The Fight for Control – User Influence vs. Dramaturgy in Interactive Story Telling

Often, interactive stories are created to give the user more influence on the progress of the story. Striving for agency (see [Murray 1998], p. 126) power is diverted from the author to the user. Some have even called the user a co-author of an interactive story (e.g. [Tanenbaum 2007]).

This leads to an difficult question: How much power should a user have over the story?

Creating a dramaturgically compelling story is a difficult task. Authors spend a lot of time constructing their plot. The process usually involves quite a lot of rewriting and restructuring. While the user is influencing the story, there is a high chance that not much attention is used on caring about dramaturgy. After all, this would require a kind of thinking that contradicts the goal of immersion. No hero in a conflict would think about which actions would lead to the best dramaturgy – she cares only about how to solve this conflict.

If one co-author does not or little care about the dramaturgy of a story, there is a huge potential for a breakdown of dramatic tension. Depending on the level of power over the story, the user can more or less destroy it.

Just imagine what happens to the story if the hero decides to wait. Or search in each drawer for clues. Or maw the lawn. The tension breaks and although the user brought this on herself, her experience will suffer.

In an compelling interactive story, the recipient must not have enough power to destroy the dramaturgy (at least not easily). Either the author must limit the influence that the user can have on the story, or the interactive system must have a good automatism to adapt the story accordingly. And this is the tricky part…

Automatic systems are being researched, but so far with limited success. Façade is the best known example for an dramaturgically compelling adaptive story. Unfortunately, authoring such a story is extremely time consuming. Façade required ~3 person years of just authoring ([Mateas / Stern 2005], p. 7). There are a few other systems, but no other is publicly available.

Limiting the user’s influence is tricky as well. It is very easy to destroy the immersion and let the interactive story degrade to something which is perceived as being pseudo-interactive. There are promising examples, however. The interactive fiction1 Photopia ([Cadre 1998]) employs several scenes where the user has practically no choice. A person in real life would have no choice in similar situation either, so it does not matter. In one scene, for example, the user finds a little girl, drifting motionless in a pool. There is no choice but to get her out of the pool and revive her. The player does not have any control over the story, he/she would not be able to leave the scene, ignoring the drowning girl. This limitation, however, is not perceived as a limitation because one does not even try to do anything else. There is no choice and the dramaturgy justifies that there is no choice.

Neither strategy is “the right one”. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I am more interested in the second one, though, because it stays truer to the traditional spirit of story telling – and because it has not received much attention, yet.


Cadre 1998: Cadre, Adam, Photopia, 1998
Mateas / Stern 2005: Mateas, Michael / Stern, Andrew, Procedural Authorship: A Case-Study Of the Interactive Drama Façade, 2005
Murray 1998: Murray, Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1998
Tanenbaum 2007: Tanenbaum, Joshua, Placing the blame for a quality interactive narrative experience., 2007

1 Interactive Fiction usually describes a game-like narrative which is purely based on text in- and output. Formerly works of this style were called text adventures, the predecessors to modern adventure games. For a more detailed description, see Wikipedia: