Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Web Design & Development > Blogs

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

1.6: Summary

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.

—Marshall McLuhan

Interactive narrative is an emerging art form that borrows from multiple disciplines. Most emerging art forms grow like this; they're fruity. Emerging art forms will often take methods and approaches that were developed by previous forms, copy them, alter them, and drop from the vine before taking the role of seeding a newer art form that follows.

The practice areas of experience, visual, and communication design are being integrated so that we understand what makes, finally, someone change television channels. It's a reflex to an altered state of attention span. It's a curiosity that is induced by a desire for a change for change's sake. Like the video game player's interest in seeing returns, any executive that's responsible for a firm that is doing this kind of development wants returns on the company's investment. The video game development world is ferociously competitive, the pace of work is crippling, and the demands on the software are unknown. Consequently, the resulting products are, like the fractured and harried world of the television commercial, wound up and dumbed down. But these harried developers stand on the shoulders of existing art forms to build new rules, new roles, and new ways of thinking.

1.6.1: The Crossed Lines of Design

The internal world of the reader and the external world of the viewer continue to weld themselves together, and we're still learning how to draw these two personalities closer. There continues to be a distance between the movie-goer and the programmer, between the remote and the joystick. The executives of firms involved in some form of digital design recognize, at least on an intuitive level, that these media share narrative as a common thread and this recognition pushes those firms to innovate. Some of them begin prodding the soft body of the public for that nerve cluster that, when pinched, induces relaxation, catalepsy, hallucination, and a greasing of the desire to buy (to make little mention of a dilation of the wallet).

The external world of entertainment and video is slowly splicing itself onto the internal world of coding. It's is at this splice point that interactive narrative is coalescing into its contemporary form. The arc of development in digital design tends toward increased interaction, increased stimulus, increased response, faster feedback, richer narrative, deeper throughput, and far-flung networks that follow us, sheep-like, wherever we may go. It's a trend that is easy to anticipate if we look back over the last 30 years.

As any arc, the change in the rate of change is the characteristic to watch. Because at a certain point it's no longer us that is driving the change, but, instead, the relationship changes at the epicenter of the arc, and suddenly the roles are reversed; the change is driving us. I'm not referring to an issue of control that developers, readers, viewers and users of digital media have, but rather an issue of their investment of attention.

What is it about interaction that makes it so addictive? What was it about the high-latency interactivity—and specifically digital interactivity—that causes, for example, gaming trends to give so many parents so many wrinkles in so little time?

It is the change in the rate of change. This is the source of the addiction of video games (to speak both culturally and individually) and the interest of attention. Narrative will play an important role in the Internet's development in the coming years. This is important to consider in light of the fact that the two commodities of the Internet are attention and reputation.

Play a good video game for a few minutes and you'll experience this rate-of-change arc on a tiny, momentary level; after you've contributed a small amount of yourself to something that is really interactive, after you've spent just a few minutes with your head in that box, you find you've lost more time than you had intended. Your initial investment saw returns, but not of the sort you had imagined. The change of your attention span is the intoxicant—far more than the content or design of the product.

Some neighbors of mine recently bought a computer and they bought with it Microsoft's Age of Empires. The husband spent several days playing it while the wife complained that he was spending too much time killing Carthaginians and building Wonders. For whatever reason he stopped long enough to give her a chance to play and, as you can imagine, the rest of the story is that two weeks later, they got rid of both the video game and the computer.

In short, it has to do with the return on investment of attention that the person at the end of the line feels. And that investment is entirely based on the interaction of the material they're engaged with, what the narrative is, and how it appeals to their individual interests.

"How Could the Butler Have Done It?"

There's something else, however, that's worth noticing. Interactivity allows a reader to bring his own sense of time to what he is reading. This is the nature of interaction. This is also a progression in literature that has been happening for ages—probably before Poe made such bold contributions to the genres of mystery and the short story. As with mystery novels, the reader of an interactive narrative takes on a role that is more closely aligned with that of an investigator, or perhaps of someone engaged in a conversation. In many computer games the reader takes on a role of debugging, as it were, the underlying structure of the story. The reader becomes the investigator, vested with that perspective, making efforts, meanwhile, to understand the perspective of the author. It's a process of reverse engineering. But different people will solve the same problem at different speeds so when problem-solving accompanies narrative, the amount of time the narrative takes to read changes.

This consideration is a key factor in narrative and game design because it lies at the intersection of intention and interpretation.


In multiprocessing, there is one CPU acting as a executor of sequential machine code instructions. Forking allows for several threads of nonlinear narrative to be active within the context of the GUI and its background processes, but then the CPU—as reader—only needs to pay attention to one thread/perspective at a time. Yet another indicator of what might be coming in the futures of narrative.

The similarities between this form of reading and the basic form of algorithmic logic—the semantic, and tautological properties of computer programs—are suspiciously similar.* Both are a sequential interpretation of a series of events that were already there. This is the point where a use-case scenario and a plot converge.

Consequently we can think of writing a narrative as interface design. It's a telescoping and a presentation of a series of events. Some events are important, some not. Some events are engaging, some not. The author's job is to decide which are which. And how to make this clear.

Consider Victor Marie Hugo's work about Notre Dame and the hunchback. Hugo had to choose a perspective to tell the story from. However, that story could have also been told from the single perspective of one of the characters, resting only in the first person, and been, under the guiding hand of a skilled author, an interesting perspective on the same story. Consider the different perspectives of Esmeralda, Frollo, Quasimodo, and Phoebus. Hugo combines them, in many ways, and in doing so has chosen a single path through a complicated field of interwoven possibilities and overlapping worldviews.

Figure 1.9

From this perspective of authorship, narrative's shift to interaction seems natural. Any traditional, noninteractive story might be thought of as a piece of a larger interactive narrative. The story that is told is one of a number of possible ways to interpret and present the data of that world-view. The role of the author, in traditional narrative, is to generate both the world-view and the particular perspective that looks into it. They have to pick the path through a garden of infinitely forking paths to discover which path is the most beautiful. The role of the painter is the same. The role of the interface designer as well.

The author of interactive narrative has to present all the forking paths by telescoping information and offering perspective. So the art of interactive narrative lies in the author's ability to simultaneously imagine (and illustrate) each of these views and make all of them accessible for the reader. It's a difficult task of schizophrenic design.

Interactive narrative's potential future and its current success lies exactly here: It's the point at which these different forms of design—writing, imagery, and interface—cross and spark a new kind of attention in an emerging art form.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account