Who hasn’t, at least for a moment, thought a Choose Your Own Adventure book would be fun to write? It’s like making a game out of words. Branching narratives are a surprisingly natural approach to make books interactive. But they’re a logistical nightmare. Multiple storylines? Converging plots? How could you keep even a simple story straight?
A company called inkle appears to have figured it out. Recently, they released the impressive Frankenstein app and interactive novel, and while we weren’t so sure that rewriting Frankenstein was a win for literature, we were impressed by their flowing, option-fueled text interface.
Now, inkle is making their internal compositional software available to the public free as an HTML5 web app called inklewriter. So, without any coding expertise at all, and without much preplanned plot, either, you can simply start typing an interactive novel.
“We’re trying to get people into the mode of ‘just writing,’ and not thinking about story graphs and stuff like that,” Creative Director Jon Ingold tells Co.Design. “This approach means you never have to worry about the shape of your story–you just write what needs to be written, and the thing moves forwards.”
It really is quite simple. Instead of concerning yourself with plot diagrams or dialogue trees, you simply begin typing your story. When you’ve reached a decision point, you just click “add option” and enter the appropriate text. (Consider, for example purposes, “Share the magical apple pie with the scary ghost” or “Bust out a proton pack and blow the ghost to smithereens.”)
By clicking on the apple pie option, you can continue your narrative explaining that the ghost was really just misunderstood, all while inventing some sort of fictional physics that makes a ghost able to chew corporeal food. You may get so into this physics that you totally forgot about that killing the ghost option.
Luckily, inklewriter tracks “loose ends,” clearly denoted red text which you can spot or search for in a notifications panel. Clicking on one takes you straight to your mistake. Another small piece of interface brilliance is that you don’t ever have to worry about how these branching storylines are shaped or organized. The software uses AI to break down long branching texts into “sections.” And if you ever just want to add an early loose end to what you’re typing in the present, there’s always a button to do that called “join.”
“We originally had an idea that you should ‘drag and drop’ paragraphs from the Contents pane into the main story flow, but that didn’t work–you were writing away, then you had to stop, go digging into the rest of your story, find the thing you wanted to join up to, and bring it in,” Ingold writes. “That was backwards: our testers didn’t think of trying it, and we found it hard to explain. The moment when we thought to put the ‘join’ button under the paragraphs was a bit of a revelation.”
It’s a good lesson in UI design. We tend to think icons or diagrams–dragging and dropping–will inherently make something easier to use. But inklewriter passes on all this complication for just a few actionable buttons and vital notifications, all of which will lead you just where you need to go. They even managed complicated conditional logic in a way that makes sense to non-programmers, meaning I can choose to marry that ghost at the end of the book, only if I chose to buy a ghost ring in section 4.
Obviously my own text description feels a bit bulky and esoteric, but in practice, inklewriter allows you to pen interactive stories in seconds and share them through a unique URL. It will be interesting to see how far they push the platform in terms of multimedia possibilities, and whether crowdsourced Choose Your Own Adventure stories are capable of a decent cult rehash. In a way, I hope they are. After five centuries of misery, that poor ghost deserves her little piece of happiness.