International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling

Interactive Storytelling pp 58-65 | Cite as

Adaptive Storyworlds

- Utilizing the Space-Time Continuum in Interactive Digital Storytelling
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9445)


One of the challenges of interactive digital storytelling systems is to support the users’ experience of being able to freely roam open sandbox-like storyworlds, while at the same time maintaining control over the distribution and order of events in the mediated narrative. However, although several investigations into how to address this challenge have been conducted, there seems to be a lack of focused research into the possibilities of using the concept of space-time continuum to organize the mediation of events. This paper will thus describe ideas, concepts and examples of how space-time may be used to organize events while maintaining narrative engagement, by introducing a suggestion for a framework, which exploits the possibilities of space-time.


Narrative Paradox Space-time Engagement Interactive digital storytelling Storyworld Emergent narratives Environmental storytelling 

1 Introduction

The design and development of storyworlds for Interactive Digital Storytelling systems (IDS) present many challenges due to the fact that stories conventionally are authored and experienced as linear chronological structures while interactivity gives users the agency and possibilities to perform various actions in a non-linear and unpredictable fashion. One of these well-known challenges is the Narrative Paradox [1], which occurs in more complex IDS systems. The Narrative Paradox can also be used to describe the problem of implementing an application with an open sandbox-like 3D storyworld, where the user may navigate “freely”, while the application at the same time aims to maintain control over the order of events and mediate the story.

Numerous studies have attempted to solve such problems, for example by manipulating users [2], to use emergent narratives [e.g. 3], or simply by letting users enjoy a pre-scripted story, instead of influencing it [4]. Another approach for addressing the challenges of open storyworlds is to focus on creating narrative architecture and to use the concept of environmental storytelling introduced by Jenkins [5]. Environmental storytelling revolves around four types of narratives:
  • Evoked narratives (in which an existing narrative is enhanced through details in the design of the space)

  • Enacted narratives (in which the narrative is character-driven)

  • Embedded narratives (in which the world is a “memory palace” where the objects and the mise-en-scène reveal clues which may help players reconstruct the plot)

  • Emergent narratives (in which players may construct personal stories inspired by encountered events in a storyworld).

In Jenkins’ interpretation, “Emergent narratives are not pre-structured or pre-programmed, taking shape through the game play, yet they are not as unstructured, chaotic, and frustrating as life itself” [5, p. 128]. And further, on the construction of these types of narratives, Jenkins notes that: “game spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.” [5, p. 129]. The current study uses Jenkins’ understanding of an emergent narrative which may be described as a story which is not told, but instead constructed individually by the user and emerging from the interaction between user, the virtual environment and encounter with characters [5]. Several projects have experimented with the development of such interactive experiences e.g. “Dear Esther” [6], “Aporia” [7], and “First Person Victim” [8] and have demonstrated that there is potential in the emergent narrative approach.

Although several studies also investigated the temporal and spatial aspects in game narratives [e.g. 9], film [e.g. 10] and video [e.g. 11], there seems to be less detailed research into how the concept of space-time may be used as a parameter to manage events in interactive storyworlds while maintaining engagement and the desire to continue the experience.

This paper focuses on the potential of utilizing the fourth dimension – time – in addition to the first three dimensions of space in order to inspire the design of alternative interactive emergent narrative experiences, which are not merely founded on chronology or on cause and effect. This study will thus introduce a framework – the Space-Time Interactive Narrative Framework (SPATIN) – and the Space-Time Drama Manager (STDM), which exploit the potential of the space-time continuum within interactive digital storytelling. The framework is intended to inspire the creation of novel interactive experiences, which may be based on users’ individual construction of associative narratives and/or chronology and causality.

2 The Storyworld Challenges: Events in Space and Time

In the current study, a “storyworld” is understood to be an interactive digital storytelling (IDS) experience, in an open sandbox-like virtual world, which mediates a sequence of events, in a temporal order so that the participant is able to navigate freely and to experience the events while constructing a meaningful narrative experience. The current use of the space-time continuum focuses only on simple navigation as an admittedly limited interaction, where users may witness events, and is thus not concerned with more complex interactions, which will be addressed in future work. In order to maintain engagement, the motivational driver in these kinds of experiences is the exploration of the world, experiencing the story and the experimentation with outcomes of the story based on navigation [12].

In order to explain the challenges of designing such storyworlds, imagine that we have designed a storyworld with several events, which may be discovered by simple navigation. However, in order to keep the user on track in the story, most interactive narrative experiences and games with narrative content use fixed structures, which lock events to a certain location, in order to ensure that the users experience events in the right order. In other words: the so-called “interactive” narratives are actually nothing more than a sequence of events “on rails”, which are not influenced by the user’s interactions. The problems with free roaming storyworlds, which lock events to locations, may thus be described as:
  • Wrong order - The user may not encounter the events in the right order.

  • Bad timing - The user may not encounter an event at a specific time when the event is active.

  • Lost events - The user may not encounter a specific event that is needed to understand the story.

To illustrate these problems, Fig. 1a shows a free roaming world, where a user chooses a “wrong” path and encounters events (a) in the wrong order, (b) is at the right location, but at the wrong time and (c) is not encountering all of the events (1–4), because he or she does not follow the “right” path.
Fig. 1.

(a) Problems in free roaming storyworlds, where events are locked to locations. (b) The space-time continuum with events locked to locations.

In order to address these challenges, the following concept proposes a way for the space-time continuum to be used for organizing events in space and time.

3 Interactive Stories in the Space-Time Continuum

The Space-Time Continuum is a model based on mathematics, which combines space (x, y, z) and time (t) into space-time world coordinates (x, y, z, t) [13]. One method of visualizing an interactive narrative as a space-time continuum is to imagine a three dimensional box, which represents space. In the box there is a number of points in space (x, y, z), which represent locations that the user may visit (e.g. an underwater world). However, if we add the fourth dimension – time (t) – we may imagine strings passing through all the (x, y, z) points. These strings represent time, and located on the strings are pearls of “event capsules”. Event capsules represent the events which users may encounter at that specific location at a specific time. For each location, the string with the events capsules may then move back or forth (in time), depending on which event is needed at that location at that time. Figure 1b illustrates this principle.

The principle is similar to the commonly used problematic method of organizing events in a spatial fashion where events are locked at a location. However, imagine if we discard the idea of locking events to a location, and use time in such a way that users may encounter events whenever they are “needed” regardless of the location.

Such events obviously need to be independent of the location, but with such a structure, it is possible to place events at locations at the “right time”, when the user is exploring that exact area of the storyworld. Figure 2a illustrates a scenario, where the events are not locked at locations, but in time (the user’s path is marked by a line, while the dotted line represents the string of time with sequential events). The event capsules are attached to the string of time like a sequence of pearls. The string can bend and stretch and thus be placed on the trajectory of the user’s navigation. In this way the user will always encounter the events based on a sequential order or an order of dramatic intensity, as planned by the author, no matter how the user is exploring the storyworld. An extreme version of such storyworlds could “build” the world in front of the user on the fly by moving location-dependent events ahead of the projected path of the user, so that he/she may encounter them when needed. However, by following this approach there might be a risk that the user will encounter the events in the same order during a re-play of the experience and that the variability, emergence and influence of the narrative is lost. This method can therefore be combined with the organization of events so that their occurrence at specific locations are made conditional on which previous events the user has already encountered at other locations. With such an approach events can still be location-specific and thus support a meaningful construction of the emergent narrative.
Fig. 2.

(a) The space-time continuum with events locked in time. (b) The space-time continuum with events that are not locked to locations or time.

Another example of how the space-time continuum may be used for organizing events is when there is a need for events that are not encountered in a chronological order (e.g. an abstract dream world).

Figure 2b illustrates a scenario, where the events are not bound by locations or time, but where the intersections in the grid represent event-capsules that can be moved to accommodate the user’s desire to experience a specific event at any location (the user’s path is marked by an arrow, while the intersections of the grid represent event capsules). This could for example be when the user did not encounter anything interesting for a while, and a dramatic event is needed.

Figure 3a shows another user in a free roaming world, who is following the same path as the first user (from Fig. 1a). However, this time he or she is encountering all events in the right order, because the events are not locked to spatial locations but in sequential order. These are some examples of how the space-time continuum may be used for addressing some of the problems associated with Fig. 1a.
Fig. 3.

(a) A user in a free roaming world, following the same path as in Fig. 1 encountering all events in the right order. (b) Organizing events with the Space Time Drama Manager.

4 The Space-Time Interactive Narrative Framework

Below, we will introduce the Space-Time Interactive Narrative framework (SPATIN), which describes how the concept of space-time may be used for organizing events in an open storyworld. The framework consists of event capsules, which describe the type and assets of each event, a temporal order, which explains the sequence of events, a Space-Time Drama Manager (STDM), which organizes the events, and finally the interaction manager, which controls the possible interactions. The framework may be useful for designing and developing novel IDS experiences.

4.1 Event Capsules

Event capsules are placeholders for the possible events that a user might encounter and describe the assets needed to create those specific events. There are various types of events, for example encounters with other entities, nature effects or immediate effects events caused by the user. Events may be positioned in any space-time storyworld according to four different categories:
  • Events that are not locked in time and space – e.g. random events which may occur anytime and anywhere.

  • Events that are locked in time but not in space – e.g. specific events which may occur anywhere, but only at a certain time. For example a lightning bolt strike.

  • Events that are locked in space but not in time – e.g. a character, who always approaches the user at a certain location.

  • Events that are locked in both time and space – e.g. an event which takes place at a certain place and at a certain time. For example a volcanic eruption.

These positions describe the possibilities of how the events may be placed in relation to a user’s position in the space-time storyworld.

4.2 Temporal Order of Events – the Space-Time Drama Manager

As mentioned above, events are not necessarily locked in space or time. Events thus have the possibility to be placed in space, depending on when the user “needs” them (in time). The SPDM does therefore not only operate with “Box-colliders” where the 3D engine checks if the user is within a certain location in the storyworld, but also with “Time-colliders”, which keeps track of the temporal aspects of the experience.

This way it is possible for the STDM to orchestrate events and keep track of upcoming events to be placed in the world in front of the current trajectory of the user. If the user suddenly decides to change direction, the event can be moved to a new location in front of the user (e.g. hidden beyond a hill). These location shifts may be repeated until the user encounters the event, or the location may be generated in 3D space ahead of the user’s path. Events may be planned by the author and experienced by the user in a variety of temporal orders:
  • Chronological – as in a linear story. Events are encountered as a sequence one by one. The user may experience this as participating in a film, where the order of events is fixed.

  • Causal – as in a cause-effect sequence of events. As an example, the user may experience the effect of an earlier event before experiencing the cause (e.g. a murder mystery revealed by a detective in an embedded narrative). Or vice-versa, where the event that caused the effect is encountered before experiencing the effect (e.g. witnessing a flood submerging a village).

  • Associative – lyric structures, e.g. as in a dream. Events may be encountered based on associative relations between events. For example, the user may experience an event with a black cat, and the next possible events may include an event including darkness or tigers.

  • Thematic – as in an episodic film. Here events have no immediate relation and order, however they all support the communication of a theme.

  • Random – as in a chaotic world. Users may encounter events, which seemingly lack logical order. However through the user’s own personal construction of the story, an emergent narrative may be experienced.

  • Synchronous – as in a world where all events are happening in sync with the users’ actions (e.g. a snowboarding experience which trigger an avalanche).

  • A-synchronous – as when events are happening out of sync with the users’ actions (e.g. a delayed effect such as a wildfire caused on the user forgetting to extinguish a bonfire).

The creator of a storyworld may thus design experiences by deciding on the order of events, and he or she can prioritize some events over others based on the various strategies mentioned above or in combination thereof.

4.3 Organization of Events

During run-time, the STDM uses a stack to keep track of which events have been encountered, and which events are the next possible ones to be placed in the space of the storyworld for the user to experience (see Fig. 3b where the STDM keeps track of events in a stack and distributes them in the world at the place and time required for the user to encounter them). In a simple storyworld, there is only one stack of events, which for example may orchestrate events that mediate a linear story. In more complicated storyworlds, there might be a need for more stacks to organize sub-stories or themes.

4.4 Interaction with Events

There are several ways to interact with the space-time storyworld. The navigation in the storyworld is essential as it moves the position of the user around in the space-time continuum. When events are encountered, a variety of interaction options may be possible, and it is up to the storyworld designer to decide how complex these interactions should be. Interactions may thus be anything from a Façade-like dialogue to simply watching events unfold.

The experiences in the space-time storyworld could also be enhanced by taking into account the different ways to interactively navigate in time, such as stopping completely, moving slowly or fast, or to jump forward or backward in time.

5 Discussion and Conclusion

In this paper, we have introduced the Space-Time Interactive Narrative Framework (SPATIN), which utilizes the space-time continuum in order to create novel interactive digital storytelling experiences. In such experiences, the events encountered by free roaming users in interactive 3D storyworlds are not necessarily fixed at certain locations, but may be shifted in their spatial and temporal position by the Space-Time Drama Manager (STDM). The STDM organizes events based on the current “need” of the user to experience a certain event, and not only on where the user is positioned in space.

However, a framework and a suggested system is not enough to guarantee an engaging experience. A question for future work is thus how to organize events in space-time, so that the users’ engagement is sustained. The next step in the current project is thus to look into some essential drivers of users’ engagement within 3D storyworlds such as: exploration, sensing the world, experiencing the narrative and entities, experimentation with outcomes, progression, completion and finally affect and feelings (e.g. curiosity, tenacity, suspense, surprise, an immersion) [12].

Since interactive space-time based 3D storyworlds have the possibility to go beyond causal and chronologically ordered narratives, future work may also draw on the studies by Oatley [14], who states that our minds are the optimal narrative engines, which only need to be fed with a few events to start constructing emergent narratives. Therefore we will conclude by proposing that interactive digital storytellers may begin to think of themselves as space-time architects. Such storytellers will be able to construct rich engaging interactive storyworld experiences based on the space-time continuum. These experiences will not only be encountered in fixed causal chronological spaces, but also in free roaming open worlds, which exploit time to mediate events, so that encounters with these events will be different for every play-through.

This way, space-time architects may exploit the possibilities of the space-time continuum to engage users by constantly nudging them to ask themselves “What’s around the next corner?”.


  1. 1.
    Aylett, R.: Narrative in virtual environments – towards emergent narrative. In: Aylett, R. (ed.) AAAI Symposium on Narrative Intelligence, pp. 83–86. AAAI Press, Salford (1999)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Roberts, D.L., Isbell, C., Riedl, M.O., Bogost, I., Furst, M.L.: On the use of computational models of influence for managing interactive virtual experiences. In: Spierling, U., Szilas, N. (eds.) ICIDS 2008. LNCS, vol. 5334, pp. 268–272. Springer, Heidelberg (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Louchart, S., Swartjes, I., Kriegel, M., Aylett, R.S.: Purposeful authoring for emergent narrative. In: Spierling, U., Szilas, N. (eds.) ICIDS 2008. LNCS, vol. 5334, pp. 273–284. Springer, Heidelberg (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Tanenbaum, J.: Being in the story: readerly pleasure, acting theory, and performing a role. In: Si, M., Thue, D., André, E., Lester, J., Tanenbaum, J., Zammitto, V. (eds.) ICIDS 2011. LNCS, vol. 7069, pp. 55–66. Springer, Heidelberg (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Jenkins, H.: Game design as narrative architecture. In: Wardrip-Fruin, N., Harrigan, P. (eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, pp 118–130. MIT Press, Cambridge (2004)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Pinchbeck, D.: Dear Esther: an interactive ghost story built using the source engine. In: Spierling, U., Szilas, N. (eds.) ICIDS 2008. LNCS, vol. 5334, pp. 51–54. Springer, Heidelberg (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bevensee, S.H., Dahlsgaard Boisen, K.A., Olsen, M.P., Schoenau-Fog, H., Bruni, L.E.: Project aporia – an exploration of narrative understanding of environmental storytelling in an open world scenario. In: Oyarzun, D., Peinado, F., Young, R., Elizalde, A., Méndez, G. (eds.) ICIDS 2012. LNCS, vol. 7648, pp. 96–101. Springer, Heidelberg (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Schoenau-Fog, H., Bruni, L.E., Khalil, F.F., Faizi, J.: Authoring for engagement in plot-based interactive dramatic experiences for learning. In: Pan, Z., Cheok, A.D., Müller, W., Iurgel, I., Petta, P., Urban, B. (eds.) Transactions on Edutainment X. LNCS, vol. 7775, pp. 1–19. Springer, Heidelberg (2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Wei, H., Bizzocchi, J., Calvert, T.: Time and space in digital game storytelling. Int. J. Comput. Games Technol. 8 (2010)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Branigan, E.: Narrative Comprehension and Film. Routledge, London (2013)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Sawhney, N., Balcom, D., Smith, I.: Authoring and navigating video in space and time. IEEE Multimedia 4, 30–39 (1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Schoenau-Fog, H.: Hooked! – evaluating engagement as continuation desire in interactive narratives. In: Si, M., Thue, D., André, E., Lester, J., Tanenbaum, J., Zammitto, V. (eds.) ICIDS 2011. LNCS, vol. 7069, pp. 219–230. Springer, Heidelberg (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Minkowski, H., Sommerfeld, A.: Raum und Eeit. Vieweg + Teubner Verlag, Wiesbaden (1923)Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Oatley, K.: Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Wiley, Chichester (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Center for Applied Game Research, Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, Section of MedialogyAalborg UniversityCopenhagenDenmark

Personalised recommendations