Merging interaction and narrative

by Philip Webb on 20 December 2010

There has traditionally been a tension between the idea of interaction (doing something) and narrative(watching or reading something). The experience of consuming a great film or book isn’t necessarily a passive one but it does differ from the immersive experience of playing a game. And yet the possibilities to combine the two seem so promising.

The trouble is games often struggle to convey narrative – the story can seem bolted on as an afterthought or delivered at clumsy moments between levels. Similarly, attempts at interactive books where readers spontaneously choose the way plots evolve can be unsatisfying because constructing a linear story is an art that novelists spend a lifetime perfecting. Of course, there are notable exceptions such as multi-user games like World of Warcraft where the narrative is something players experience and influence through their participation. Here game designers act more as architects than authors – providing an open environment where the interactions form an unpredictable narrative drama.

The criticism levelled at the poor narrative in games is perhaps reflected by the trend to involve successful authors in game design such as Alex Garland, author of The Beach and writer of 28 Days Later and now the co-writer for new game Enslaved.

new-picture-3Getting the blend of narrative and interactionright in any form of entertainment is an exciting challenge facing designers. The European projectNM2 delivered a suite of production tools that allow designers to make entertainment with different levels of narrative structure and audience interaction to serve this appetite. For example,Gormenghast Explore is an interactive dramatisation of a BBC TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s sprawling epic Gormenghast which allowed viewers to explore Gormenghast Castle as a way of getting access to the stories of different characters. The showcase productions of the project are aimed at giving viewers control to explore the narrative in their own way so that it’s fresh and coherent with every new visit.

The trend towards convoluted long-running TV series like Battlestar Galactica, Lost and Heroes also suggests an appetite for shows with non-linear narratives. The NM2 production tools could allow such shows to be designed from scratch, allowing viewers to follow a particular character or sub-plot or remain in a fixed location.

For more about the relationship between narrative and interaction check out Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Murray or Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative by Mark Stephen Meadows.

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