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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Money and Ambition

Victor Gijsbers recently posted about the peculiar comments “The Baron” has received: viz., that an independently designed, morally thoughtful game isn’t “feasible” in the present market conditions — even though “The Baron” exists and therefore has passed the feasibility test in the only meaningful sense.

For a long time I, like Victor, have been annoyed by the “market forces tell all” mentality that says that projects are only successful when they earn money and that artists prove their artistic credentials by selling their material widely. This tends to be contrasted with the “critical success” method of determining the value of material: something is good if it elicits the praise and admiration of a small cadre of those whose opinions matter. Bonus points if cat-fights arise between competing groups of critics.

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Art in Competition

One of the questions I semi-routinely get asked on interviews about interactive fiction is whether I think the annual IF Comp is a good thing for the community. I find the question hard to answer: the competition is so essential to the community identity that I have a hard time imagining it away, and besides, my opinion wouldn’t change anything; it’s like someone asking whether the human body would be more aesthetically appealing if it didn’t have a spine.

Nonetheless, I’m constantly conscious of the con arguments brought up a few times a year: that the competition siphons off attention from other games released at other times; that it produces a trend towards small games rather than epic works; that there is something wrong or unfair about the voting scheme (opinions vary on what that might be); and — my least favorite — that “real” artforms, like novels and paintings, are not produced primarily for competition, and that therefore competition is an unhealthy or unnatural context for artistic production, and we’d be better off without it. (Here we touch another of my pet peeves: people who make sweeping statements about “real” art are usually talking about [what they know about] commercialized artistic production in the early 21st century. I run into something similar with freshman mythology students: they’re often convinced that “originality” is the defining feature of good art, and so object to the fact that ancient authors reused mythological material. Their conceptions about literature have been shaped by market forces and copyright law in ways they don’t recognize. They also, if pressed, don’t have a very clear idea of what originality means, other than perhaps refraining from reusing the same plot and cast of characters from another work.)

Lately I’ve been reading two books that have helped clarify my visceral sense about this problem into something I can articulate.

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IF in the ACM literature, Part Four

I’ve been saving these for last, because they’re really the juiciest: a couple of articles authored or co-authored by Mark Bernstein.

Bernstein is the founder of Eastgate Systems, a company promoting serious hypertext. They sell a small but — within the hypertext community — highly respected collection of hypertext fiction and nonfiction, at serious book prices: much of it runs from $25 to $45. And they produce and sell Storyspace, a tool for hypertext creation. This is a niche market: the major works are self-consciously literary or pedagogical, and I think it would be fair to say that IF in general is a more populist form. At the same time, hypertext is a more successful niche market than IF: how many of us are selling IF game files at $45 a pop? how many would feel ballsy enough to try? And, leaving aside the commercial, hypertext also gets studied more extensively by academia, taught in more new media courses, and generally considered more serious.

Some of this has to do with accidents of community — with the sorts of people who happened to be drawn into creating each kind of thing, and with the ways in which they framed and presented their finished products. But I also think the media favor different kinds of content, and it’s interesting to look at why.

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