How do I "complicate" an interactive story [the Emily Short way]?

Emily Short (@emshort) talks about “complicating” a story in this strategy for creating IF in a design blog post of hers:

Write the through-line first : come up with your setting and any prototype coding you need to do, and maybe make a list of puzzles/elements that you’d like to see in the finished game. Then create a simple outline design of the game and implement it so that you have something you can play (even if very quickly) from a beginning to the end, and which contains the most critical turning points of the plot. With that skeleton in place, consider what you like and dislike about the structure; you complicate the game incrementally, fleshing pieces out with new puzzles or improving on the simple puzzles/conversations that you used to start with.

Emphasis mine, from:

Then, later, in another blog post:

Iterate, complicate, add easter eggs

Things I expect to do during iteration and expansion:

  • Make sure that there’s enough guidance for the player about how to proceed
  • Add extra story branches
  • Refine the pacing
  • Revise prose
  • Add easter eggs that play off things in other related stories

From:

A little more detail here but she really doesn’t get at the heart of what she means by “complicate”.

I’m approaching a new work of IF and really wanted to experiment with a design and study process and try to make something really rich and detailed. I was thinking of trying this “Write the through-line first” approach, but was wondering if anyone had some great suggestions or discussion around methods of complication.

I understand complication as taking the central ideas or values of the story and figuring out a way to make them weirder, deeper, to subvert them, to place doubt in the path of them. But I’m not sure of a PROCESS that works for this other than asking myself the question “Ok, how do I complicate this?” and just keep asking that question.

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The Making of Bronze – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling describes the process for a specific story: placing additional obstacles in the player’s path, exploring the thematic implications more deeply, and otherwise adding breadth to an original idea.

Mailbag: Macro to Micro Ideas – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling discusses how to come up with elements based on an initial idea.

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This is the point that resonates with me. I’m a hobbyist, so I have to fit my writing alongside family, life, work, and everything else.

The thing I hold on to, the thing which is in the back of my mind while I deal with everything else, that thing requires a writing environment which welcomes little raindrops of ideas.

  • Keeps it so I can forget that idea.
  • Retains it so I will remember the idea.
  • Supports it so I can work with the idea.

Interactive Fiction is Software. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. So every line has to work, or else you must throw it out.

And you write and repeat, write and repeat.

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Very nice thread. It is definitely worth a permanent bookmark.

Since @emshort was kind enough to drop a couple of follow up links, I thought maybe I could pull some of what she said to solidify my own understanding and also to bring some of the important content that answered my question out into the thread.

Many of the ideas fall in the realm of Brainstorming, which is an idea I was already familiar with, but more specifically, a strong idea in the article is that world-building books give you a bunch of standard questions about a game-world for world building, but she got tired of doing the same kind of homework for every game world she was working on so she would Choose Provocative Questions:

I start with the core of the project — the mechanic that’s driving the game, the theme that’s animating the story — and come up with a new, bespoke set of questions that’s designed to surface emotions, attitudes, and conflicts. Then I ask and answer those questions, character by character or piece by piece in the story.

(emphasis mine)

(However, she does offer a list of more standard worldbuilding resources as a starter:)

She gives the following example:

Say I know the inciting incident of the story is a huge, life-altering disaster. I might then ask questions like

  • What does this character miss most about the time before, and what would he give to get it back?
  • Whom does this character blame for the disaster, and how do they act out that blame?
  • What lie does this character tell herself about what would have been if the disaster hadn’t interrupted her life?
  • What is the safest place in this character’s life now, and what is threatening that safety?

And also:

You can also use provocative questions to come up other story elements, like events or setting details:

  • What demographic of people has suddenly profited from the disaster, and how are they using their newfound power?
  • What event gave people a brief, false hope that disaster might be averted?

She also talked about using Research and Observation as a tool to generate complicating ideas:

Getting some hands-on experience with a setting or process is great if you have the opportunity to arrange it. (An afternoon touring a marble sculpture workshop heavily informed Galatea – even though I didn’t tour it for that purpose.)

When I’m consciously doing an activity as research, I go in with a few questions in mind, but don’t limit myself to just those observations.

She also talked about the power of alternating between Research and Brainstorming.

Finally, she had an actual flowchart to map techniques to different problems you might be having with your story or game, which is especially valuable:

So that was all pretty close to what I was looking for, to be sure, and many thanks to @emshort, I didn’t naturally find that post. But I would STILL call many of these techniques DEEPENING a world, but only some of them actually seem to COMPLICATE it. And the things that seemed to COMPLICATE it the most are her own custom written questions. I guess getting good answers depends on good questions.

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Everyone, including the OG herself, has already given their answers, but here’s my ultra-condensed response:

Imagine you’re writing a game about a PC who is searching a mansion, looking for a valuable jewel that must be located before a key plot point is triggered.

First, you write (and/or code) the scene which contains finding the jewel, including which room it is, where the jewel was found, how it was hidden/discovered, etc.

Second, after the “find the jewel” sequence has been written/coded, then you go back and add additional rooms (without the jewel) in the house. This is the “complexity” part.

Finding the jewel is your original idea, and the one that’s central to your plot (because the player can’t progress until she finds it), so you write out that first.

Searching and exploring all the other rooms is the “complexity” stuff that comes second because it makes the house feel more interesting, well-developed, and attractive.

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May I add a teaser here? In 1986, prior to the idea of a Video Card, when all of Computer Science seemed committed to understanding natural human language, and the future promised better philosophy, better phrasing, and better parsers…

On page 65 of a book byTerry Winograd and Fernando Flores is a diagram labelled Conversation for Action. It shows nine separate states for an attempted action (all the ways that doing things might succeed or fail).

Of course, it’s an imperfect model, but in all that time I’ve never found anything better.

I stole it and re-coded it. It’s in the Balladeer library if you need it.
It provides all the opportunities for bifurcation that occur in our real world; the little negotiations which are fractal in their humanity:

  • I’m going to do this now.
  • … if that’s OK.
  • No, go ahead.
  • I have to be quick.
  • That’s fine, I have to go soon now anyway.

etc, etc.

I intend to write some articles on it, but you caught me unprepared. So it will be a few weeks yet.

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That sounds fascinating. I would love to read more.

Although I can’t find Conversation for Action at the Internet Archive, another of their collaborations, Understanding Computers and Cognition is available there.

– Jim

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Yeah, that’s the one; tundish was naming the diagram, not the book:

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That’s the one, thanks.

So, what I’m getting at is that in the first pass of writing, you just implement 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Then you can go back and add the extra interactions around negotiation, refusal, etc.

Are you seriously admitting to theft of intellectual property? Last I checked, that book is most definitely still under copyright. If you want to reference it, that’s fine, but outright stealing it? This is okay with you?

BTW, there is a perfectly legal and nearly identical discussion of this design of conversation flow available on GDC’s YouTube channel (Jon Ingold presenting).

Where do you see theft of intellectual property? Copyright only protects agoinst duplicating significant portions of the text, not about using the ideas described: that’s the domain of patents.

And in particular, encouraging people to use and experiment with this state machine as a model of conversation seems like the point of this section of the book…

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Another potential resource on this top is Jeff Vogel’s blog. I only recently realized he moved his writing to Substack, and started reading his blog posts there. He gives a very detailed example of some ways he “complicates” his stories starting with initial details.

One technique I haven’t seen spelled out explicitly before is how he designs locations by starting with the story and then nation level, and then zooming his way down to individual locations a player could visit, filling in detail as he goes.

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