We all remember Choose Your Own Adventure books – If you go to the cave, go to page 26. If you stay home, go to page 43. They were a feature of my summer holidays growing up, and if you were anything like me, you tried to track your path by adding multiple bookmarks, so that when you inevitably lost, you could backtrack and try again. And then 30 minutes later you’d won, and the book was put into your bookshelf to gather dust.
Well, I’m here to tell you that those days are over, and the new arrival is what some people are calling Orbital Narratives. First featured in Dungeons of Fayte, by Tanya Short, orbital narratives have since been used by dozens of new and emerging narrative adventures, and it’s no surprise why – they not only offer countless variations for readers, they can also handle multiplayer. But how do they work?
Typically, orbital narratives invite readers to explore a world and build their character so they can achieve a goal. In Dungeons of Fayte, you have four months to train in town before you enter a dungeon. In Monster Prom, you have six school weeks to ingratiate yourself with a prospective date. And in Kingdom Catastrophes, you have six days to explore a fairy tale kingdom before facing various disasters. Unlike branching narratives, where making the same choices always leads to the same outcome, orbital narratives change every time you play.
Wait! What? How? Orbital narratives, unlike branching narratives, use randomisation to ensure the story changes. Every time a player visits a location, they essentially spin a wheel of fortune that lands on a short story. These short stories have various outcomes that depend on players’ choices and stats – for example, imagine you’re confronted with a monster and have to decide whether to fight or run away. The best choice for you will depend on your strength, or speed, or whether you’ve met that monster before. That means that there are several possible outcomes for every decision, and each outcome affects the character differently, in turn affecting the next story the player encounters. When time runs out, players face an ‘end-game trial’ (that’s the dungeon, the prom or the disaster). How well they go and what happens next depends on their previous choices, and typically players get to read a short, personalised epilogue about what happened to their character after the story ended. But the best bit is that the next time you play, the randomisation of stories means that you’re playing a totally different story, with totally different decisions and outcomes—so orbital narratives don’t start gathering dust after one play. Sounds pretty fun, right? But what are they like to write?
The author of Kingdom Catastrophes, Ben Clark, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of orbital narratives.
“Orbital narratives offer lots of choices and this enables players to bring their own unique personality into the game. Because orbital narratives are multiplayer and use randomisation, every experience is different, especially if you play with a different group. There’s also a lot of scope for players to have the kind of adventure that excites them most. In Kingdom Catastrophes you have just as much opportunity to save the kingdom by spending a week studying in the library as you do working in the tavern or becoming a pirate. Orbital narratives with a range of exciting locations can have a broad appeal and be played by groups of diverse people.
“It’s hard to put a price on all that, but the real challenge comes with the quantity of stories that are needed for orbital narratives. A lot of games focus on pitching ‘dozens of endings’ or ‘hundreds of choices’, but if your writing isn’t consistently entertaining, it makes no difference how big the story is. Orbital narratives can transport readers into worlds they can enjoy endlessly, but that doesn’t matter if they read it once and decide it’s boring. That’s why the focus of any story, whether interactive or otherwise, should always be on great story telling.”
It’s clear that orbital narratives offer unique challenges for authors, but when done well, they enjoy a host of advantages over their narrative rivals. Perhaps one day the technical complexity of narrative structures will outpace the creative limits of any one author, but until then, orbital narratives continue to push authors’ creativity to new heights—and help all of us avoid shelves full of books we’ll never read again.