Tell me a (dynamic) story

Hello, friends, this is Jordan, the mysterious postdoctoral researcher, and I’m here to talk about a thing that we at Tiltfactor have been playing with more and more: text-based, interactive narratives. They’ve become big parts of several projects we’ve recently proposed, so it’s appropriate to take some time to think about why they might be useful and important ways to communicate values and institute social change (while avoiding that whole “boring and irritating” problem that more traditional appeals can have).

The first issue is, What is an interactive narrative? If you’re my age, you probably already know, because you grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure books. These little tomes, perfect for afternoon car rides to soccer practice, contained choices: “If you want to go through the green door, turn to page 37! If you want to go through the white door, turn to page 55!”

These books were meant to be read multiple times, with different choices leading to different plot events. Few of these books were well-written (although some had strikingly imaginative settings), but they had a captivating power, both to draw me back time and again and to create emotional experiences. I remember the sheer GLEE that I felt when I picked the correct series of events leading me to become Emperor of the Ant People… though truthfully, I deserve none of the credit. The randomness of these books may also have been key to their power: behind the green door is a talking kitten that grants wishes, and behind the white door is a pile of scorpions which will immediately sting you to death.


Providing readers with slightly more (real) agency were Interactive Text Adventures, the best of which were made by the classic company Infocom. These games were, at heart, a series of puzzles (put the gem in the hole to make the door open!), but unlike other games, there were no graphics. Player inputs: Go North; Drink Water; Punch Mailman… and descriptions of actions and scenery were both purely text. The focus on exploration within these games resulted in stories that were often very simple, but they still created this primal sense of agency: That door would still be locked if I had not unlocked it.
A lot of theory has been written about the balance of interactivity and narrative, and mounds of research has been done on the technical and programming methods to provide a maximally engaging interactive experience for readers.

But, I am a social psychologist, so I quickly focus on the ways that interactive narratives can move, instruct, and persuade. If we can make an interactive story that gives middle-schoolers a sense of power and agency and hope because they read a story where their own choices contributed to a successful ending, then Tiltfactor has done its job.

Narratives are powerful. At heart, a narrative involves two, key factors: cause-effect, and intentionality. In other words, it’s not a story if nothing happens, and it’s not a story if there aren’t characters whose desires relate to what happens. This combination of features makes narratives especially useful “filing boxes” for our memories, which form themselves into stories for easy recollection, classification, and retelling at parties. Stories are just how things happen, which means, when we encounter an especially well-written one, we are drawn in, absorbed, and open to change. We take on the experience of story protagonists, temporarily blurring the lines between where we end and he or she starts.

Interactivity is also powerful. Interactivity allows play, which in turn allows freedom to explore, create, and even subvert norms and expectations. Interactivity is also growing larger: whereas Choose Your Own Adventure Books allowed binary choices within a story, now we can program complex, branching narratives based on current and previous player choice. We can allow users to be interactive in creating the stories as well as “playing” them. We can even enhance the emotional impact of a story by strategically denying interactivity, a tactic used famously by recent, headline-grabbing games such as Papers, Please and The Stanley Parable.

Finally, and I mean this as mercenarily as it sounds: Interactive narratives are super cheap and technically easy to craft. Using tools such as TWINE, we can try various techniques (1st person or 3rd person? “What would you do?” or “What would the character do?”) and (given an appropriate N, with random assignment and controlled variables) we can experiment and collect mounds of data too.

In other words, we can play. You can, too. And that might be why I’m so excited about this interactive narrative tool: It gives us the opportunity to test the mechanisms of games, narratives, and messages… and to figure out the ways those can be harnessed for positive social change… while letting us feel like I did when I was eight and reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty Tiltfactor.
Happy New Year!