Dynamic Fiction via Some Examples

“Dynamic fiction” is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work, especially but not limited to her serial story Bloom.

As I understand it (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting too much here), the term is chosen specifically to get around some of the expectations people have when they hear the phrase “interactive fiction.” Dynamic fiction allows minimal plot branching, if any: the reader is not being allowed to change the course of events, which may be completely linear. From a CYOA structures perspective, we’re talking about structures that either look like a friendly gauntlet without delayed consequence, or structures that actually literally are a straight line.

Instead, the interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.

To answer the question “why isn’t this just a short work of static fiction?”, I’ve picked out what I consider the best exemplars of each of the major dynamic fiction effects I’m aware of.

I’ve written before, more than once, about My Father’s Long Long Legs, so I will not fully describe it again here: the important point is that it is almost entirely linear, with clicks simply advancing the story, and that this is nonetheless very effective in context.

In fact, at least for me, it conjures up an experience I typically I have with interactive fiction that does branch, but not with static prose narratives: specifically, the productive moment of uncertainty or hesitation when I am considering my choices but have not yet selected one. In this moment, I am thinking about how I feel about the story, and about what I want or expect to have happen next.

In My Father’s Long Long Legs, there is no uncertainty about how I will choose to move onward, but there is a moment of hesitation about whether I will do so. Because the story is suspenseful and horrific, I both do and do not want to read what will happen next; having me click the link to progress forces me to inhabit that moment of doubt and dread over and over again. This may be one reason why horror IF works better for me than horror movies or horror books. It may also help explain why horror is an especially common genre for dynamic fiction.

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Bloom uses its dynamic fiction elements particularly strongly to create a sense of identification with the protagonist — both through the options it gives, and through the moments that it identifies as choice points in the first place. The protagonist is a trans woman who at the beginning of the story does not yet recognize this fact about herself. All sorts of things around her — things she sees, comments that people make about gender, the way she notices her own body — throw her into doubt about what to do or say or feel.

So Bloom applies that moment of hesitation or uncertainty that I mentioned before as a way to intensify those emotional hotspots.

Bloom also offers a bit more short term choice than some of the other items on this list — the player can make choices that will temporarily change the course of the current scene, even if they make no longer term difference to the plot.

*

The Writer Will Do Something is a short story by Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns. It is a satirical take on what goes on during a game industry meeting about a game that is just not coming together. It features some characters that someone who has spent some time in an industry studio will absolutely recognize as types: the high-octane characterizations are certainly reminiscent of Bissell’s writing style in Extra Lives. Importantly, though, TWWDS manages to hit that sweet spot where all of the characters are a little bit annoying and a little bit sympathetic at the same time. The game would be much less funny or painful if they were all just unreconstructed jerks.

I haven’t heard much discussion of The Writer Will Do Something in the main IF community, but it’s the kind of thing that’s passed around Twitter and drawn a lot of sympathetic retweets from industry folks who recognize it all too well.

In TWWDS, there are two kinds of clicks: you can click to advance the story (pure pacing), or you can click to choose what to say next. There are only a few opportunities to say anything, and nothing you say will change the outcome; your choices are often most of all about how you’re justifying things to yourself, how you’re explaining them in your own head. In the culminating moment, you’re presented with a list of three options each of which is a good paragraph long, and you will almost certainly not have time to read them all, let alone choose one, before a timer triggers and the conversation flows on without you.

Obviously this is very much a futility/constraint mechanism. The point of The Writer Will Do Something is that the writer will not and cannot Do Something.

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Cover art for TailypoTailypo is a Chandler Groover horror story published last month on Sub-Q. It has some audio effects and some timed and visual elements, but its primary effectiveness doesn’t derive from jump scares.

The story concept is not original with Groover, but he has done some things with it that are to the best of my knowledge new. If you haven’t played, I’d recommend just going through it now — it’s not very long, and I want to talk about exactly what happens.

Spoiler-ready? Okay. The original version of the story as I’m seeing it on Wikipedia is more or less just a straight monster story about an animal with a tail that is also able to speak. In Groover’s hands, it retains that premise, and the original pacing about the man having three dogs that are eliminated in turn. But it also takes on a moral dimension to its horror. The frightening thing here is not (simply) that this monster is pursuing the man. It is that the man has eaten a piece of a creature that possibly has a soul. He’s driven to it by a combination of ignorance and terrible hunger. Nonetheless, it’s something he’s specifically called out as wrong, earlier in the story.

And Groover seeks our complicity with him. The rest of the story is highly linear, click-to-move forward stuff, using the same techniques I talked about with respect to My Father’s Long Long Legs. However, at the moment of cooking and eating the tail, our options open out. We can smell it, taste it, decide how long to cook it. The protagonist luxuriates in this food even though objectively it’s not at all nice. For the player the richness takes the form of extra freedom, even though objectively it’s not very much freedom.

So even though I knew that cooking and eating this tail was probably a really really bad idea, as a player I fully committed to it. I enjoyed cooking it. And it was that enjoyment that made the karma-serving conclusion of the story so much more satisfying than it would have been simply to read on a page.

16 thoughts on “Dynamic Fiction via Some Examples

      • Yeah, I was just kidding about that, or making the response I’d be expect to make. I thought Tailypo was great–you obviously put a lot of care into making the text show up so as to create a creepy rhythm in my head though it wasn’t spoken aloud.

  1. I would disagree that static fiction doesn’t provide that kind of “moment of hesitation”. It may reach for such moments at a less frequent rate, but the turn of the page, the click to the next chapter, the flick of the eyes to final section or queasy description or revelatory line — these are as much an element of the static fictioneer’s toolkit, in the Boolean sense, as in any writer of dynamic fiction.

    (FWIW, “dynamic fiction” makes perfect sense to me, since “kinetic fiction” makes me think of doing Twister while reading or something; it might then again be an influence from previous writing where you have used the term with less direct comment.)

    • The Ren’Py folks have used the word for at least 10 years with a long backlog of work (see my link above). I’m just wanting to make sure there’s a good reason to be different that a community that has clearly done a lot with it.

      It’s possible we can designate “dynamic fiction” to be “kinetic fiction but with SLIGHTLY more interaction” — all the Ren’Py examples I know of are literal click to move forward storybooks.

      • Yeah — I’m not as familiar with that community as you are, and I appreciate the reminder that they use the term “kinetic fiction”. But yeah, “dynamic fiction” is a bit more interactive than the kinetic stuff I’m aware of.

  2. I don’t know if this is of interest to anyone, but I was going through my old ‘making of’ post on Deadline Enchanter while cobbling together my notes on Unbeknown, and I was playing around with the idea of DE as “projective fiction.” (http://www.goblinmercantileexchange.com/2007/12/notes-on-deadline-enchanter/) Which is a play off the “projective verse” of poet Charles Olson and a few others from the 50s-60s (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237880). Using that idea from poetics to ask: what’s the unit of composition? Of course, 8 years ago things were very different! Choice based systems change the equation completely (although I’m still intrigued by parser games that play with pace). I’m excited that, in many ways similar to modernist tendencies in poetry in the 20th c. (which hopefully isn’t a stretch), there are different stances of how to read IF popping up.

    • The comparison to the use of panels in comics is quite interesting. Modern poetry itself is sometimes distinguished from prose* by its use of whitespace etc., i.e., the fact of its using the non-linguistic components of literacy (paralexemes?) to shape the reader’s experience. I was about to say that clicking and pressing keys aren’t usually a part of the reading experience, whether overlooked (like whitespace etc. in poetry and framing in comic panels) or recognized (like the words of poetry and the art within comic panels) — but then I realized, this is the age of digital devices. Whether you are reading things in a web browser, a txt/pdf/doc file, or a specialized handheld reading device, clicking or pressing keys HAS indeed become part of the background of the reading experience. So the analogy is holding quite well!

      *obviously this is not a clear cut distinction by any means, and works of prose (or works primarily identified as prose) may use the same tools to shape reader experience, simply at a lesser density/intensity. Perhaps this circles back to my objection above and indeed downgrades it to a clarification or an “I just wanted to emphasize”: that “dynamic fiction” and “static fiction” are, under the terms of this post, ranges on a spectrum rather than poles of a binary.

  3. I think there’s a practical reason that dynamic fiction is particularly well suited to horror genres. In games, horror is so often achieved by stripping your agency – the entire point of survival horror vs action games is that you have less power as a character (limited weapon choices, limited ability to run away etc.) The feeling of helplessness is really central to horror as an interactive genre.

    It is very difficult to maintain tension and horror in a game where you have agency. Horror exists in the inevitability of terrible things; being able to escape them, or control them, dampens the experience. Which is not to say that you can’t have a highly interactive or branching horror experience, but there is a real risk that once you start including a lot of branches and paths that the horror turns into more of an adventure.

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