May 7, 2004

Teaching Interactive Narrative

by Michael Mateas · , 12:01 am

This Spring I taught Interactive Narrative. In this class, through a mixture of readings and projects, we survey the landscape of interactive narrative, examining the theoretical issues, debates and design issues that arise around different conceptions of interactive narrative. As I’ve discussed previously, the class is organized around technical genres (e.g. interactive fiction, author-based story generation, interactive drama), where a technical genre consists of a community of practice (history of work and criticism) organized around specific computational and design commitments.

The class is heavily project-based – 6 weeks of the class are spent in two 3 week design cycles, including in-class critique, in which students design and implement an interactive narrative. For these projects, students are free to explore/invent any form that interests them, as long as they can articulate in what sense it is interactive and (harder) in what sense it is narrative. We actually look at works along four design dimensions, in terms of interactivity, narrativity, segmentation and representation (as I discussed earlier).

I do spend some time in the class exploring the ludology/narratology debate.

I find this debate quite useful as a way to force people to think about what narrative means in the context of interactive work. It is far too easy for “narrative” to become so broad, so general, that it can mean everything and anything. In asking “In what sense is this work narrative?”, I don’t expect there to be a single answer that covers all cases, but I do want people to be able to articulate an answer in specific cases. And sometimes the answer is that a work has nothing to do with narrative, or invokes narrative so weakly that there’s little to be gained by engaging the work (either from a design or analysis perspective) as narrative. In order for “interactive narrative” to mean something, there have to be things that are not interactive narrative. Despite dissatisfactions regarding the ludology/narratology debate felt by both sides, I have found the debate helpful in forcing me to clarify, both in my own work as a theorist/practitioner and as a teacher, what the devil “narrative” could possibly mean in the context of interactive work. The debate is a corrective to a pie-in-the-sky, feel-good, “the world is full of stories; everything is narrative” attitude that is vague, sloppy, and worst, from the viewpoint of a theorist/practitioner, useless.

Relative to an earlier discussion about terminology for interactive “story-like” work, I use “interactive narrative” as an umbrella term to cover the entire space, and historically determined terms used by communities of practice for specific technical genres. So, for example, even though “interactive fiction” could potentially be applied more broadly, I use it only to refer to text-based work that one interacts with using a parser (Zork-like in form), since this is the term employed by the community of practice organized around this technical genre. There’s no reason to force some specific label to cover the entire space. Incidentally, one of the technical genres I don’t currently cover in the class is in fact “interactive storytelling”, the term that caused Andrew to start the earlier discussion. Interactive storytelling systems support the user in creating their own stories to share with others. The most common example are the digital photo systems that supposedly allow users to tell stories with their photos. Unfortunately, such systems tend to be little more than electronic scrapbooks – the sense of narrative is weak enough that I currently don’t include a discussion of these systems in the class.

One of the challenges in teaching the class is the breadth of material covered. Since we only spend a week or so on each genre, the students gain depth through working on the two projects. But gaining enough depth to critically engage a specific form is difficult. For example, both years I’ve taught this class, some students have chosen to do Inform-based interactive fiction for one of their projects, learning Inform on their own, with out-of-class help from me if they need it. Besides picking up Inform fast enough to do a three week project (something the students have done admirably), creating an informed (no pun intended) work of IF requires having played IF works fairly broadly. Students tend to have ideas that come up over-and-over again in IF, such as the unreliable player character, ironic commentary on the kleptomaniacy of the traditional text adventure, various forms of metalepsis, etc. To do these ideas justice, ideally they would have played the umpteen works that treat these various themes before writing their own work, but there just isn’t time (I try to point out one or two relevant works to students on a project-by-project basis).

Another challenge is the lack of tools. Many students in the class have low or moderate coding skills. Besides impacting their project choices, it limits what I can do with the smaller exercises. For example, ideally, for the morphological analysis exercise, I would have students implement their analyses as a story grammar. In class, we look at Propp’s grammar as an example. I’ve implemented part of Propp’s grammar in Prolog grammar rule syntax, which, besides revealing the woeful underdetermination of Propp’s analysis, allows me to talk about more modern approaches to story grammars, issues of hierarchical structure, issues of grounding the leaves of the grammar (how do you actually produce representational elements when the grammar grounds out, perhaps by invoking a simulation engine, etc.) and so forth. But even though the Prolog grammar formalism makes writing decomposition rules very easy, a prolog compiler and an emacs buffer is still not an appropriate tool for a one week exercise for students who are not all extremely comfortable with programming. Similarly, both years I’ve taught this class, students have become interested in the Universe model of story generation (author plans), and have implemented interactive works that make use of this model for their second projects. But much of their time is spent implementing an engine that is a weak copy of the Universe model. Ideally, I’d have a nice graphical authoring environment for both story grammars and author plans, allowing students to focus on the more interesting issue of how such models can be employed within interactive experiences. I have some tool-building plans for next year that should begin to address this issue.