The Choicest Bits

by Katherine Phelps
Copyright September 1996

The Wheel Has Already Been Invented

Digital narrative offers us new opportunities for how we tell stories and how we can experience stories. Interactive Fiction itself has been around for twenty years. Crowther and Wood's Colossal Caves1 gained wide-spread notoriety in 1977 when it was being passed around for use on mainframe computers at universities2. It is now also known as Original Adventure. One of the most sensible sites on digital narrative that I have encountered which speaks from those twenty years of experience is the Interactive Fiction3 site. The writers featured on this site roll up their sleeves and get to the nitty gritty of plotting, character development, and known pitfalls to avoid. These are not professional experts, just fans who have been at it for a long time. Ten years after the appearance of interactive fiction HyperCard, a popular hypertext system, was first released free of charge to all Apple Macintosh system owners. Myst4 was originally designed on Hypercard. Storyspace, another hypertextual system dedicated to storytelling, was released by Eastcom in 1990 and in 1992 WWW was released by CERN. All of these have offered ever widening spheres of how stories can be told.

Make Friends with a Propeller-Head Today

Probably the biggest stumbling block to storytellers making sensible use of the medium is their lack of experience with it. No creators should apply for grants or try putting together investments until they have formed a solid relationship with an experienced programmer. Someone with programming experience can quickly look over your plans and see right away where you are asking for the unworkable, the limited and the old hat. I would say this is a vital first step along with spending time actually playing computer games, reading hypertext fiction and exploring various CD-ROM titles.

The Interactive Writer's Handbook contains a proposal for a game called Magic Drum. This document is merely meant to demonstrate the form of a proposal, but it also demonstrates where non-technical game writers can go wrong:


As a powerful shaman, you must explore the surrealistic Realms of the Spirits, to deliver your apprentice to the World Tree. Using your control over the elements and animals, as well as the power of your Magic Drum, you must protect your pupil from Baltar, the fearsome shaman who will attempt to keep you from reaching the World Tree.

(Samsel & Wimberley p. 51)5

A number of problems become obvious with this proposal. First of all, you are required to play a shaman, but you have a choice over which of five possible apprentices will assist you. As simply a player I find the thought of choosing my own character more intriguing. As a woman I am appalled that I am required to play a male character when with the apprentices I can choose either gender. So why not make them the focus of the game? Next a complex interface is needed so that a bewildering variety of variables can be applied to the situations you face. These variables include: the four forces of water, fire, earth and wind; the Magic Drum containing the celestial map, entry to the Realm of Spirits and the World Tree; a bag of tricks containing a medicine pouch, weapons, tools, and gifts; animal spirits that endow you with transformational powers; and the powers of prayer. First of all imagine all the programming necessary to create the characters of the shaman, Baltar and the five apprentices; then imagine all the programming necessary to make all those different variables effective in a variety of episodes; now imagine writing a sensible storyline that brings together all of these elements providing a unique experience every time you play given your choice of characters and actions. To make each of those choices meaningful turns this game into an enormous endeavour.

General Field of Choice, Captain Involvement

Many digital narrative theorists speak about how the digital medium frees us from authorial control, as if the artist is some sort of dictator rather than someone who shapes and shares experiences. From this perspective it can be difficult to look beyond formless meta-narrative as a legitimate way to tell a story. Many other reasons are available for why an artist might wish to simply share creative control which could include the sense of involvement it generates, an expanded sensual experience and new ways of thinking about ourselves and the shapes of our lives in this century. Keeping this in mind helps creators offer more intelligent choices, not merely choice for choice's sake. I am already free to enter or not enter the creation of another artist, once I have made that agreement I want a fulfilling experience whether it is emotional or intellectual.

As a first step in creating a digital narrative creators need to decide whether they are dealing with a closed or open narrative since these will determine the general range of choices you will be able to offer your audience.

* Closed Narrative - Open Exploration

The storyline is set, but the audience is free to move around the narrative environment in different ways.

Within this structure the audience is not going to be able to affect the flow or outcome of a story, but in so doing this gives them the freedom to explore the story in more detail and/or in any order. Just Grandma and Me6 is a superb example. Within this CD-ROM we are presented with a straightforward little tale about a boy and his grandmother going to the beach and having a fun day together. In no way are we going to be influencing the tale, it simply flows from page to page just as if it were a book. However, within each book page, a million tiny adventures are available to enrich the story with the click of a mouse . "Click!" and the frog goes water-skiing across the page. "Click!" and the starfish does a little dance. "Click!" and the radio starts to play the Just Grandma and Me theme tune. Then stories such as 24 Hours with Someone You Know7 allow you to travel through the narrative in a number of different ways. Such narratives are like being free to look at a diamond's facets in any way the reflected and refracted light catches your eye, and yet in the end you still have a complete satisfying story.

* Open Narrative - Closed Options

The storyline may have diverse outcomes or entirely participant driven narrative, however within the constraints of what is appropriate to the particular narrative environment.

Despite a lot of idealism about how much more realistic digital narrative can be because of the mass of branching storylines available, creators simply cannot offer all possible choices to their audience. However, this is taken care of by developing a world whereby certain choices are more likely and more appropriate to the environment. Within FurryMUCK8, an online roleplaying world, all characters are expected to be anthropomorphic like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. You would not get very far or be allowed to build onto this world if you came in as the Terminator. In a section of the CD-ROM game Discworld9 if you ask your avatar to go into one part of town early in the game, he cries out that you are crazy to lead him into such a dangerous place and won't go until he is better prepared.

Particular Realms of Audience Influence

For the inexperienced creator of digital media it is easy to rely upon a few realms of choice within an open or closed environment. Nothing is wrong with this except when because of a lack of familiarity, it becomes obvious that the audience is not being offered sensible realms of choice for the material given. As in any other artform artists must have a firm grasp of their tools. I have identified eight realms of audience influence that digital creators have to consider each time they develop a new title.

* Select different focal characters or perspectives.

The developers of Magic Drum obviously had a grasp of this choice in the selection of apprentices. Many arcade games such as Virtua Fighter10 and The Simpsons11 will let you select the character you wish to play since each character represents different qualities and has different abilities for negotiating the challenges you face. This works best for works that are more game than story if the title is highly graphical, just for the sheer volume of work involved in making the characters individual. Character investigations of more depth, for the time being, still work best with non-linear written narrative. Differing perspective, nevertheless, can indicate not only different character viewpoints, but whether you are participating in a scene from a first or third person perspective. This is more broadly do-able. The Ancient Art of War12, a simulation game based on the work by Sun Tzu, allows you to arrange your armies for battle from a map like overview and then observe the outcome, or you can zoom in on any individual skirmish and direct individual soldiers in their fights.

* Modify character.

This is often fairly superficial as you are given the ability to change the clothing and maybe the hair colour of your character, but it does give you a greater sense of involvement since you have customised the character to be more expressive of some qualities you wish to play with in this world and therefore you have a greater sense of attachment to this character. The Palace13, an online chat environment, gives you a set of props that you can decorate your smiley face with so that you can develop a recognisable presence. By sending in your money and registering with The Palace you can also use images you have created yourself. Doom makes it possible for you to change the images of the villains as well. More significant modifications sometimes made available are skills and physical abilities. This is common amongst the Dungeons & Dragons (TM) style roleplaying games whether on CD-ROM such as Heroes of Might and Magic14 or an adventure MUD on the Internet like DragonMUD15.

* Modify environment.

Again this is usually superficial, but it can nonetheless create a shift in emotional and intellectual context as well as generating more involvement. Extreme Pinball16 allows you to select which pinball environment you wish to toss a ball around in. You can play within "Monkey Mayhem" where you are in a zoo environment and friendly hamsters help you gain points or "Urban Chaos" where you face down criminals and gain points by restoring law and order to the city. The basics are pretty much the same for both games, yet the implied stories make quite a difference in how you experience what you are doing, whether you laugh or feel serious intensity. I would include in environmental influence the ability to change the background music, since that too affects how you feel about the events going on. OutRun17 made clever use of this by giving you the choice of tunes your car radio will play as you go racing down different race tracks.

* Select metaphor.

This is more of an interface choice than directly a storytelling one. Yet, it too can enhance the tone and overall character of how you experience a title. In allowing the audience to select their own metaphor, they can choose that metaphor which is most meaningful to them and therefore easier to navigate with. Easy navigation means the story experience has a greater opportunity to be a seamless one with a real sense of flow, whereby the audience is unaware of the fact that they are sitting in front of a computer. I haven't really seen this used within a narrative environment, but I have experienced it with Power Chords18, music composition software. With Power Chords you can compose a piece of music using a score, guitar frets or drum notation which ever makes the most sense to you. It also creates it's own implicit story whereby you imagine yourself playing different sorts of instruments in order to generate greater ease in creating.

* Select different pathways.

Both closed and open narratives can offer you the opportunity to wander freely through the narrative environment. Within a closed environment this offers you an opportunity to find out more about the plot or a character, like peeling the layers of an onion, so that eventually you come to a deeper understanding of people and events. Myst is this sort of story. In your quest to find more pages to release the trapped brothers, you learn why they are trapped in living books and what sort of scoundrels you are dealing with. Within an open environment free movement gives you the opportunity to acclimatise yourself to the nature and expectations of the world you have just entered so as to make more effective choices when enjoying the game. Furtoonia19, a MUD, actively encourages players to explore this world by rewarding them with pennies every so many areas they visit. These pennies can be used by the players to build new areas to the world.

* Explore different consequences or outcomes.

The exploration of differing consequences I find the most exciting narrative addition that digital storytelling has to offer and the greatest challenge to creators. Creators need to select thematic investigations that include the possibility of multiple outcomes and present real chioces with real outcomes. Nothing annoys the audience more than to be presented with two apparently good choices only to find that one, for no real reason, leads to certain death. It's a cop-out, a short-cut made for convenience's sake and serves neither the story nor the audience. A skilled digital creator will create situations where you are primarily interested in the choices that you are given, and not suggest unavailable ones. A skilled digital creator will create outcomes that are fair to who the character is and the events that have lead to that outcome. I am fascinated by the idea of stories where choices lead to different but possibly equally appealing outcomes, so that we pull away from the idea that there is only one right way to travel through life. The Forever Growing Garden20 has some of this feeling about it, in that you can select any collection of seeds you like and regardless of which seeds you choose, it is still fun watching them grow and finally get harvested.

* Expand your knowledge or experience of a scene.

This is the particular field of choice most often used by closed narratives and yet it is available to open narrative as well. Any title that involves a mystery where you have to search for clues, a treasure or scavenger hunt where you are searching for pieces to achieve the prize or an educational work, will give you the ability to observe and learn about various people and objects in a scene. Under a Killing Moon21 requires fairly close investigation of each environment you enter including looking under desks, inside a grating, beneath a door mat, etc. so you can solve who committed a theft at the local pawn shop, recover an artifact and stop a plot to commit genocide. EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus22 not only expects you to find clues and solve puzzles which help you learn about the importance of the ocean environment, but some items you click on will provide text about how you can help in keeping the planet clean.

* Select presentation format (e.g. text, audio, video).

Different people respond to different presentation formats with greater or lesser comprehension. Some people absorb information best when they receive it aurally, others when they receive it visually and still others when they are kinetically involved. Receiving information in a variety of ways means that information gets broad sensual reinforcement in our memory and provides a whole experience. Games such as the Carmen Sandiego23 series uses a variety of presentation formats from printed text to animated sequences. For artistic reasons The Complete Maus24 gives the audience a choice of presentation formats in order to enrich their experience of the story of survivors of the Holocaust. On the Internet it is vital that graphic works are available in a text format as well, since many students and people from a number of countries can only receive text on their connection.

Creators just entering the field of digital media are tending to work under a false synecdoche whereby they are mistaking the filmic part of digital narrative for the whole of the medium. You Don't Know Jack25 relies primarily on the aural with minimal graphics and no video, and has been a great commercial success. A creator can emphasize the book-like, the musical, the filmic or any other possible similarities with other media in the telling of the story and do well to keep all such possibilites available as a part of their bag of magic tricks.

Grand Finale

I find the field of digital creation an exciting one precisely because so much more is waiting to be done. I think everyone is still a little clumsy in the use of their materials as people are having to get comfortable with making new alliances between the technological and the artistic, doing away with old prejudices that the two are mutally exclusive. This new alliance is adding more warmth to computing, helping to further the cause of drawing people into using it as a way to connect with other people and themselves, rather than feeling alienated by its presence. I have consistently found that when people enjoy using their computers through stories and games, they feel empowered to use computers in other ways that free them to create and communicate in their own right. A work does not have to be educational or experimental to be significant in this medium, being fun is also important. As a creator give people more choices for quality enrichment and quality enjoyment.


Katherine Phelps is the author of Surf's Up: Internet Australian Style. She created Glass Wings, the first commercial Web site in Australia, the focus of which is narrative. She is working in association with the International research teams for Project Xanadu and Hyper-G. Katherine Phelps is currently working on a PhD in new narrative forms in digital media.


  1. Crowther, Willie, Patricia Crowther, and Don Woods. Colossal Caves, 1977: <>

    Note: This game may be played on the Web at <>

  3. Nelson, Graham. The Craft of Adventure, 1995: <>.
  5. Reilly, Scott Neal. The Interactive Fiction Page, 1995: <>
  6. Miller, Rand and Robyn. Myst. Novato, CA: Broderbund, 1993: <>
  7. Wimberly, Darryl and Jon Samsel. Interactive Writer's Handbook. Los Angeles: Carronade Group, 1995: <>
  9. Mayer, Mercer. Just Grandma and Me. Novato, CA: Living Books, 1994: <>
  11. Burne, Philippa. 24 Hours With Someone You Know. 1996: <>.
  13. Maxwell, Drew, Steven Stadnicki, Paul Blair, William Haas, Conrad Wong and Claire Benedikt. FurryMUCK, 1990: <telnet://>
  14. Pratchett, Terry. Discworld. London: Psygnosis, 1995: <>
  15. Virtua Fighter. Redwood City, CA: Sega, 1994: <>
  16. The Simpsons. Redwood City, CA: Konami, 1991: <>
  17. The Ancient Art of War. Olympia, WA: Evryware, 1985: <>
  18. Maerz, Mike. The Palace. The Palace, 1995: <>
  19. Heroes of Might and Magic II. Redwood City, CA: New World Computing, 1996: <>
  20. Crane, John. DragonMUD. 1989: <telnet://>
  21. Extreme Pinball. Bournemouth, UK: Epic Mega Games & High Score Entertainment, 1997: <>
  22. OutRun. Redwood City, CA: Sega, 1986: <>
  23. Powerchords. Sydenham ON, Canada: Howling Dog Systems, 1997: <>
  24. Incomplete Furtoonia. <telnet://>
  25. The Forever Growing Garden. Fremont, CA: Media Vision, 1993: <>
  26. Under a Killing Moon. Salt Lake City, UT: Access Software Inc., 1994: <>
  27. Ecoquest: The Search for Cetus. Coarsegold, CA: Sierra, 1991: <>
  28. Carmen Sandiego. Novato, CA: Broderbund, 1985: <>
  29. Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Voyager Company, 1994: <>
  30. You Don't Know Jack. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Systems, 1995: <>

A version of this article was originally published September 1996 in Melbourne, Australia by Metro issue no. 108, a journal of the Australian Teachers of Media Inc. produced with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission, Cinemedia and the NSW Film and Television Office.

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