Interactive storytelling through distributed drama management via out-of-character reasoning for a serious game in the domain of law enforcement, that’s what I am working on. Let’s dissect this sentence by discussing the different concepts referred to therein. I’ll try to formulate it as clear and concise as I can; more detailed information can of course be found in my own publications and those of other researchers. A list of references is included at the bottom of this article.

First off, though, some background information on my situation. I am involved in the Interaction for Universal Access (IUA) project which is part of the Dutch national programme COMMIT and the focus of our work package is on the domain of law enforcement—specifically, on non-volatile street intervention by police officers.

The field of interactive storytelling tries to develop novel methods of surpassing the generally passive nature of storytelling—indeed, to enable some to have influence on how the story develops. As of now, most implementations of interactive—for example, in video games or game books—rely on simple branching narratives. These come into being when one is able to choose from a few options that influence how the story develops. A typical example of how such stories branch can be found here (a transcription of a gamebook in the Lone Wolf series, read it here). Such an approach to having an interactive story demands a lot of effort from the author, as he needs to keep all parallel stories in mind as well as trying to keep the events consistent with each other.

I would like to move away from such pre-constructed stories in which each road to be traversed is already defined beforehand. To do so, I opt for a strong autonomy approach (Linssen, 2012) that affects an emergent narrative (Aylett, 1999).  In interactive storytelling, strong autonomy systems focus on outfitting the characters in a storyworld with an understanding of that world so that can plan and take certain actions to fulfill certain goals. Conversely, there are also strong story approaches that have a directing entity that literally directs what happens in the storyworld. A strong autonomy approach may be said to let a narrative emerge when the characters’ actions taken together constitute a story.

Of course, taking together a collection of actions and events does not necessarily imply that the resulting story would actually be interesting. More abstractly speaking, it does not entail that it fulfills certain prerequisites, for instance having a climax or featuring any form of suspense that makes the story worth your while. This is where we step in. I say we, because I owe a lot of groundwork to Ivo Swartjes (Swartjes, 2010), who has worked on these ideas for story generation before me on the Virtual Storyteller (VST) architecture, whereas I now focus on interactive storytelling. See the video below for an explanation about the VST.

A short video, explaining how the Virtual Storyteller works.

The main idea of the approach I now take is that we can let the characters themselves guide the story by splitting their minds into a character and an actor part—we use the terms In-Character (IC) and Out-of-Character (OOC). This concept is taken from improvisational theatre, in which actors on a stage need to improvise by thinking OOC which actions their character should perform IC for a certain effect, for example, a comical outplay of a scene (see, for instance, Keith Johnstone’s work). Applying this idea to characters in an interactive storytelling system would affect a form of distributed drama management, as the different characters would direct their own actions distributedly, without the need for a central directing entity. Thus, these characters could reason OOC so that they can plan to let certain events come to pass.

In my research, I am working on ways to let characters reason OOC to affect a learning experience in someone playing a serious game—a game through which the player learns something by playing. For the law enforcement domain, I want to design a prototype for a serious game that enables police officers to improve their social awareness. That is, to let them have better insight into how their own behaviour influences that of other people they approach and address. This prototype will feature scenarios such as loitering juveniles disturbing the usual peace and quiet of a neighbourhood who have to be talked out of their behaviour by the police. For the interaction between the player and these characters to be natural and informative (educational), these characters should be both believable (IC) as well as able to have some (OOC) insight into what they should do so that the player becomes aware of his social behaviour. My preliminary ideas on techniques for doing so rely on two aspects. The first is that characters can switch personality OOC so that the conflict between the player and the characters escalates in a way that it becomes clear to the player that there is a definite cause-and-effect relation between how you act and how the other party reacts. I plan to base this idea on the concept of the interpersonal circumplex or Leary’s Rose (described in Gurtman (2009)). The second relies on giving the characters OOC insight into how the story develops and act thereon (see for instance Lethman and Mildorf on story arcs (2003, pp. 99–101)). For example, when the conflict escalates, it should reach a certain climax at some point in time. Then, the characters would have to plan OOC to actually affect this climax.

These are the main concepts and ideas behind my research thus far (September 2012); future advancements concerning my research will be posted as blog posts with the “progress” tag.


Aylett, R. (1999). Narrative in virtual environments – Towards emergent narrative. In Proceedings of the 1999 AAAI Fall Symposium on Narrative Intelligence (pp. 83–86), AAAI press, Menlo Park, CA.

Gurtman, M. B. (2009). Exploring Personality with the Interpersonal Circumplex. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(4), 601–619, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Hoboken, NJ.

Lethbridge, S., & Mildorf, J. (2003). Basics of English studies: An introductory course forstudents of literary studies in English. Freiburg im Breisgau: Freiburg University.

Linssen, J. M. (2012) A Discussion of Interactive Storytelling Techniques for Use in a Serious Game. Technical Report TR-CTIT-12-09, Centre for Telematics and Information Technology, University of Twente, Enschede.

Swartjes, I. M. T. (2010). Whose story is it anyway? How improv informs agency and authorship of emergent narrative. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Twente, Enschede.