This is part three of an overview of Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice. See my earlier post for coverage of the book’s history section and this post covering the theory section.
The last section of the book gets into questions of practice, though the articles vary: some verge on being historical surveys through the lens of a particular method or technique, while others delve more deeply into detailed design questions. I have already talked about Scott Rettberg’s “Posthyperfiction” article, though it appears in this section.
The introduction to this section is titled “Beyond the Holodeck: A Speculative Perspective on Future Practices,” and suggests three areas for future growth: the story/video game connection; location-based apps and experiences such as Whaiwhai and Zombies, Run! (a game I respect in theory but avoid in practice thanks to my dislike of (a) zombies and (b) running); and interactive documentary and news projects. MIT’s docubase is my go-to resource to find out about new interactive documentaries.
“Interaction Design Principles as Narrative Techniques” (Ulrike Spierling) proposes a series of principles about designing interaction that can be given a narrative spin: for instance, the need to focus on affordances and constraints, that interaction is a form of content, and that deciding what simulation stats to expose to the player is also a part of the authoring process. Much of this strikes me as a re-expression of principles that I would consider fairly foundational in game design and interactive narrative.
The rest of the article details the development of Office Brawl, a game in which the player is trying to mediate a dispute between two NPCs about what to do next.
“Emergent Narrative” (Sandy Louchart, John Truesdale, Neil Suttie, Ruth Aylett) focuses on an approach much more about modeling what the characters want to do, rather than (as Murray and Spierling both recommend) directly modeling narrative or thematic features. Their initial project was FearNot!, developed to model characters in anti-bullying situations. Most of the article describes iterations on the underlying engine. It is very hard to be sure just from the system description and without access to the tools or the pieces produced with them, but I had the impression of an approach sufficiently complex and unpredictable that authors find it challenging to work with.
“Learning through Interactive Digital Narratives” (Andreea Molnar and Patty Kostkova) presents a case study of a particular story game intended to introduce health information to children, assessing them at multiple points to determine whether they’ve internalized key facts. (The framework in question is STAR.) Because the assessments are presented as dialogue with in-game characters and have a fictional framing, these passages blended in with the rest of the game. (Complete tangent: I was delighted to learn (207) that this game was promoted “during the Global Handwashing Day,” of which holiday I had been sadly ignorant. I hope there are greeting cards.)
Overall, a grounded article but one likely to be most useful to other educational game designers and/or people interested in methods of assessing whether knowledge was transferred by a game.
“Everting the Holodeck: Games and Storytelling in Physical Space” (Mads Haahr) describes Parallel Kingdom and Shadow Cities, a pair of RPGs that tie in the real world to their game locations; the Haunted Planet games, location-based games where players explore the real world for “paranormal activity”; and Niantic’s Ingress, whose player-submitted data since became part of the basis for Pokémon Go.
“Artistic Explorations: Mobile, Locative, and Hybrid Narratives” (Martin Rieser) describes a number of site-specific narratives designed for particular places as well as a virtual reality opera. Though several of the projects are Rieser’s own, he mostly doesn’t delve into the implementation details; instead, he focuses on the idea of the digital aspect introducing an element of the uncanny into the real world — uncanny in the Freudian sense, and the sense of “uncanny valley.”
“Artistic Explorations” is accounting for a different set of examples from “Everting the Holodeck,” but it too gets into questions about user-curated experiences and player re-interpretations of their local space into narratively meaningful places. Both articles talk about works that transpose the real or imagined past on the present day locations, that evoke ghosts. (See also the space/place discussion in Marie-Laure Ryan’s Theory essay.)
It might seem as though parser IF is a bad fit for any kind of locative fiction, and indeed a lot of the genre was formed before one could expect the player to have a mobile device or the ability to provide an exact location. Nonetheless, there is a small tradition of traditional parser IF being used to set the scene for, or in collaboration with, geocaching. And if we expand our net to consider IF that reproduces real-life locations in the present or the past, there’s considerably more material to work with. Hap Aziz’s Colonial Williamsburg IF, Kickstarted some time ago, continues to put out backer updates occasionally, so it is still in progress. Lost New York is a piece of mid-90s IF much less discussed now than when I first joined the IF scene, written by Neil deMause, a New York-based journalist who knows the city inside out. And then, of course, there’s 1893, a particularly bold and detailed piece that uses archival photos from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to reproduce the fairground in huge detail.
“Narrative Explorations in Videogame Poetry” (Diğdem Sezen) is placed between “Everting the Holodeck” and “Artistic Explorations” in the book sequence, but I shuffled them around so that I could compare the two locative-narrative articles. From the title, I initially assumed that this article would concern works that overtly present themselves as interactive poetry; or perhaps games in which the interaction applies to text or to the surface presentation of the narrative.
In fact the start of the argument is that game narrative poses some of the same interpretive challenges as poetry and that some of the same theoretical approaches might be used for analysis. The article includes some lovely quotations:
Similarly, in 1999, German poet Michael Hoffman defined a poem as a “machine for rereading… [and] a line like a mosaic of magnets, charges, and repulsion in every word;” he continued: “[T]here is a process called annealment, the heating to a high temperature and slow cooling of glass or metals to toughen them. Making a poem feels like that—writing as yourself and reading it back as someone else” (229)
“Writing as yourself and reading back as someone else” absolutely does describe what I do when I work on interactive stories: try to induce in myself a state of pretend-ignorance about how the system works so that I can approach it afresh, naively, and make the mistakes that a user would make, and think of the playfulness that a user would think of.
[Side note, not so much to nitpick as in case it helps anyone else who might want to track the quotation: the quote is attributed to Poetry Book Society Bulletin 181, and the article spells his name variously as Hoffman or Hoffmann. In trying to determine the true spelling, I did some Google searching and concluded that the person in question was possibly this Hofmann.]
The examples in this article are brief and meditative games that one might nonetheless plausibly describe as poem-like because of their brevity, openness to interpretation, lack of a clear win condition, and reliance on metaphor: Jason Rohrer’s Passage; the oeuvre of Dan Benmergui and of Jason Nelson, especially Benmergui’s Today I Die; Fatale from Tale of Tales.
I would add to this list parts of That Dragon, Cancer and The Beginner’s Guide, though those games were likely not available at the time the article was being written. In the realm specifically of IF, the IF Art Show fostered parser games about interacting with a static scene; Ian Finley’s Exhibition also comes to mind. And there are many Twine games that work on this level, focusing interaction very intensely on a small number of words.
“Remaking as Revision of Narrative Design in Digital Games” (Tonguç İbrahim Sezen) looks (albeit fairly lightly) at a range of remakes, in particular the realMyst remake of Myst; this chapter also contains more hobbyist IF than most of the rest of the book, in that it acknowledges both Dennis Jerz’s research into the code history of Adventure and a remade, menu-driven version of Anchorhead. Some of these remakes are done in order to expand on or improve the experience of the original; some purely as test cases. An interesting point of comparison here would be Marius Müller’s account of translating interactive fiction from English into German.
It’s interesting to contrast all of this with a couple of books from the IF communities. On the one hand there’s the IF Theory Reader — which admittedly is a rather elderly volume now and very soundly out of date — but which was also structured around a distinction between theory, history, and craft.
The craft sections were written as attempts to provide guidance for solving very particular problems: how do you code a conversational NPC? How do you design an effective map for IF? How do you write a room description, or create a good clue for the player? Which assumes that there’s a shared understanding of what the challenges are, and some kind of community consensus around best methods. I suspect it would actually be much harder to write something like that now: there are too many caveats, too many differences in purpose and application.
Other sections, though, are closer to the kinds of things in IDN: Graham Nelson on “Object Relations,” for instance, is talking about communication through association in a way that speaks naturally to Ryan’s article on space and place, and to the two practice articles on locative narrative.
The other obvious point of comparison is Videogames for Humans, a book that captures both the content of many Twine works and the reactions of a variety of players. In its most analytical chapters — Naomi Clark on Horse Master is one of my favorites — it demonstrates admirably how code, structure and content can be read together; and I think some of the authors of the IDN volume would find this both sympathetic and enlightening.