Sunday, December 2, 2012

What other media should you know if you're about to write a branched simulation?

I'm currently in the midst of rapidly developing a branched simulation at work. The timeline may be killing me, but the work itself is delightful, even in spite of the fact that it produces documents like this:

This is a map... just trust me here.
If you're not that familiar with branched simulations, think of them like digital versions of the Choose Your own Adventure books you may have grown up with. Basically, you get to read a bit of story, then the story stops and you get to choose from two or more possible options for what should happen next. The story progresses based on the choice you just made, and this cycle continues until you reach the end of your story branch. Because of all the opportunities you have to make choices, one branched story will have a large number possible endings.

So why am I using this type of storytelling for a work project? Because using a branched storyline in a simulation is an ideal way of letting a learner test out how the information they've learned in theory could actually play out on-the-job. Learners are given a real-world scenario, have opportunities to make choices, and then are able to see the results of their choices. When written well, a branched simulation feels immersive to the learner and can help them practice complex skills in an environment that's both close to real life AND low risk.

Branched simulations can used for practicing procedure skills, such as entering customer data into a computer system. A more intriguing option, though, is to use them to have learners practice soft skills, such as coaching or sales techniques. Seriously, what would tell you more about whether a learner has grasped, say, the interviewing content you just taught them: a multiple choice test or an immersive experience where they get actually conduct an interview with an applicant that actually responds what the player asks them?

That said, the more complex the situation you want to use, the harder it's going to be to write well. That's why it's worthwhile to look at some of the more successful examples of branched storytelling before you get ready to write your own. And here's where I'm going to suggest you look completely outside our industry and turn instead to mediums who have been doing this a lot longer than we have: books and video games.

The following is my own personal list of books and videogames that aren't just entertaining, they also offer some of the best examples of what you can do to create a successful and nuanced branched simulation. One that will entertain AND teach at the same time.

Title: "To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure" (book)
What can I get out of it?: The basics!
If you're looking to understand the core basics of how a branched story actually works you could start with the Choose Your Own Adventure books. While they're decent examples of the basic mechanics of this type of storytelling, they're also dreadfully written (I just tried re-reading one as an adult. PAIN! SUFFERING!). You'll be better off with an example that works like the CYOA books, but is actually entertaining to read. So my suggestion is "To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure" by Ryan North. It's a tongue and cheek retelling of Hamlet and it should manage to both make you laugh AND show you how multiple branches of a story work.

If you're reading this before Dec 21, 2012, then you can take advantage of the fact this project is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. If you need something more immediately, though, might I suggest an alternative: the story "Down to the Scum Quarter" by Garth Nix. It's equally hilarious and instructive. Also, he's recently made a PDF of it available for free on his website.

Title: Shadow of Destiny (Videogame - PS2)
What can I get out of it?: The basics... videogame style!
Time to dust off the console. This early-PS2 title was one of the first times I played a game where your choices had substantial impact on the rest of the game. I'll admit, Shadow of Destiny isn't that subtle about what actions in the game count as high-impact choices, but aside from that it's an intriguing look at what the consequences of the player's choices can be.

From a storytelling perspective, it's worth looking at because of how the drastically different endings play out. On your first playthrough you'll think you understood the plot. However, you've only got one piece of the broader story at this point. It's only on further replays that you'll see other sides to the story and realize how much more was actually going on than you initially suspected.

Title:  999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (Videogame - Nintendo DS)
What can I get out of it?: Understanding that all important choices don't have to be obvious
When you're ready for something a bit more subtle, try out 999. Much like Shadow of Destiny, this is another game where the story is set out so that it takes multiple playthroughs to understand what's happening. Unlike Shadow, however, the times you're asked to make meaningful choices aren't quite as obvious. There are a lot of dialogue choices to make in this game and a large number of them don't have any impact on the broader plot. Then there are a few that at first glance seem unimportant but turn out to be key in how another character responds to you later. The lesson here isn't that you should try and trick the learner. It's more that all choices in a simulation don't need to have the same weight.

This game also shows how to execute choices and gestures that can seem minor to the player character, but end up being much more meaningful for the other characters. Think about times you've done a small favour for someone that took little effort on your part but made a huge difference in the other person's day. 999 is a good reminder that you should consider including moments like these in order to make the simulation seem more realistic.

Title:  Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit (Videogame - PS2, Xbox, Windows)
What can I get out of it?: Dialogue pacing and forcing quick choices
In a real life conversation you don't get to just sit there and spend all the time you'd like determining the best answer. No, you have to think and respond quickly. Many simulations allow you as much time as you want to decide what to say or do next. Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit as it's known outside of North America) instead aims towards realism and actually has a timer start counting down every time a choice appears. Timer runs out? Well then, too bad. You don't get to make a choice anymore and the game just keeps going. Doing this too often keeps you from getting vital information and is detrimental to getting one of the better endings.

Seeing that timer tick down as you're trying to pick an option is stressful, and sometimes you don't make the choice you would if you were given all the time in the world to make your decision, but it's also a much closer experience to real life conversations. Since you're designing a branched simulation to help your learners make the right decision in the moment, not in a vacuum, then it's worth considering adding options like Indigo Prophecy's timer to your sim's dialogue choices.

Nice bonus to Indigo Prophecy? You can currently pick it up for a measly $6 online.

Title: The Walking Dead (Videogame - Windows, OS X, iOS, PS3, Xbox 360, 
What can I get out of it?: Remembering that making the right choice shouldn't always be easy
The most recently published entry on this list is also, by far, the most complex. The Walking Dead combines all of the elements of the previous games on this list: branched storytelling, varying weights to decisions, and timers on your choices. It ups the ante even more, though, by putting you in situations where the "good" thing to do and the "right" thing to do aren't necessarily one and the same. Out of all the branched dialogue games I've played this is the one that regularly gets just how complex human decisions can be. In order to make the best possible choices you have to pay careful attention to context, previous actions, and how the other characters around you currently perceive you.

If you need to learn how to create a branched simulation or storyline, this game should be your gold standard for what the genre can be.

So that's my list of games and books that can inspire you if you're about to write a branched simulation. I'll admit, though, that it's not remotely a full list. If there's a book, video game, or some other type of media that you think does a fantastic job of demonstrating the best of branched storytelling, then I'd love to hear about it in the comments section.

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