The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.
Last month I looked at the first six chapters; now I’m returning to it. As before, I generally found myself reading this overview with an eye to how interactive media tend to compare, since Abbott only examines hypertext to a limited degree, and other interactive narrative very little at all.
Chapter 7 looks at how we interpret narrative: constructing an implied author, who might be very different from an actual author; under-reading or over-reading, by ignoring details or by making too much of some of them; gaps, in which the story does not explain something and relies on the reader to supply what is missing (and by this, incidentally, Abbott means something rather different from the expectation gap between protagonist desire and achievement described by McKee); cruxes, the specific sort of gap in which the reader’s solution will significantly change the meaning of the whole story (e.g., “what sort of person was Heathcliff really”, or “why does Hemingway juxtapose these two incidents in one short story”); repetition, themes, and motifs.
Interactive text is especially well suited for work in which the player’s primary task is explicitly interpretation. Textual fiction allows for interiority and viewpoint, gaps and ambiguities, just as Abbott outlines; meanwhile the interactivity lets the author demand the reader’s opinion, or bend the text around a particular line of interpretation.
One of my favorite cruxes in interactive fiction can be found in Jason McIntosh’s classic parser IF The Warbler’s Nest, where it is up to the player to interpret what is really going on and then act on the interpretation, in a context where it would be horrific to be wrong.
When the objects of interpretation are somewhat more abstract (e.g., “why are these two incidents being related as part of the same story?” in Abbott’s Hemingway example), it’s somewhat less obvious how one might make the interpretation itself interactive. There are certainly interactive works that also function via a creative juxtaposition of elements linked in theme but not in causality, just as one finds in non-interactive work. Perhaps my favorite example of this kind is Le Reprobateur, in which links between passages are thematic but the nature of the thematic resonance sometimes requires a little thought to unpack, so that it is constantly asking the reader to consider why a particular juxtaposition has occurred.
Another classic trick — sometimes abused, but sometimes deployed with very great effect — is to show the player something — perhaps even to let the player manipulate that thing — without ever being entirely clear about what it is.
The earliest example that readily comes to mind here is Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is”, where the ambiguity is played for comedic effect, and you can wander around the game with this unknown article in your inventory.
But elsewhere it can be used to communicate discovery, surprise, or confusion: in a room description, an object might be first called “something glinting under the water”, resolving to a key only when the player has typed TAKE THING or TAKE GLINTING THING.
In the worst case, the nameless object may be implicitly something horrible, an item that the protagonist cannot bear to look at or acknowledge; perhaps returning a “You can’t bear to” sort of response to EXAMINE THING. This takes the unreliable narrator trope and deploys it very specifically to represent a part of the narrator’s mind that refuses to confront reality.
Other media portray this kind of experience — Agave not able to see that she’s carrying her own son’s head, a nearly unendurable scene in Hereditary in which a main character can’t bring himself to look in the rearview mirror — but none so immediately.
Meanwhile, cycling or stopping links in Twine are often deployed to let the reader interrogate what the author meant by a phrase, or to select their own preferred phrase.
In chapter 8, Abbott suggests three broad interpretive approaches (as opposed to picking out the areas in which interpretation is needed): the intentional, in which we assume that all meaning is intended by the author; the symptomatic, in which we might discover symptoms of beliefs or mindsets that the author did not really intend to communicate per se, but which nonetheless have leached through into the work because of the author’s history or background; and the adaptive, in which we take the work over as in some sense our own, and perhaps insert our own significance into it.
This is perhaps the chapter in the entire book where I least felt that there were significant differences to observe between interactive and non-interactive narrative forms. Symptomatic readings of interactive fiction are both possible and frequently performed, and in my view the fact of interactivity doesn’t particularly change how accessible the work is to this kind of assessment.
There are certainly cultural factors surrounding IF and video games in general that tend to make these readings fraught — a critic pointing out that this or that game conveys racist or homophobic attitudes, for instance, and the creators replying that they intended no such thing, which is not actually a rebuttal of the original point.
There is also a fair amount of adaptive reading of IF, sometimes cast into the form of IF itself: works like Re: Dragon or Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective” (or other MST3K treatments) entirely encapsulate and reframe other work; Coke Is It! parodically spoofs a bunch of canonical IF scenes as a soda advertisement; Being Andrew Plotkin recasts Being John Malkovich into IF terms with IF personalities. Then, too, there are games written as fan fiction — from Doctor Who and the Vortex of Lust, which I confess I haven’t played because I suspect I’ve enjoyed the title more than I would the game, to the lovingly crafted Muggle Studies.
Rarer, but also present, are the games that explicitly invite the player to endow the work with some meaning(s) of their own, or to make changes in how future players will experience it. Barbetween is a Seltani piece in which players can contribute short strings of text that describe bad experiences they’ve had in the past, which then become part of the next player’s game experience.
Chapter 9, on adaptation across media, looks most of all at the interface between novels and movies, but it recognizes issues of pacing and characterization, gaps of information and changes of focalization, that also arise (and frequently) whenever one tries to adapt a non-interactive work into an interactive form.