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Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part one

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!