Interactive Digital Narrative: Practice

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngThis 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 AnchorheadSome 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.

10 thoughts on “Interactive Digital Narrative: Practice”

  1. Storytelling is fundamental to human culture. And “linked passage narrative” (my general term for hypertext, CYOAs, Twines, non-parser IF, etc., hereafter “LPN”) seems like an obvious component to this storytelling mentality, reflecting the way we think about narrative. We think about the “what ifs,” the random connections, concept webs, the consequences of decisions, parallel or alternate timelines, asides, footnotes, explanations. Edward Packard even got the idea for Choose Your Own Adventure books while telling his daughters a bedtime story opening, then asking, “What happened next?”

    Moreover, almost anyone can create LPN, either in printed form, or electronically. Telling the reader to jump to a numbered passage in a physical document requires no extra technology. And an author learning to create a URL link in an HTML document, or use Twine, is easier than figuring out how to change footnotes in Microsoft Word’s stupid interface, for example.

    So how come almost all LPN is so marginalized? CYOA books were incredibly popular back in the day, but are “for kids.” Hypertext fiction exploded with the early internet, but seems like it’s “for academics.” Twine has made authoring LPN even more accessible, to a new generation that grew up digital, and yet it’s “for people with gender dysphoria and other marginalized people.”

    Why isn’t there more LPN?

    Were CYOA books just unfortunate to have been written for kids first (and in the second person)? Would they be a respected format otherwise, kind of like comics are “for kids and nerds” in the US, but a mainstream artform in Europe because they arose differently? I haven’t looked into 90s hypertext much, but get the feeling it’s all insufferably “literary,” and seems like they kept it gated from the general public so long it lost all relevance. How much of it is there? Why aren’t any hypertexts known to the general public? Twine’s still relatively unknown, and it may not be a fair comparison, but also seems to suffering the same fate of marginalization.

    Is it because trying to write something beyond a simple branching narrative or stream-of-consciousness link spaghetti is actually a lot harder than it looks? I think there’s plenty that could still be done in the branching narrative and link spaghetti space, but no one seems to be doing so commercially, or even as a free viral hit. The Lifeline series would qualify, and A Dark Room, I guess, and that seems about it (TellTale Games’ catalog doesn’t count to me because it’s not mainly text, though I think it proves there’s some kind of market for LPN).

    What gives?

    1. “No one seems to be doing so commercially” — except Tin Man Games, Cubus Games, inkle, Choice of Games, Failbetter Games, SequelStories, Episodes (, Lifeline, at least half a dozen Lifeline spinoffs, and assorted others, not to mention a number of modern-day choice-based books aimed at children and adults; “or even as a free viral hit,” except Clickhole Adventures, …

      I mean, I don’t know, maybe you mean “why isn’t there a single specific work of LPN that has Hunger Games-level recognition” and there I think it’s a question of media segmentation. But there are genuinely a large number of people reading and playing these kinds of works, and an increasing number of people being paid to write them.

      1. I’m familiar with most of those publishers, and follow their press releases, blogs, or forums. I guess I didn’t explain myself enough, I meant more “commercially successfully” than just “commercially,” and not viewed as marginalized or for kids, and also the brand name recognition in your reply’s second paragraph (I don’t mean Hunger-Games-level, just a fad would do…). From their blogs and forums, those publishers seem like they’re only doing okay, and for example, Choice of Games releases on iOS will only stay in the Top 200 Games for a week usually, as opposed to Lifeline, which is perpetually there.

        Anyway, could you explain the media segmentation problem you mentioned, and talk about your thoughts on the several popular LPN formats seeming marginalized, fairly or unfairly?

      2. So it sounds like what you’re looking for is an LPN for adults with a brand name that would be recognized by the average person you encountered in the grocery store.

        My understanding is that there are very few pieces of media that achieve that level of recognition, and that there are at least two important factors that play into why.

        One is that there are more and more marketing niches: compared with the early days of TV, there are ever more channels available with ever more shows, and furthermore, more and more entertainment alternatives to television entirely — with the result that even the most successful show is watched by a much smaller percentage of the general population. In the games space, I can pretty much guarantee that there are games you’ve never heard of that have hundreds of thousands or millions of daily active users and that are supporting a whole bunch of devs. On its own terms, that’s an amazing level of success, and yet the worldwide audience for games is so large that it might still be considered marginal in some sense.

        The second is that not everything that is consumed by a lot of people then gets much secondary reporting. This Economist article discusses that issue when it comes to television shows and cultural distinctions in the US, but there are definitely related issues in games, around which games are considered Important enough to cover, and which have perceived value. So unless you’re in a position to command that kind of cultural attention, you would need to market heavily to reach a bigger audience; and most IF companies are bootstrapping themselves still and don’t have colossal marketing budgets.

        I had a whole grumpy rant here, which I have now deleted: essentially, I have been told many times that IF is not a valid artistic medium until it meets various requirements in terms of winning awards, accruing cultural capital and earning money. We are now meeting most of the requirements that people used to suggest, and it gripes me to have the goalposts moved. Likewise, I feel the question “why are you marginalized? explain yourself!” puts the burden in the wrong place. And finally, given that, for instance, CoG has been expanding in an indie marketplace most indie game experts consider extremely brutal, I would be willing to call that “commercially successful” even if no one involved is driving a new Tesla on the proceeds. But those are emotional reactions, and possibly also not what you were getting at.

        So let me try that part again. Perhaps what you mean is that you would like to see a wider audience for LPNs and you would like my opinion on what would most improve the reach of this kind of game.

        There are a lot of possible answers, but right now I think the biggest single issue for a new LPN launch is curb appeal, or “does this present itself as a quality product at first glance?” In other words, it’s about the screenshots, the smoothness of those first minutes of interaction, the cover art and (if any) the illustrations.

        Device 6 looked sexy, and people bought it and talked about it even though IMO it was much less coherent and much less interesting than a lot of other textual interactive narrative. 80 Days looked great *and* had compelling storylines, and it got a really substantial number of players and turned up in Time Magazine. The default CoG interfaces, meanwhile, don’t immediately communicate value, and that probably limits their reach. In partial compensation, CoG has established a brand that communicates that any “Choice of”-labeled product will meet certain basic expectations, which is why long-term CoG players keep coming back — but that’s not as effective on new players who haven’t already heard of CoG. Similar issues apply to Twine. (Lifeline was prototyped in Twine, incidentally, but given a fresh and more compelling surface.)

        This is a completely different issue than the issue around 1990s literary hypertext, incidentally: those pieces charged significant amounts per text and marketed themselves alongside literary fiction.

        This article might also be helpful, at a background level.

    2. wow, never heard of Lifeline before. Some kind soul could well please inform Jon Ingold that this sounds incredibly alike to his neat parser IF classic Fail-Safe to award some plagiarism process…

  2. Yes, I was more thinking, “We know LPN is awesome, how come everyone else doesn’t? LPN is a really cool concept, and relatively accessible to author, so why isn’t it more commonplace, and why did the popular forms of it dead end without developing further?” BTW, I’m the Horace Torys that mocked up some IF interfaces back in 2010 and you linked to them here, if that puts my comments in perspective.

    1. Ah, yes! I remembered your name, but not the mockups.

      Specifically on the literary hypertext front, both the finished products and the tool to create them were expensive and targeted towards academic contexts — $300 for a StorySpace license, I believe — which makes it hard to get casual users to try it out.

      Twine, meanwhile, is often described as a tool that serves specific marginal communities, but I know it also routinely gets used for game dev prototyping, as a teaching mechanism for students, and as a my-first-interactive-story platform for writers of conventional fiction. Melissa Ford’s book about writing in Twine is indeed targeted towards younger readers, but not really assuming that only younger readers could possibly be interested in playing the results.

  3. Ooh! Thanks for the reminder to read Ford’s book. I think I even bought it, but I wasn’t Twine-ing at the time and now I am.

    I think all art is marginalised to some extent, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the fast and lucrative success of my own IF (….as compared to novels; I certainly don’t make anything like minimum wage), mainly due to three things: Choice of Games (their reputation, even though I only published Hosted Games), the IF Comp, and Tin Man Games (who I currently work for full-time).

    Felicity Banks

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