Interactive Digital Narrative: History

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngInteractive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice is an academic publication from Routledge that retails for £90/$123 on Amazon, which is why even though it is completely relevant to me and my work, it took me a little while to get around to buying it. I would guess that most people who write IF as a hobby won’t buy it either, which is in some ways a shame, because improving communication between the hobbyist and academic communities would be beneficial in both directions. But a book priced for academic libraries is not the most accessible way to accomplish that.

Consequently, this is not a conventional academic book review. Instead, it’s partly meant as a high-level overview of the contents for people in the IF community who cannot afford to read the book, or who might want to know what sort of thing is in it before plunking down more than $100 for their own copy. Much of the rest is an attempt to join up what is in the book with what I know about historical and contemporary interactive fiction and narrative games.

That I spend a lot of time pointing out related IF work is not meant as a criticism or complaint about the book’s scope of coverage — which is in fact quite broad — but as an attempt to help bridge community divides and suggest points of contact between hobbyist IF and academic digital narrative.

Finally, there’s a lot of content, so I’m going to take this in chunks. This post starts with the history section.

Section 1 begins with an introductory segment, “A Concise History of Interactive Digital Narrative.” Concise is the key word: it covers the whole medium of text adventures in just a couple of paragraphs, and hypertext novels with similar brevity. Fortunately, there are a number of references to longer work if you want to delve deeper into specific aspects of what it covers.

(If you’re interested specifically in IF history resources, this blog post of mine contains a bunch of links to useful sites and books, and a more informally written history of IF development and periodization within the self-identified IF community that coalesced on

“The American Hypertext Novel, or Whatever Became of It?” (Scott Rettberg) provides a much longer narrative overview of literary hypertext; it begins, as is obligatory, looking at Afternoon: A Story, Patchwork Girl, and Victory Garden, but proceeds to some of the other hypertext works of the late 90s. I hadn’t, for instance, read much before about Sunshine ’69, a 1996 hypertext novel about the events of the Altamont festival. This would be a solid introduction for someone coming from contemporary IF who wants a description of the central works of the 90s literary hypertext canon. It does pretty much stop around 2000.

Rettberg also has another chapter in the book, filed under Practice rather than History: “Posthyperfiction: Practices in Digital Textuality” picks up with more recent material, looking at pieces that play with codework, social media, Twitter novels, fictional home-pages, and other experiments in technology and infrastructure. In 34 North 118 West (Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman, 2003), Rettberg describes an early location-based hyperfiction that unlocked pieces of the story as the user traveled around the streets of Los Angeles, prefiguring locative work designed for mobile like The Silent History, or the locative narrative tools now available, such as VoiceMap.

About this progression, Rettberg notes

It is not the case that the majority of authors who were working in hypertext in the 1990s and 2000s have abandoned digital writing altogether, but that they have continued to experiment with and invent new forms that have become possible in contemporary network contexts. (177)

And this reflects something I observe in interactive fiction at the moment as well. There are at least two methods of growing an artistic field: broad exploration and deep refinement.

Refinement is iterative, craft-focused and conscious of its canon. Tools are improved and reused across multiple works. Conventions arise about what is “good practice” (something that the more exploration-minded might read as gate-keeping). Outsiders who aren’t familiar with the field may find it difficult to discern what has changed, because trends don’t necessarily reveal themselves at an initial glance. For a lot of 1995-2005, parser IF was in a refinement phase when it came to tools and systems, with exploration focused more on the question of what kinds of stories we wanted to tell. Though from my perspective that was a time of immense change and growth, outside observers of the IF community tended to look at screenshots of the parser and complain that nothing had advanced in decades.

Exploration is explosive yet shallow. There are not only new works, but new tools and new technologies; most new pieces that emerge are in some way experimenting with what could be done that has not been done before. Artists may be more open to incorporating ideas from other related media. At the same time, a lot of people are remaking things that already exist, effort is repeated, exploratory works are not always very polished or satisfying, and tools don’t always get enough iteration to develop into mature products. (Though this certainly doesn’t describe all work in this field!) People who are invested in older ways of doing things may not recognize the exploratory works as even belonging to the same field at all; or may regard the explorations as gimmicky or trivial. IF is undergoing more of an exploration phase at the moment.

So “people are trying different things” sounds to me like a different kind of expansion, rather than the end of the medium. But Rettberg does by and large appear to consider the hypertext novel itself dead, except perhaps for a single, not-entirely-successful work, Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes.

About the field in general, Rettberg writes:

Complex and ambitious digital writing and performance projects… include hypertext elements within a more baroque poetic architecture—though it could no longer be said that the hypertext novel itself is an area of much contemporary activity. (180)

…and this assessment I do disagree with. Or rather, I might conditionally agree with it, but only if we define “hypertext novel” as a form in cultural continuity with the work of Joyce, Jackson and Moulthrop.

Because certainly there are works of contemporary interactive fiction, and in the periphery of the ELO, that seem to me to qualify as hypertext novels unless we define that term around the community of practitioners. Perhaps Birdland is too linear an experience and too popular in genre to feel like a response to the hypertext novel tradition. Perhaps howling dogs is too brief. Perhaps daddylabyrinth is insufficiently fictional. Perhaps Arcadia, though it allows the reader a pretty free-access choice of lexia, disqualifies itself by linking whole passages rather than individual words. But Solarium, for instance, absolutely does participate in many of the same features: concern with prose quality; a fractured history slowly reassembled by the reader; loops of content; passages that may be revisited several times, with guarded links that unlock when the reader has made the right discoveries elsewhere; a mixture of event narrative with more meditative passages on the thematic aspects of the work.

Still, it’s probably fair to say that most practitioners of long-form hypertext from the IF community are not drawing so much from 1990s literary hypertext as from more recent inspirations and/or other forms of writing.

“Interactive Cinema in the Digital Age” (Chris Hales) describes a number of pieces dating back to the 1960s and continuing through the era of full motion video games to the present day. For those who either can’t read the article or would like to see some clips of the works in question, there’s a lot of overlap between the early interactive movies Hales covers and those Brian Moriarty discusses in his talk from PRACTICE 2015. Hales describes Tender Loving Care as a “trailblazer,” which may be technically true, though it is not quite how I would summarize that work; there’s also a discussion of contemporary YouTube methods. This is an area that’s currently heating up because of new technology and delivery methods, though mostly focusing on video where the choices are presented to just one person rather than to a roomful of people.

Hales concludes:

Despite these advances in technology, if all the audience can do is choose by majority what happens next, then the creative potential of interactive film will have changed little since Kinoautomat in 1967. Those projects that find a more imaginative correlation between on-screen story and the activity required by the audience (often using ingenious interaction modes) undoubtedly offer more engaging experiences, the technique  itself having been described as ‘movie as interface.’ (46)

In fact (to anticipate a little) the next article “The Holodeck is all Around Us” is even more discouraging about the interactive potential of participatory cinema or theatre:

…books, cinema and television do not possess interfaces efficient and convenient enough for interaction with their readers or viewers; and while theatre can afford interaction with a select group of audience members, its collective experience cannot afford personal and distinct agency for each individual and cannot afford individual story presentations in response to userly performance. (53)

This is a lot of Cannots for any one paragraph, and fans of many genres of interactive work would dispute these claims: Punchdrunk-style promenade theatre does offer individual experiences and a sense of agency, for instance, while Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t unusably inconvenient.

Still, I would generally tend to share the skepticism about majority-voting methods for interactive narrative. Asking the audience as a whole to vote does often disrupt the sense of individual agency and consequence, while pushing the tale towards those choices that are most conventionally interesting. No one goes away completely satisfied that they saw the parts of the story they wanted to see, or that their experience was uniquely theirs; and even on replay, there’s no guarantee that you will unlock the new bits you find most interesting.

All the same, a few recent discussions make me think there might be more possibility here than I initially thought. Nathan Penlington’s presentation about his live performance art Choose Your Own Documentary. According to Penlington, different audiences demonstrated different moods and interests, and his performances were hardly ever the same twice. I also found myself thinking about what Minkette said in a recent presentation to the London IF Meetup, that some of the design for her escape room Oubliette was centered on creating and reinforcing dynamics (who is the leader? who is in charge of what?) within the group of players.

So it may be that there is mileage after all in audience voting, but that it works best with particular types of content or choice; that it is valuable to have a live human MC for the experience; and/or that interaction within the audience is required to unlock its full force. Maybe the problem isn’t the mechanism of asking a group of people to choose collectively, but the specific framing of the cinema, which encourages participants to sit silently in their own seats and not to confer about next steps.

“The Holodeck is all Around Us—Interface Dispositifs in Interactive Digital Storytelling” (Noam Knoller and Udi Ben-Arie) is less accessible to a non-academic audience than some of the other articles in the book. It also puts a fair amount of emphasis on the idea that computer interfaces have evolved to make human users increasingly into low-agency consumers; and it takes the usual line from critics of parser IF: “This produces a challenging (but at the time evidently fascinating) experience of simulated navigation through an imperceptible space. However, the experience breaks down every time the system fails to understand…”

When I wasn’t feeling grumpy about its generalizations or slowed down by its vocabulary, however, I was intrigued by the introduction to storytelling systems with control systems I hadn’t previously encountered. The article introduces Toni Dove’s Artificial Changelings, an installation piece where the viewer’s physical gestures control events on screen; Office Voodoo (M. Lew), which “used accelerometers embedded in dolls to input affective user gesture information to a drama management engine”; stories driven by physiological responses in the viewers; and Brain Computer Interfaces that use the Emotiv helmet to let the player drive the story through EEG. It is an academic take on some of the same issues and motives underlying alt controller experiments, for instance, and that’s an area where I still know much less than I’d like.

9 thoughts on “Interactive Digital Narrative: History”

  1. Emotiv is just EEG, isn’t it? I thought fMRI referred only to the inject-person-with-fluid-then-toss-into-MRI machine setup which is probably impractical for gaming use.

    re: no reference to Solarium and so forth, I take the darker standpoint academicians actively ignore most works from the IF community. Was there any evidence in the book otherwise?

    1. Ah, perhaps I misunderstood the article (and I didn’t do a deep dive on Emotiv’s own website).

      Re. ignoring:

      There’s a bit of IF community work mentioned, but not loads. The Foreword is by Nick Montfort and acknowledges the Twine and Inform communities; there is a reference to Porpentine and howling dogs at one point; there are some nods to older text adventures. Where they talk about my work, it’s chiefly about Versu. (Not that I mind that!)

      I hesitate to frame this as “ignoring,” though, because that seems to place blame. You could equally say that I ignore a lot of what happens in Japanese-style visual novels, or many of the developments in interactive storytelling through LARPs — but it’s more that I am keeping on top of as much as I have bandwidth for, and if I’m lucky, people help me by curating really interesting stuff and sending it my way. Indeed, part of my intention in writing up this book was to suggest some IF community pieces that could usefully speak to what is being done in the IDN scholarly space, precisely because it would be hard to expect someone to just go to IFDB and find it.

      1. And having double-checked: I misread, but the quote in the article is “BCI apparatuses, from the consumer-grade Emotiv helmet to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), also support both active and passive strategies.” (59) So definitely my misreading, not a fault of theirs.

      2. Nice to hear Nick is in there!

        There’s strong evidence in your case you *want* to learn about those things. Statements like “books, cinema and television do not possess interfaces efficient and convenient enough for interaction with their readers or viewers” worry me that a conclusion has been reached, the mind has been closed, and any sort of counterexamples outside of academia would be discarded.

        What’d they say about Versu?

  2. Emily, I wish *you* would write a book. A massive brick with 1000+ pages. About anything whatsoever. I never get tired of your writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: