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Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative

📄 Contents

  1. Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative
  2. Perspective
  3. Narrative
  4. Interaction
  5. Interactive Narrative
  6. Summary
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Interactive narrative is an emerging art form that borrows from multiple disciplines. It's a telescoping and a presentation of a series of events. Consequently we can think of writing a narrative as interface design. Mark Meadows explains the art of narrative in this article.
This chapter is from the book

1.1: Introduction

Authors have one thing in common: They have a perspective to convey. Playwrights, journalists, historians, fiction writers, and biographers all have a story to tell. Their story is their perspective.

If humanity were a building, each author would be a window. The view from that window would be the picture each author paints. It's a view that explains a little bit more about the confusing things we call "Life" and "Reality." A narrative is an individual's perspective of the surrounding landscape. It's one small view on the big picture. For millennia, we've used our perspectives and stories to find a larger perspective on what's been called "The Human Condition." And stories are what we rely on. Stories are what we use to explain the underpinnings of reality.

This is why narrative exists: to convey perspective.

Interactive narrative is the most ambitious art form existing today because it combines traditional narrative with visual art, and interactivity. Strangely enough, these three art forms share an important feature: They each allow information to be telescoped or compressed. Traditional narrative has tools such as foreshadowing and epiphany; Visual arts rely on point-perspective and foreshortening; Digital Interactivity uses iconography and expanding menus. These are all tools that do the same thing: convey perspective. This book examines an emerging art form that relies heavily on the role of perspective.

The first goal of this book is to broaden current thinking about narrative. An "Interactive Narrative" is a narrative form that allows someone other than the author to affect, choose, or change the plot. The author, in writing this narrative, allows the reader to interact with the story. This changes the role of the author; it changes what an author does—and in the case of narrative, that's to narrate. Therefore, traditional narration begins to require an expanded understanding.

The second goal is to broaden current thinking about interaction design. Many forms of "content" that are distributed via electronic media are based in narrative, or contain narrative elements, but few of them have recognized the means of integrating narrative and interaction. Fewer still have even recognized the inherent value in doing so.

The book's third goal is to illustrate the role of imagery*. As narrative shifts from the linear progressions of text and speech to a more nonlinear and visual mode of communication, new methods of narrative are emerging. These days we rely less on the linear process of the spoken word because images can often convey the same information in a faster, more precise, and—in many cases—nonlinear fashion. They're worth a thousand words.


While other forms of communication lend themselves to narrative (such as audio and video) I have chosen to focus, for this book, on imagery—mostly from the western tradition.

Any traditional, noninteractive story might be thought of as a single path through a structure of an interactive narrative. Despite the changes we see in television, Internet, movies, radio, print, and other media, we're still, effectually, thinking in Elizabethan terms when a story was originally defined in a linear system of a "Dramatic Arc."

This book, in presenting some of the guidelines of an emerging art form, intends to offer alternatives.

1.1.1: How Narrative Forms Grow Together

Our methods of telling stories and presenting information are being welded together.

These days, if you walk into a modern movie theater a video game is sure to be lurking nearby. Sometimes the movie is about the video game (or vice versa). As you browse web pages, video and animation can be seen woven into the page adjacent to the text. We see more picture books—magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, and catalogs—than we did 20 years ago. Many of these are merely references to other forms of narrative. Examples of such referential work are TV Guide, movie-based websites, or projects like Dark Horse's "HellBoy" comic series in which a book and a CD-ROM are intended to be read together as a single story. We see this most commonly with video games and movies. Star Wars, Tomb Raider, and even American football seem to have more than one public face. Contemporary ad campaigns invent billboards that begin to tell stories over the course of a month and encourage us to solve this mystery by visiting a website.

Perhaps one of the strongest indications of this is the fact that a multimillion dollar, multimillion user interactive narrative was distributed several months before the movie AI was released. The narrative, taking place in the same universe, but with a completely different plot, was used as a means of integrating the movie into the real world [2.5.2].

Meanwhile, the integration of traditional narrative and digital interaction are warming the relationship of the disparate languages of books and computers.

1.1.2: The Importance of Opinion and Perspective

All stories contain a perspective. In the case of movies it's a camera. In the case of writing, it's the writer (consider Borges' short story of nested perspectives "The Immortal"*), and in the case of a narrative image it is often the painter.


Jorge Luis Borges frequently built stories inside of stories, telling stories from the perspective of a writer whose work was being read by the story's narrator. One of the best-known versions of this idea was the revelation of the "Aleph," the mystical letter through which the whole universe can be seen. The entire universe can be found in this "Aleph." "The Immortal" is the first short story of this highly recommended work.

Until recently narrative has been, most simply, a process of narration. A narrator tells us something—a story, information, etc. But these words and their meaning are, naturally, mutations from earlier languages. The word "narrate" itself originated from the Latin word "narrare" which evolved from the Indo-European word "gnarus" meaning "to know." Therefore, a narrator has knowledge about something and tells us about it. Perhaps a narrator can be thought of as an interface designer, as someone who is collecting information and determining the best method of presentation.

But none of us know everything. We all have our perspectives and opinions. Even the "objective" news sources such as National Public Radio or the British Broadcasting Corporation hand-pick phrases that appeal to specific audiences. This means that, despite our best efforts to be objective, an opinion is implied. Historic narratives, too, are based in opinion. History is written (or so it's said) by the winners. All narration picks which events get presented, in what order, and how.

But that's okay. When we listen to someone tell a story, we listen to his or her particular perspective. We listen to what they experienced or thought and the personal angle that they bring to that small history is the part that's interesting.

Even a narration of simple events in a newscast requires some perspective to exist. A narrative in this way is almost like a kind of image—It can't exist without a perspective of some sort. The context of the person telling the story, the specifics of the way that it's told, and the pieces that are chosen to be relayed all inform the perspective. The particular relationship between the teller and the listener informs the perspective as well.

In the context of storytelling, perspective may be the only thing that exists.

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