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Interactive Narrative

Entry updated 29 September 2020. Tagged: Game, Theme.

The outcome of any given game is inherently uncertain, since it must be possible to win or lose (or, in the case of Toy Games, to play at will). Yet stories, as normally understood, should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and only one of each. Games which include stories – referred to in this encyclopedia as Interactive Narratives – have thus proved difficult to design. There has also been considerable debate as to whether it is desirable, or even possible, that games have stories. This question was a frequent subject for dispute between Wargame players and Role Playing Game enthusiasts in the 1970s, for example, with the former group emphasizing the importance of simulational accuracy over narrative and the latter taking the opposite position. More recently, the growing commercial importance of Videogames has led to the appearance of academics dedicated to "game studies", who have historically divided into "ludological" and "narrativist" camps. Broadly, the first group view games as formal systems of rules, and have on occasion suggested that Videogames should not attempt to tell stories, as in Jesper Juul's PhD thesis, A Clash between Game and Narrative (2001). Narrativists, on the other hand, typically begin their consideration of games from the viewpoint of narratological theory, a tradition of literary analysis which can be said to begin with the Russian formalists of the 1920s and Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale ["Morfologija Skaski"] (1928 chap in Russian). Thus Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997) contains something of a manifesto for the future of interactive digital narrative, based on a structural view of the elements of story. Other narrativists have taken the position that all games are essentially narrative in nature since the act of playing any game creates a story which the player can retell, a point which, while valid, seems of little practical significance. Regardless of the details of the academic debate, it seems clear that many modern games contain detailed characters, complex settings intended to express significant themes, and predesigned plots which allow explicitly or implicitly for various narrative paths to be taken depending on the actions of the players. Such features are more important in some forms than others; story and characterization seem especially significant in Gamebooks, RPGs, Adventures and Computer Role Playing Games, and can also be important in Computer Wargames and First Person Shooters. Thus, it seems reasonable to consider the types of Interactive Narrative present in such works.

Various categorization schemes have been devised for game narratives, generally concentrating on Videogames. In Avatars of Story (2006), Marie-Laure Ryan attempts to extend narratological theory to encompass non-traditional forms of narrative, including interactive ones. Unfortunately, her analysis of such stories is not especially detailed. Almost all the works considered in this encyclopedia fall into her "Internal-Ontological" category, corresponding to narratives in which the player takes the part of a character in the story, the outcome of which can be changed by their actions. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) by Espen Aarseth contains a more complex theory which is, however, perhaps better suited to text-based Videogame forms such as Interactive Fiction and Multi User Dungeons than to Interactive Narratives in general. Professional Videogame designers and writers typically distinguish between three main types of narrative: linear, or impositional (in which the story proceeds from beginning to end much as it might in a novel), multilinear, or branching (where the plot contains a number of possible paths which can be followed by the player) and open (referring to games for which the possible patterns of story have not been mapped out in detail). A good summary of these categories, from a somewhat hostile perspective, can be found in Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling (2004), by Chris Crawford. This classification, while helpful, does not seem to adequately cover the variety of forms seen in modern games. Since none of these authors appears to provide a complete categorization, this encyclopedia employs an original schema based on the identification of common patterns in various types of game and "interactive literature", influenced by several sources but especially by terms used in Videogame design. The forms of narrative included in this model are:

Frame: This refers to a fictional setting, possibly including a short story, Comic or piece of Full Motion Video, which provides context for a game but is not important during actual play and is not itself interactive. Examples include many early Videogames, such as Space Invaders (1978), for which background was supplied in a printed booklet or on the side of an arcade cabinet, and sf and fantasy Wargames, which typically concentrate on simulating fictional battles rather than telling stories. Such narrative frames can be strikingly detailed and evocative, as in the extensive universe constructed to support Warhammer 40,000 (1987).

Embedded: An embedded narrative is one which occurs before the game begins, and which is split up into fragments which the player can reassemble into a coherent story as they are discovered. Interactive Narratives of this form can resemble detective stories, though the goal is generally not to solve any specific mystery but instead simply to reconstruct the past. Perhaps the most famous example is the fantasy Adventure Myst (1993), in which the player must explore several "Ages" accessible through various unusual books in order to understand the events which led to the magical imprisonment of the major characters. Sf games with embedded narratives include The Dig (1995), with its mysteriously vanished alien civilization, and Bioshock (2007), set in an underwater city which has been devastated by an initially inexplicable catastrophe.

Explorable: Explorable narratives resemble conventional stories in that there is only one sequence of events connecting a single beginning and end, but differ from them by allowing a reader (or viewer) to traverse those events in more than one order. Thus it might be possible to start with a single character's name and follow a variety of paths leading from that point until the entire plot has been explored. This approach is commonly found in Hypertext fictions, such as Geoff Ryman's non-sf 253 (1996 Web), each section of which is concerned with one of the 253 passengers and staff on board a London Underground train which is about to crash. SF examples include the first two Infocomics releases.

Linear: Linear narratives are often described as having a "string of pearls" structure, a phrase which appears to have originated with Jane Jensen. The plot proceeds in a broadly straightforward fashion from beginning to end, with each major narrative event represented by the string between two pearls, or nodes. Within each of these jewels, however, players are generally free to approach the game as they wish, until they have performed whatever actions are necessary to move on to the next node, advancing one step further in the overall plot. Linear stories are perhaps the simplest of all narrative forms which – unlike the frame, embedded and explorable types – allow the player to interact with the ongoing plot, and are the most commonly used approach in Videogame design. This simplicity, however, can lead to some players feeling unduly confined by the game's structure, since they are only free to act between narratively significant events. Notable Videogame examples include the Adventure The Longest Journey (1999), the Console Role Playing Game Xenogears (1998) (see Computer Role Playing Games) and the Real Time Strategy game Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (2001). Linear narratives are also common in the predesigned plots included in RPG modules; an award-winning example is the Traveller adventure Twilight's Peak (1980 Game Designers' Workshop [GDW]) designed by Marc Miller, which deals with the discovery of a Forerunner site.

Multilinear: The multilinear form is a natural development of the linear one, converting the simple string into a branching tree of possibilities. This allows participants to take a variety of different paths through the plot, depending on what choices they make – fight or flee, befriend or betray – at the predefined points which correspond to a branch. Several problems exist with this approach. It is clearly unfeasible to create a branch for every choice which a player might wish to make, and many options which should be physically possible would in any case produce an unconvincing and unsatisfying story. Multilinear designs therefore tend to offer a limited number of choices, many of which loop back to nodes which have been previously encountered, or diverge only to recombine, thus reducing the amount of planning necessary. For example, players might find themselves exiled from their homes whether or not they chose to kill their father's murderer. Such limitations, however, can result in some players feeling constrained by the plot, though this is certainly less common than with linear narratives. Some Videogames attempt to resolve this issue by constructing several different multilinear plots which interconnect, at the expense of markedly increasing the complexity of the design. This latter approach, which is sometimes referred to as a "threaded" or "web" story architecture, is most often seen in Computer Role Playing Games. Notable Videogames which use multilinear narratives include the historical murder mystery The Last Express (1997) (see Adventures), the broodingly philosophical epic Planescape: Torment (1999) (see Computer Role Playing Games) and the science-fictional Deus Ex (2000) and Chrono Cross (1999) (see Chrono Trigger). Multilinear plotting is also the standard method used to construct Gamebooks, and appears in such RPG adventures as John M Ford's The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (1985) (see Paranoia).

Modular: Modular stories are constructed from a number of largely independent "modules", in a similar manner to the separate episodes of a picaresque novel. While Hamlet on the Holodeck suggests the use of sections of plot which can be assembled in different orders and still form a coherent narrative – a concept inspired by techniques used in traditional oral storytelling – actual examples of modular Interactive Narrative have generally placed the individual modules in different physical locations which can be visited by the player in whatever order they prefer. These modules may make up the major part of the game's plot (perhaps positioned between a single beginning and a single ending), or they may represent separate "side stories" which the player can choose to involve themselves with if they wish. Players are generally not required to participate in every such episode in order to reach an ending. Works which make good use of this technique include the Fabled Lands series of Gamebooks, the sf Videogames Fallout (1997) and Star Control II (1992) (see Star Control) and the RPG adventure Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) (see Call of Cthulhu).

Emergent: Arguably, playing any game which includes recognizable characters and settings can cause a narrative to spontaneously emerge in the mind of the player. This viewpoint seems of little use for practical analysis of narrative form, however, so this encyclopedia uses the term to refer solely to games in which the emergence of story is encouraged by design. Typically, this requires the existence of a clear goal which the player is attempting to achieve, considerable freedom of choice as to how that end might be accomplished, and personalities which the player can identify with and be opposed by. Successful emergent narratives are rare, but Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999) is an interesting example of a game which appears to have been carefully crafted to achieve the effect, with the parts of human characters being taken by entire civilizations. A somewhat similar approach is employed in the impressive epic fantasy game King of Dragon Pass (1999 A Sharp, Mac, Win) designed by David Dunham, Robin Laws, Greg Stafford, a combination of 4X Game and mythic quest set in the same world as the RPG RuneQuest (1978). King of Dragon Pass, however, focuses on groups of individual characters rather than personalized cultures, treating those characters as parameters supplied to abstract templates which express potential narrative structures. A weaker form of emergent narrative can be seen in a number of other works, such as UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994) (see X-Com), in which players often identify strongly with the soldiers they lead through a long campaign.

Environmental: The basic concept behind the environmental approach is to create a "story-rich environment" containing characters, background details and short missions for the players to perform, in the expectation that a story will then evolve. It differs from the emergent form primarily by not including a strong goal and not attempting to deliberately guide the evolution of a narrative. Environmental techniques have generally been unsuccessful at creating a sense of story in single-player games; an instructive demonstration of the potential problems is provided by Battlecruiser 3000 AD (1996). However, the approach can work well when several players participate (allowing them to compete against or cooperate with each other, which encourages the formation of memorable stories) and especially when an individual is deliberately attempting to shape the development of a narrative, in the manner of a Gamemaster. The environmental approach is the most common one in persistent Online Worlds, such as EVE Online (2003). It also appears in RPG supplements which present comprehensive descriptions of a location and its inhabitants as well as "seeds" for adventures which might occur there. The first such supplement was City State of the Invincible Overlord (1976 Judges Guild; rev 1978; rev 1987; rev 2004) designed by Bob Bledsaw, a detailed description of a fantasy city which was also the origin of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy game world (see Role Playing Games). A science-fictional example is Cloud Captains of Mars (1989 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, which describes a Martian city for the Steampunk game Space: 1889 (1988).

Generative: The generation of narrative is the ultimate goal of many Videogame theorists, though it is perhaps less popular amongst working designers. The intention is to create narrative as the game is being played, in response to whatever actions the players may take. Clearly, this approach is central to the play of both Alternate Reality Games and RPGs, where human "PuppetMasters" (see Alternate Reality Games) and Gamemasters shape the story that emerges from the game. While these mediators generally use predesigned plots – which are typically linear, multilinear, modular or environmental in form – their own skills and talents are vital to the success of the enterprise. Producing similar results using computer software has proved to be extremely difficult, and could conceivably require the creation of artificial intelligences possessing capabilities equivalent to those of a human being (see AI). A number of books have been published containing proposals for constructing such systems, which essentially require the algorithmic simulation of a storyteller. One well-known example is Brenda Laurel's Computers As Theatre (1991), which suggests the use of an "expert system" based on a human playwright to mediate human computer interactions, considered as dramatic performances. Unfortunately, making effective use of such ideas in Videogames seems quite unfeasible given the current state of the art in computer science. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling contains a much more detailed proposal which has been implemented as the "Storytron", though to date this technology has not produced any clear successes. Similarly, various products of artificial intelligence research, of which one of the most recent is the "relationship simulator" Façade (2005 Procedural Arts, Win; 2006 Mac) designed by Michael Mateas, Andrew Stern, have generally failed to create convincing stories. Perhaps the most successful example of generative narrative in Videogames to date is the "human dollhouse" game The Sims (2000) (see Toy Games), though it is arguable to what extent it actually creates stories as opposed to producing behaviours which players interpret as narrative.

Many actual Interactive Narratives employ more than one of these approaches, including a number of the games mentioned above. For example, the First Person Shooter Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) makes use of both multilinear and modular techniques, while the text Adventure Trinity (1986) follows a linear path at the beginning and end of the plot, but employs a modular structure for the remainder of the game. Forms other than Videogames also frequently include more than one type of narrative. Thus, Hypertext fictions such as Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995 ebook) – a homage to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818; rev 1831) – often combine multilinear branches with explorable sequences. Similarly, RPG adventures may be both multilinear and modular, as in the blackly comic Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986) (see RPGs), comprising The Enemy Within (1986 Games Workshop [GW]), Shadows Over Bögenhafen (1987 GW), Death on the Reik (1987 GW), Power Behind the Throne (1988 GW), Something Rotten in Kislev (1989 GW) and Empire in Flames (1989 GW), variously designed by Jim Bambra, Graeme Davis, Phil Gallagher, Ken Rolston and Carl Sargent.

It is interesting to note that, of the nine types of narrative listed above, in the first three the actual sequence of events which make up the story is fixed, while in the remaining six it is mutable. (Arguably, linear narratives should also be categorized as having a fixed story, since only events which are of no great importance to the narrative can be affected by the player in this form.) If the frame approach is discounted on the grounds that it is actually a non-interactive form of narrative used to provide context for an interactive game, the various categories divide into two groups: one (containing the linear, multilinear, modular, emergent, environmental and generative types) in which the sequence of events can change, and one (consisting only of the embedded and exploratory forms) in which the events are fixed but the participant may experience them in a variety of different orders. In essence, this is the difference between a story and its telling, or (in narratological theory) between the series of incidents which form the "story" and the manner of their presentation to the reader, or "discourse". This distinction is also the same as that made in Ryan's Avatars of Story between "ontological" and "exploratory" forms of Interactive Narrative.

Other approaches to the categorization of forms of Interactive Narrative are possible. One option is to consider the status of the player, who generally adopts either the role of an actor (participating directly in the narrative) or a director (who shapes the action while not being personally involved). The actor approach could be further subdivided into single- and multi-role categories, corresponding to games in which the player takes the part of a single character and ones in which the player controls several, as in many Computer Role Playing Games. Similarly, the director form could be split into a manipulator type (in which the player controls events from offstage, as in The Sims) and an observer one (where a reader explores the narrative, as in Hypertext fiction). This scheme largely corresponds to Avatars of Story's division between "internal" and "external" types of Interactive Narrative, though they are not precisely equivalent; Ryan's definitions conflate the viewpoint used in a Videogame with the player's status. Thus, her "external" type requires the player to both have a detached overhead view and to control events in the manner of a manipulator.

Similarly, types of narrative can be distinguished by their implicit use of tense. Thus, mutable stories occur in present tense narratives – as commonly used in games – while immutable ones appear in the past tense, corresponding to the frame, embedded and exploratory forms described earlier. This classification does, however, suffer from the fact that Hypertext narratives – conventionally presented in the past tense – often include multilinear branches, suggesting that in digital literature, at least, the past is not unchangeable.

It is impossible to guess which directions the art of constructing an Interactive Narrative might take in the future. However, it seems possible that highly responsive forms such as emergent stories will become more important, since they seem better suited to the inherently interactive nature of games. Generative narrative, however, appears likely to remain restricted to types of game which can be mediated by humans for the foreseeable future, given the difficulties involved in algorithmically simulating a skilled storyteller. Even in relatively well understood (and not very interactive) forms such as the linear narrative, a degree of Coleridge's "willed suspension of disbelief" is often necessary on the part of a Videogame player in order to accept the frequently repetitive or impersonal behaviour of minor characters. An analogy, perhaps, is the implied contract between audiences and actors in the theatre which prevents the watchers from intruding upon the stage, or noticing the falseness of the backdrops. Regardless, the increasing importance of story in the highly profitable Videogame market suggests that considerable effort will be expended on both the form and content of such narratives. [NT]

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