The City of IF Story

The City of IF is a web site dedicated to the art of interactive storytelling, in which author and audience create a story together. The site was created by Mark Keavney, PhD, a web designer, writer, and longtime roleplaying game player. Below is a six-part history of the City of IF, which includes some general thoughts on myth, roleplaying, and interactive storytelling, and a vision for the future.

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1. Myth and Roleplaying Games: Seven Treasures and Five Dragons
2. Lost in the Wilderness: The Many Paths of Interactive Storytelling
3. Storygaming: On This Land I Will Build a City
4. The City of IF: Past and Present
5. The City of the Future
6. You


Storygaming: On this Land I Will Build a City

In the last section I described three approaches to interactive storytelling - how each tries to combine the narrative of stories with the interactivity of games, and how each falls short. In this section I'm going to talk about my idea for how to do the same thing. I and others have spent the last four years applying this idea, but I'm not going to talk about that until the next part of this history. This section is just about theory.

The idea, which I call "storygaming," is that many players would cooperatively roleplay a single character in a story guided by a human author. Here's how it works:

  1. Author creates chapter - The storygame author creates the first chapter of a story. The chapter ends at a "decision point," where the main character has a chance to take some significant action. For example, in a fairy tale genre story, an initial episode might describe how a fisher-boy out on the sea encounters a talking swan who asks him to take her into his boat.
  2. Players suggest actions - Next, the storygame players take the viewpoint of the character (the same character for everyone) and suggest what the character should do. In the example above, the players might invent and debate different options, such as taking the swan into the boat, leaving her in the water, asking her what she will give him if he helps her, etc.
  3. Author creates options - From the pool of suggestions, the author chooses a few of the most popular and interesting possibilities to be voted on.
  4. Players vote - The players vote on the options. The winning action becomes the basis for the next chapter, and the cycle begins again. If the players had decided to take the swan into the boat, for example, the author might write another chapter in which the fisher-boy takes the swan home and shows it to his mother, who is angry that he hasn't caught any fish and sends the boy to bed without any supper. The next decision point might then be what the boy does when locked in his room.

This simple idea can be used in many ways. The stories could be text, graphic, animation, film, or any combination; the chapter cycle could be months long, with long-running discussion posted on the web, or could happen in minutes in a chat room; the storygames could be epic or ordinary, short or long, with any type of character.

No matter how it's done, storygaming has three major strengths compared to other forms of interactive storytelling:

  • A strong narrative. Unlike other approaches, players aren't left to their own storytelling devices or given chopped-up story fragments assembled by a computer. In storygaming a human author guides the story from beginning to end, and is ultimately responsible for creating a coherent and compelling drama. This is similar to the strong narrative in linear stories.
  • Strong social interaction. Because the players are playing the same character and experiencing the same storyline at the same time, frequent social interaction is a large part of storygaming. Players can agree or disagree with each other, build on each other's suggestions, and try to sway votes. This kind of cooperative interaction is similar to the social interaction found in a MUD, MMORPG, or simulation.
  • Flexibility. Because there are multiple players for a single character, the story doesn't require any one player's participation to move forward. In effect, storygaming has a sliding scale of interactivity - for any chapter, a player can choose to experience the story non-interactively, or can vote without making suggestions, or can make suggestions with any amount of effort and time. Players can even drop out of the storygame altogether without causing a problem for others. No other form of interactive storytelling allows its players to ease in and out of play like this.

So this idea seems promising. Let's take a closer look.

Seven Treasures and Five Dragons Revisited

One way to evaluate storygaming is to see how it rates on the "treasures" and "dragons" of roleplaying that we discussed in the first part of this history.

Let's look at the "seven treasures" first: friendly gathering, strategic problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, roleplaying, spontaneity, and mythic storytelling. Unlike other free RPG games, storygaming seems to have most of these: the two social interaction aspects - friendly gathering and teamwork - are certainly present; strategic problem-solving is less without game rules, but still there in the strategic choice of action; creativity and mythic storytelling are clearly there. Roleplaying is a question mark: can a team of people really "roleplay" the same character in a meaningful sense? And spontaneity, which is my term for what's sometimes called interactivity, is also questionable: can storygaming have the kind of spontaneity that makes roleplaying and other forms of gaming so much fun? To ask the question in a different way: is it interactive?

Let's put these questions aside for now, and look next at the "five dragons" of roleplaying: fixed location, high price of entry, game length, dependency on players, and limited number of players. With Internet play, storygaming solves the problem of location; by doing away with game rules, storygaming lowers the price of entry and reduces game length; and by allowing multiple people to roleplay a single character, storygaming solves the dependency on players. That's four out of five. But the last one, limited number of players, is another question mark. Can storygaming work on a mass scale? If a thousand people, or even a hundred, were posting suggestions to a chapter, how could an author keep track of it all?

So we're left with three questions about storygaming: "Is it roleplaying?", "Is it interactive?", and "Can it work with large numbers of people?" The only way to answer these questions for certain is to try it out, and I'll talk in the next section about what we've done that speaks to these. But let's stay in the land of theory for now, and take these questions one at a time.

Is it roleplaying?

Someone with a background in roleplaying games or theater might say this about storygaming: Posting suggestions and voting on a character's actions is a way of storytelling. But it's not really roleplaying. Roleplaying means immersing yourself in your character, speaking in the character's voice, taking on his emotions. How can you do that if you're just one of a hundred people voting on what to do next?

My answer is that it's not clear that controlling a character's actions is necessary for roleplaying. Even in a linear story, where the audience has no control, readers or viewers can identify with characters to the extent of taking on their speech, manners, and dress - ask anyone who's been to a Star Wars convention. By giving players collective control over a character, storygaming has the potential for an even greater sense of ownership and identification. And storygaming also gives players a way to express this: for example, a player's storygame suggestions could be in the voice of the character. Even if the suggested words aren't exactly what the character does in the end, creating them is still a form of roleplaying.

Maybe this wouldn't be enough for everyone. Some players may need complete ownership of a character to roleplay, like the ownership provided in pay-to-play online RPG games or other free RPG games. But the kind of cooperative "roleplaying-lite" supported by storygaming has an advantage in flexibility: unlike traditional tabletop or online role play games, if a player doesn't feel like roleplaying or can't think of anything to say, the roleplaying doesn't stop. Others can take on the effort of roleplaying when it's needed. And for many players, that may even be a relief.

So my answer to this question is "Yes, storygaming is roleplaying."

Is it interactive?

Someone with a background in computer games or AI might have a different critique of storygaming: This is an interesting way to write stories, but it's not much of a game. You can't control your character except in a very removed way. There's none of the choice and responsiveness that makes an experience interactive.

This question often comes from thinking about interactive storytelling from within the framework of computer games. Many people in the field of interactive storytelling have this approach: "Let's look at existing computer games. They model the laws of physics, and have characters do physical actions. Let's do the same thing, only with storytelling. Let's model the laws of drama, and have characters do dramatic actions."

This is a valid way to approach the problem. And if computer games are the standard for interactivity, storygaming falls short: it will never have the kind of immediate, continuous interactivity of, say, first person shooters, or an interactive drama like Facade. Only a successful AI can do that. I found the AI approach problematic for reasons given in the last section, but I can see that it has its benefits, and I certainly wish the people who are working on it success.

But let's put aside the computer model for a moment, and change the question slightly. Let's ask: "What kind of interactivity does storygaming have, and is it enough?"

From the point of view of the community of players, storygaming has the interactivity to choose the player's actions at decisive points, similar to a branching storyline. Storygaming also has a kind of interactivity that both branching storylines and computer games lack, even interactive storytelling computer games: in storygaming, players can come up with things that the story creator hadn't thought of. Because the story emerges from the interaction rather than being created ahead of time, things are possible in a storygame that aren't in other forms: minor characters can unexpectedly become important, major characters could die, etc. - all because of player input.

But of course, for an individual player, all this influence is mediated by the group and removed in time. So the next part of the question is: is it enough? Would playing a storygame feel interactive to each player? After all, if you're one in a hundred people controlling a character, the chance that your suggestion would be chosen or that your vote would change anything is very small. Would you feel like you're part of the story?

Of course, it's hard to say without trying this out. But people routinely participate in activities where their personal contribution is only a small part of the whole. Almost any kind of voting fits that description, as does singing in a chorus, or even contributing to a charity. What makes people feel a part of something is not how much they personally influence the outcome, but that they've contributed. By giving everyone a voice and a vote, storygaming has the same potential for making people feel included as a political or social process. It's not immediate personal feedback like playing a computer game, but it is a well-known and successful form of "interactivity."

So my answer here is "Yes, storygaming is interactive."

Can it work with large numbers of people?

For reasons mentioned in the first part of this history, mass participation is necessary for interactive storytelling to succeed as an art form, so if storygaming won't work with large numbers of people, none of its other virtues really matter.

Fortunately, the only problems posed by mass storygaming are those faced in organizing any large democratic process, and the solutions are well-known. When a storygame discussion forum gets too large, for example, it can be broken into multiple forums with moderators who represent their group's suggestions to the author, just like any representative democracy. Or the players could trade off roles, with each player getting the chance to make suggestions on some, but not all, of the chapters. Or, instead of allowing freewheeling debate on the suggestions, there might be a more structured process where each player only gets one suggestion. Any of these approaches could be combined as appropriate, and there are doubtless other ways of solving the same problem. In any case, there's nothing about posting and voting on a storygame that's more complicated than any other application of democracy.

Adding political structure could even make the storygame more interesting. Imagine the formation of voting blocs or political parties, dedicated to some particular interpretation of the character or game style. These could add a layer of depth to the storygame character, by corresponding to personality traits, impulses, or temptations. Players might even run for office, campaigning on platforms that describe what the character should be doing. Mass participation is rich soil for storygaming: an opportunity, not a problem.

So my answer to the last question is "Yes, storygaming can work with large numbers of people."

And with that, we've reached the end of our theory. Our theory tells us the storygaming has the strong narrative of a linear story, the social interaction appeal of a simulation, and a flexibility not found anywhere else. Our theory tells us that storygaming might well have all of the treasures of roleplaying and none of its dragons. Our theory tells us that this form has huge potential.

But of course, it's one thing to talk about storygaming in theory. It's another to make it work.

In November 2001, I started to make it work.

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