If / Then : Writing Interactive Narratives

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.

Your next assignment will be to write your own interactive narrative that grapples with this paradox. To do so, you must first choose a story, and then choose an interactive structure, all the while making careful choices about the degree of user participation you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of narrative coherence.


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. You may use a prompt from the Steal Like an Artist Journal as inspiration (a few that seem ripe for possibility are assigned this week and next). But whatever content you choose, you will also have to plan the medium (interactive fiction? hypertext? game?) and the level of interactivity your narrative will possess.

Since I’d like you all to move beyond a peripheral narrative, as Marie-Laure Ryan defines it, so here are some starting off points:

  • 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 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.
    • In both of these types of narratives, the user’s role is “external exploratory,” where they manipulate the text but have limited effect on the narrative events; these types of narrative should therefore have a stronger story component.
  • Create a game in which the reader plays a character in the story and has an avatar in the world of the story, in the form of a quest narrative or detective / mystery story. In this form, you may make use of dialogue systems or cut scenes to progress the narrative, but the user’s choices should produce a variation on the fixed narrative frame.
  • For most of us, an emergent story generated on the fly out of data that comes in part from a system and in part from a user, is beyond our technical ability. But if you’re interested in a more bottom-up structural approach and can envision how to make it happen, feel free. One option would be to create an embodied interactive experience using physical materials in the real world, set up within some kind of narrative constraint, and film / record / document your participants interaction with those materials to create a narrative experience (such as Camille Utterback’s video installation piece, “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 (like the interactive poetry app Abra), 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
  • Degree of control

What Readers Crave:

  • A clear narrative
  • An in-depth story-line
  • 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.

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.

To that end, next Monday’s class will be a work day, to allow you maximum time to prepare your narrative. Next Wednesday, you all will provide feedback on working drafts of each other’s interactive narratives, which will be due in final form by Friday, November 17th. These projects will be graded just on completion, so take advantage of that to take risks and think big!


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