Which path will you choose?
The interactive children’s audio story that was designed for my master’s research study used a branching narrative design. Branching narrative is a form of storytelling that allows audiences to decide the path and outcome of the story (gamasutra.com). This form of storytelling was first popularized with interactive gamebooks in the late 1970s (cyoa.com) and has since been adapted for other forms of media devices including smart speakers. There are choices throughout the narrative which will eventually lead to one of several conclusions. The choices offered are all pre-determined and mapped out by a narrative designer/writer. While the sense of total control is actually an illusion, the option of choice is what gives these types of experiences replayability (van der Meer, 2020). Unlike a linear plotline, stories that employ a branching narrative require a lot of work and pre-planning to ensure that every choice available makes sense for the story progression (Crawford 117).
While still considered a novel tech device by some people in the media industry, smart speakers provide a new avenue for creators to experiment with branching narratives. In fact, it was my discovery of Toronto-based company Storyflow that led me down my path of research. Storyflow was co-founded by voice developer Braden Ream and is the first platform for interactive voice entertainment on smart speakers (startupheretoronto.com). The platform, which has since been renamed Voiceflow, allows novice users to design and build interactive stories such as branching narratives without having to get too involved with the backend development. For this reason, I chose to use Voiceflow as the platform to build out my prototype.
It should also be noted that while the story I wrote for the prototype is an original concept, the narrative experience is not the first of its kind. ChooseCo, the company that first introduced Choose-Your-Own-adventure stories in the 1970s has now brought some of their titles to life through Amazon’s Audible (Perez 2019). The publisher has launched two of their original stories, “The Abominable Snowman” and “Journey Under the Sea” by R. A. Montgomery (Perez 2019). Last year, Laika and Annapurna released their children’s stop-motion title “Missing Link,” with an accompanying interactive skill on Amazon (Roettgers 2019). There are also studios that exclusively focus on voice-controlled content. Volley is a studio based out of San Francisco that produces interactive stories and games for smart speakers (volleythat.com). Based out of New York City, the team at Xandra has produced several interactive stories for smart speakers, including a full children’s series entitled “Tala’s World” which was produced in partnership with Amazon (xandra.com).
In an audio-based branching narrative, the listener can influence the direction of the story. A narrative designer must consider how a user will interact with the system and factor in as many outcomes as possible (Crawford 31). The element of play involved in an interactive experience also changes the role of the child. A child simply listening to a linear story is a passive activity. However, in an interactive story a child is an active participant who can be viewed as either a player, user, learner, or a combination of the three (Markopoulos et al 28). Designing for an active participant requires empathizing with the child and seeing the story through their eyes. In the case of my prototype, it was hearing it through their ears.
Creating a branching narrative allowed me to be a storyteller while also empathizing with the audience. The first difference I encountered in the production process was that I had to come up with multiple paths and outcomes. Unlike a linear story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, a branching narrative required a visual map with all the plots laid out to avoid dead ends or never-ending loops. Far from performing for a live audience who could give me instant feedback, creating an interactive narrative also required me to anticipate how the audience would react and feel throughout the experience (Crawford 31).
Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on interactive storytelling. New Riders, 2012.
“History of CYOA.” Chooseco LLC, 6 Apr. 2020, www.cyoa.com/pages/history-of-cyoa.
“Home — Volley.” Volley, 21 May. 2020, volleythat.com.
Markopoulos, Panos, et al. Evaluating children’s interactive products: principles and practices for interaction designers. Elsevier, 2008.
Perez, Sarah. “Amazon’s Audible brings Choose Your Own Adventure stories to Alexa devices.” TechCrunch, 4 Feb. 2019, techcrunch.com/2019/02/04/amazons-audible-brings-choose-your-own-adventure-stories-to-alexa-devices.
Roettgers, Janko. “‘Missing Link’ Gets Alexa Skill With Interactive Audio Adventure (EXCLUSIVE).” Variety, 9 Apr. 2019, variety.com/2019/digital/news/missing-link-adventures-alexa-skill-1203183684.
“Storyflow Announces Platform for Interactive Storytelling on Alexa Smart Speakers — StartUp HERE Toronto.” StartUp HERE Toronto, 10 Oct. 2018, startupheretoronto.com/type/startup-news/storyflow-announces-platform-for-interactive-storytelling-on-alexa-smart-speakers.
“The evolution of video games as a storytelling medium, and the role of narrative in modern games.” 6 Apr. 2020, www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ChrisStone/20190107/333798/The_evolution_of_video_games_as_a_storytelling_medium_and_the_role_of_narrative_in_modern_games.php.
van der Meer, Albert. “Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games.” Medium, 2 Feb. 2020, uxdesign.cc/structures-of-choice-in-narratives-in-gamification-and-games-16da920a0b9a.
“Xandra.” Xandra, 21 May. 2020, www.xandra.com/productions.