If, Then: Writing Interactive Narratives

As we’ve said, the defining feature of an interactive narrative is active user participation: you must have a story, but your reader must participate in its progress or outcome. As we’ve seen from our reading, there are a variety of ways to engage your readers in your narrative, and a spectrum of how deeply you allow that reader input to penetrate the narrative.

For this assignment, I’ve tasked you with choosing a prompt from your creative kleptomaniac journal as the seed of your inspiration; which prompt you choose and what you do with it, digitally, is entirely up to you. A few that seem ripe for interactive possibilities:

  • Climb up your creative family tree
  • Diagram a conversation
  • Barista tip jar wars
  • Letter to an alien
  • Slay your fears

Whatever the content of your analog activity, your interactive narrative may take the form of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. You may choose to tell a personal story, to put forth a persuasive argument, or to create an informative experience.

As I see it, there are a few structures from our readings you could consider emulating:

  • Create a traditional text-based narrative in a tree structure, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” mystery, or puzzle-solving model, using a software such as Twine, InkleWriter, or Inform 7 if you’re feeling really ambitious.
  • Create a hypertext narrative that follows a “network” structure, with a finite collection of text components that allows the reader to progress through the narrative segments in a variety of ways (by linking various webpages through hyperlinks).
  • Create an interactive multimedia experience that provides a more peripheral reader experience, using a program like Zeega, Cowbird, or others, that moves your reader through a narrative with limited input (remember that if you choose this option, the limitation should be a part of the narrative’s significance).
  • Create a physical / embodied interactive experience using physical materials in the real world, set up within some kind of constraint, and film / record / document your participants interaction with those materials to create a narrative experience (such as “Text Rain”).

Whichever option you choose, I want you to think carefully about the central concerns of interactive narratives raised by Emily Short and Marie Laure-Ryan: how will your piece be satisfying in terms of narrative, and in terms of player participation / agency?

Will you constrain player agency and make that constraint a part of the narrative? Will you center the interactive component on challenging what the player-reader feels comfortable doing? Will you task your reader with overcoming obstacles and solving puzzles, to create a sense of agency even if only to uncover more data? Or will your narrative be focused more on deep exploration or responding to the text as a prose object, eschewing traditional narrative arcs?

In Monday’s class, you all experienced different versions of this central balancing act by engaging with a few interactive narratives. Here are some of your observations in terms of what you enjoyed, and what frustrated you as a reader / player.

What Readers Enjoy:

  • Structure that still allows for exploration
  • A goal system
  • Relative freedom
  • Solving puzzles
  • An open-world concept
  • Allowed creativity
  • Color / font / visual choices
  • Degree of control

What Readers Crave:

  • A clearer narrative
  • A more in-depth storyline
  • More guidance / instruction / orientation

What Frustrates Readers

  • A lack of narrative
  • A lack of user control
  • Getting lost in the narrative or game space
  • Getting stuck / being unable to solve a problem

These are the criteria for this assignment; how will you work to make your reader enjoy this experience? I don’t expect you to hit every mark, or avoid every frustration, but to think about balance, and make careful choices.

The choice is yours, but I want to see a clear one, and it will be important, in your artist’s statement, to justify the purpose of any sacrifices you made to a satisfying narrative experience or to reader agency.

Working in a group is, as always, an option. Given the complicated narrative structure and possible technical complexity, I would strongly consider working with one or two other people, especially if you choose a more branching narrative structure, or if you choose to undertake learning a new software to create your narrative.

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