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.
To contact the City of IF, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The City of the Future
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
In the previous parts of this history I described
how I came to be interested in interactive
storytelling, what others in this field
are doing, my idea for a different approach
that I call "storygaming," and what I've learned
trying to make storygaming work for the past few years. Now I'm going to look to the future, and say what I see ahead for the City of IF and for storygaming. As I mentioned at the end of the last part, I think the potential of storygaming is much greater than anything the City of IF is doing now.
There are four areas where the City can grow. I'll talk about them one at a time.
Even if nothing else about the City of IF changes, simply adding members will improve the site experience in many ways. Here are just a few:
- Stronger community: More
members means more chance meetings in the chat room, more new
posts since each member's last visit, more fellow members in each
person's city (or state, or country). In general, the larger the
community, the stronger it is and the more chance for sub-communities.
- Richer storygame play: The more players there are for each storygame, the larger
the discussions, the better the chance of creative suggestions,
and in general the more alive the storygames will feel. Having
lots of players who have various degrees of experience playing online RPG games will also let us test mass storygame play: how
many players can fit on a single storygame forum? How do we structure
the discussion when there are more than that? We'll need to answer
these questions eventually, and the sooner we start the better.
- More experimentation:
More members means more authors, which means more storygames of
different genres and types (such as games covering Greek mythology or science fiction), and more testing of storygame technique.
At this stage, every author is an explorer, and the more explorers
we have, the more likely one of them will find something precious.
For all these reasons, growth is central to the future of the City.
Higher Quality Storygames
You can think of the storygames on the City of IF today as being like the films of the early 20th century, the video games of the 1970s, or the massively pay-for-play and free multiplayer online RPGs of 10-15 years ago: interesting because they're the first things of their kind, but it's also easy to see how much better they can become. So next I'm going to talk about ways to make the storygames better than other free online RPGs by improving their "production values." Many of these improvements will require time and money, but I believe that with these changes, storygaming will be compelling enough that people will pay for it.
- Improving the Writing:
The storygame authors now are volunteers writing in their spare
time. I think we've done a great job blazing the trail, but turning
storygaming into a serious art form will eventually require the
focus and dedication of professional writers. Anyone will always
be free to start their own storygame on the City of IF, but the
best storygame writing will be done by those for whom writing
is a calling rather than a hobby.
- Regular Timing: One simple
way to improve the storygaming experience is to make the chapters
more frequent and regular. Currently authors write chapters whenever
they have time, which can be anywhere from weeks to months. This
uneven timing breaks the rhythm of the story and can make it hard
for players to remember what's going on. A certain amount of disjointedness
is inevitable in any storygame: there will always be discussion,
voting, and time for the author to write a new chapter. But there's
no reason why a storygame cycle couldn't turn around regularly
once a week instead of randomly every two to five weeks. This
simple change could make a big difference in participation: people
would come to expect a new chapter at the same time every week,
and so the storygame would fit into their schedule.
- Adding Multimedia: Story
will always be central to storygaming, but story doesn't have
to be just words on a page: storygames can also have graphics,
music, sound effects, and even animation. A few current storygames
use graphics modified from clip-art, but custom images created
by a dedicated artist could have a much bigger effect and could
draw in many more players than even the best writing could by
itself. Using current technology and a few time-saving tricks,
a skilled artist could create compelling images for a storygame
chapter very quickly - for example, an artist could build 3-D
models of the main characters before the story begins, and render
them as the story goes.
- Dedicated Roles: As storygames
become more sophisticated, I believe that their creation will
resemble the way video games or movies are made, by teams of people
with different roles, rather than being produced by a single author.
Most of the storygame creation roles would be similar to the roles now in any multimedia production, artist and writer for example. But there's another role unique to storygaming - I'll call it a storygame director. The director would decide the course of the story: what happens next when the players choose an option.
The role of director is different than the role of writer: a writer works with words, and makes each chapter as compelling as possible; a director would work with plot, and make the story as a whole cohere and fit with the players' choices. In linear stories, the author plays both roles, but in storygaming, the task of plotting is so much more complicated due to the changing and unpredictable player choices that I think the director will be a separate role.
Directing a storygame will take a special set of creative skills: skills in creating a decision point that generates rich and interesting discussion, choosing a set of options that best expresses the collective mindset of many players, and plotting a coherent story that offers the chance for player input at each step. The City of IF storygame authors are just starting to learn how to do these; as the form develops, the directors will learn from each other and from their experience, and improve. Eventually I believe that the role of storygame director will become the most important role in storygame creation: just as a movie director defines a film's creative vision, so will the storygame director define the storygame.
Developing the Form
Above I talked about four ways to improve storygames without changing their basic form. But as we go further, we'll also experiment with the form itself - with how the interaction in a storygame works. The form will no doubt evolve in ways that we can't predict yet, but here are two possible directions that we can see now:
- Interlocking Storygames:
In almost all the storygames on the City of IF, the players play
a single character, set in a world that exists only for that storygame.
This is the basic form. But there are other possibilities: in
a set of storygames called A Battle to the End, we've begun
three storygames set in the same world, each with their own character
who may interact with the characters in other storygames. Players
join only one of the storygames and can only post and vote in
that one, although they can read the others.
This is an experiment
that may or may not work, but this interlocking storygame form
has a few interesting features that individual storygames don't.
For example, because the player can only play a single character
of their choice, the sense of identification with the character
and team spirit with the other players is stronger. This form
also allows team-to-team interactions, which could give an even
stronger feeling of interactivity than interactions between the
players' character and characters controlled by the storygame
author. So this experiment is something to watch.
- Real-time Storygaming:
One area with great potential is real-time storygaming, which
has the same form as standard storygaming, but with a much shorter
time: each cycle of chapter, suggestions, and voting takes a few
minutes, and a complete storygame takes around two hours. We've
run a few real-time storygames in the City of IF chat room. These
games are much shorter and therefore easier to play than storygaming
by forum post; they also seem to have a greater sense of spontaneous
creativity and community, since people are all together at the
Many of the improvements suggested above could also apply to real-time storygaming - e.g. adding players, improving the writing, adding multimedia - but in the case of real-time storygaming, these things would require some specialized technology. When the storygaming takes place in a standard chat room, with more than five to ten players it quickly becomes impossible for an author to keep track of all the suggestions and for the players to follow the story. Real-time storygaming on a larger scale would need chat-type software that could do the following:
- Put the author's postings (i.e. the story) in a separate section of the screen for everyone to follow
- Allow the author or author's helper to add polls and see instant results from the players' votes
- Allow multiple conversations to go on in separate sub-rooms; that way, each sub-room could come up with its own suggestions that would get reported up to the author.
- Let an author's helper upload previously prepared graphics or sound for display to everyone
None of these things are beyond today's technology, but the City of IF does not currently have any of these features in its chat software.
Separate from the storygame itself is what it produces: a finished linear story. And separate from storygaming's success is the success of its stories. Could a storygame produce a spin-off work based on its finished story? In other words, would a finished storygame make a good book?
It's easy to say that it could: if the author writes well
and completes a storygame, it would probably be worth reading after
the fact. But if that's all there is to it, the same author could
write just as good a story a lot easier without storygaming. The
real question is: does a completed storygame have a different quality
than a traditional story? Do the players' choices add something
that the author couldn't create himself? And if so, does that make
it more interesting to read later?
It's too soon to answer these questions for certain. But I do have
some experience that might shed light here: in May 2005 I published
"The Archer's Flight," a novella based
on the first City of IF storygame. I'm certain that this story is
different than any story I would have written by myself, in ways
that are both good and bad.
On the plus side, the story is more exciting and unpredictable.
As I mentioned in the last section, I
set out to write a fairly straightforward fantasy about a battle
with a dragon, and the players' choices suddenly turned the story
into a (more interesting, I think) journey through the Wheel. That
was only one of the many plot twists. The flip side of having a
twisty plot is that the story became a little loose: there's a lot
going on, and it doesn't all fit into a neat package at the end.
This is only one completed storygame; we don't know whether others will be different from traditional stories in the same way. But it would make sense if they were. If even the author doesn't know where the story is going, you can imagine that the readers will certainly be surprised; at the same time, the author's lack of knowledge might also make for a few loose ends. If storygame stories do have this different quality, then as books they might find a special niche. Even people who aren't interested in storygames may find the books an exciting and unusual type of story.
The City of IF
We've discussed all the improvements separately; now let's bring them together. Below is a vision of the City of IF ten years from now, told from the point of view of a new site visitor. This vision could take longer than ten years to achieve, or it might happen sooner; no new technology is required, so the timing depends only how quickly we build the community and the site.
Jack hears about the City of IF from a friend at school, and comes to the site to check it out. There are thousands of storygames in dozens of genres going on. Many of them are free to read and play in; other "premium" storygames cost a small fee to play, although Jack can read some of the chapters for free. The storygames are in many formats: some are completely text-based, others have text with graphics, and a few are told completely with animation and voice acting. They range from a chapter every day to once a month. The genre, format, and frequency of play are shown next to each storygame, and Jack can search or sort the storygames by any of these.
In addition to the storygames, the site also has contests, places to get tips and ask questions about writing and art, and many forums for connecting with other people, based on age, geographic location, and interests. There are places to chat, some of which are reserved for the nightly real-time storygames, and some of which are just open for members to say hi to each other. At any time of the day or night, there's almost always someone in one of the chat rooms.
Jack likes the site and decides to sign up, although he's not ready to pay to play one of the premium storygames yet. Over the next few months, Jack plays in several of the more well-known and highly rated free storygames. He looks forward to reading the new chapters each week, and enjoys the discussion and voting.
Jack also hangs out at the meeting-place forums and gets to know some of the site regulars. Each member's profile says which storygames the members has played in and for how long, so Jack can see which storygames his friends are playing. He notices that a lot of the people he knows are playing one of the premium fantasy storygames called "Hana", so he looks it up.
At the time Jack looks into joining, Hana has been going on for four months. It's the epic story of a company of soldiers from Earth who pass through a dimensional gate into the fantasy world of Hana, where they discover that they have the power of gods. The story is about how the soldiers choose to use their powers and what they discover about Hana. The saga of Hana consists of seven interlocking storygames, each of which tells the story of one human soldier trying to understand his powers and how to use them. Players can only play in one of the seven at a time.
Before joining, Jack can see animated introductions to the story of Hana and to each of the characters, a list of who's playing each character, and sample previous chapters including graphics, players' suggestions, and votes.
Jack likes what he sees and decides to play. He chooses to play Private Gullixson, a strong but shy soldier who has acquired the power to communicate with animals and plants since coming to Hana, and has been hailed by the natives as a god of nature. Jack chooses this character because he played a character something like this in a previous roleplaying game, and because some of his friends from the site are playing the same character.
Jack reads the story to date and joins about 500 others playing Private Gullixson. Every week a new chapter comes out, told in text with accompanying graphics. Jack and his fellow players have three days to make suggestions, then two days to vote on their options. The dilemmas they're presented with range from creative problem-solving such as how to deal with a dragon that's threatening a local forest to character-defining issues such as whether or not to leave the other soldiers and live among the plants and animals.
The players are divided into ten moderated forums. The moderator of Jack's forum takes the best suggestions of Jack's group, and then posts those to the general forum, from which the story directors choose the best options to be voted on. Jack's suggestions don't usually make it to the voting in their exact wording, but the same ideas tend to come up from group to group, so usually what Jack wants the character to do is represented in the voting. Jack gets one vote, the same as any player no matter how long they've been playing. He enjoys casting it even if the option he chooses doesn't win. Some players keep their votes confidential, but Jack sets his profile so that others can see what he's voted for.
Meanwhile, the creators of Hana are working hard to make it the best storygame it can be. Hana doesn't have the large graphics load of the fully animated storygames and it's not as high-pressure as the real-time storygame chats, but with seven interlocking stories spanning a year-long epic story, it has the most complex plot and interaction of any storygame on the site. There's a storygame director and three artists over all the seven storygames of Hana, and a dedicated writer for each storygame. The writers and artists like to stick with the same characters, so that each character has his or her own voice and look.
Hana runs for a year and ends in a climactic conclusion. The second-to-last chapter for each character is fully animated. The final chapter is a real-time storygame chat attended by thousands of players across the seven characters. Jack has so much fun playing it that he later buys the Hana trilogy, which tells the storygame in book form, moving between the viewpoints of the seven characters. Jack already knows the story when he buys the book but he feels good about owning something that he contributed to.
After Hana ends, Jack continues to play premium storygames. He also gets more involved in the site, volunteering to moderate one of the premium storygame forums and writing his own storygames in the free section. As his storygames start to become popular and win some of the site awards, Jack wonders if he might one day do this for a living: write and direct storygames.
That is my vision for the future of the City. In the next part of this history, I'm going to say what all this has to do with you: I'm going to invite you to join our fair City, and say what we can offer you if you accept.
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