Six Key Design Strategies for Replay Stories

Replay Story: an interactive digital story structure in which the same scenario is offered for replay with significant variations based on parameters that the interactor may control or merely witness in action.

An emerging form of digital storytelling that has been widely prefigured in traditional media is the Replay Story.  Traditional examples of stories that are retold, within the same unisequential book or play, or through multiple books or plays,  can be divided into two main kinds:

  • Multiple instantiations of the same story elements, such as an alternate reality or divergent timeline, e.g.  The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Sound of Thunder,”  Lathe of HeavenBack to the Future, Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, Life After Life.  These stories assume a parameterized world in which destiny is open-ended and events can be revisited and changed.

Both kinds of replay story are cognitively demanding,  asking us to simultaneously hold in our minds multiple points of view or possible variants of the same events. The digital medium makes it possible to make even more demanding versions by giving the creator procedural strategies for creating variation, and allowing the interactor  to navigate across events or between  points of view in multiple possible sequences, and to intervene in the story as an active character or hand of fate.  It is therefore  useful to look to these traditional examples to see how  story-telling techniques can be used to scaffold  comprehension of complex multi-variant story structures, so that the re-telling is an essential part of the overall experience. Here are six important strategies worth keeping in mind:

  • Dramatic compression:  The story does not include everything that happens in a particular timespan, only the most dramatically significant, character-expressive, thematically-relevant, and causally-connected moments. Every beat of the story reflects these overall design values and contributes to the development of the main story-arc.
  • High-stakes focus:  The story is centered on a potential act of  violence or romantic liaison or political outcome  that sets up clear expectations for what would be  a positive or negative outcome.
  • Differentiated characters — and not too many of them. It is clear whose point of view we are in and why it matters in POV stories; in multiple instantiation stories, the characters must be memorable so we can keep track of them across timelines.
  • Contrasting beats: The well-selected events, all connected in a causal way to a high-stakes focus of some kind, are carefully contrasted with one another.
  • Readable parallels: We are reminded of how the different plays of the same scenario are related to one another by parallel elements that remain constant and by variable elements that are readably, significantly different.
  • Shorthand communication: If we are viewing the same scenario multiple times then unchanging events should be recognizably compressed on subsequent views.

I will be refining these categories and offering elaborations and  examples of these strategies in subsequent posts. Comments, examples, counter-examples are welcome.

4 responses to “Six Key Design Strategies for Replay Stories

  1. Pingback: Narrative Design Example: Life After Life | Janet H. Murray's Blog on Inventing the Medium

  2. Pingback: Replay Story Structure: Life After Life (2) | Janet H. Murray's Blog on Inventing the Medium

  3. Pingback: Arrested Development as Multiple POV Replay Story | Janet H. Murray's Blog on Inventing the Medium

  4. Pingback: Arrested Development’s Major Meet-Ups | Janet H. Murray's Blog on Inventing the Medium

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