Hypertext narrative contrasted with interactive fiction

As I continue to figure out the different types of interactive storytelling out there, this dialogue between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein was helpful:

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

UPDATE: Mark Rickerby gets at something similar:

The core distinction [between parser games and choice fiction] is between the story unfolding through actions modifying a world model and the story developing through predefined narrative branches.

 

What makes Gone Home a game

In a previous post on the story app Karen I wondered whether it was appropriate for The New York Times to call it “part game” since there is no way to lose. Turns out, Steve Gaynor, the writer and designer of Gone Home, presented a very thoughtful answer to this and related questions about what makes a “story exploration video game” a game in a 2014 presentation.

He lists the aspects of Gone Home that have been criticized for being un-game-like:

  • No combat/puzzles
  • No story branching/player builds
  • No failstate
  • Short runtime

And then lists the things that Gone Home does have that, by his definition, qualify it as a game:

  • Variability of player experience
  • Central focus on player agency
  • A spirit of playfulness within its themes and rules

The whole video (55 minutes) is well worth watching.

Karen, the story app

Karen is a “life-coaching” app that is actually a story app. Or, as the New York Times would have it, “a software-driven experiential art piece…part story, part game.”

It was released last year, but I just got around to playing it. It’s very good. Some craft-focused thoughts:

  • I can’t tell having just played through it once how much the story adapts to the responses you choose. My sense, based in part on what that NYT article describes, is that your choices influence tone: you see different scenes based on what you say, but every combination of scenes adds up to the same basic story. (Again, this is my guess and gut feeling after one time through.)
  • It was an interesting decision to enforce breaks in the experience. Karen hangs up, and you can’t call back until some time later. The length of time you have to wait before calling her back varies. Sometimes I found this annoying, but sometimes I found it unsettling in the way I imagine the creators intended: sometimes those gaps were suspenseful.
  • Even though it’s fiction, it offers you a “data report” at the end that purports to give you psychological insights based on how you answered questions within the story/game. In doing so, it gives you a peek behind the curtain as to how it tailored itself to you.
  • Is this actually “part game”? It feels like all story to me. You can’t win or lose it, at least as far as I can tell. I think if I were trying to achieve as certain outcome it would be a game. But I wasn’t—I was just answering questions honestly and enjoying the ride.

360-degree, interactive storytelling

The people behind “Wallace & Gromit” have teamed up with Google to create a short film that is both 360° and interactive.

But changing the point of view this way doesn’t just put other aspects of the scenery into focus — it actually changes the plot itself: There are more than 60 trigger points placed around the backyard, and looking in a certain area essentially “unlocks” small parts of the story while pausing other parts of the action. This makes it possible to focus on an impromptu neighborhood band, and have Santa and his adversary patiently wait to continue their chase off screen.

[…]

By giving viewers the ability to explore different plots within the story, projects like “Special Delivery” also abandon the idea of a traditional timeline. Basically, a story can take as long as you want it to, which is obviously very different from a traditional YouTube video with a fixed length.

And you can watch right on YouTube! Well, theoretically. Right now you can only watch on select Android devices, but iOS support is coming soon. I’m looking forward to trying this out.

Manipulation as a mode of reading

Roger Ebert, in his arguments that games are not art, made a point about art forcing the viewer/reader to hand over control to the creator, and being transported. But this passage from interactive fiction writer Nick Montfort about a seminal text game suggests a framing for understanding interactivity and its place in art that I think is more promising:

Although at first Bad Machine seems to resist reading, it teaches the persistent interactor to read in a new way — not to glance at a surface and appreciate the play of symbols, not to see a confusion of code that communicates only through its visual aesthetic, but to read and understand the novel description of the IF world, and then to move on to understanding its systematic nature. To gradually accomplish this, it’s necessary to investigate the world, manipulating it.

Manipulation as a mode of reading. Forget (for a moment) the relationship between the audience and the absent creator, and the formal attributes of interactive vs. other kinds of art — What does a reader do with that? What does it mean to “read deeply” in that context, when one often cannot explore every path or aspect of the world being presented?

(Hey, I think I just rediscovered reader-response criticism. Maybe I should label a gameshow wheel with different critical approaches and spin it and see what insights fall out.)

Stories—interactive, generative, interconnecting, API-accessible

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He also has an email newsletter you can subscribe to. Should subscribe to. I mean, look at this:

I love the Star Wars API and the Marvel API: databases packed full of interconnecting stories that you can query and… well, right now, you can’t do much with whatever you get back, because of course the material is spoken for — copyrighted and locked down. But even so, I love what these projects suggest. APIs for story! APIs for lore!

[…]

You consider all these things together and I think you start to get a sense of where I’m going. I am interested in a new way of telling stories that is sparse and generative; more text than pictures (but pictures help); native to the internet, and to interactive screens; and led by an author, but open, somehow, to everyone.

*blink*

What does that MEAN, exactly? I have some notions, but I’m not going to share them yet, both because they are rough and because (frankly) I think they are really good. I’d rather share a junky prototype than a lofty description, and in 2015, I will.

That’s all I’m quoting, because Sloan doesn’t publish the emails on the web for a reason. (Secrets.) So consider this your inside tip.

Toward a typology of interactive story forms

I’m still thinking about Gone Home and the state of interactive and/or software-enabled storytelling, and yesterday I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. Here’s what I found:

Forms

  • “Choose Your Own Adventure” is actually a brand name — the general form is called “gamebook.”
  • Interactive fiction” usually refers to “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment… Some users of the term distinguish between “interactive fiction” that focuses on narrative and “text adventures” that focus on puzzles… As a commercial product, interactive fiction reached its peak in popularity from 1979 to 1986, as a dominant software product marketed for home computers… The term “Interactive Fiction” is sometimes used to describe other forms of storytelling and games, including visual novels, interactive novels, and interactive storytelling.”
  • A “visual novel” is an interactive fiction game, featuring mostly static graphics, most often using anime-style art or occasionally live-action stills (and sometimes video footage). As the name might suggest, they resemble mixed-media novels. In Japanese terminology, a distinction is often made between visual novels proper (abbreviated NVL), which consist predominantly of narration and have very few interactive elements, and adventure games (abbreviated AVG or ADV), which may incorporate problem-solving and other types of gameplay… Non-linear branching storylines are a common trend in visual novels…”
  • Interactive novels “offer readers another unique way to read fiction by choosing a page, a character, or a direction. By following hyperlinked phrases within the novel, readers can find new ways to understand characters. There is no wrong way to read a hypertext interactive novel. Links embedded within the pages are meant to be taken at a reader’s discretion – to allow the reader a choice in the novel’s world.”
  • Interactive storytelling “is a form of digital entertainment in which users create or influence a dramatic storyline through actions, either by issuing commands to the story’s protagonist, or acting as a general director of events in the narrative. Interactive storytelling is a medium where the narrative, and its evolution, can be influenced in real-time by a user. Unlike interactive fiction, there is an open debate about nature of the relationship between interactive storytelling with computer games. Game designer Chris Crawford states that “Interactive storytelling systems are not “Games with Stories”.”

Notes

  • These seem to be contested terms. The article for “interactive fiction” says that the term mainly refers to text-based forms, but acknowledges that visual novels are described as interactive fiction as well.
  • Interesting that in both the case of interactive fiction and visual novels, a distinction has emerged between those which focus on problem-solving/puzzles and those which focus on the narrative.
  • Gone Home was mentioned, presumably as an example, in the article for interactive storytelling — but as I wrote in my last post, one brilliant aspect of Gone Home is that you have control over the plot, not the story. This is a stark contrast to “creat[ing] or influenc[ing] a dramatic storyline.”

Further reading: There is a wiki dedicated to tracing the connections between technical implementation of interactive storytelling and narrative theories. On the theory side, I see a lot of names I recognize — Aristotle, Todorov, Propp, Barthes, Genette, Campbell — but many I don’t. Bremond? Boal? The reading list grows.

Gone Home is a departure

In his article about why games aren’t art, Roger Ebert observed that you don’t win art. Games are something you compete in, solve, or win, and art is something you let happen to you, that transports you.

A few days ago, I played Gone Home, a game that you don’t win. Maybe, as such, it isn’t accurate to call it a game—maybe “interactive narrative experience” or something like that. Vocabulary aside, it felt like the way forward for a community of storytellers trying to figure out the most effective way to use new technical affordances to tell engaging stories.

Rather than presenting a “multitude of drastic things” in a branching narrative, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, Gone Home has only one story. Your control as the player is over the plotting: the order and pace at which you find and piece together the story information. You do this by wandering around a house in the character of a young woman coming home after a long trip to find her parents and sister missing, and trying to figure out from letters, voicemail messages, ticket stubs, and other detritus of daily living what happened to them. At first, your goal is simply to orient yourself, then to figure out what happened to your family in the immediate past, then finally to figure out what happened to them years ago, even before you were born.

(You could argue that your wandering around the house is part of the story, and thus you have some small measure of control over story as well as plotting. Let’s not split hairs.)

Having only one story, situated in the past where the player can’t change it, meant that the creators of the game were able to imbue it with a subtly I haven’t seen in other games. I thought I had pretty well seen what there was to see after I finished the game in just short of two hours. I caught not just the main thread of the story about the sister, which you can’t miss, but also pieced together backstories of secondary characters like the mother and father and even the father’s relationship with the grandfather, each thread reflecting on and strengthening the others like in a good novel.

Twenty minutes after I finished the game, though, I remembered: What was the deal with the uncle? What was in the locked office cabinet? I hadn’t read closely enough. Indeed, when I cheated and looked up the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes online, I found I missed an entire layer of the story.

The idea that a game could be subtle enough to reward close reading or multiple readings, the fact that in completing it you don’t “win” it but feel a sense of closure, the fact that that closure is not a feeling a triumph but one of catharsis and only qualified relief (love wins out, but it isn’t simply happily ever after) — all this is evidence of a promising avenue for people interested in using software to tell stories.

There are some roadblocks to get past: Part of the fun of the game is in subverting the expectation that something will jump out and say “Boo,” and you’ll have to fight it, or that you will have to solve puzzles, and as the influence of Gone Home spreads that expectation will fade. It’s hard to see how this could be done with the story in anything but the past tense. And while Gone Home cleverly gives you limited control over the plotting (e.g. not allowing you to uncover the story climax until the end) through the use of locked doors and a series of keys, that mechanic could feel stale after a while.

Of course, a lot of novels and movies feel stale too — it’s on the creator to avoid cliché.

I don’t have a conclusion here, only a sense of excitement and a suspicion that the argument over whether games are art is a distraction that is slowing the development of a better vocabulary to describe experiences like Gone Home, which will be remembered as a milestone in the emergence of software-enabled narrative.