Interactive Digital Narrative: Theory

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngThis is part two of an overview of Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice. See my earlier post for coverage of the book’s history section (and one practice chapter that I took out of order because it felt like it fit better that way).

This time we’re looking at the theory section, which addresses academic approaches to interactive narrative (including the question of what interactive narrative even is).

Again, the section begins with a brief overview from the volume editors, and this provides a fair sketch of the academic debates of the last couple of decades, together with a bibliography of a number of foundational pieces in this space. I might also have listed Jesper Juul’s half-real here, as it provides a readable and persuasive cap to the narratology vs ludology debate.

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Dynamic Fiction via Some Examples

“Dynamic fiction” is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work, especially but not limited to her serial story Bloom.

As I understand it (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting too much here), the term is chosen specifically to get around some of the expectations people have when they hear the phrase “interactive fiction.” Dynamic fiction allows minimal plot branching, if any: the reader is not being allowed to change the course of events, which may be completely linear. From a CYOA structures perspective, we’re talking about structures that either look like a friendly gauntlet without delayed consequence, or structures that actually literally are a straight line.

Instead, the interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.

To answer the question “why isn’t this just a short work of static fiction?”, I’ve picked out what I consider the best exemplars of each of the major dynamic fiction effects I’m aware of.

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ICIDS: The future of interactive storytelling, plus some Versu thoughts

Hartmut Koenitz submitted a talk for ICIDS that was essentially a manifesto about what needs to happen next in interactive digital narrative, and accompanied this with a workshop on the future of interactive storytelling. The points of the manifesto are as follow:

  • We need a new theory of narrative for interactive digital narrative in order to get rid of accumulated preconceptions.
  • Interoperability is key: tools need to be developed in such a way that they can be hooked together and progress on one hand can be used by others.
  • Sustainability is essential. Lack of archiving has already destroyed a lot of valuable research work.
  • Interactive digital narrative needs to be author-focused. There is a challenge in training new authors in procedurality in order to get useful feedback from them.
  • User experience is crucial. We need to focus on how people actually experience and enjoy this work.

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Assorted IF-related reading

I wrote a piece on the Best Individual Puzzle nominees from the 2013 XYZZYs. It is also an attempt to pull together some thoughts about how puzzles can be good in completely different ways and for different reasons — something I think last year’s spread of nominees demonstrates particularly stongly.

Meanwhile, Sam Ashwell has just posted a (long!) post about types of player agency in games. There’s lots there, but I’m especially interested in Sam’s ideas about the importance of author-player trust, and the effect that that trust can have on how well mechanics work for the player.

And speaking of off-site reading, it’s probably a good time to remind people about the Phrontisterion blog, which has a fair amount to say about IF despite not being aggregated at Planet-IF. It’s specifically taking an outsider’s view at the IF community and IF tools, from the perspective of people interested in Chris Crawford’s work.

GDC 2013: Mordechai Buckman on Interactive Fiction Interfaces

Screen Shot 2013-04-21 at 2.45.21 PMAt GDC this year, I unfortunately wasn’t able to go to Mordechai Buckman’s poster session on interactive fiction because of schedule conflicts. (At any given time at GDC there are usually at least three things I urgently want to be doing…). The good news is that he was good enough to put up a video of that talk, which can be viewed here. I’m going to talk about what he says, but the talk itself is well worth viewing.

His first point is that CYOA and text adventures, and the point-and-click graphical adventures that came after them, are strongly hampered in the types of story they can tell and the variety of pacing they can provide because the interface elements remain fairly uniform throughout and because there are strong conventions about what they can be used for. He describes parser-based games as primarily evoking disorientation in the player; he argues that CYOA games always have to be high-stakes in order to make choices matter.

Throughout this portion of the presentation I found myself raising mental objections. The possibility space with existing tools is not nearly so narrow as he argues. There are a lot of IF games that incorporate some element of menu choice at key moments, or massively constrict the verb or object space in order to focus the player, or keep things moving so that actions keep playing out. There are a lot of CYOA games that present an IF-like world model under the surface, or that allow the player to explore multiple ideas in a leisurely fashion, or that reach for a lyrical experience. Mark Marino has just recently written about how the promise of hypertext, which had seemed long dead, has revised in new forms and formats of interactive literature. In the realm of visual novels and graphical adventures, too, there is a surprising diversity these days.

Nonetheless, though I thought his generalizations were way too general, Buckman’s not all wrong about CYOA and traditional parser IF. There’s a ton of fascinating work at the cutting edge, but a lot of that is coming about precisely because people are thinking about presenting options differently, dressing stories in different skins, and so on. I’d position Buckman’s pitch here not in contrast to what the IF and related communities are already doing, but as another natural contribution to this exploration of what all we can do.

Buckman’s second point is that it would be possible to explore a wide number of other emotional and play experiences by changing up how we display player choice, not just from one story to the next, but from one scene to another in the same story. He offers examples, and laudably they’re not just Photoshop mockups, but short playable sequences you can access on his site. Dialogue buttons change size and shape to communicate how the protagonist feels about saying those things. Boring options appear on just a to-do list to be checked off. In a time-pressured context, options pop up rapidly, obscuring old text. If some of this sounds familiar, you may have run into Buckman’s Gamer Mom at some point in the past. That work moves, expands, contracts buttons to reflect mood. Most of the concepts here have to do with implicitly and intuitively communicating the protagonist’s interior experience to the player without having to spell out how the protagonist feels about things, though there’s a curious minigame example about playing a difficult decision-making problem like a game of solitaire.

Some of Buckman’s mockups work better than others.

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