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1.5: Interactive Narrative

There is nothing wrong with games which decide to place the designer center stage, and task the player with "discovering" the will of the author. However, I believe that if we learn to effectively involve the player we can create more satisfying experiences, unlike anything offered by other media. A work in which the player must figure out how to turn the prewritten pages can be fun, but one which the player writes the pages seems far more likely to be transformative.

—Doug Church

1.5.1: The Generation of Additional Understanding

Interactive Narrative generates a set of multiple perspectives.

The episodic structure changed the face of narrative forever. In the 1970s and 1980s Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke would entertain us every Wednesday night at their appointed hour.

But the story was a capsule framed by some element of context that we, as viewers, already knew. We didn't have to re-learn every week that Ricky and Lucy lived in the same building as Fred and Ethel. It was an interface we were familiar with. But as television stories grew more complex that framework was extended and by the 1990s the emphasis on narrative in episodic structure was far different. Television shows like "The X-Files", "The Sopranos", or "Dark Angel", continually push the boundaries closer to being a movie interspersed with weeks rather than a television show interspersed with ads.

In the United States the advertising is even designed to match the show. The designers of the advertisements are aware of the preferences and interests of their viewers and regulate the content and pacing for that audience.

Episodic narrative is often thought of as a lower form of narrative because it doesn't develop story arc to the same depth or breadth that something with more space and time might.* The argument goes, "Tolstoy has more time with the reader than does Stan Lee, therefore the quality of the story is better."


This author does not, by the way, endorse these views. Neither the quantity of authorship nor readership time determines the quality of the story.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to notice how many episodic stories were framed with some other larger context that helped to lend them a level of realism and solidity in the real world. The story of Spiderman, for example, originally appeared as an episodic installation in not only Marvel's comic books, but in newspapers and a full-length book of written, text-only narrative as well. These days, as a movie is being developed, video games are made available, and a host of other media have sprung from these humble episodic beginnings.

Episodic forms of narrative might be more powerful than originally thought. Episodic television changed narrative forever. By now we're accustomed to interruption in the tale. Perhaps, like a denouement, we're coming to expect it. This is interesting to consider in light of the rather abrupt endings that many video games chose to deliver. While I hesitate to mention it, I hope we don't begin to see commercial breaks happen at this point in the story.

1.5.2: Interactive Narrative Defined

An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first, second, or third person characters may actually be the reader. Opinion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.*


Thanks to Brenda Laurel for her assistance with this definition.

Interactive narrative is, in many ways, about the process of narration and its implied perspectives, but as we noticed before, interactivity fractures the perspectives of the individual author, places new perspectives in the hands of the readers, and accommodates a relationship between reading and writing. In developing interactive narrative the plot has to accommodate a more flexible structure that allows for multiple perspectives into multiple viewpoints, each of which work together to assemble an overall and cohesive worldview, or opinion.

Interactive narratives will vary in shape, size, and fur color, but there are means that we can use to determine their quality and form. These may include:

  1. Interactive narrative is a form of reading that contains representations of character and or opinion. This representation of character is generally something that follows a schedule of development that takes place over a period of time that can be determined either by the reader or author. In this way interactive narrative is very similar to traditional forms of narrative.

  2. Because interactive narrative contains a character (generated by the author) and a reader it is an intersection of multiple perspectives. These perspectives might be the author and the reader, simultaneous readers, or simultaneous authors. In this way interactive narrative differs greatly from traditional narrative and it is in this space that we find the greatest potential for interactive depth and form.

  3. Interactive narrative will generally follow our steps of interaction:

    • · Observe

    • · Explore

    • · Modify

    • · Change

  4. Interactive narrative will generally follow our principles of interaction:

    • Inside / Outside

    • Input / Output

    • Closed / Open

Some forms of interactive narrative will more closely follow these criteria than others. The more of these criteria are followed, the higher the level of interaction and the deeper the degree of narrative.

Interactive plot structure is more of a system of connections than it is a curve or arc. What follows are three models that are intended to be general approaches. The visualization of plot structure can be more useful for interactive nonlinear narrative than for traditional linear narrative. Plot structures are, however, an analysis tool and don't have much to do with emotional punch or aesthetic interest.

1.5.3: Three Different Structures of Interactive Narrative

In some ways the plot structure of interactive narrative can be thought of as music notation. An author may write the basic structure, but it's the participation and interpretation of that structure that makes it come alive. Music scores give rough guidelines (Con Brio, Fortissimo, etc.), but are intended as a forum for active participation in which the control of the author is second to the participation of the musicians.*


It is worth mentioning that the interaction that musicians share when producing their work is also very similar to the roles that readers share when participating in many forms of multi-user interactive narrative. A "Wizard" or "Host" conducts the orchestra.

Plot is a function of time. It is the plan of the action. The plot is the series of events. In interactive narrative plot continues to be a function of time, but here is its one main difference from traditional plot: the timing of the events in a plot are determined by both the author and reader. In many cases where the interaction is of a high quality, it is determined more by the reader than the author.

In most stories authors introduce skips, folds, or omissions in time. A phrase such as "The next day" might be used to point out that a night has passed and anything that has happened since the last activity of the story was uneventful. We're comfortable with these forms of compression and foreshortening in literature, but what is new for people in our era is the idea that this can be determined by the reader of the story.

Raph Koster, the lead designer of Ultima Online, the first pervasive multiplayer game that had a true graphical front-end claims that there are two primary forms of interactive narrative: Impositional and Expressive [3.5.5].

Though other people use different words to express it, this seems to be a common form of thinking among most developers of interactive narrative. The thinking runs like so:

An author or designer has some control over the story. The story, however, because its interactive, needs to provide control to the reader as well. A heavily designed story, such as one of the 1980's "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, conceived and invented by Ray Montgomery, were heavily impositional. They guided you with strict sets of individual rules that only allowed the reader a narrow margin of decisions. Another example is Liquid Stage [2.5.3] in which the viewer of the show has only particular moments of interaction available and the rest of the show is a dictate and sequential story.

Expressive, in contrast to this, relies less on the series of events and behaves more like architecture: The visitor is allowed to roam freely, explore, investigate, and make changes in the environment. The specifics of a narrative plot are far less defined and, as a result, the breadth of interaction is much wider. Examples of this generally show up in 3-dimensional interfaces and narratives such as Ultima Online.

The challenge, of course, is finding the appropriate balance between the two.

Plot structures for interactive narrative will continue to evolve and will most likely become increasingly simple and homogenized as history allows us to normalize our bellcurve of examples. However, now, at this early stage of the art, we will look at three different types of plot that represent both Impositional and Expressive plot structures. We will start with the most Impositional and move toward the most Expressive.

In the following diagrams the black line is the progression of events or time (as dictated by the reader). The red lines are the different points at which the story will end—generally this follows an event of interaction. The diamonds are interactive moments.

Figure 1.6 Nodal Plot Structures.

Nodal plots are a series of noninteractive events, interrupted by points of interactivity. This plot structure, which provides the most potential support for the classic dramatic arc, has been referred to as a "string of pearls." Games such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Deus Ex follow this pattern though fail to capitalize on its dramatic potential because the switch between modes of active and passive participation lack integration and smooth transition. Michael Bovee's "Liquid Stage" roughly matches this type of plot, deviating in the fact that his story has a very specific ending.

The benefits of this form of plot allow strong backstory, clear character development, and deep environment, but it subsequently runs the risk of limiting the breadth and form of the interaction. This is more "designer-focused" as Doug Church might put it. One solution to this problem is to make sure that the interactive components of the plot are there as a means of exploring elements of the main plot and, if possible, generating additional backstory.

Nodal plots have a single beginning and usually at least two endings. Its important to note that while the event of the ending will be the same it does not need to happen at the same time in the story. In some cases there is a goal at the end of the story. This is generally the case with games.

Again, take IonStorm's game DeusEx as an example. There are two possible endings, one of which is seldom seen by the reader. The most likely ending is that the character dies. This ending happens to everyone, but it happens at different times. The other ending most readers will never know. And, oddly enough, its in the interest of the authors that this conclusion remain unattainable.

Modulated plots are plots that still support the dramatic arc, this time to a lesser degree, but do not necessarily dictate the order of events that are being followed. Transitions may be made to an earlier point in the story and time can often be looped back on itself. This is the a challenging plot to develop because it represents a middle ground and compromise between two trends in design.

Figure 1.7 Modulated Plot Structures

Marc Lafia's "Memex Engine" (see 2.5.8) is a plot that allows a reader to follow different events in the narrative but which still maintains a dramatic arc: the diva is lost, a mystery is afoot, and the reader needs to face specific challenges to solve a specific riddle (this story is not played as a game, but it is interesting to note that as we move toward the more expressive forms of plot the gaming sensibilities emerge).

The interaction of a modulated structure is more plot-based than in a nodal structure. Modulated plots will, ideally, provide a reader with the option to bore straight through and avoid interaction, or to take a more leisurely route and increase the interaction and participation.

Open plots can resemble a roadmap. There are points of decision that then carry a reader along to another point of decision. Open plot structures are the most expressive for the reader, far less so for the author. Often the dramatic arc is completely abandoned for the interests of exploration, modification, and investment. This form of narrative has no specific starting point in the sense that there is an event that begins the story. The story is usually one that is based on the development of character (such as Ultima Online or Everquest) or the development of environment (such as the Sims or Age of Empires). There is, of course overlap and development of character and environment.

Figure 1.8 Open Plot Structures.

Let's return to considering an open plot structure as a series of intersections in a city. If you are driving, your individual decisions are what allow you to get where you are going. This process of getting there is what is valued in this plot structure. The journey is, itself, the goal and so it's up to the author to see that the ride is a smooth one for the reader. Because there are so many opportunities for interaction the frequency, scale, and form of interaction is usually found at its most developed here, making this form of narrative a complicated and expensive production process.

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