Interactive Narrative

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What is Narrative?

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

“A narrative is a sign with a signifier (discourse) and a signified (story, mental image, semantic representation). The signifier can have many different semiotic manifestations. It can consist for instance of a verbal act of story-telling (diegetic narration), or of gesture and dialogue performed by actors (mimetic, or dramatic narration).” (Ryan, 2001)

The above definition takes a traditional communication theory approach to narrative. Mieke Bal in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative defines a narrative as containing an actor and a narrator, a text, story and fabula, and that the plot should consist of “a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors” (Bal, 1985, p.8).

This definition may be slightly too narrow for the purposes of non-linear narrative, but it does bring up the point that for a narrative to be meaningful, it needs to make sense to the reader. This is commonly achieved through solid causality.

“Narrative representation must be thematically unified and logically coherent. Their elements cannot be freely permuted, because they are held together in a sequence by relations of cause and effect, and because temporal order is meaningful.” (Ryan, 2001)

This definition tells us that in order for a narrative to be meaningful, it must consist of logically sound cause and effect relationships. I would agree with this for most cases, except for experimental filmmaking, where the artist may, in fact, desire a lack of logic or cause/effect dichotomies. In this case, I would argue that the experimental filmmaker is still producing a narrative, although one outside of conventional definitions.

What this implies is that on some level, anything can be considered a narrative, whether it is logically coherent or not. It really depends, of course, on the reader’s interpretation and experience of the work. This makes it difficult to set up rules for the construction of a meaningful narrative for non-linear storytelling. The best that can be accomplished is for the author to make his/her intentions speak through the work itself. If an artist is trying to construct a multi-linear narrative, then it should be apparent in the work itself whether or not the narrative is attempting story development through logical cause/effect relationships.

A last point on the meaning of narrative is that we need to realize that a narrative constructed from a book is different from a narrative constructed from a movie, and we need to evaluate each according to different criteria of what makes a meaningful narrative. Some types of narrative may work better in a specific medium, as becomes painfully clear when a book is poorly adapted for the movie screen (or vice versa).

Why Be Interactive?

Interactive media is often perceived as an externalization of the mind, of making one’s cognitive process a part of the public knowledge domain. As users we enjoy interactive experiences because, if done well, they give us a heightened sense of agency by allowing us to customize our experience.

“The very principle of hyperlinking, which forms the basis of interactive media, objectifies the process of association, often taken to be central to human thinking” (Manovich, 2001, p.61)

A major problem with interactive media, however, is that the more interactive the content, the more labor required to create it. A media object with very limited interactivity can actually be less satisfying than had it had no interactivity at all, for hyperlinking is essentially asking the user to follow a set of pre-programmed subjectively existing associations. With a minimal amount of interactivity, the programmer’s mind is exposed, thus making it harder for the user to mistake the programmer’s cognitive processes for their own. This is thus an argument that interactive media should be extensively interactive or not interactive at all (in which case it is up to the user’s imagination to go beyond the embedded content).

Interactivity does not have to be limited to hyperlinking, of course. Interactive media can involve the capturing and interpretation of body movements, gesture, light sources, proximity sensors, etc. The key obstacle with this kind of “physical” interactivity is how to effectively capture the user’s input and then appropriately and intelligently interpret the signals to produce a meaningful experience.

Interactive Narrative

It is often considered that one must sacrifice narrative for increased interactivity, or that one must give up some interactivity to preserve effective narrative. But does the lack of linearity diminish the effectiveness of a narrative? Proponents of hypertext do not believe so:

“In a hypertext environment a lack of linearity does not destroy narrative. In fact, since readers always, but particularly in this environment, fabricate their own structures, sequences or meanings, they have surprisingly little trouble reading a story or reading for a story.” (Landow, 1997)

Expanding the Definition of Narrative:

Perhaps the first step in determining what an interactive narrative is, and how one can be effectively created, is to expand our idea of narrative. The traditional Aristotelian narrative arc of set-up, complication, development, and resolution, need not be completely disregarded, but perhaps we need to start looking at the arc in a different way. An oblique strategy. Instead of an overarching narrative arc that encompasses the entire story and experience, maybe a multi-linear narrative needs to employ micro-narrative arcs contained within story fragments for it to be effectively constructed.

Some common approaches to interactive narrative:

  1. Branching narrative – The story follows forking paths based on user interaction. Also called branching-type interactivity or menu-based interactivity. In this case the information used by the computer program to create interactivity is based on the user’s cognitive process, rather than body position, gesture, etc. Because of the exponential process involved in creating a branching-type narrative, projects that employ this type of design tend to be limited in their scope of branching paths. While this may work decently with hypertext or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels, it is not generally considered a good approach for multi-linear visual media (Davenport, 1997).
  2. Exploratory narrative – The user explores a virtual world, discovering narrative fragments as they progress, to gradually re-construct the whole story in their mind.
  3. Generative narrative – The premise behind generative or automatist storytelling is that the structure of a story can be an emergent property of the interaction of the individual with a decentralized storyteller system.

Chris Crawford (Crawford, 2000) discusses narrative and interactivity using the concept of “flow” to refer to the number of choices that are available to the end-user. The number of possible avenues open to pursue determines if the flow will be branching or linear. How many paths is the user allowed to choose from while navigating the interactive work? As Crawford asserts: “One way to judge the interactive quality of a design is to examine the ratio of accessible states to conceivable states” (Crawford, 2000). In making a tree diagram of the possible paths available to the end-user through the narrative, a more interactive work would be “bushier” by having more branching paths, and thus more choices.

The concept of embedded versus emergent narrative, which is analogous to Janet Murray’s open versus closed architecture, is mentioned in Eric Zimmerman’s article “Against Hypertext” (Zimmerman, 2001). An embedded narrative structure means that the content is pre-existing; no new content is created during the user’s interaction that is outside of the non-linear narrative’s program. Here the world is finite and there are a quantifiable number of possibilities available to the end-user. In an emergent structure the rules and procedures of the non-linear narrative allow for unexpected user experiences and content. The world is not finite, and the end-user is able to, at least to some degree, co-construct the narrative. In this scenario the end-user can actually choose not to follow the narrative spine at all, but rather define a personal set of goals. There is a near-infinite number of possibilities available to the end-user. Examples of this kind of emergent narrative environment can be found in Massive Multi-Player Online Games (MMOG), where players can chose to follow the established storyline, or create their own adventures and goals.

“An interactive narrative (which can be also called a hypernarrative in analogy with hypertext) can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database.” (Manovich, 2001, p.227)

As discussed in Part 1: What is Narrative?, however, an arbitrary path taken through a multimedia database, giving an arbitrary sequence of database objects, does not necessarily constitute a narrative.

“It is simply not possible to construct a coherent story out of every permutation of a set of textual fragments, because fragments are implicitly ordered by relations of logical presuppostion, material causality and temporal sequence.” (Ryan, 2001)

This is why it is so crucial to have effective algorithms that can construct meaningful narratives out of the interaction of the user and the computer. Effectively merging database and narrative will be an important step in the development of new media, for “a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself that would foster its generation” (Manovich, 2001, p.228).

“Given the dominance of the database in computer software and the key role it plays in the computer-based design process, perhaps we can arrive at new kinds of narrative by focusing our attention on how narrative and database can work together.” (Manovich, 2001, p. 237)

Interestingly enough, cinema could be considered to already be at the intersection between database and narrative. During filming, far more footage is captured than will ever be used in the final movie – this raw footage could be seen as a database of film. The editor then uses this database of raw footage to construct a unique trajectory, that which will become the completed movie. We have already seen how different trajectories can be followed, for movies are often re-released with different versions (a so called “Director’s Cut,” for example, or a “cleaned-up” version for television). When DVD’s are made they usually contain a special features section which often includes outtakes, deleted scenes, and other footage that did not make it into the theatrical release.



Bal, Mieke. “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Crawford, Chris. “Understanding Interactivity.” Self-published manuscript, 2000.

Davenport, Glorianna. “Whose Bits are they Anyway?” IEEE Multimedia, July-September 1997.

Davenport, G., Evans, R., and M. Halliday. “Orchestrating Digital Micromovies.” Leonardo, v. 26 no. 4, (1993), p. 283 – 288.

Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2001.

Murray, Janet. “Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2000.

Landow, George. “Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology.” Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1997.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The case of narrative in digital media.” International journal of computer game research. Issue 1, July 2001.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Against Hypertext.” “American Letters & Commentary” Issue #12, 2001.

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Adrian, or AJ, is the founder and Director of Technology of Pop Digital. He has spoken at tech conferences around the world, and published numerous articles about Agile methodologies, UX design, Information Architecture, and Web Development.

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