For many years, Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game systems design, and emergent storytelling. He is an author, game designer, producer, storyteller and partner at the narrative design consultancy and game developer Silverstring Media.

Trying to enforce a narrative on an otherwise emergent story can have unintended consequences Click To Tweet

Let’s talk sports. In 2002, the English football club in Wimbledon was purchased and moved to Milton Keynes. The local supporters felt betrayed by having their club taken away, and so founded a new local team, AFC Wimbledon. This team would not be owned by one person capable of taking it away again; instead, it would be jointly owned by its fans. You too can be a part-owner of AFC Wimbledon.

Unlike North American sports leagues, teams can move up and down through the leagues of English football: just because you are a top-tier team this year doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, and just because you’re amateur now doesn’t mean your team can’t become professional. There are nine leagues of football, and the top teams from each year move up to the next league, while the bottom ones are relegated.

So while AFC Wimbledon was forced to start in the 9th league of football, over the past decade they have managed the stunning feat of being promoted five times. As of 2011, they compete in League Two, the fourth tier, and the lowest tier of professional football, marking a huge success for the new team. Being in the professional leagues also means that AFC Wimbledon appears in the FIFA videogame.

AFC Wimbly Womblies

For a couple of years, famed YA author and vlogger John Green hosted a series of Let’s Play videos of him playing FIFA Soccer with a fictional team called the Swindon Town Swoodlypoopers. Last year, he left that team to instead play as a fictional version of AFC Wimbledon, which he calls the AFC Wimbly Womblies.

From his early vlogging days in 2007, Green has had a very close relationship with his audience. “Nerdfighteria” — his fandom — has a history of actively participating in multiple projects such as the charity event Project for Awesome. Most of Green’s work has an interdependence with his audience; he relies on their passion and direction as much as they rely on him.

It’s in part because of this relationship that Green was inspired by the story of AFC Wimbledon and their legacy of being owned by their fans, and decided that rather than simply make money from YouTube ad revenue on his videos, he would instead donate all proceeds from his FIFA videos to the actual AFC Wimbledon team, making himself, and in a way, every single viewer of those videos, a part-owner and supporter of the club. Today, the club’s stadium even has posters and banners designed by Nerdfighteria, and the fandom’s slogan, “DFTBA,” (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”) appears on the players’ shorts. DFTBA is an important ethos for Green and Nerdfighteria; it’s a commitment to empathy, to fighting to decrease “worldsuck,” to viewing others complexly and engaging in intelligent, thoughtful discussion. The comments sections of YouTube videos are normally notorious for bile and trolling, but for years Green’s were full of meaningful conversation.

What makes Green's FIFA videos more than just playthroughs is the stories he tells about the team. Click To Tweet

As he plays the game and talks over it (with the occasional interruption of “ohgodohgodohgod everything worked out better than expected”) Green gives distinct personalities, backgrounds, and stories to each of his players. He refers to himself as the manager of the team, and references the talks he gave to the players between games. Some of the players are completely fictional, such as his lead strikers, Bald John Green and Other John Green (a married gay couple, “teammates in life and in love”). Many were originally real football players (from FIFA‘s roster) that Green turned into fictional identities.

Each has a nickname based on their actual name (George Francomb becomes “Francombstein”), each has a song sung when they score (“Bald John Green, John Green, he gives it all for the team, upon his mustache we’re keen, Bald John Green”), but most also have carefully detailed backgrounds. When Green brought two new strikers in (Deeney, (“Who? Deeney,”) and Dicko (which constantly leads to “context is everything” jokes)) he took the time over a couple of videos to explain what kinds of people these were. Deeney is an all-night partier, drinker, and has many sexual partners; Dicko is a family man with a college education, a wife, and kids. Seemingly polar opposites come together to form a great striker team.

These stories are constantly developing over the course of Green’s FIFA career. Things that happen in the course of a game help contribute to these character legacies, and ultimately the overarching story of the team. For instance, when Deeney failed to score a number of times over the course of a few games, Green blamed it on him being hungover, and that they were going to have a serious talk about Deeney’s future on the team. In a culminating match a little while later, Deeney scored a much-needed and improbable goal, though, and Green decided to keep him on for now.

The Johns Green, getting older now and starting to think about retirement, recently adopted a baby from Ethiopia (JJ, or “John John Green”); the process, however, took them out of the game for a couple weeks as they went to Ethiopia, leaving Deeney and Dicko to lead the team in their absence.

The old AFC keeper, Seb Brown, who Green constantly reminds viewers is the reason AFC even appears in FIFA ’14 for having saved two penalties against Luton Town to send them into League Two, furthered his legend with the Wimbly Womblies when he again saved two penalties in the final of the FA Cup to win them their first. And so the story grows as Green continues to play; some of the “lore” is purely constructed by Green (such as character backgrounds) but much of it arises as an emergent narrative, stories created by Green in response to what actually takes place in the game, leading to emergent personalities, legacies, in-jokes, and the arc of the team. So much so that the AFC Wimbly Womblies even have fanfiction.

It started to feel like the Wimbly Womblies had their own lives outside of Green's narration. Click To Tweet

He is the manager and directs the team, but to the audience, the players have lives beyond that. It doesn’t even feel like Green is directly controlling them in the game.

The Controversy

At the end of the in-game season last June, when the Wimbly Womblies were poised to move from League One up to the Championship League, John Green made a controversial decision. At the time, the team was in the top two teams of the league, which would mean automatic promotion; those teams in the 3rd to 6th place spots would have to go through a final tournament to see which additional team would advance.

Also in League One was the Milton Keynes team — the club that had “stolen” the original Wimbledon team away — who had been made into a major rival to the Wimbly Womblies out of a sense of justice. Nearing the end of the season, while AFC was set to advance automatically, Milton Keynes was close behind; they might also advance if they did well in the tournament.

Green decided then to try to create some narrative tension. He wanted to make sure MK didn’t advance to the Championship League as well, so that AFC wouldn’t have to face them ever again. The only way to do that would be to make sure they lost in the final tournament, by beating them personally. And so Green started purposefully throwing games by scoring own goals to drop AFC’s rank such that they would also have to play in the tournament and could beat MK in order to advance.

It’s important to note here that Green records several games at a time and then posts them on YouTube over the course of a couple weeks. So when he made this decision, he ended up playing several games with this strategy long before any of his audience could respond. But when the first video went up, respond they did.


Green had made some controversial decisions before, when he played as Swindon Town — decisions that hadn’t worked out very well. The audience was concerned, among other things, that this decision would end calamitously: what if he lost? All of the work of the season would be for nought, and their rival team would advance.

It almost seemed as though many in the audience didn’t feel like MK was much of a rival. They cared more about AFC and its players, and their lives. Other audience members noted that throwing games in real life is completely against the rules of the league, and AFC would have gotten thrown out. What Green was doing was decidedly Not Awesome.

What made it perhaps worse, though, was that Green put the idea in the mouths of the players: he explained that the fictional characters had come up with the plan as a way to prevent MK from advancing. This made the whole thing feel even less Awesome: Green was deflecting blame from himself for the idea (saying the players had come to him and he had to respect their wishes). But though the players felt like they did have lives of their own outside of Green’s control, the audience had great respect for them, and this felt more like something Green would do than something the players would.

For me it betrayed the entire theme of AFC Wimbly Womblies: the idea of ownership by the fans. Click To Tweet

The fact that no one person owns AFC Wimbledon, that by playing FIFA, Green and his fans were becoming part-owners, that the fans of Green’s channel were made to feel as important as Green in their relationship both to the virtual team and the real one. And then Green made a decision about the future of the team that went completely against what the fans wanted.

Green ended up playing the entire end of season before really seeing the fan reaction; after several episodes were posted, he made an apology video, acknowledging his mistake—in it, he reassured the audience that everything worked out okay, but that it had been a mistake to try it in the first place.

Thank you for reminding me that these are not just pixels; they are pixels that we collectively make kind of real.

I’d be one of the last people to say that the audience is always right; it isn’t. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they’re given it. Just because they don’t want a character to die doesn’t mean it’s not the stronger narrative choice.

But sometimes, certainly, the creator isn’t always right either. When you’ve established a storytelling style around emergent narrative, trying to construct something outside of that emergence goes against audience expectations and can ruin the experience of the story. The AFC Wimbly Womblies embody an emergent narrative far more than an authored one.

When you have established a trusting and symbiotic relationship with your audience, predicated on a moral ethos such as Awesomeness, it’s vital to carefully consider the audience’s expectations and desires. AFC’s overriding theme is about audience ownership, and Green had failed to communicate effectively with his audience or react to their views.

You don't always need to do what your audience says, but you should always at least listen. Click To Tweet

Luckily, everything turned out better than expected. The AFC Wimbly Womblies continue to play and do well, now in the Premier League.

More recently, Green asked his audience how they should approach the end of their latest season: with caution and care to be better prepared for next season, or to take a risk and go for glory. Despite a large part of the audience desiring caution, Green explained that he “borrowed $10 million from the owners of the club in exchange for the promise that they would end in the top four of the Premier League” — this despite the fact that “the owners” of the Wimbly Womblies should be the fans. Did Green not learn his lesson? The reaction hasn’t been as loud, but only time will tell if everything works out. I watch every game with anticipation.

Apology video clip

John Green (2014) “Google Autofill ‘Is it Possible to…” (L-Z) AFC Wimbly Womblies #91″, Hank Games, YouTube 0:00-1:38

“A Change in Strategy” video clip

John Green (2014) “A Change in Strategy: AFC Wimbly Womblies #89”, Hank Games, YouTube 1:42-3:10

“Meet the New Kids” video clip

John green (2015) “Meet the New Kids: AFC Wimbly Womblies #179”, Hank Games, YouTube 0:40-1:12

For many years, Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game systems design, and emergent storytelling. He is an author, game designer, producer, storyteller and partner at the narrative design consultancy and game developer Silverstring Media.

When I started working on the science fiction game Extrasolar over three years ago, it was only the second game-related project I’d ever worked on. I was only a year out of school with a degree in creative writing, and had never imagined I’d actually be making videogames for a living. And Extrasolar promised to be something really interesting: a cross between an Alternate Reality Game and a more traditional casual free-to-play game. Created (and self-funded) by Lazy 8 Studios, which had already seen success in gaming and ARGs, it was an amazing opportunity, and I was confident the game would do well.

Whether it actually ended up doing well depends on your metrics. It was a finalist for many awards, including the IGF Nuovo Award and IndieCade 2013; it won Best Desktop Game at the 2014 Indie Prize Showcase. It didn’t make any money. But I did learn a metric tonne about game writing, design, and giving your audience a sense of personal ownership of their actions in a fictional world.

1: Constraints make for creativity

The premise of Extrasolar is that the player controls a rover on an alien world 10 light years away, much like NASA engineers control Curiosity on Mars: one move at a time. In the game, the player tells their rover to move and then to take a picture, and then comes back several real-world hours later to see what they took a picture of and study it.

It was a cool premise, a topical one, and one that would allow us to integrate typical free-to-play monetization—if you give us some money, you won’t have to wait as long between moves. But the premise actually came from a technical constraint. The main creator of the game, Rob Jagnow, comes from a background in computer graphics, and wanted a way to create and deliver extremely high-quality, photorealistic graphics in a casual videogame.

The problem was, each frame would take at least fifteen seconds to render in the cloud. You can’t get sixty frames per second with that kind of quality. And so the premise was actually a solution: rover travel time and communications lag would mean we wouldn’t have to render more than one frame per player per couple of hours.

This, of course, made for a very unusual game to design, because now we had the challenge of making interesting gameplay, and an interesting story, that happens a couple moves a day over (on average) a month of play. This wasn’t going to be immersive in the same way as World of Warcraft or Candy Crush, games which are very mentally absorbing because of the moment-to-moment repetitive tasks you are carrying out.

The compulsion to keep playing over the course of weeks had to come from what the player discovers as they explore what is an alien world with alien lifeforms (plantlike ‘photobionts’ mostly). “What’s over that next ridge?” needed to be a question our players were eager to answer, and would wait expectantly for several hours before they could. And that meant needing really compelling content. Part of that came from the breathtaking landscape photography and intriguing alien designs. Part of it was to come from me—from the story.

2: Story delivery with unrelated mechanics

Among my challenges for creating and telling a story in Extrasolar was the game mechanic itself. The main thing that a player can do in the game—really the only thing—is move their rover, take a picture, and then tag things in that picture. There was no other way to interact with the environment—no ‘Examine’ or ‘Interact’ mechanic, no dialogue trees with in-game characters, certainly no guns (despite the number of people who asked, during early development, “So can you shoot other rovers?”). It was purely exploratory. How do I tell a story with those mechanics?

The story is delivered in two main ways. First are messages from the characters that the player works with (the lead scientist on the Extrasolar project, and a hacker, primarily). As they explore and find things in the environment, characters send them messages in response. “I notice you found a new type of photobiont…” “What could that object be?” And they give the player new missions. “See if you can find more.” “Our satellites have picked up something similar in the north; go check it out.” That way, the story is told directly in response to the player’s actions—it only unfolds as they find interesting things and complete missions—but without needing any additional actions from them. “Now that we have three examples of that thing, we can determine that…” “I talked to my boss, and I think there’s something strange going on.”

Secondly, some of the story—which ends up involving conspiracies, of course—unfolds through old documents that characters dig up. “I found this letter buried in the company archive.” While the player isn’t the one digging up the clues they need, they’re delivered to them based on how the story is unfolding, and they get insight into the backstory of the company, the program, and the characters. These are different from direct communications: the player accesses the narrative second-hand, piecing history together from primary sources.

The story needed to unfold without a lot of the player’s direct interference—so we needed characters on all sides of the conflict, acting with their own agency. At the same time, the player’s actions on the alien world had to matter—the player needed to bring new information to light, and trigger actions taken by other characters, based entirely on what they found in their explorations.

How do you create a sense of agency from the mere act of observing things in photographs? Click To Tweet

3: Character interaction without character interaction

Part of that challenge was creating the illusion of a player’s interaction with in-game characters. After all, all of that story content was being delivered one-way: characters sending the player messages. We had no way for players to send messages back without breaking the fiction.

We were trying to create a game in which it felt like the players themselves were the character, the protagonist—rather than playing an avatar, a fictional character. The interface we gave them  to play the game was the interface that the fictional company they worked for, XRI, was giving to the real life public to control rovers on another planet. Messages are sent to the player as emails within that interface, or video tutorials and messages from actors.

In real life, people communicate back and forth in actual text or voice calls (not, for instance, dialogue trees). But we couldn’t very well allow players to send messages in-game that they compose themselves, not without incredibly sophisticated AI or forcing us to respond live to every email we receive from players—an impossible ask. Anything less than that, like some kind of dialogue tree, would make the system we’d created feel less real, less relatable to the ordinary email systems that players use in their everyday lives.

The fictional characters could only respond to the in-game actions of the player, the things they discovered on the alien planet. This could be direct reactions (“What’s that thing?”) or merely a reaction to an amount of time passed since a previous event, based on how much the player has done. With very specific goals laid out in the game (“Find 5 of those things”) we could carefully control the rate at which the story played out.

Aside from a couple of additional minor mechanics that allowed the player to take some action in the story (typing in passwords to access secret documents) the only other way we had for the player to “respond” to characters was whether or not they did what the characters asked them to—or how quickly. In one case, we planned to have two characters give the player somewhat opposing instructions, and the one that the player chose to do first would affect how those characters reacted to the player.

Beyond that, though, our only other solution was to greatly restrict how branching the story could become.

4: Branching can be hard

As a writer of interactive narrative, branching choices are my core plaything, my game mechanic, the main tool in my toolbox. Of course the narrative has to branch. We have to give the player choice, and we have to acknowledge that choice.

Working on Extrasolar taught me that branching in videogames can be hard. I mean, I already knew that you had to be careful about scope: giving the player too many options to completely change the story results in a choice tree with an impossible number of results to write, program, and manage. But even a few small options, especially in what is essentially an open-world sandbox game (there’s not a lot to stop you from exploring wherever you want on the island) can complicate things greatly.

Even if you put a mission objective directly in the path of the rover, there’s theoretically no guarantee that the player will photograph and tag it before moving on. So for a lot of the story delivery, we couldn’t assume that players had seen everything, or even completed previous missions. What if they decided they wanted to explore the entire island before doing any of the story content? Wasn’t that a perfectly legitimate play decision?

When I first wrote a lot of the scripts of our 150-page story, I tried to include a lot of if/then statements as a way to work around this. If they haven’t seen this thing yet, tell them this instead. But we discovered that that gets complicated quickly. What if they’ve seen a, b, and d, but not c? Hold on, are we sure they definitely have to have received that message before they might get this one? Plus every if/then statement was a lot of extra programming on the part of the developers.

Even with the most basic branching options, even cognizant of the potential scope creep of choice trees, branching narratives can get out of hand very, very quickly—and when you’re trying to keep your budget to a minimum, it’s the first thing to go.

5: Linearity can work

As we explored solutions to the branching narrative problem, we decided that a much more linear storyline could actually work, and work quite well. We weren’t making a sprawling RPG like Mass Effect; the important thing was not to let the player feel like they were ‘on rails,’ but that didn’t mean we had to give them the ability to do anything. After all, we were already creating a story in which they couldn’t exactly respond to other characters at all.

Step 1: Write messages that don’t depend on prior knowledge. If we couldn’t be sure when the message would be sent, write it in a way that would make sense regardless of what previous messages had been received. Eliminate almost all if/then statements.

Step 2: A couple invisible walls. Yes, we cheated a little bit, after seeing some player behaviours in testing, by forcing players to explore one part of the island before they could explore the rest. The rough path we forced was one that was already encouraged by the story and existing missions—if the player was trying to complete them efficiently, they would never know there was an invisible wall forcing them to—but it helped solve problems from outliers.

Step 3: Give the illusion of agency. We weren’t giving players the option of actually changing the course of the story by their actions; they couldn’t respond to in-game characters, and ultimately would explore the whole island, so the story could actually be extremely linear. However, by having a lot of it unfold in response to the player’s actions—messages sent when they tag specific objects, for instance—it still feels like they’re an important part of the story. Furthermore, invisible walls aside, it’s still a fairly open-world game; players can move wherever they want and take pictures of whatever they want, even ignoring the story for extended periods of time. That means that even though the story is the same for everyone, everyone’s experience of it will be unique.

And that’s something I don’t think gets enough credit in games (and something we played with in Silverstring’s original game, Glitchhikers): it doesn’t matter whether players get completely different endings to a game based on their choices; a player’s experience of the game can still be emergent and unique based only on how they move through the game and what context they bring to it, and that’s arguably the more interesting thing. The challenge is to make a game that embraces the possibility for multiple perspectives on the same events.

6: Interactive narratives allow different emotional beats

This is something taught to me by transmedia writer and designer Andrea Phillips (also outlined in her book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling). Movies and novels can make you happy, sad, excited, fearful, tense; games can too. But interactive narratives like games can create additional emotions in the player that novels cannot, because the audience is an active participant in the story. Therefore we could theoretically create emotions like envy, guilt, or a desire for vengeance.

Especially since Extrasolar followed a traditional ARG concept that the player wasn’t “acting as a character” but was in fact themselves participating in the story—you’re not a specific fictional character; you’re you—we wanted to play with this element of interactive storytelling as a way to really bring the player deeper into the story.

Even if they had limited choices, it can still feel like the player's fault when bad things happen. Click To Tweet

The immersion we created in Extrasolar is not about being mentally absorbed in a task, and it isn’t just about how the interface created a sense that this is all really happening. It was about giving the player a deeper emotional investment in the story. Because they feel responsible, they are an inextricable part of the narrative, and they have a stake in how it all turns out.

7: People really do like engaging story (no really)

As a writer for everything from Alternate Reality Games to videogames to other interactive media, my job is often convincing potential clients that Story Is Important. Among people who do what I do, we often see it touted as the thing that really grabs players and gets them invested in the game. But it feels like a losing battle when you look at so many casual games, so many AAA games, so many indie games, just so many games that have little to no story at all and are still wildly successful, and it becomes a harder sell. Plus a lot of creators think they can adequately execute a story on their own—they don’t need a dedicated writer, do they?

Extrasolar gives me the evidence I need, however. 80% of people who signed up for the game made it through the initial authentication process to start the story, and then 26% of those completed the story, coming back to the game regularly for a month to do so. 12% of players paid at some point for the upgrade from free to premium. Those are retention and conversion rates any free-to-play game would be envious of.

Certainly, different people play for different reasons; some may simply enjoy the exploratory and scientific aspects of the game, and we wanted to make sure such players could still enjoy the experience. However, exploration alone doesn’t account for 26% of authenticated players finishing the story. We also received many comments about the ways the story surprised them, from the very first hook that draws them in to how it all works out.

We really strove to create a fiction that would pull the player in and make them invested in the outcome, from the company they “work for” to the real science brought to them by our (actual, real-life) biologist, to creating stakes that were immediate and placed them in the middle. I truly don’t believe we would have had the kinds of numbers we did without a strong narrative. It can make all the difference.

Overall, the narrative design of Extrasolar became an intrinsic part of its game design, and was core to the creation of an immersive aesthetic that runs counter to the status quo in the games industry as a whole.

8: You don’t always get to do the sequel

When we designed the story for Extrasolar, we knew that we wanted to do more. It’s the curse of the writer, I think; we always have a sequel in mind. We wanted to take the characters farther, and we had so much more for players to discover on the alien world, things we foreshadowed in the existing game.

But sometimes you don't get to do the sequel. Click To Tweet

What we created was to be, to some extent, a proof of concept. That after the success it had, we’d be able to afford to do more, new areas to explore, great new stories to tell. But while we’ve had our share of critical success, Extrasolar was never the financial success it needed to be; while retention and ARPU numbers were exceptional, we couldn’t attract enough users to make it viable. Even our attempted Kickstarter to fund “season 2” failed to reach its goal.

And that means that, unless something pretty drastic happens, there may never be an Extrasolar Season 2, or Season 3. We may never get to finish the story arcs we planned, reveal the secrets we hinted at. We may never be able to return to the characters we created, to show how they change, or show that there’s more to them than we were able to show in Season 1. That’s perhaps my greatest regret, that the “villain” of the game we created comes across as fairly one-dimensional, when we had plans to show more of his depth, to create new villains, to make everyone more complex. We just didn’t have time.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn. I think it’s always good to plan for future content, to foreshadow and seed new stories; but you have to know that you may never get to tell them