Category Archives: Interactive Narrative

Reflections on research into interactive narrative or interactive storytelling


Let’s look at the notion of the emotional engagement and catharsis in interactive narrative. Among IN writers, catharsis is seen as part of a successful dramatic or narrative experience. Good literature is cathartic, good (Hollywood) films are cathartic, and interactive narrative should be too. That is, all these narrative forms should bring the reader/player to a kind of emotional release. For IN writers, in fact, current videogames do not maximize the power of the medium, precisely because they do not mobilize the emotions of the player, as Hollywood films do. When Steven Spielberg signed on to create games for Electronic Arts, he said that what we needed was a game that would make the player “cry at level 17.”  Spielberg is a master of Hollywood film catharsis, so it is natural for him to want to create games that have the same effect on the player. And this is exactly what many in the IN community assume is an inevitable part of their project.

Yet, like the notion of closed, coherent narrative, the goal of catharsis has been challenged by literature and drama throughout the twentieth century. For example, catharsis was exactly what Brecht criticized in the drama of his day. Brecht’s plays aimed to challenge the viewer to think about the dramatic subject at a critical level–not to fall into an emotional swoon. Practically all experimental art of the past hundreds years has challenged the idea of this kind of immersive emotional engagement.


IN-3: The objection of elitism

Many would say that appealing to the avant-garde as a critique of IN is elitist and out of touch. The IN movement wants to create popular narrative forms. Millions of people go to see Titanic and still watch Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life on television. Only a tiny group knows or cares about the films of Man Ray or Hollis Frampton.  But we can still argue that these avant-garde authors could inject new ideas and new life into the IN project – just as they did repeatedly in the twentieth century to film and even television. Avant-garde notions of montage and editing have been taken into the grammar of popular film. So we can ask: why can’t the IN movement benefit in the same way from the work of past innovators? Why not try to develop new forms of fragmented and incomplete narrative based on the model of the experiments of the past? Why couldn’t research be conducted into how to proceduralize the narratives style of Buñuel or Warhol?

In fact, the fragmentary and incomplete narrative forms are sometimes popular today. They are not necessarily elite. Music videos are a good example. There is a wide range of styles of visual narrative styles in music videos. Often the scenes present disconnected, fragmented, even contradictory moments in a story that may work with or against the music. The genres and media forms that are popular with younger people often seem to be prefer these angular and incomplete narrative forms. Facebook is an exercise in building little narratives that make sense only to a few friend, if even to them. So is Twitter. And among its many genres, YouTube includes talking head videos that seldom give us a sense of narrative closure. I’m tempted to suggest that rounded closed narratives are popular with the Baby Boomers and progressively less so with younger generations. What are the age demographics for shows like Mad Men or reruns of the West Wing?

IN may be committing itself to a narrative model that has the same future as the Cadillac.

IN-2: Completeness and clarity

Let’s start with the assumption of completeness and clarity. (In what follows, I am going to use the terms “narrative” and “story” more or less interchangeably—I will discuss the nuances in a later entry.)

It seems obvious and uncontroversial to say that interactive narratives like all satisfying stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. The question is what that means—in particular what kind of an ending must a story have. There is always the issue of cultural difference. Do different (historical or contemporary) cultures have different notions of what makes a story complete?
But we don’t have to look that far. Even within European and American culture in the past 100 years, there have been many attempts to call into question the notion of a complete and satisfying narrative.  Practically every literary, dramatic and cinematic avant-garde in the 20th century has offered alternatives to the rounded, closed narrative form. The futurists and Dadaists presented plays and performances with incomplete or absurd narrative lines. Most experimental filmmakers from the surrealists of the 1920s  (e.g. Man Ray) to the structural filmmakers of mid-20th century (e.g. Frampton and Brakhage)  either mocked or ignored the narrative techniques of mainstream cinema. Video art of the 1970s and 1980s seldom aimed to create coherent narrative lines. Then there are all the literature experiments from the futurist poets to the lettrists to stream of consciousness authors to postmodern writers who in one way or other subvert closed narrative forms. Bertholt Brecht, whose own plays were quite accessible and in some cases even popular, adopted a style that worked against what he called “Aristotelian drama.”

The interactive narrative community ignores this history. There are works that might be said to be on the fringes of the IN community that do break the rules of completeness and clarity—for example, some Interactive Fiction games such as Adam Cadre’s Photopia and the work of the early hypertext movement (Joyce, Moulthrop, etc.). These experiments are not models for the work that is reported at conferences such as ICIDS, however.

The Interactive Narrative project has as its goal to proceduralize narrative: to create an algorithm that can author narrative texts.  The reader/player helps to shape the narrative by inserting herself into the procedural loop—in other words, she becomes part of the algorithm. The interactive narrative produced in this way is expected to have the dramatic arc and coherent plot of a Hollywood “three-act” film.

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…