Branch and Bunch and All That Jazz
Museum interactive storytelling may not have AAA video game budgets, but there are still lessons to learn from the big boys...
In my spare time (and writers who tell you they don't have spare time are fibbing!) I enjoy a bit of video gaming. I know, I know, into my fifties and mucking about with kids' toys, waste of a good education, etc. etc. - so sue me. And my preferred genre of game is the epic RPG.
If you aren't a gamer, allow me to elaborate: I'm talking about Role Playing Games, in which you follow a character and guide his or her actions. In doing so, you are creating your version of a story that can have multiple outcomes and follow multiple paths.
To be fair, those paths quite often lead to a lot of brutal mayhem plus occasional theft and espionage, which probably isn't appropriate to your interactive game about jute-weaving in 18th Century Perthshire, but bear with me, because the content here is less important than the structure. And the structure really is relevant.
Even a mighty AAA game like Bioware's brilliant Mass Effect series is limited by the space available on a console's hard disk. More creatively, it's limited by the fact that there is a story to tell, and you can't possibly write or visualise infinite episodes and endings for it. You need to give the players some choice, creating a sense of agency and immersion, but not enough to derail your story, ruin your big finish and lose your message.
Sound familiar, museum interactive people?
The best solution I've come across to this is the one used by the aforementioned Bioware in the aforementioned Mass Effect series, and that solution is a structure they call 'branch and bunch.' What this means is that the storyline is anchored at several key points by more or less inevitable events. You will go and meet the reclusive mastermind. You will go to the planet that's just been attacked. You will visit the derelict ancient starship.
These are the bunch points. Here, whatever paths the player may have sent their character down, those paths bunch together and intersect. But... how they handle those bunch points, how they turn out, depends on the branches they have followed in between them. When you get to that derelict ship, you might have your ace sniper to back you up - or you might not have gone to recruit him. And if he's not there, it won't go well...
Now, almost certainly you don't have an ace sniper in your museum's story. But I did find myself using Bioware's B&B methodology on a project for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, with my old friends at Centre Screen Productions.
It's a large interactive, projected onto a long table, in which up to seven users collaborate to get a Lancaster bomber into the air, over the missile research base at Peenemünde and home again having hit its target - if they're lucky and skilful, that is, because they have a lot of challenges to face along the way. How well they handle those challenges is up to them.
But we needed to steer them into those challenges - because the navigator could take them out of range of the flak we want them to face, or the engineer might put out the engine fire we want them to handle - and, unlike their real-life counterparts, they need to be sure they make it to the target.
The solution turned out to be a branch and bunch structure: a narrative that took them into danger at the very points we chose, but with the resources they had secured or preserved for themselves between those points. If they hadn't fought off the fighters over the North Sea, they'd still make it to the target... but they'd be on three engines already, so if they lost another to flak over Peenemünde, they weren't going home afterwards...
They might succeed or fail in their mission; they might make it home or be logged Failed To Return. That was up to them; our mission - in which we succeeded - was to make sure they saw what we wanted them to see, and learn what we wanted them to learn along the way, without compromising their sense of immersion and agency.
Mass Effect is a sprawling, multi-million pound trilogy of games; the IBCC's Bomber Challenge is a seven-minute interactive table. It goes to show that it pays to think big, even if you're building (relatively) small.