Suppose I would like to create a text adventure game, but my imagination is not sufficient for creating a whole game. But there are fiction books (in the public domain) that are very imaginative and could potentially make a great game. The main problem is that, a standard fiction book is sequential, while in a game there are many branches. Even if I have, say, only 10 branches, I still have to write 9 of these on my own.

Is there a process that can make this easier? A structured procedure by which I can work, that can help me convert a novel to a text adventure, with minimal need to use my "rusty" imagination?

I looked around the web and found some links that apparently discuss this topic, but with few details:

  • Five tips for turning a book into an interactive game - mainly discusses what should be in a book in order to be able to make a game out of it, namely: scalability, strong characters, first-person narrative, and genre. But, it does not speak about the conversion process itself.
  • What the heck is interactive fiction? - a subsection titled "Converting Fiction to IF" gives some hints: pick a shorter story, think about the choices your character makes, think how to display text on the page, think outside the page. Again, few details about the process itself are given.

EDIT: thanks a lot to all the repliers for the wonderful ideas and the warm welcome!

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    @ErelSegal-Halevi You mention in your question the problem you experience is branching a story and creating paths that are (from what I understand) not described in a book/story. That means someone needs to do creative work and come up with new branches. If you don't want to do that, maybe making a game like that is not the ideal project to work on.
    – TomTsagk
    Jul 31 '19 at 14:46
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    Welcome to Writing.SE Erel, glad you found us (even if it was through migration). Please check out our tour and help center. It's nice to see a question on a topic we don't get very often, though there have been a few. You might want to consider collaboration. Find someone who is great at creating and using branches but who isn't great in some part of the development that is your strength. Jul 31 '19 at 16:34
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    @Cyn That's a fair point, but consider Galastel's answer; that is most definitely not an answer to "please tell me about resources useful for converting a linear narrative into a branching narrative", but it does look like an answer to at the very least "please tell me how I can create a branching narrative". Just because an OP is pointing at external resources that have been unhelpful to them, and explaining why those are unhelpful, doesn't mean that they are asking for resources, or even for help in interpreting external resources. This probably belongs on Writing Meta rather than comments.
    – user
    Jul 31 '19 at 16:48
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    Branching might be a red herring here. A lot of IF is focused on more on puzzles and progression, not as much on branching. Thinking about how MC solved problems in the story and letting player work out those solutions, or similar ones, could do the trick. Game can still feel non-linear; player can explore areas as they like, and solve some challenges in an arbitrary order. But overall the progression can be linear. You solve all the sub-challenges, opening up a final challenge, and finally progress to the next "chapter." Jul 31 '19 at 16:58
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    @aCVn Okay, I removed the tag. I can see how this could go either way. I wouldn't want the presence of the tag to discourage people from writing answers like Galastel did, that aren't about pointing to resources, as you say. Jul 31 '19 at 16:58

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Suppose we want to convert Alice in Wonderland to an interactive format. Which actors, items, and locations play an important role? What does a map of the world look like? What challenges did the protagonist overcome?

  • Player (Alice) begins the game at the Riverbank. Rabbit enters the scene.

  • Rabbit leaves the area, heading toward the Field. Player is supposed to follow Rabbit (but can do whatever they like).

  • When Player and Rabbit are both in the Field, Rabbit exposes a Hole under a hedge, previously undiscovered. Player now sees that they can enter Hole.

  • Player enters Hole, scores some points, falls down shaft (point of no return). Rabbit is here; he heads off to Tunnels; player can follow Rabbit through Tunnels to Hall.

That was a good warmup for the player. Now, you've got a chance to take some liberties and make things more interesting:

There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.

Instead of a strict interpretation of the original story here, this looks like a great chance for a hub. Rather than being locked, some of the doors could open onto locations from other parts in the story. Maybe the cake that causes you to grow isn't here, and instead you need to visit the caterpillar first.

Advice from a Caterpillar

Okay, I'm not a caterpillar. But here's some advice anyway, in no particular order.

Map out every location in the game, and decide which areas are locked until some task is complete. If there are some "points of no return," those could be good places to break between chapters. Make sure that the game can't be in an "unwinnable" state at the beginning of each chapter. Your chapters (and timeline) don't need to follow the flow of the original story. Let the player work on several tasks simultaneously, within each chapter.

Let the story tell itself incrementally, through the player's actions. Let the player discover things by examining other things. Let them get stuck sometimes, and let them get "killed" (maybe Alice is rudely awoken and it was all a dream).

Alice's Evidence

After our linear intro and a non-linear hub or two, we arrive at the final trial. Here's your chance to put multiple (non-death) endings into play. All of the extra side-quests, secrets that you discovered, and out-of-the-box, non-canonical solutions to problems you figured out determine the jury's final verdict, and the game ends in victory.

"But wait, what about branching?"

I don't think we needed it. Our focus was on puzzles and progression. The bulk of the game still had a non-linear feel, even though it had a clearly-defined beginning and end. The player was allowed to explore the game world as they liked, for the most part, and interact with it through trial and error.

True branching story lines are pretty rare; there's usually basically one overall plot line, where you may get to do things in a different order, or make some choices that affect later parts of the story (good choices could unlock secrets, bad choices could make side-quests unavailable). If your goal is to make an enjoyable game without inventing an entire fictional universe, I think this approach will do the trick.

  • 2
    Welcome to Writing.SE, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center and consider picking a name for yourself. I found your answer very strong and also it made me question what I knew about branching narratives (which isn't much). I assumed that what you described would qualify, but you're talking about something else. More to learn! Jul 31 '19 at 21:44
  • @Cyn I guess this could qualify as a kind of branching narrative, esp. if used in something like a CYOA format. But I think this so standard for traditional IF / text adventures that it wouldn't be called anything in particular in that context. Talking about branching narratives in the context of IF suggests doing something outside the norm, to me. I suspect this is what SE likes to call an "XY problem" -- the "real" question is "how do I deal with non-linearity," with the assumption that we need to deal with it through branching narratives. Aug 1 '19 at 18:09
  • And...you lost me :-) Aug 1 '19 at 18:17

Creating a branch is the easy part

To create a branch, as you read the book take note of every choice the character makes. Map those out - what that choice leads to, what does that in turn lead to, and so on.

Then, consider what could happen if the character chose instead to do something else instead. What happens then?

Some of those alternative choices necessarily lead to a dead end. For example, if Frodo chooses not to take the Ring from Rivendell to Mordor, there's no story. So that's a choice you don't offer the player.

Other choices offer possibilities. Frodo chooses to try to go over Caradhras rather than through Moria, maybe he has a different adventure there, with different consequences. What would that adventure and those consequences be? That's for you to decide. That's where your creating work must come in.

The hard part is getting all branches to collapse back on themselves

You don't want to be creating ten different games depending on ten different choices you offer your player. You want choices to offer some variations, but ultimately you want the story to stay more or less on the same track. For the most part, all choices should lead to the same environments and the same boss fights.

The trouble with books is that very often, in order for the character to arrive at the ending, they had to pick a specific choice at each branching point. Which is not what you want.

Therefore, right from the start, you need to mark for yourself the points in the story that are non-negotiable. Continuing with the Lord of the Rings example, perhaps the destruction of the Ring is non-negotiable, but Frodo's survival, other companions' survival, the survival of locations like Minas Tirith - those would depend on players' choices. Then, whatever choices you allow the players to make, you have to guide the results of those choices in such a way that they still lead to the non-negotiable parts, perhaps by way of the negotiable ones.

An important note: if only a very specific progression of choices leads to the optimal end, while all other paths lead to extremely non-optimal ones, players will not like you. That trope is called Guide Dang You!. (The trope also encompasses other situations when you absolutely need a guide to the game.) It follows that more than one path should lead to optimal results.

However, it's possible for more than one ending to be optimal. For example, maybe Boromir ruling Gondor isn't a worse option than Aragorn ruling Gondor.

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    "if Frodo chooses not to take the Ring…there's no story. So that's a choice you don't offer the player." Well, you still could offer it. In games there's precedent for giving short/dead-end branches, if the player feels like enjoying the crab rangoon... There's a school of thought that says the choices we make in games only hold meaning to the extent that we could have chosen otherwise. Frodo's choice to take the ring gains weight because he had the option not to. So, there can still be narrative function in "non-story" choices.
    – DMGregory
    Aug 1 '19 at 4:45

Think of it as a braided river rather than a branching tree

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Imagine a braided river channel. You can put a rubber duck in at a single point and follow its progress down the river. It has many different possible paths, but it is not locked into a unique path by one early decision. Reliably at many points those paths converge. As it approaches its destination it may have a delta with a few different branches, and only then does its final path to the end of the river become fixed.

Pick-your-path narratives benefit from having a similar structure. Your protagonist starts at a particular scenario and is offered a few decisions, and they come out at one of several possible endings, but along the way they can get to specific scenes from a variety of previous paths. You do not have to write 3^15 different stories, where at every decision you create new paths and scenarios, because you can write decision-making options at several different scenes that feed into a single new scene.

Since you're adapting a linear story, I would suggest doing the following:

  1. Decide what the starting point is.
  2. Consider how you want to handle the novel's ending. (More below.)
  3. Identify any scenes or events in the book you absolutely want your protagonist to experience. These can include character- and world-building moments as well as those that serve the plot. (These will be confluence points for all possible narratives. The fewer you have, the more your paths can diverge from that in the book.)
  4. Map these out in a visual diagram or flow chart. (You don't necessarily have to decide what all of the endings are yet, but include all the ideas you have now.)

Now you can fill in the gaps with as many meandering and braided shorter paths as you'd like. To make the most of the source material, I would suggest trying the following:

  1. Identify any scenes or events in the book you would like your protagonist to experience that are not absolutely essential to reaching the points identified in #3. See if you can create or identify various smaller, independent sequences of scenes from these connected by 1, 2 or 3 decisions made in the book. They can overlap. Map these out separately from your core chart, and include the decisions that connect them. (I.e., begin to make small braids that can serve as building blocks.)
  2. Identify all of the illustrative interlude scenes that serve character- or world building but don't involve decisions that affect the plot. Hang onto these.

Now you can start creating your own content:

  1. Go back to #5. For each of the decisions you identified, create 1-3 alternative choices the protagonist could make. Can these lead to other scenes that already exist? If yes, great! Keep them. If not, try to create new scenes with decisions to make that can lead back into existing scenes, especially the ones identified in #3.
  2. Start putting these smaller braids into the core map in the most obvious locations. Connect them to the confluence points with new decisions. Remember that because this is choose your own adventure, these aren't locked into a chronological order. For example, even if most choices leading to the braid happen before a specific confluence point, other paths can conceivably go through these from after reaching that confluence point (see #3). You can prevent loops with conditional choices, e.g. if the protagonist has already met a troll at a confluence point, there is a fallen tree blocking the one path that would lead back to the confluence point with the troll. Make sure that none of the paths skip the essential confluence points.
  3. Hammer out your endings, and make decision chains that bring in existing braids or entirely new braids that get the protagonist from the final confluence point to each ending.
  4. If there are any loose ends (decisions that don't lead to an existing scene), you can start filling those in with original content. Go back to the scenes identified in #6 for inspiration-- see if you can include these in the path and create related decisions or actions that can can lead to one or more existing scenes. (Again, make sure that none of the paths skip the essential confluence points.) If some just don't work, prune them.
  5. If you have any leftovers from #6 that you still want to use, you can work these into existing scenes or make them brief interludes without decisions to make.

Determining your endings

You'll want to decide from the beginning roughly how many ending options you want. This may hinge on the way the novel is structured and the sort of conclusion it reaches. Some possible structures:

  • Does your protagonist have a single literal or conceptual destination to reach by the end of the book? (e.g., Mario adventures)
  • Does your protagonist have a goal at which they and their allies can either only succeed or fail? (e.g., saving the planet, restoring the Republic)
  • Is this a mystery story wherein several possible solutions are suggested or implied before a final reveal? (e.g., whodunit)
  • Is the conclusion less important than the journey? (e.g., speculative fiction, Catcher in the Rye)

Once you've thought about those you can identify which of the following sets of conclusions you want:

  • A finish line; your protagonist either reaches it or dies along the way, only to start over/back up and choose a more successful path. (e.g., Mario adventures.)
  • A binary outcome of success or failure of an ultimate goal. There could be two outcomes, or there could be multiple, not terribly significant variations of success or of failure, perhaps plus one divergence from this. (e.g., the villain is defeated in one of three ways, only one of which is canon for the source novel, or the world is destroyed by a nuclear war before the pandemic can wipe everyone out.)
  • Many possible, unrelated endings. (e.g., different characters could be the perpetrator of the crime, or your character can have happy/sad endings with different final destinations, careers, partners, powers or ignominious failures in life.)

I hope this sets you on the right path, but there are probably many ways to get to your destination. ;)

(Disclaimer: I've never attempted to write material in this format, so this answer is all thought exercise rather than practical experience.)

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