May 21, 2003

The Space of Interactive Narrative

by Michael Mateas · , 10:35 am

Last semester I taught a course on interactive narrative. One of the challenges in teaching such a course is presenting a unifying framework within which the many computer-based “story-like things” that people have made can be understood as a unity, as all being instances of interactive narrative. (The alternative is to present a hodge-podge of approaches to interactive narrative, but this isn’t nearly as much fun.) My approach was to present a design space organized around four degrees of freedom:

While in principle the choices along these dimensions can be made independently, historically the choices are organized by technical genres. A technical genre is a specific computational narrative tradition, with a history of work and criticism, that tends to make a coordinated set of specific design commitments along these dimensions. This can be made clear with some examples.

Interactive fiction (“Zork-like” text-based interactive experiences in which the player types commands and moves around a world) is a technical genre. As a genre of interactive narrative, IF makes the following design commitments:

The “technical” part of technical genre means that the design commitments are embodied in a specific ways of relating to computation, that is, specific technical practices. For example, IF languages such as Inform and TADS make it easy to create places and objects, and to write many snippets of descriptive prose that are appropriately displayed as the player moves around in the world and changes the state of objects.

The IF design commitments above are the canonical commitments – many modern IF works explicitly push against one or more of these canonical commitments, by, for example, changing the role of the player character (making it more than a puppet manipulated by the player), or making the experience feel more story-like during play rather than the storyness being purely a property of the retelling. But the canonical commitments of the technical genre shape what experiments will be tried within the genre precisely by providing a position to push against.

As another example, offered without comment, the technical genre of hypertext makes the following canonical commitments:

Segmentation is the dimension where authorial considerations (narrative design – what are the pieces of my story) most intimately intersects with implementation considerations (code design – what are the pieces of my code). Authoring tools, such as Inform or StorySpace, tend to freeze this relationship by offering a language/tool that makes a specific kind of story piece (e.g. a physical object, a text node) have a clean, one-to-one relationship with code structures (e.g. the object-oriented representation of a physical object in Inform). This is powerful in that the authoring tool itself embodies the design wisdom of a technical genre, but limiting in that the tool inhibits radical movement into other parts of the design space. Different points in the design space require novel architectural elaborations; the process of conceiving of novel story segmentations requires a simultaneous concern with authorial and implementation considerations.

When thinking about the entire space of things that might be called interactive narrative, what approaches have other people found useful?