Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You put the 'active' in 'interactive'.

The first day of class we defined narrative as “the representation of an event or a series of events”. While helpful as a starting point, this definition is in no way definite. It still leaves several questions open. Among others: Does the representation need an ‘author’ to put it together? Do the events have to be in a certain order? And more specific to our purposes here, can a narrative truly be interactive with the audience? To start out simply: yes, yes, and sometimes.

The author of a narrative is simply whoever brings it into being. It can be a literal author, or it can be a person holding a video camera, or someone telling what happened to them earlier that day, but there is always someone. This is because a narrative is a representation of an event or series of events and not the event itself. Therefore someone must be there to mediate between the event and its representation. If there is no author, there is no narrative, just the original event or, in the case of fiction, nothing at all.

As for the order of the events being represented, they do have to come in a certain order. With the presence of an author comes intentionality. When an author creates a narrative, he or she gives it shape by the way he or she represents the event or events. Now that is not to say that there is only one set way to represent any given event, but in creating the narrative, the author chooses to put one event before another. If the story is retold in the reverse order, then that is simply a new narrative representing the same series of events.

Now ‘interaction’ is another tricky term to throw around. Breaking down the word, we have ‘inter-‘ and ‘-action’. The latter is fairly plain, but ‘inter-‘ deserves some elaborating. Meaning ‘between or among’, it implies that there must be at least two parties involved. In this case there are the narrative and the audience. So an interaction, by definition, requires action on the part of both parties. According to this then, traditional narratives like novels or films don’t count because the audience is passive rather than active. The audience simply receives the narrative rather than actively exerting any force on it.

But what about something like Zork or a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book? Are these interactive types of narratives? I would argue that the narrative of CYOA books, while more primitive technologically, are actually interactive whereas ironically enough the narratives of Zork and other interactive fiction games are not actually interactive. The CYOA books are interactive narratives because they fit the criteria of both narrative and interaction. They are clearly narratives because they represent a series of events, they each have an author, and the events take place in a certain order. Now, this last point may be a bit questionable. Yes the reader gets to make choices as to the direction of the plot, but at each juncture there are only a few options to choose from, and these choices were specifically chosen by the author and reflect the author’s intentionality in creating the structure of the narrative. If instead of picking one of the provided choices the reader just turned to a random page, the structure of the narrative would break down and it would create a new narrative in place of the one intended by the author. It would also probably make far less sense than the author’s original narrative. But these choices given to the reader by the author do allow for interactivity with the narrative. By picking one of the provided choices, the reader exerts an active force on the narrative. Then the narrative exerts a force back in the form of the next page or two of story that leads to the next choice. This then creates an interaction between the narrative and the audience. Each is actively exerting a force on the other.

On the other hand, interactive fiction games like Zork do not allow interaction with the narrative. They do allow interaction with the game, but here the game and the narrative must be distinguished from one another. Each of these games has a plot, a narrative, that once you have finished the game, should a friend ask you what happened you would recount to them. “Well the Princess got captured by a dragon and I had to collect the three holy weapons so that I could fight the dragon and rescue the Princess.” This is the narrative of the game, and no matter how long you spend playing the game, in order to finish you have to play through this narrative. If you were to explain to your friend that you traveled north into the forest and then traveled west to a grove and there you tried to climb a tree, but the game said that none of the branches were low enough to grab a hold of, then you would be describing your interaction with the game, not with the narrative. Your ability or inability to climb the tree doesn’t change the fact that you have to collect the three holy weapons so that you can fight the dragon and rescue the Princess. The game and your interaction with it is just a puzzle that, solved correctly, allows you to systematically progress through the narrative in a certain order. But since neither the order nor the outcome of the narrative is mutable, it is not interactive.

Now each form has its merits. The interactive nature of the Choose Your Own Adventure books allows for repeated readings that can each result in unique endings, at least as many as are written. The interactive fiction games, on the other hand, provide a greater challenge to the player. This challenge would be diminished if the narrative were actually interactive. The point of the game is to figure out the one and only way to progress through the narrative and save the Princess. The more options you have, the less difficult it becomes. The less difficult it is, the less point there is to playing and the less is your sense of triumph when you finally save the Princess after hours and hours of game play and literally hundreds of untimely deaths.

(Note: I am not actually playing Zork. I am playing another game called Firebird so the plot I describe with the dragon and the Princess is merely for demonstrative purposes. I just picked something generic so it would be easy to follow.)


Charity said...

I don't know what to say in order to improve this, because it is incredibly thought out and I think it's already really good. Your definitions of narrative and interaction are clear and simple, and I think you did a good job of explaining why the choose your own adventure books are interactive narratives because they fit both of those definitions, and why Zork doesn't work in the same way, though it also fits those definitions.

One thing though that kindof threw me off was in your introduction, you say "this definition is in no way definite. It still leaves several questions open. Among others: Does the..." The word other confused me at first. It made me think that you're not talking about the questions that you have from the definition, but I understand what you were saying. Maybe just use different wording, like "among those" instead of "among others." And I know that's not a big concern in regards to improving your essay, that just threw me off at first.

Other than that, I hate to be not helpful but I really don't know how your essay could be better. I don't think that you really need to add anything because you expressed your whole point, and if you take anything out then we'll be missing out on valuable information.

Adam Johns said...

Charity - one strategy to follow when you think something is already effective is to think of unanswered questions and/or counterarguments. Nothing is ever done.

Matt - I like your opening questions, although I could easily make a case for having fewer of them. I mostly like what you write on authorship, but I don't like the idea that authorship=mediation, at least not without some additional explanation.

Your discussion of interaction is, I think, strong - and I have a good idea of where you're going with this.

Your discussion of CYOA games and interactive fiction is good in principle, but you aren't testing yourself -- and, curiously, the notion of authorship drops away. For CYOAs, you might have revised to include books - e.g., *Pillars of Pentagern* where "order" is a more problematic notion." More significantly, you simply assert that the plot happens in a fixed order in interactive fiction. This is far from obvious - for instance, I can assemble the treasures in Zork in a very different order from game to game. Doesn't that effect the order?

These aren't insurmountable difficulties, but it would have been nice to see you work harder with the details of your game...