Blog / White Paper: Interactive narrative - An emerging form

In a sense, all narrative is interactive. When someone is watching a film or reading a novel, they are interpreting the story and thus co-creating its meaning. Online, an interactive narrative is a form of narrative where there is a higher level of interaction than most narrative forms, between the author’s creation and the viewer/user. Whether or not this makes an interactive narrative a “good” story is another article. The purpose of today is to discuss and identify some physical forms of interactive narrative that can be experienced through digital media, given the emerging form.


Digital media has the capacity to truly invoke co-creation, where audiences participate in a more active and direct way. This ranges from projects where viewers/users can choose to experience parts of the story in a particular order, to a more involved participation that impacts the actual outcome of the story. Typically, an interactive narrative is experienced in an online environment, which I will call for convenience, the “story space”. A story space is the sum total of all the possible interactions that a viewer/user can have. Most of these are experienced through a web browser.

If we agree that an interactive narrative takes place in a story space, the experience of “story” becomes how a viewer/user interacts with the space. It is the logic and pattern recognition that we form in our own minds that keeps us amused or in suspense. In essence, the story is our understanding of the story space architecture. Therfore, the architecture of a story space is the plot. As NFB head Tom Perlmutter said at the International Women in Digital Media Summit 2011, "Navigation is to interactive [narrative] as montage is to cinema." The physical interaction, or navigation, becomes the key point of departure for the story.
If you think of a book or film, the form of the experience is very well understood. You pick up a book and read it; you sit in front of a movie and watch it. However, in a story space, there are very different expectations and understandings about how to experience the narrative. Interactive narratives can, and often do, include both text and video. It can lean on the same attributes as the other narrative forms, but can also expand it in the story space. Many of the interactive narratives we have examined are actually hybrids. So if the key aspect of narrative for digital projects is a story space, of course there are many attributes and properties to consider. For example, differences between stories versus games, or linear versus nonlinear. The complete list of identifying features for interactive narrative could be expanded to include more traditional notions as character, plot, setting, theme, genre, etc. This is not an exhaustive list. For the purposes of this article, we decided to look at a smaller set.
For our purposes, what are some of the high level properties of that particular story space? Janet Murray has thought deeply about this and includes a number of different properties that I think are useful. The story space for her is procedural, participatory, and spatial.
Procedural refers to the methods in which someone discovers the boundaries of the area they are exploring. Typically this is discovered through experience. It is the rules of the game. What happens when you do a particular action? What is the balance between structure and exploration?
Participatory refers to the idea that the viewer/user can move things around. In interactive narratives, the viewer actually takes a role within the story space. It is an invitation to act. Yet in a story space, what is the position of the viewer? Is it 3rd person? The answer is slightly more complex. Whether explicitly through user generated content, or through meaningful interaction, the point of view is closest to first person, even when the text is 3rd person. This is because the user is front row and centre in the experience. They are acting as the director in the same way a film director chooses the narrative of their film. Often the tension between the author’s control of the story and the user’s choice in the story give an additional richness to the experience.
The spatial property refers to both the actual world physics, such as they are, for example in an online world environment. But it also refers to the network as the connections between different nodes. For example, multiplayer games. It is the social aspect.
If we accept these high level properties, then the next stage is to look at what the specific attributes of a particular story space are. According to Siobhan O’Flynn, another thinker on interactive narrative, these have attributes of interface design, tactility, aesthetics and functionality.
Interface design refers to the specific way in which the viewer/user experiences the story space based on its physical navigation. This architecture establishes the nature of the interactive narrative experienc, and therefore create “story”. Through a web browser, the interface design is accessed through the frame of the browser. It could be zoomed with a scroll wheel, or clicked through with a mouse, the interface is the important way a viewer/user can control plot. In traditional narrative, the interface design is outside the construct of the narrative. One could argue that an arresting book cover is a function of interface design, but that is not the same as the importance of interface design in interactive narrative.
Tactility refers to the viewer/users physical feeling of place in the story space. It is the grounding and relational interaction with a viewer/user’s individual experience and the wider world (the story space) that they temporarily inhabit.
Aesthetic impression is also a key attribute of story space. It is the visual and tonal impression of a particular interactive narrative. While for some it can expand into the philosophy of art, in this context it is more about the viewer/user’s interpretive sensory appreciation, given that an interactive narrative could be designed with everything from cell phone video, creating a gritty urban feel; to a polished HD experience giving a much larger cinematic experience.
The functionality as defined by O'Flynn refers not only to the feature set, or what you can do, but also to the relative level of skill required to animate the interactive narrative. An axis of ease versus resistance gives a viewer/user an important attribute. Too easy and the viewer is unsatisfied; too hard and the viewer is unsatisfied. A careful blend is the most satisfying.
Given this preliminary list of properties and attributes, the last consideration is the physical architecture of a particular interactive narrative. Again, there is an endless hybrid of architectures available for a creator to use, but we have found some that are foundational.
Some common approaches/types of architecture are:
Train-track narrative (Example: Pine point)
These projects use a “train-track-like” navigation system, often in a chronological order. The user can select when to move to the next step of the experience, but it goes in a particular order. Users can move forward and backward.
Hub and spoke narrative (Examples: Standard Operating Procedure, Out My Window, The Iron Curtain Diaries 1989-2009, Soldier Brother)
These interactive narratives don’t require a viewer/user to experience it in a particular order. There is a main central hub that users navigate from, and they can choose which spokes to experience and in what order to do so. They are taken back to the hub, in between spoke experiences. Users can “pogo-stick” back and forth in the narrative.
String of Pearls/Foldback Model (Examples: Test Tube)
The “string of pearls” format is common in games but can also describe an interactive narrative. Essentially, what this involves is the viewer/user experiencing a certain portion of the story space (a “level”), completing tasks that the creator has invited the viewer/user to do, and then requiring a user to traverse through a specific door, or decision point, i.e. the “pearl”. Within the level, a viewer/user can complete missions in any order but can only continue to the next level once the required tasks are complete.
Open world narrative (Examples: World of Warcraft, Half-Life 2)
Similar to a string of pearls interactive narrative, an “open world” interactive narrative generally refers to a larger story space, akin to a skill-based virtual world. While other interactive narrative architectures can include game components such as rules, challenges, skill and strategy, the open world narrative typically is much more open to viewer/user interaction, as the game presents (apparently) an entire world to explore.  Partly the definition “open” is because of the more ambiguous rule set. It is not made always explicit. It may include levels or missions within the virtual world.

The forms and examples described above are common, but they are by no means the only examples of interactive narratives. There are many hybrid or fringe examples that defy general categories. And even more fundamentally, there are still different opinions within the community about what qualifies as interactive narrative. Essentially, the form is emerging and we are still trying to figure out what the norms are. One thing's for certain: given the explosion of fascinating and diverse interactive stories emerging, there will be no shortage of examples available to analyze and to build our understanding of interactive narrative theory.

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