Mechanical Dances

Interactive Narrative-1: Foundational Assumptions


There is a community of new media writers who are committed to developing the computer as a medium for “interactive narrative.” This community consists of some game designers, computer scientists (some with specialties in AI), literary critics, and those with other academic and technical disciplines. Despite differences in outlook and backgrounds, the community as a whole shares a number of assumptions about the nature and function of narrative. They include:

1. Completeness and clarity: The narrative should be complete; it should have a beginning, middle, and end. (The community often calls this “Aristotelian” narrative, and we will examine this term  later.) Furthermore, the underlying story must itself be coherent:  what happens in a storyworld must make sense by the logic of that world, and the reader/player can ultimately know what has happened.

2. Believable characters: A story is always a story about characters who are either human or anthropomorphic. These characters act in ways that are intelligible, if not always rational. Characters have goals, desires, a system of beliefs—a psychology, in other words. Characters drive the action of the story through their actions and decisions.

3. Catharsis: A good story should engage the emotions of the reader/player, and the ending of the story should be emotionally satisfying (cathartic). In a traditional (non-interactive) story, the emotional engagement comes through the identification of the reader/player with the fate of one or more of the characters. In Interactive Narrative, the reader/player is herself a character, so she would presumably identify with her avatar in the narrative system (as well as other characters). Catharsis comes for her through the resolution of conflict in the story, although the resolution need not be positive. The story can end badly for the characters, as long as it provides an emotional release.

4. Agency: In Interactive Narrative, the reader/player has a role different from her role in traditional narratives. She has something the IN community calls “agency,” which means in fact that she behaves like the believable characters that the IN system itself generates. She has goals and desires within the narrative, and she can act on those goals to affect the course of the story.

Few researchers on IN question these assumptions, although they argue vigorously over operational details. Assumption 1 (completeness and clarity) is hardly ever examined. For assumptions 2 (characterization) and 3 (catharsis), the questions are how to make procedural characters believable and how to get reader/players to care about the characters and about the outcome of the story/game. Assumption 4 (agency) is perhaps the most debated. No one in IN doubts that interactive narrative systems/games are importantly different from other forms of storytelling (print fiction, film, oral literature)—they wouldn’t be pursuing IN otherwise. Researchers do differ on how to accord the reader/player the proper amount of agency. In other words, there is a debate about the tension between the authorship of the story (or storyworld) and the reader/player’s capacity to intervene in the story.

I’m sure there are other ways to delineate the assumptions of the IN community. The point of this list is to provide us with a place to start. I want to explore the historical contexts of IN and the alternative ways of thinking about narrative, identity, and agency that IN does not acknowledge or account for…