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Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part one

By Alexis Kennedy, February 27, 2010 · Tagged with

The Echo Bazaar team was in London last week for The Story, a storytelling conference run by Matt Locke of C4. As it turned out, several speakers decided simply to tell stories, which was a little worrying for us, since we arrived at the Conway Hall with a big old bag of narrative theory.

Anyway, since the event some people have asked us for the slides and an abstract of the talk, so I’ll attempt a précis. If phrases like “coalescent narrative structure” make you grind your teeth, or you’d rather not see beneath the bonnet, feel free to skip this post entirely. It’s going to be long and dry. In fact, it’s so long I’m going to chop it into installments. There may be spoilers. There will definitely be flowcharts.

OK, here we go. Echo Bazaar is, essentially, a research project. We wanted to find new ways to tell casual but engaging stories in a browser format. Why? Partly to amass some data for Failbetter’s next big project, Prisoner’s Honey (of which more later) and partly because that kind of thing just interests us.

AK adds: “Research project makes us sound more organised than we are. Think of it more as one of those quixotic upstream expeditions in search of the source of the Nile, the kind that returns instead with malaria and a collection of interesting spiders. I would like you, in fact, to think of these slides as a collection of preserved spiders.”

So, here we have spider number one. This is a slight exaggeration, but it’s fair to say that the majority of RPG browser games run on this simple hierarchical system: do a mission, succeed, do another mission, succeed, and so on. There’s little in the way of branching narratives for the player to follow, less still in the way of flavour. The pleasure is entirely in the grind rather than the story. Now let’s take a look at a typical Echo Bazaar playing session.

Clearly, this is a bit more complicated. The difficulty for us as writers and coders lies in keeping track of all this stuff while giving the player a coherent interactive story, one where they feel they are carving their own path. The trouble is, the more options that become available, the more tangled this web becomes. Imagine a Fighting Fantasy book where the player has ten options for each chunk of story – it would be the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

An aside: when we added the various fail state locations – prison, the tomb colonies, madness and so on, we made an interesting discovery: people really loved it when terrible things happened to them. We had players actively trying to get themselves thrown back into New Newgate, or exiled, or dead. They hurled themselves into situations that were clearly labelled as harmful without so much as a quicksave button. A few even climbed into Mr Sack’s sack at Christmas time, despite being told that it was a terrible idea).

So anyway, we were faced with this apparently intractable problem: how do we give the player an exciting narrative, with lots of different ways to play and choices to make, without making our heads explode? So here’s what we did:

It might sound facetious, but this is a fundamental point. You can’t deal with a problem if you can’t describe it. Echo Bazaar, as I said earlier, is a research project for our next project, Prisoner’s Honey, which is going to have crowdsourcing narratives and a lot of shorter, widely branching stories. That’s going to be much harder, especially for contributors who haven’t tangled with this kind of thing.So our first job was to come up with a pattern language for Echo Bazaar’s narrative frameworks. Here are some of the terms we came up with.

and I’ll get into what those mean in part two. Tune in next time folks!

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Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part three · Failbetter Games May 15, 10:38am

[…] This one is frankly unlikely to make any sense unless you’ve already checked out parts one and two. Onwards! Next up, we have Faust’s Tea Party, a social narrative concept which I have […]

Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part two · Failbetter Games May 15, 10:35am

[…] Being the second installment of our dry, technical and somewhat diagram-infested discussion of storytelling within the casual browser game format. Part one is here. […]

Welcome to the Storychoices wiki - Storychoices Oct 23, 4:50pm

[…] introduction to crafting narrativeg architecture can be found on Betterblog: part 1, part 2 and part […]

New Narrative Structures · Failbetter Games Jul 23, 12:13pm

[…] A steaming tray of fresh content turned up a few days ago. This update boasts some sparkly new narrative structures that we’ve not used before. Alexis has described the whole Echo Bazaar project as an expedition into the narrative jungle for specimens. So, here for your edification and delight are a fresh batch of twelve-eyed beasts straining at their cage doors. Today we have the Midnight Buffet, the Carousel and the Grandfather Clock! If you’ve not come across our narrative structures before, you might want to have a look here. […]

Alexis Kennedy Nov 1, 3:15pm

and fixed!

Alexis Kennedy Nov 1, 3:15pm

Images now fixed!

Ingrid Oct 22, 4:50am

Ditto. All images are broken.

Erik Pan Oct 16, 4:50pm

I'm sorry fi this sounds like a complaint, but am I the only one who can't see the 'preserved spiders'? All the images are broken links for me, and I'm interested in seeing the slides as well! Thanks. x

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John Evans Mar 3, 12:09am

@Alexis - The Scott Expedition, I see. How...delicious? By the way, it doesn't surprise me that people like to have bad things happen to their characters. You see that a lot in some of the newer pencil-and-dice roleplaying games (the "indie" ones). When people really focus on creating stories, they often incorporate tragic consquences. "Sometimes, you want a Protagonist to suffer." --Shock: Social Science Fiction, by Joshua A. C. Newman

Alexis Kennedy Mar 1, 12:21am

@John sure and of course. Think of us as the Scott Expedition of narrative exploration. We go looking for the Story Pole, die of frostbite, eat our dogs. You feast on our remains, use us as handy signpost. :-) @iskandra thanks! Oddly enough my first degree was linguistics. I'm curious about your fiancé's thesis. There's also another blog post due on coming up with names and slang that fit in the mouth, which you should feel free to scoff at professionally.

John Evans Feb 27, 6:46am

These are problems I've poked at in the past, so I'm very interested to look beneath the hood (er, bonnet; excuse my colonialisms). Anyway, just to warn you, if you reveal the various secrets behind Bazaar story creation, I might use them in some of my projects. You might even (gasp) end up advancing the state of the art in this area!

iskandra Feb 27, 6:34am

Also, of course-questicles and storylets WILL make it into my next class on word-formation (I have already had sections on word-formation in rpgs-my fiancé wrote his PhD thesis on that topic!)

iskandra Feb 27, 6:33am

Looking forward to the next set of collected (collectible?) spiders-I've been playing and writing/editing rpgs for 27 years (the latter for 13 years), and browser-based ones NEVER held any appeal for me. Then I stumbled upon Echo Bazaar, which also tickled my linguist bones (my profession!) - and with this look at the inner workings, I'm beginning to understand why I already spent real money on this game. I was hooked within minutes. *rambles on for five more minutes about the great art, cute rats, witty prose, and such* Alexandra

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A prophet is always without honour in his own country.

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Jane Doh Feb 27, 2:56am

Really.... Questicles? A myriad of really vulgar things come to mind. :)