Writing branching scenario choices: active or descriptive?

The most important aspect of branching scenarios and interactive stories are the choices presented to the player/learner. Choices are what make interactive stories different from other creative writing outputs such as novels, plays and movies.

Writing choices for e-learning scenarios is not easy, and contrary to many examples I see out there, not an alternative way to present a multiple choice quiz! As always, I take my cue for this narrative technique from game design narratives. Your learner’s choices have to fit in a story, in the general feel and the style of writing, and actually reflect much more than the “what do I do next” for your learner.

In today’s post, I’m going to concentrate on one creative writing aspect for choices. Choices can feel totally different to a player depending on how they are written, even if they seem to have the same outcome. we’re going to look at describing the action you present as an option versus providing the actual action.

Let’s look at an example to clarify this. Compare these two similar options in a scenario conversation:

Descriptive

  • You tell him he is lying
  • You tell him he is right
  • You say nothing

versus action

  • “You are a liar!”
  • “You are right.”
  • “…”

While the options are basically the same, they feel very different. For one, the “action” version feels much more direct to the learner. Those choices make them feel more strongly engaged with the “viewpoint character”. Interestingly, it can also put them off that engagement. Will your learners feel this is too strong? Or that the choices are things they would never say? The choice “You tell him he is lying” offers options in the learner’s head. Instead of “You are a liar!”, they might imagine saying something like “I don’t think you are telling the truth” or “I don’t think that is what really happened”. So in some cases, the descriptive version may draw your learner in as they are allowed to imagine the actual action as they wish.

On the other hand, if you are, let’s say, training call centre employees to work with certain phrases when talking to disgruntled customers the ‘action’ version is your go-to: e.g. option “I hear what you are saying…” vs. “You acknowledge their story”. In this case, you do not want the descriptive version to create an action version in the learner’s head that you are not in control of.

Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules as to which version you go for in your branching scenario. Go back to what you want the learner to do, to change or improve in their skills or behaviour (go back to your action map!). Which style fits how you want them to think about the options, how do you want them to feel about the viewpoint character? Is that character the learner, or are you using an NPC (non playing character) that the learner makes choices for?

Let’s look at another simple example that illustrates the case of an NPC. Especially in conversation/dialogue options, action choices will give the learner a certain impression of that third person character (how do they talk?). Imagine you have a restaurant scenario: if you write a dialogue option for waitress Julia to a customer as “Two portions of our fries is too much food for two people”, that is totally different from writing this dialogue option as “Our portions of fries are quite generous, so one may be enough for two if you are not extra hungry”. Seeing this ‘line’ for Julia paints a picture in our head of her communication skills.
However, if you offer those two possible alternatives on HOW to say something in the fries situation, it can teach the learner phrases to use/not use when on the job. If you went with the descriptive version “Julia tells them two portions of fries may be too much for two”, the learner will formulate what Julia says in their head and using their own communication style.

So again, no strict rules! It all depends on what you want to achieve. Well, actually… there IS one rule: don’t mix action-based and descriptive options when you present a choice to your learner. Be consistent, preferably throughout the whole scenario.

For one more example, explore this simple scenario about a Christmas function in the office: http://www.learningworlddesign.co.nz/choicedesign/index.html
(written in Ink).

Keen to read more on everything to think about when writing choices? This blog post by Bruno Dias (Dias, 2018) on branching choices in interactive fiction provides a great starting list.