found if I wrote for interactive media like ARGs (alternate reality games) and PC/console games, there was far less competition and I could get ahead. 

And compared to the pace I experienced with linear fiction, switching to non-linear meant I could be working on an in-character website at 10am and, 12 hours later, I'd have a half-million people dissecting the text for hidden themes. It was like being on crack. Couldn't go back to linear narrative after that.

I got an agent based on my transmedia work and have been writing for games and other interactive stuff for the past decade or so.

ALR: To me, Alternate Reality Games sound almost like a form of virtual DM’ing (to liken it to role playing with the storyteller defining the story in real time and influenced by the choices of the players themselves). Am I on the right track with that? Sort of like the big brother to Choose Your Own Adventure books?

ARGs involve intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real time

Many ARGs and other forms of transmedia do draw heavily from the tradition of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs). A good pen & paper gamemaster chaperones their players through a narrative experience, challenging or confronting by turns, but always remains a docent, a guide, through the experience.

transmedia storytelling (social media, web, mobile, analytics, interviews & role plays, videos, press and TV)

But good interactive fiction tries very hard to stay away from the Choose Your Own Adventure "branching" model because this tends to scale very poorly. Instead, a better analogy is the treasure hunt. A large-scale ARG tends to also rely on other principles, like collaborative intelligence (where the collective skills of a group of people make the group smarter and more effective as it grows). ARGs are a sub-set of transmedia (a technique of storytelling across multiple platforms).

For most of us who have been swimming these waters for years, it's getting harder to still melt someone's butter with a compelling, immersive campaign. They're still out there, but as methods of advertising go, they're also very effective and so are now incorporated into almost every brand or intellectual property (IP) competing for audience eyeballs and clicks. Marketing swallows everything.

ALR: How would you compare the processes for non-linear storytelling vs linear in terms of moving from conceptualization to publication/release?

pre-production of non-linear work is much more organic and ad hoc

A number of new questions must be asked. First among these is "What is the platform?" Writing long-form prose or for TV or film, there are mechanical considerations but you generally move immediately to identifying either the audience or the story, depending on whether you're writing on spec or not, whether you're adapting material or not, etc.

There are fewer well-established best practices for interactive storytelling, so the pre-production process is much more organic and ad hoc. You rarely snap your heels together and just get typing. There's a lot more conversation with other stakeholders on the team like producers, marketers or the art and programming developers who you will be working alongside. Writing an interactive web series will suggest episode length and audience demographic even before you consider the narrative content.

writing for a current-gen console video game is even more constrained

Writing for a current-gen console video game is even more constrained. Art installations and multi-platform content are almost always bespoke (made to order), despite a small, burgeoning toolset to help writers and designers, like Conducttr, Articy:Draftinklewriter and others.

More often than not, you front-load your pre-production with idea-gathering to make sure you have a thorough understanding of what is expected of your content.

ALR: To what extent does the author risk losing artistic control of the narrative in non-linear storytelling? How do you find the proper balance of player/reader freedom vs narrative control to tell your story? 

the character's wardrobe could suggest a reverence towards authority

You lean on the rest of the team. You see what kind of latitude you have with the director, the cinematographer or the art and programming teams. You learn that everyone wants to be a storyteller and you're surrounded by great ideas and talented people. The character's wardrobe could suggest a reverence towards authority. The graffiti on the walls can suggest subversiveness. The camera positioning reinforces the protagonist's early sense of inferiority. The more you can speak the language understood by other team members, the better you'll pull together a narrative "quilt" instead of relying purely on dialogue.

character design sheet from Gyre.com

You use the tools and constraints to shape the narrative experience of the audience. Audiences are sophisticated. You expect a twist in a thriller or heist movie because such are the expectations we have all learned. Horrors manipulate the emotional texture of the story because non-stop creeping, unrelenting dread has a tough time paying off. A laugh followed by a scare ratchets the intensity because audiences register the delta between the highs and lows.

A laugh followed by a scare ratchets the intensity

When you have faith in your own audience, you can use this grammar to communicate high-density payloads. Saying "once upon a time" immediately frames the expectations with maximum economy. These "chewy" nodes of plot, character, setting, tone and pace become hooks upon which you can hang the more fragile or ephemeral elements. You can forget the location of stars in the sky but once you learn the story behind a constellation, you never forget the stars.

World Building image from Gyre.com

Let's look at the example of leading a player to a "big reveal." First, in case it need be said, you don't ever want to leave something to chance. If the audience needs to navigate reveals, twists or turns, then they need to be incorporated into the story, even if your story is not on rails. One model used is something frequently called the "string of pearls" model.

This model presumes the audience can navigate the experience, follow the characters, explore the environment as much as the platform permits. But once a trigger is hit, the audience moves one-way into the next "pearl." More navigating, more following, more exploring. Then the next trigger. The pearls could be content-gated, as is common in video games, or they could be plot and character-triggered. You stumble on a video clip. You solve a puzzle. You find the murder weapon. The world changes in response.

Character from Gyre.com

Here's an analog example to illustrate the journeymurder mystery theater. If you're hosting one of these at home with a few other couples, you might have a grab-bag of attendees with some guests roleplaying their characters and others reluctantly reading rote bullet points off a card handed to them. Everyone chats and mingles but on a given cuewhich could be the disclosure of a piece of information or the serving of the next course of the dinnereveryone moves on to the next sequence of personal character information.

ALR: Do you use any special tools when designing the narrative for a game or an ARG?

story is a gas, it expands to whatever container it's placed in

I rarely write in word processing software anymore. The nature and scope of the project almost always dictates that something like Google Sheets is the best generic tool for the job. This depends, of course, on the specific project particulars. But just as a good artist understands principles of light and balance and composition, the writer needs to be platform agnostic. 

If you gave me $20M, I could give you a TV show. If the budget shrinks to $2M, I could tell a version of the same story as an indie film. If it shrinks to $200K, perhaps we look at a mobile game. We're down to $20K? No problem, we'll try a web series. Oh, it's $2000 now? Then maybe a lovely HTML5 website. At $200, I will entertain you over dinner. At $20, if you buy me a drink, I'll tell you a story.

Story is a gas. It expands to fill whatever container it's placed in.

ALR: Did the transition to writing for console/PC games impose new types of restrictions on your creative process?  For example, did becoming part of a creative team take some getting used to or do you have to curb your ideas to stay within the bounds of what is possible with your company’s game engine?

Many players skip the dialogue whenever it presents itself

The chief adjustment was one of calibrating expectations. Many players skip through dialogue whenever it presents itself, so I needed to rein myself in. Story in a game needs to be communicated with maximum economy wherever possible, as I described above. ARGs and other forms of transmedia tend to be heavily literary. The text is an essential part of the experience and is given extra scrutiny, especially if it's perceived as part of a puzzle in an ARG.

With many interactive projects, you go through a voluntary ego-ectomy. Your words will be less important than you might otherwise want. A social media character's dialogue will flow through a tweetstream at 3am and be completely missed. Video game dialogue will be skipped as quickly as the player can mash a button. Your webisodes are over two minutes long and so 80% of the audience falls off. You can't fight these trends. You're the guest on that platform and you're trying to suborn it to your will. If the audience misses what you're trying to say as a writer, it's not the audience's fault. You tailor the suit to the cut of the cloth.

video game dialogue will be skipped as quickly as the player can mash a button

Many high-profile big-budget games have hired Hollywood screenwriters only to end up with scripts that deliver extraordinary, compelling cut-scenes, and cut-scenes are the most skipped parts of a game. The dev team sighs, says thanks, then tosses the script in the garbage and the level designer rewrites everything. If you were hired to build a race car, you wouldn't spend most of the time working on the cup holders.

constraints are launchpads for your creativity

It can be confining. If you're used to long-form spec fiction, you'll invent whatever you want and get it on the page. In a game, you're at the mercy of what the genre demands and what the team or tool-set can deliver. If the writer proposes a new setting or locale that will require a significant commitment of resources by the art team and there's little to no reusability of those proposed art assets, your gripping scene might get canned.

These can be good constraints and are not particular to video games. Exterior night scenes on a film or TV set are more expensive than the same scene set during the day. If you're a hired gun, you definitely make more friends appreciating that constraints are launchpads for your creativity. Robert Frost observed that writing blank verse is like playing tennis without a net. It's the constraints that give us shape.

ALR: Given Evodant Interactive’s work on an AI-based narrative engine, are we headed for holo-novels where an AI scripts the gameplay that best suits each individual player?  And does this mean that you're working yourself out of a writing job in the long term? :)

The Toska Engine we're developing at Evodant is not going to replace writers. 

I'm an aging dork. I grew up playing D&D and I miss it. Between obligations to family and work, there is approximately zero chance that I will ever again be 14 years old and spending a rainy weekend cooped up in a cabin with my cousins playing D&D. I do, however, have a PS4 and love playing RPGs.

The problem with the current level of RPG technology is that any narrative content in the game needs to be created by hand in advance. Dialogue is branching. There are certainly experiments in procedural content generation but the bulk of the forays in this direction involve the computer drawing randomly from a grab-bag of options and inviting the player to make sense of the connections from A to B to C.

toska will respond to player's choices in real-time

The good DM doesn't force the players to do what he or she wants. The good DM doesn't make every interaction an A-B-C multiple choice. The good Dungeon Master is a chaperone and in service to the story and the player's entertainment. This is where Toska comes in. It will respond dynamically to the player's choices in real-time, casting allies and enemies and directing the plot's through-line dynamically. But it's not going to render dungeon masters or writers obsolete.

For the record, I'm not coding. That's my colleague Dwayne Rudy and our amazing engineering team! Good little English major that I am, my contribution is through the libraries of narrative nodes and rulesets for what nodes can connect up in satisfying ways. Everyone agrees that "Once upon a time, the handsome prince fell in a hole and died," is a lousy story. Some nodes link better than others.

It's a big task and it's the culmination of almost a decade of R&D into artificial intelligence. But if one day Toska is seen as the next step in a narratological path trodden by writers like Vladimir Propp, Georges Polti or Homer, then as Cave Johnson from Aperture Science says, "I'm done here."

ALR: Thanks again for your time, Ryan!  It's fantastic (and eye-opening) to learn about the various storytelling platforms that have emerged in this interactive era.  Anyone interested in learning more about Ryan's career path and credentials to date can find his bio below. 

Ryan has written for linear & non-linear media in film, TV and new media. He is an alumnus of the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab’s Interactive Art & Entertainment Program, the National Screen Institute’s Features First Program and the inaugural National Screen Institute’s playWRITE Program for video game writing.

He has taught transmedia nationally, including Melting Silos for the National Film Board, at the Banff New Media Institute for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and has created the Transmedia Production Lab.

Ryan, a former military police officer working in air force anti-terrorism and intelligence, served as the CEO of Rogue Nation Studios and as the Executive Director of the video game business development incubator Fortune Cat Games Studio. He is currently the Lead Designer at Evodant Interactive.

Gyre:Maelstorm is an RPG that builds a unique experience for each play-through



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Non-Linear Ways To Get From A to B"

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