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Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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The Project of Interactive Narrative

Stories are embedded in human life – we need them to understand ourselves, to understand others, to understand our cultures and history. Movies have added powerful layers to our storytelling methods by introducing overwhelming visuals, sound, and music, and the fantasy of CGI and effects. Movies as stories have a unique capacity to thrill, to elicit physical reactions in screams, laughter and tears, and to take the character onscreen as ourselves.

Scholarly investigation into spectatorship in traditional, linear movies underscores the notion that viewers are not passive, static, receivers of information, but active, critical, engaged participants in the onscreen story. Viewers identify with characters across gender, across race, across sexual orientation, and with both heroes and villains. Viewers accept and reject character representations according to their own experiences and beliefs, absorbing those elements of the mythology that ring most true to them.

Nevertheless, conventional films are fixed in duration, in dialogue, and in plot sequencing. Each viewing may reveal a new perspective or dimension, but the experience remains essentially static; it’s a one-way street. Spectators are asked to identify with a character onscreen, but never fully become immersed as characters themselves; they possess no role in or ownership of the outcome of the film. The viewer, however engaged they may be, is never the author. It’s a closed system.

Interactive narrative seeks to continue and deepen viewer participation by immersing viewers in the story world and “suturing” them in as characters themselves. It strives to afford viewers agency in authorship. In doing so, interactive stories hope to shift viewers from experiencing a story world from the outside to offering an interior view – a more intimate perspective on the development of the narrative. Viewers, in this situation, not only identify with characters or narrative events; they can be the object of identification themselves.

Often, however, the implementation of interactivity plays as gimmicky. The enjoyment comes from the clicking of options, the entertainment of a kind of newfangled technology, rather than from this novel structure of storytelling.

Film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have famously defined narrative as “a chain of events in a cause-and-effect relationships occurring in time and space.

In many interactive works, including successful pieces like Highrise/One Millionth Tower, the cause-and-effect relationship becomes loose or unclear; the connection between one option and another is obscure. Highrise, for example, uses the exploration of a high-rise apartment building, with its various rooms and inhabitants, as a narrative metaphor for investigating the phenomenon of these “projects.” The viewer can choose to move from space to space, from narrative unit to narrative unit, and though a theme emerges from this navigation, the link between each individual choice feels arbitrary. The conflict – the heart of narrative – appears nonexistent. The narrative structure – this inescapable reliance on cause-and-effect – breaks down, and viewers so trained on this model can become frustrated or aloof rather than engaged.

Or, in other cases, the cause-and-effect relationship is so simplified and plain as to become trite and uninteresting. The branching-narrative zombie work The Outbreak, for example, relies on basic plot decisions (Stay or Leave? Kill him or Let him live?) with little development of character goals, fears, or backstory, so that the narrative stakes remain inconsequential. Nuance and sophistication are sacrificed for rote interaction. The function of interactivity, again, is more about the entertainment of button-clicking than engagement with character psychology or true narrative conflict.

It’s worth drawing upon theoretical approaches advanced in the early stages of classical avant-garde film as a means for understanding this similarly fledgling cinematic narrative development. Filmmaker, writer, and “godmother” of experimental film, Maya Deren, described the structural and grammatical difference between narrative and poetry:
The distinction of poetry is its construction… and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a 'vertical' investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means… it may also include action, but its attack is what I would call the vertical attack… in contrast to the horizontal attack of drama… In what is called a horizontal development the logic is a logic of actions. In a vertical development it is a logic of a central emotion or idea that attracts to itself even disparate images, which contain that central core, which they have in common.
In essence, Deren is theorizing something like the classical semiotic framework of the syntagm (horizontal) and paradigm (vertical) to understand cinematic language. The horizontal axis is the plane of plot and action. The vertical axis explores metaphor, symbol, emotion, theme, character psychology, etc. The vertical “does not move on but moves back and around, as an alternative to the conventional 'horizontal attack' that is linear and consecutive, operates through cause and effect and strives for a conclusion." Just as non-narrative experimental film seeks to explore the vertical as a primary focus of the work, to tease out emergent patterns and unexpected connections, so nonlinear interactive narrative strives to blend both vertical and horizontal meanings.

The evolution of theory on interactive narrative builds upon Deren’s work, consciously or not. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich sets up the opposition between narrative and the database, the two fundamental elements of interactive stories: “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. In this formulation, the database represents the paradigm of semiotics (Deren’s vertical), while the narrative – the stringing together of elements in the database, or signs – is the syntagm (Deren’s horizontal). While Manovich goes on to argue that interactive narrative finds a way to bring these “enemies” to a kind of harmony, he nevertheless identifies the tension for creating engagement in such works: producing narrative meaning from a “list” in the database.

This intersection of the horizontal/syntagmatic and the vertical/paradigmatic is the crux of interactive work – to create greater immersion in a cinematic experience by exploring the deeper meanings of the paradigmatic through interactivity on the syntagmatic. Interactive narrative stumbles, however, when as in the examples described above, paradigmatic links are sacrificed in favor of the syntagmatic.

These interactive works certainly have value, and require engagement in ways other than those dictated by traditional narrative. They rely on the viewer’s pattern recognition skills and willingness to explore and play. They ask for openness, diligence, and commitment. But in terms of engaging the viewer in more conventional affective ways – those that use, but expand on, more traditional means of engagement, especially at the emotional level – interactive narrative often falls short. Many interactive online works remain at surface level in terms of affective engagement. Works that employ crowdsourcing, we argue, help to bridge many of these gaps.
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