Elision in generated interactive stories

I’ve been thinking about generating interactive stories as choice-based IF for a while, using that format as a liberating constraint, a reasonable and minimal model for many other forms of interactive entertainment, and as a tool to focus on interesting player choices. I wanted to do something for Procjam in 2014, but got overwhelmed by the problem. I was planning to tackle thing again in a similar but smaller project for ProcJam 2017. That is not going to happen in time, for personal reasons, but last night I realized that a) the problem I was stuck on with was the same problem that overwhelmed me back in 2014, and b) it might be possible to solve it by splitting it into two simpler problems. So I thought I’d write down some notes here.

Choice-based IF, with its focus on scenes over systems, allows you to do something that is very rare in other forms of interactive entertainment but common in non-interactive storytelling: arbitrary focusing and eliding of events and elements. In a novel or TV show, being able to focus on some things and hide other things is crucial. I want to show the detective noticing a detail about a possible suspect, I want to hide the long drive she took from the police station to the suspect’s house.

This is something that we barely do in most games. The most common forms of focus and elision in games are diegetic – we’ve arranged space so the boring travel time is not too boring – and systemic – we always skip, or allow the player to skip, certain parts, for instance by always hiding the transition between selecting a mission and actually starting it.

(Whenever I bring this up, people mention 30 Flights Of Loving and Virginia. Focus and elision are bigger than what these games do, but it’s interesting that these are the only two examples people come up with, and both are fairly recent games.)

This is a huge subject to me, which I’ve been struggling to express since 2010, so I’m not going to dwell on this. But I’m convinced we could be creating a broad range of new interactive experiences by doing more intelligent focus and elision.

In choice-based IF we are not bound by the rules and conventions of other game formats. We can slow down or speed up the experience as we see fit. Which is great! Except that when I tried to think about generating a story with interesting choices and good use of elision and focus, I got stuck. And while thinking about my current side project, which involves generating diary entries, I hit the same wall.

The approach that occurred to me last night is to separate the event generation from the rendering into text. This is more appropriate for diary entries than for a playable IF game, and there are reasons why you want the two to be linked, but my hope is that separating the two will allow me to advance with my side project (time and energy permitting) after which I should have a better understanding of the problem.

(I haven’t yet read this article on rendering Skyrim in text, but I’d be surprised if it were not related.)

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