If you’re involved in eLearning design, perhaps you’ve envisioned an “interactive narrative” – or “branching simulation.” Perhaps you’ve helped build one.
In learning design, interactive narratives place learners in simulated scenarios and give them freedom to operate. Learners don’t just click through a presentation; they make decisions and a narrative unfolds accordingly – with a beginning, middle and end.
It’s an engaging way to learn, and it’s fun to build.
And it’s easy to do. Most eLearning authoring tools – like Evolve, Storyline, Adapt, Lectora, Flow, Captivate, iSpring and even PowerPoint – offer a means to build interactive narratives.
Not So Easy, After All
Interactive narratives can become messy very quickly. The more freedom you give learners, the more complicated content creation becomes — not just to write and develop but to review and refine. Linear narratives are often chosen because they’re simpler to handle.
The difficult part about interactive narratives is combinatorics. Suppose you’re building a management simulation to teach emerging leaders. You set up a typical situation, then ask learners to decide between four choices (turn one). Each choice leads to an outcome (video, text, feedback or perhaps a combination) and a set of follow-up choices (turn two). Each of these choices lead to follow-up choices (turn three), and this repeats until you reach the end of the simulation.
- Turns, shown as ovals: Think of turns as screens containing a setup, question and a decision to make.
- Choices, shown as lines: Choices take the learner to another with a follow-up decision.
The first screen (left oval) offers four choices (lines). This is turn one. Each choice in turn one leads to a follow-up screen in turn two (shown as four ovals in the second column). These each offer four choices (shown as lines), leading to 16 screens in turn three (shown as 16 ovals in the third column).
Here’s where it gets ugly. You soon face sprawling content needs: 64 screens, 256 screens and so on.
Doing it the hard way with unique choices and follow-up screens, you’d need to build a 340-screen SCORM package to cover just four decisions. An eight-turn scenario is 65,000 screens, and a 20-turn scenario is an even more daunting undertaking.
You need to prune the tree, but arbitrarily reducing choices or shortening the number of turns diminishes learner joy and engagement.
Five Techniques for Pruning the Tree
Here are five ways to simplify content creation without sacrificing the richness that makes interactive narratives great. Each technique is applied to our management training example to illustrate its application within an interactive narrative.
Technique 1: Endings
A simple way to prune the tree is to add endings: If learners make a decision that takes them off course – intervene, give them instruction and have them start over.
A learner has freedom, but – if a hopeless action is chosen – the story plays out and feedback is offered. Then, the space resets, and a learner can try again. This eliminates the need to depict the scenario beyond those choices, reducing content work.
Let’s see how that works in our management simulation. The fourth choice is to do a radical reorganization, going well beyond what would be reasonable. The module plays out the consequences (massive confusion, decreased productivity, bad press, major griping), provides tutoring to explain why it was an unproductive choice and sends learners back to the start to try something else.
While this technique has advantages, it can be overused. Consider a design in which you offer one correct choice and restart for the others over multiple turns. Learners spend more time stopping, being redirected and restarting than working through the situation. This lessens engagement. As with pepper, a little goes a long way.
Technique 2: Nudges
A variation of the first technique is to use a coach, character or other narrative device to nudge learners back onto the right path when they stray, like a shepherd.
In our management situation, say a learner decides to make a radical change to their team that has substantial consequences. A senior manager character then pops up to provide feedback and suggest – or insist upon – a less drastic approach. Thus, the learner is compelled to reconsider without breaking the narrative.
Nudges are generally superior to endings, because the learner never has to leave the narrative and remains engaged.
Technique 3: Fast-forwards
Another way to create a manageable and interesting interactive narrative is to use “fast-forwards.” Fast-forwards allow learners to wander, but interventions teleport learners to future portions of the story where things are reset, and they can wander again anew.
In our management simulation, the learner starts by setting up a team, then a fast-forward sends learners one year into the future to handle a disruptive industry change. Another fast-forward then teleports learners another year forward to address a new cost-reduction mandate. This can be managed as a sequence of two- or three-turn segments. At the end of each segment, narration intervenes to fast-forward to the next segment.
Not only does this technique prevent the tree from becoming too bushy, but you can work on each segment independent of the others.
Technique 4: Networks Instead of Trees
Interactive narratives are commonly built as trees; each choice leads to a unique outcome (screen) with a unique set of follow-up choices. An alternative approach is to build networks, in which multiple choices lead to the same follow-up.
Instead of having 16 outcomes in turn two, there are only seven, more than halving content development down the network.
The secret is to build turns that are forward-looking and don’t depend on what has occurred beforehand to present the next decision.
For example, in our management simulation, a learner is asked to meet a new project requirement by making a decision:
- Increase staff.
- Cut back on the deliverable.
- Get an extension.
- Seek a change order.
Taking the first action increases cost but also capacity. Taking the second action reduces value to the customer but reduces risk. Taking any of the last three might anger the customer but cover costs. In our simulation, the latter three choices might lead to the same follow-up turn, requiring the learner to sell the customer on a change in the project or reappraisal of strategy.
As long as the content of the follow-up turn is written so it does not depend on the route learners took to it – the narrative is maintained, and only one follow-up turn needs to be crafted instead of three, resulting in huge savings in time and development
Technique 5: Transparent Outcomes
Another way to keep content development manageable is to use “transparent outcomes.” Add choices to give learners freedom, but that don’t change the state of the world, such as asking an off-the-wall question in a role-play. Then you can play out the outcome – for example, providing characters’ reactions and responses – and return the learner to the current turn to make another choice.
In our management simulation, the learner is faced with a decision to improve productivity and can choose one of four actions. The setup and choices are shown in the furthest left oval and four lines above.
Here are the learners’ choices:
- Restructure the team.
- Automate the process.
- Bring in new talent.
- Institute an employee reward system.
If they choose to institute an employee reward system, the outcome plays out with few employees enrolling and the program’s intended impact withering away. Then, we tell the learner they need to boost productivity and present the three remaining choices. That’s why the outcome is transparent; it seems to lead to another turn, but actually loops back. This saves work since nothing has to be further simulated beyond it.
Keep Building Them
By using and combining these techniques, you can produce an immersive and manageable interactive narrative in the authoring environments you’re most comfortable in. And hopefully that motivates you to create more of them, because they’re an excellent and engaging way to teach learners.