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Database | Narrative | Archive

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

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What is Interactivity?

Interactivity opens the narrative system from a director/viewer relationship to one in which the viewer becomes a viewer/maker. In these works, the viewer both experiences and “makes” the work by participating in options that shift the course of the narrative.

Interactive work relies on a database of elements that are called up by user actions – and, in the case of crowdsourcing, those elements are the collected contributions of international users. “The narrative is constructed by linking elements of this database in a particular order,” Manovich explains, “i.e. designing a trajectory leading from one element to another. On the material level, a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is more virtual than the database itself."

For Manovich, interactivity in new media reverses the conventional literary and cinematic narrative structure, in which the syntagmatic level – the signs, the events of the story – are made explicit and obvious, and the paradigmatic – the other layers of meaning – are implicit. “New media does not radically break with the past,” he says, “it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa." Interactive narrative, then, enables the user to create meaningful order from the database. “An interactive narrative... can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database."

AsMark Stephen Meadows outlines in his deconstruction of interactivity in Pause and Effect, the core of interaction is governed by rules – rules that the viewer can come to understand and use to drive their interactive experience. Central to these rules is the feedback loop created by the user’s input. Interactivity enables the user to shape the narrative experience, to customize it to their curiosity, instincts, empathy, and problem-solving abilities.

Meadows further identifies four steps of the interactive process: observation, exploration, modification, and reciprocal change. In this process, the “reader” starts by observing and assessing the interactive environment. Then, he tries something – he explores the possibilities, seeing what kinds of changes different actions effect. As the reader learns the rules, he modifies the system, leaping from the state of “unintentional discovery to conscious change." Lastly, the system reciprocally changes the reader – the reader adapts and evolves again as the narrative is modified.

With the semantic web, tagging further serves as an interactive means for traversing a database a producing a narrative. As users tag elements, they produce an understanding of how they’ve made meaning from the items in the database – indeed, they determine the meaning of the narrative they’ve interactively generated. Tags determine the paradigmatic significance of each element, and enable multiple meanings and valences to be assigned to each element. Tagging becomes a fundamental element in interactively connecting the syntagmatic and paradigmatic levels of interactive meaning.

In this narrative system, the reader/viewer/user becomes a collaborator in the storytelling process. Ideally, as a collaborator, the user gains investment, immersion, and ownership of the story and its outcome, and even functions as a character within the interactive story world.
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