“Dun, Dun, DUNNNNN”

A few weeks ago, I was watching Lost, and I thought I heard the TARDIS showing up in the show. (At least, I thought it would’ve been awesome if it did. XD ) At the end of a particular scene, someone said something particularly dramatic, and then there was a “whoooooOOOSH” and the scene changed. That sound happened several times more during the episode, and despite all the “It’s the TARDIS! The TARDIS is everywhere!” entertainment I was having, I admitted in my heart of hearts that this was just Lost’s way of making the dramatic twists sink in.

Pretty soon, I noticed the same kind of thing happening in all kinds of shows, including Chuck and (I think) CSI. There seems to be a tendency toward a kind of rising hum or twang. Yet, that’s not the only option; Boston Legal’s score does the same thing, but it’s composed of jazzy vocals and stuff.

So, you’ve got rising action, a twist, an obligatory sound effect, and a quick scene change. I guess it’s a formula.

So why do I bring it up? I’ll get to that in a second. (Er, make that several seconds. -Future Me)

There’s a project, Mikkamon, I’ve had in mind for several years now. As a picky reader of interactive stories (picky to the point of not doing it as often as I’d like to), I want to find a work that meets the following criteria:

  • It should be a simulation. An interactive story doesn’t technically have to give me adequate evidence with which to make an informed decision… but that kind of interactive story accomplishes little more than purely spectator story does.  I might turn the page, but I can’t blame myself for what happens on the other side. In order for my involvement to make a real difference, there needs to be the sense of a real underlying formula that I’m manipulating.
  • It should enable me to be myself. First of all, it shouldn’t be a contest. If there’s only one “right” way to get from here to the final act, I’m having a moral shoved down my throat. Second of all, it should really be me in the main character’s seat, not some everyman protagonist. I’m not really capable of being myself unless I’m capable of frankly asserting to the other characters that they’re all fictional.
  • It should have meaningful characters. Video games typically dodge the issue of characters. If the point of the experience is to run and jump, then by golly, the player should be worried about running and jumping, not about how Goomba A is going to respond to seeing Goomba B dive off a cliff. As such, games can get by with having extremely shallow characters who each do one thing and do it consistently. If the game I’m playing isn’t so much a game as it is a story, then what I’m worrying about is character interaction in the first place, and so I need a different sort of character.
  • It should support a well-crafted plot structure. If the reader’s character is the reader and the reader is allowed to do pretty much anything, the plot is probably going to suffer a little no matter what the author does. Despite that complication, I think it’s essential that this interactive plot compensate for that, somehow channeling the reader’s own actions into consequences that will persuade him or her to proceed to act in the fashion of an archetypical character. Just because the reader is allowed to break the fourth wall doesn’t mean the fourth wall will sit back and take it. One of the ultimate goals of this is that if a reader wants to show another reader what he or she has done, the other reader should find it interesting.
  • It should focus on communicating specifically to me. What’s the point of having a story be interactive if it’s still trying to say the same things to everybody? Since I’m essentially telling it all about myself, the story should figure out who I am and guide me on a tailor-made spirit quest through some of my toughest dilemmas. This requirement goes hand in hand with requiring the plot to be well-crafted: As long as the reader and the protagonist are the same person, the protagonist’s struggle shouldn’t just be an allegory for one of the reader’s struggles. It should be the reader’s struggle. I don’t know if I should require this too strongly. If the story offends absolutely everybody who picks it up and the way they “fix it” is by putting it back down (i.e. refusing to assume the mantle of hero), I guess it won’t be very meaningful for anybody.
  • It should allow me to micromanage my character. Significant plot interaction in video games, if it happens at all, happens only two or three times in the entire game, in my experience. Interaction in visual novels I’ve played (read: tried to play) is appalling; I’m given a choice once every five minutes, and the rest of the time the narrator drones on and on about what I’m supposedly doing. Gamebooks and the odd non-visual-novel game disc I’ve gone through usually provide interaction points once per dramatic encounter, which makes them sorta cool, but then they go and spoil it by having several of the “wrong turns” lead to instant death. The way I see it, interactive fiction (the text-based kind), with its “ASK SALLY ABOUT DEATH RAY” tech in combination with finely-branched conversation trees, has what I’m looking for here.
  • Finally, it should be humongous. In particular, I want to see something with enough content and depth to fill a 26-episode 22-minute-per-episode TV cartoon show. I estimate that most video game RPGs I’ve played seem to have approximately enough for 52 such episodes, but they have very little plot branching to deal with; everybody sees the same 52 episodes every time. If I want branches to occur several times per conversation, and if I want readers to be essentially capable of doing whatever they want to do, with a medley of intimately personalized plots scrambling to keep up with them, then there’s going to be a whole lot of branching going on. Given the rest of the requirements, this one might be hastily scrapped for being ridiculous, and yet I think it’s actually intrinsically successful. I think it probably takes about 26 episodes’ worth of constant input (and 26 episodes’ worth of subplots) for an interactive story to comprehend a reader and produce something awesome for him or her… and besides, if I make a meaningful impact on the story in the first 10 episodes, I’m spending the next 16 in a world I really like and care about.

Ooh, ooh. I just distracted myself. Maybe the 26 episodes should be divided into three general-purpose acts. In the first act, the reader does pretty much whatever he or she wants to do and has the chance to make an impact on the world. In the second act, based on what impact was made, the story has determined what the reader’s preferences are and injects something that will threaten the reader’s now-home. In the third act, based on the reader’s responses to the second act’s terrorism, either the reader or some other character has become a formidable proponent of some cause or other, so a final countdown commences and, well, stuff happens. It’s not easy to be specific about the end, lol.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with dramatic sound effects? At this point (if you’ve been paying attention ^_- ) it’s probably at least a little obvious. The main hurdle with writing an interactive story like the one I’m looking for is that branches too fast and for too long. If it’s 26 episodes long and it has a yes-or-no branch merely once per episode, that’s 2^25 possible game states during the final episode.

A simple gamebook can’t possibly handle the full complexity of that. (Imagine, “If you choose not to, turn to page 353,261,763!”) Recycling of material and some more intensive corner-cutting mechanisms are in order. Two such mechanisms I’ve thought about are as follows:

  • The reader’s character doesn’t have to be in every scene. (Every conversation without that character is a conversation with no branching.) Plenty of stories cut from one set of characters to another, and I don’t see why this one needs to be any different. In fact, it adds some potential dramatic questions: Does the reader take advantage of his or her knowledge of other characters’ secret conversations or not? How does the reader explain away that ESP if he or she does use it? How do the other characters react if they know the reader might be listening in at any moment?
  • Procedural generation needs to be just about everywhere. The layout of an episode needs to be procedurally generated in order to account for the author-unpredictable combinations of actions that might take place during a single episode, and character actions need to be procedurally generated in order to account for whatever that character might believe and feel at the time. Even dialogues/scenes, which the characters theoretically determine for themselves, probably need to have procedural nudging (“coaching”?) to make sure that they flow nicely and fit snugly into larger plots.

The dramatic sound effect and, more specifically, the “pithy comment, beat, cut” pattern it’s used in are probably pretty useful to keep in mind when trying to implement both of these mechanisms at once.

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