Interactive Storytelling: Dispatches from the Classroom

Literature Writing


This semester I handled two classes of a course called Interactive Storytelling, which is offered as an elective to students from the College of Computer Studies at my university. It’s intended to enhance the training of Computer Science majors who might be interested in developing video games or educational software. It’s usually team-taught by a fiction writer and a hypertext specialist, but because I used to work as a web designer and web design teacher, I could handle both aspects of the course, in theory.


I approached the task with some trepidation, because I had never taught CS majors, and my experiences with tech support at prior workplaces were not always pleasant. I’d stereotyped techies into a surly, uncommunicative bunch contemptuous of those who don’t know a computer language. I braced myself to encourage class participation and get them interested in the arcana of fiction writing. Instead, I met a youthful batch of students who came equipped with curiosity and an openness to attempting tasks that had not been required of them in other courses.


My plan for the course was simple, patterned after the way it had been taught in the past: to survey the principles and techniques of traditional narration, and then explore the ways in which these could be applied or reconfigured (to use George Landow’s term) in an interactive context. Of traditional storytelling, I concentrated most on plot structure and characterization, assuming that these would be the fiction elements that would bear the brunt of reconfiguration.


I’d resolved early on to have the students at least beginning to think about interactivity theory and its implications, as opposed to starting from a set of readings. Arriving at theory through practice seemed more in keeping with the university’s transformative, learner-centered teaching methods and would, I hoped, encourage students to continue exploring the subject on their own, perhaps stumbling on further insights along the way. I walked them through a series of exercises and problems, trying to elicit some reflection on the processes they underwent and the choices they made.


We began the 14-week semester with a look at the expected outcomes of the course. Given their ubiquity in teen culture, video games were used as the point of reference for our discussions on interactive narrative. The students arrived at a list of categories and genres of video games, and compared various examples to determine salient features and conventions of these categories. This was probably the easiest part of the course, with students drawing on their stock knowledge of the games they played. We then backtracked to traditional narrative, and about two-thirds of the semester was spent on fiction writing exercises that I often used in my other classes. In hindsight, I may have spent too much time on traditional narrative to allow a truly in-depth exploration of interactivity and its implications on narrative.


Oddly, many students are intimidated by the thought of creative writing, as though their copious output on their blogs and social networking accounts doesn’t qualify. To put them at ease, I used an exercise designed by Michael Rabiger involving small groups working together to create story outlines using elements (e.g. a person, a place, an object, a theme) found in sets of randomly distributed cards. Students are instructed to outline a complete story from beginning to end using all the elements on their cards. Working in groups relieves the creative pressure, and students draw on their instinctive sense of story. The results are usually outrageous, but far from predictable or dull.


After using the results to glean their notions of what a story is and what makes a good story, we moved on to the intricacies of Aristotelian three-act structure. At this point, I realized that the students responded more positively to plotting presented as a formula, with interlocking but interchangeable parts. (As opposed to, say, something more organic and unified, propelled by a dramatic need.) This I attributed to the nature of their training, in which the development of an algorithm is a key step to solving a problem.


Upon seeing this, I went a little overboard presenting them with examples of other plot formulae, from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to Vladimir Propp’s morphology, to Syd Field’s screenplay paradigm, to David Siegel’s 2-goal, 9-act structure. My hope was that the exhaustive examination of different approaches gave them more options for constructing a story, and made plotting less mysterious and overwhelming.


We began discussing interactivity by discussing what it entailed—reciprocity and agency. The first we defined as a two-way flow, and the second as the ability to influence, choose, change, and create. We then re-examined the one-way flow of traditional storytelling [ Author – Story – Reader ] and I set them loose to speculate about what happens to the process when interactivity is introduced to it.


Unsurprisingly, the exercise proved fairly simple for the students, as they saw the worlds of video games and narrative theory merging. They recognized that the reader becomes a kind of co-author, and that narration becomes the product of user choice and action, and no longer the act of a narrator dispensing story information.


On the other hand, I was surprised to see a good deal of resistance to the notion of the author relinquishing control of the story. In their attempts to reconfigure the flow of the storytelling process, the author remained outside the sphere of interactivity, as the originator of the parameters within which a narrative could be experienced by users through interaction with a set of elements. While they acknowledged that more interactivity was possible in certain online applications, such as a wiki-based site, the current video game models cannot accommodate this level of interactivity, and there still has to be a prime mover who lays down the original code.


The students’ final project, due this week, is to create an interactive narrative using a visual novel engine that I’d stumbled upon online, called Ren’Py, which they chose over Flash, HTML, or Java, even if it meant learning a proprietary scripting language. The objective is to incorporate as much interactivity into a simple story while retaining as much of a traditional narrative as possible, striking a balance between these two extremes.


The discussion of interactivity led to one on non-linearity in narrative, something they’re all familiar with, as a product of allowing the user more freedom of choice. Traditional cause-and-effect sequencing gives way to a more random linearity, relying more on the user’s propensity to make logical connections between disparate elements (something they’d already noted in our first storytelling exercise). The primary question that arose pertained to the fate of narrative when subjected to the random sequencing of story events.


My own answer is that narrative moves farther away from story and closer to lyric poetry, or metanarrative in the way that lyric poetry presupposes a speaker speaking within a specific context. I’ve maintained that linear plotting is key to sustaining a reader’s interest in a narrative, which is why I find hypertext fictions tedious after a certain point, and am grateful for the option to stop reading and “end” the narrative whenever I choose.


I tried not to emphasize one side over the other, and during project consultations, I reminded them to find a workable balance between linear Aristotelian storytelling and non-linear interactive experience, nudging them in one direction when they leaned too far in the other. The final project is to be accompanied by a process essay, in which students will assess their projects. Since they are a generally terse group, I don’t expect elaborate theoretical discussions, unless they continue to surprise me as they have. At the very least, I hope they arrive at an awareness of the issues underlying interactive storytelling and engage those issues in future projects.