Design Approaches for Interactive Digital Narrative
University of Georgia, Department of Telecommunications, 120 Hooper Street
Athens, Georgia 30602-3018, USA
Abstract. While authoring has long been a concern for researchers engaged in
interactive narrative, generalized design approaches have been less of a focus.
At the same time, the need for design conventions to aid in the creation of
artifacts has long been recognized, starting with Murray’s 1997 Hamlet on the
Holodeck. However, unlike in the related field of game design, widely accepted,
generalized conventions are still elusive. In this paper I investigate the state of
affairs and identify several broad trajectories in the scholarly treatment of
interactive narrative authoring. I propose a process and a set of design heuristics
developed in my practice of teaching interactive digital narrative.
Keywords: Interactive Narrative Authoring · Interactive Narrative
Design · Design Heuristics · Design Process· Design Conventions · Interactive
Authors of traditional forms of narrative can rely on a rich body of design
conventions for structuring and presenting narrative material – from Aristotelian
material and formal causes to Freytag’s structure for drama to the 20th century
dramatic conceptions of Brecht and Boal. Even the comparatively young narrative
medium of film has established a wealth of helpful conventions including continuity
editing and rules for framing particular shots. In the evolving field of Interactive
Digital Narrative (IDN), such design conventions are yet to be established. Indeed, in
their summary of future entertainment media in 2012, Klimmt et al  declare the
field of interactive narrative to be still in flux and emphasize how the development of
authoring will decide the shape of future artifacts.
The lack of generalized design conventions constitutes an important obstacle for
authors from traditional narrative disciplines interested in the expressive potential of
interactivity, and even more so for teaching interactive narrative to newcomers.
However, the call for such expressive building blocks now has a history by itself,
spanning the period from Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck  to a recent
paper on IDN authorship . This fact is especially surprising given the number of
publications concerned with the related field of game design, which are built on the
premise of generalizable conventions, for example Salen and Zimmermann ,
Fullerton et al.  and Schell .
In this paper I cast a light on the discrepancy by investigating scholarly perspectives
on authoring and design, before presenting a process and design heuristics developed
in my practice of teaching interactive narrative for the past several years.
2 Existing Approaches
Authoring, the design and implementation of concrete artifacts, has been a focus for
the research community for quite some time. Indeed the European IRIS project 
identified authoring as a major concern for research. Perspectives on IDN design
broadly exist in three different categories – high-level, abstract descriptions, which
analyze the problem from a distance; dichotomic approaches, which take narrative as
an antagonistic element to game design or interactive design; and descriptions of the
design of particular works. In the first case, the high level of abstraction provides little
concrete design advice. In the second case, the emphasis on bridging an assumed
disciplinary gap forces a perspective on ‘inclusion strategies’ that prevents the
consideration of a combined design space. In the third case, concrete design
approaches are often described, however, the highly specific nature of particular
projects often make it difficult to identify generalizable conventions.
An example for a high-level perspective is Murray’s description of the “cyberbard”
, the interactive narrative author whose difficult task it is to create a “multiform
plot,” , along with rules and events. In order to help aspiring cyberbards, Murray
sees the main task in creating expressive building blocks – conventions for the
interface, the use of language, gesture, but also themes like the murder mystery and
generalized plot patterns. For Murray, oral storytelling traditions – especially how
they are able to constantly adapt a core message to a given audience – provide
inspiration for IDN design.
One example for the dichotomic approach is Bateman’s edited collection  which
does provide concrete design advice, but is focused on fitting narrative as an element
within the confines of established game design workflows. Narrative here is relegated
to the role of underlying support structure and justification for gameplay:
“[…] narrative strings together the events of the game, providing a framework and
what can alternately be called a justification, a reason, or an excuse for the
gameplay encounters.” 
Another example in the same category is Bizzocchi and Woodbury’s case study ,
which describes interactive narrative design as a compromise between two separate
design domains – narrative and interactive. Narrative design is understood as a more
holistic perspective, while interactive design is seen as privileging the granularity of
individual puzzles. From this vantage point, the authors investigate the possibility of a
shared design space, which they frame as difficult exercise of translating between
deeply entrenched practices.
Design approaches for particular projects are featured in another set of papers. For
example, Strohecker  describes a specific approach in which a fixed narrative
structure is paired with interaction through character development and different
perspectives. Strohecker describes IDN as related to video games, but with distinct
qualities. In her paper, she provides a number of design recommendations, including
even pacing and sequencing, continuous interaction, and the ability for interactors to
“navigate freely”  within the story structure. In describing their own practice for
Façade, Mateas and Stern  explain the overall structure and detail many design
decisions, for example the combination of an “Aristotelian tension arc”  with
drama management, pre-authored dramatic elements and AI processing of natural
language input. While certainly highly successful as a particular project, the specific
nature of their approach towards AI make it difficult to deduce generalizable design
advice. The most important aspect of their paper in this regard might be their call for
deep procedural literacy – essentially the ability to use high-level programming
languages – as a requirement for IDN authorship. Echoing these sentiments in a
perspective focused on authoring tools, Spierling and Szilas  emphasize the need
to educate authors in procedural literacy for a more productive dialogue with
The unfortunate lack of impact of Stephen Meadow’s 2002 book  – which
shares many of my sentiments regarding the need for new design perspectives – can
also be explained in terms of my broad trajectories – his book combines a dichotomic
approach with many singular project-based design strategies, and therefore also lacks
in generalizable approaches.
3 A Design Approach for IDN
In my work, I start from a perspective on IDN as a novel from of expression in
which narrative and interactivity are deeply intertwined, as “system narratives” in line
with Roy Ascott’s call for reactive “system art” in contrast to prior “object art.” . I
am also inspired by Bernstein et al.’s understanding of “contours”  – narrative
structures that allow for their re-shaping by the interactor. From this perspective,
dichotomic approaches attempt to ‘interactivize’ traditionally static structures instead
of exploring dynamic models – for example cybernetic feedback loops.
Although related to existing practices in video game design and interactive art, I
understand my design work as specific to interactive narrative and as a critical
reflection, inspired by critical practice  and reflective design  that provides
vital clues for the continued development of my theoretical framework . In this
model, the IDN artifact is understood as a protostory, comprised of the four elements
of environment definitions, settings, assets, and narrative design. This perspective
expands the analytical reach beyond structural aspects (which are covered in the
narrative design). The significance of protostory is in the recognition of the process of
digital instantiation that connects the digital artifact and its many possible paths to a
concrete output/product. If the output can be understood as a story, there must be an
entity that describes the space of potential narrative, hence protostory. Within
narrative design there are no preconceptions for any specific structure. The notion of
narrative vector describes micro structures that define the boundaries and junctures of
a given work.
The practical complement to this model is the authoring platform ASAPS ,
which I use in my practice and teaching for several years now. ASAPS reflects the
four essential elements of the theoretical model and enables the creation of narrative
designs from the combination of atomic narrative units with functions like ‘dialog
choice’, ‘inventory choice’, and ‘spatial selection,’ but does not predicate particular
structures. In addition, ASAPS combines branching with procedural elements like an
inventory system, global variables, timers and general-purpose tracking functions.
I have earlier identified a tendency of students to create linear branching stories
influenced by Choose Your Own Adventure books , which fail to capitalize on the
procedural aspects and state memory. Once students start using the tracking functions,
they often create strong antagonistic choices, which often lead to predictable
outcomes. Another problematic outcome is in mechanistic pacing – choice after
choice after choice – with no elements of surprise or narrative development. The most
successful projects tend to either create big narrative spaces to explore, spanning 200
– 400 beats, or deliver well-focused smaller vignettes. Examples in the first category
are The Ship by Charlie Stafford, where the interactor explores a mysterious cruise
ship with a deadly destination, or Jay Hornyak’s Beaver Project, which investigates
the equally mysterious events surrounding a community of beavers and the adjacent
dam. In the latter category are the timer-based interactive bank robbery The Heist by
Jacob Harkey and DeathJack by Nathan Neufeld, which makes winning a card game
the key to survival.
While based in this particular practice, both design process and heuristics are
intended as a generalized approach toward the design of IDN artifacts. In my
teaching, I refrain from advocating specific structural models and instead emphasize
the need for experimentation. I do, however, provide guidance in the form of a design
process and general design heuristics developed from my own practice and
continuously evolved during several years of teaching interactive digital narrative.
3. 1 Design Process: 4 Phases
On the surface, this design process might not appear to be much different from
general game or application development. It differs however from other narrative
media development, e.g. film production, in the focus on procedural elements,
interaction flow and beta-testing. Authors of film scripts and books do not have to
provide decision points and alternative paths or worry about the impact of participants
on their work. The process includes four stages:
1.!Paper phase (idea to treatment to flow diagram)
2.!Prototype phase (check interaction and flow without (final) assets)
3.!Production phase (create (final) assets, structure and interaction)
4.!Tes tin g phas e ( beta u ser te sting, fi nal adjus tme nts)
During the paper phase, the project starts with a general outline of events, before
filling in details. The next step is to move towards a flow diagram to visualize
sequencing and choice points. Then, procedural aspects, like a character's changing
level of anger, the time limit for robbing a bank, or the tools necessary for fixing the
car are considered and noted in the flow diagram. As a final stage during this phase,
the paper design moves to index cards, complementing the flow diagram as rough
storyboard-like sketches for each visible element.
In the prototype phase, I leverage ASAPS’s capacity as a prototyping t oo l to build
an asset-less test version. This step is crucial to check interaction and narrative pacing
and therefore improves on more traditional wireframing approaches (and there are
many alternatives for this particular task that combine wireframing with interaction).
At this stage, unnecessary narrative elements will be removed and missing ones
added. To imp rove the un dersta ndi ng of vis ual aspects during this step, scans of the
index cards from the prior phase or rough stand-in graphics are then used. These
visualizations help in compiling a list of assets to be created in the next phase.
The production phase includes integration of final assets as well as adjustments to
structure and interaction. Finally, in the testing phase, the prototype is being used by a
group of beta testers and final adjustments are being made. A particu lar focus dur ing
this stage is on unexpected behavior, which can arise from procedural combinatorics
or the application of artificial intelligence (AI).
3. 2 Design Heuristics
For the present paper, I understand design heuristics in the sense of the term as used
by Flanagan and Nissenbaum , who are concerned with showing alternatives to
existing game design practices in order to support activist games. They propose
specific principles as “design aspirations”  to guide the concrete development of
an artifact. Similarly, I offer the following principles for interactive narrative as means
to overcome the simplistic and uncritical interactivization of narrative design methods
originally developed in non-interactive media.
The cyberbardic principle marks the contrast to traditional narrative authoring
process and the role of the author. In contrast, the cyberbard tells little, shows a bit
more, but most of all creates opportunities to explore and experience. Instead of
readers/viewers, the cyberbard has interactors as her audience. In regards to the
resulting work, the cyberbard says: ‘I will sit back and watch with amazement what
the audience will do with it.’ Understanding the cyberbardic principle means to be a
“narrative architect” , a system designer.
Initial interest and continued motivation are essential for works that require
audience participation – the “non-trivial effort” Aarseth  has identified. This is
another crucial aspect for IDN design, especially in comparison to video games,
which have the advantage of clear reward structure oriented on continued measurable
improvement and winning.
The initial interest principle casts the focus on strategies for initial engagement.
Questions about narrative development create such interest, either in a holistic sense:
‘Where can I take this?’, in regards to particular characters: ‘Who will this character
turn into?’ or in regards to particular perspectives: ‘Is this the whole story? What other
sides to it exist?’ In more concrete terms that means to start from a challenge (‘will
you reach the summit?’), confusion (‘what happened last night?’, ’Is this the truth?’)
or an abundance of choices (‘So many things to explore - where do I start?’)
The principle of continued motivation has to do with careful management of
interactor interest by offering just enough to keep her going without revealing all.
This key element warrants an extended look. A number of con crete s trate gies motivate
continuous engagement, for example ambiguous choices, small narrative gaps that
leaves space for the interactor to fill, and the temporary removal of control so that the
interactor feels more special about being in control at other times. Surprises – if used
sparingly – are another good strategy to keep the interactor motivated as long as they
do not invalidate prior developments to such a measure that the interactor feels
cheated. Equally, what should be avoided are design choices that can make progress
exceedingly hard or boringly obvious for the interactor. An example of the latter
strategy is a simplistic good/evil choice that puts the interactor on a predictable
trajectory without further complications.
Delayed consequences are a particularly powerful strategy for continued
motivation. Instead of providing the immediate feedback of many video games (if you
go left, you are eaten by a grue, so next time go right), delayed consequences build up
over time, as a result of the interactor’s continued activity. For example, in an
interactive version of Little Red Riding Hood, the interactor starts with Red as a blank
character. Depending on the interactor’s choices, Red develops into a timid, an
aggressive, or a flirtatious girl over time. The consequences of these developments
become apparent only much later, when faced with an attacking wolf, as the timid girl
has no way to defend herself, while the aggressive girl can fight the wolf and the
flirtatious girl can talk her way out of the situation. A key aspect of this strat egy is to
make the interactor aware that her current choice could matter in the future. Once
aware of this mechanic today’s interactors can sustain longer periods without
feedback. They are well versed in the use of computers and therefore need immediate
feedback to a much lesser degree than prior generations, but they are also trained to
endure uncertainty. Other media forms like the printed detective story, the thriller film
genre, and many episodic long-form TV series have been successful in withholding
clear and immediate information without loosing their audience.
Ye t an o th er im por tan t a sp e ct o f c ont inu e d mo t iv at i on i s t he p ro pe r “ sc r ip ti n g of th e
interactor” a strategy described by Janet Murray  in which the interactors is cast in
a specific role and given sufficient information to perform well in it. A particular
compelling example of this strategy is the way We izen bau m’s Eliza  (and recently
Blast Theory’s Karen ) put the interactor in the role of a patient consulting a
The principle of opportunity magnitude pertains to the amount of narrative
material and opportunities for interaction. Providing choice means to always provide
‘more,’ which constitutes a challenge for tight production budgets and available
project time. In general, cyberbardic authors should prioritize interactive opportunities
over length of experience. While narrative does not always have to be fully specified,
as users will fill in the blanks, the interactor should never feel that she only has one
path to follow and alternatives are blocked. Ideally, an IDN artifact offers enough
narrative material to cover all alternate paths offered. However, there is also the
possibility of IDN stagecraft – at times, a convincing, yet non-existing, impression of
alternatives might be good enough to create a compelling experience.
In this paper I have identified several broad trajectories in research concerning IDN
authoring and found that between high-level perspectives, dichotomic approaches and
specific project descriptions, little work has been done on developing and identifying
generalizable design conventions, a conclusion already drawn (although with a focus
on authoring tools) by Spierling and Szilias in 2009 , but unfortunately still true
Based on my practice in teaching interactive digital narrative as a design effort that
combines narrative and interactivity, I have outlined a general design process, along
with several overarching design heuristics as well as strategies for implementation. I
hope to encourage further discussion on the topics of design conventions and teaching
of interactive narrative with my contribution.
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