Established narratology and interactive digital narratives (IDN) are uneasy companions. There certainly is narrative in interactive digital forms; however the difference in material basis in comparison to earlier narrative media poses a challenge to conventional narrative theory. New theoretical approaches are necessary to answer these challenges.
Janet Murray (1997) clearly establishes the difference to earlier media forms by describing the specific affordances - procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic - and phenomenological qualities - agency, immersion, and transformation – of digital media. The first two are the constituting elements of what is often referred to as interactivity, and they most clearly mark the difference to earlier media forms. Instead of a permanently static artifact in the form of a book, or the released final cut of a movie, there is a malleable, dynamic, reactive and at times generative system, infused by her creator with narrative potential, but waiting for the user to interact, to press a virtual button, to choose a character, to start a conversation, to move within a virtual world.
This need for the user to do something in the first place, and to continue interacting in order to generate an output, a walkthrough, is another distinguishing factor for interactive and video game narrative. An IDN needs to be instantiated to exist as a fully realized experience; else it is only narrative potential. The instantiation happens as the result of an interactive process that includes the computer system and the reader turned interactor. It is this instantiated product of an IDN system that can be recorded and that can analyzed with the toolset of established narratology.
However, important aspects are not covered in this way and the analysis is incomplete. First, an IDN system contains the potential for many different outcomes and the question remains how many instantiations are necessary to provide a complete, or at least adequate object for analysis. How many times do you need to play Michael Joyce’s hypertext fiction Afternoon, A Story (1991) to be sure of an exhaustive understanding? And how about Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller Heavy Rain (2010) or Telltale Games’s interactive horror narrative The Walking Dead (2012) ?
Another question left unanswered in this way concerns what is actually manifest in terms of narrative in the IDN system. In other words - if fabula/story and sjuzet/plot exist in the instantiated product, how can we describe and analyze the narrative content and structure of an IDN system? What is it that comes before and contains potential story and potential plot?
Furthermore, looking at the product alone is incomplete by itself; an IDN as a concrete artifact is software and hardware first. Then, there is an interactive process as a second element, before the instantiated product, as the final part. A full narrative analysis of an interactive digital narrative must account for these additional elements. I have proposed (Koenitz 2010) a theoretical framework that includes these aspects of IDN (see Koenitz et al. 2013 for how the framework can be integrated with other approaches). Based on Murray affordances and phenomenological qualities, Herman’s (2002) view of narrative as a cognitive structure, and Ascott’s theory of cybernetic art (1964), it takes system, process and product as the constituting elements. Protostory designates the content of the system, while narrative design denotes the structure. Narrative vectors describe micro-structures within the narrative design, roughly equivalent to plot points. In addition, this specific view of IDN takes additional elements as integrative to protostory – amongst them environment definitions such as spatial design of the virtual world, the rule systems (physics system, scoring, society rules), graphical and procedural assets, and in this way makes these components of interactive digital narrative available for analysis.
This specific framework also has a practical application as the ontological basis for the Advanced Stories Authoring and Presentation System (ASAPS) (Koenitz 2011, Koenitz & Chen 2012), an authoring tool that has been used to create over 80 narratives so far. In this way, both theoretical enquiry and practical experiments are joined in a tight feedback loop. This methodology is befitting the continuously developing expressive forms of narrative in interactive digital media.
Murray, J. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: The Free Press.
Joyce, M. (1991). Afternoon, a story. [Hypertext fiction]. Watertown, Eastgate Systems
Heavy Rain. [Video game]. Paris, Quantic Dream, 2010.
The Walking Dead [Video game]. San Rafael, Telltale Games
Koenitz, H.: (2010) Towards a Theoretical Framework for Interactive Digital Narrative In R. Aylett et al. (Eds.): ICIDS 2010, LNCS 6432, pp. 176–185, Berlin, Springer-Verlag.
Koenitz, H., Haahr, M., Ferri, G. and Sezen, T.: (2013) First Steps Towards a Unified Theory for Interactive Digital Narrative, Transactions on Edutainment X (Special Issue), LNCS 7775, pp 20-35, Springer 2013 Berlin, Springer-Verlag.
Herman, D. (2002). Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press.
Ascott, R. (1964). The Construction of Change. Cambridge Opinion, 41, 37-42.
ASAPS home page, http://advancedstories.net
Koenitz, H.: (2011) Extensible Tools for Practical Experiments in IDN – The Advanced Stories Authoring and Presentation System. In Si, M., Thue, D., André, E. et al. (Eds.): ICIDS 2011, LNCS 7069, pp. 79-85, Berlin, Springer-Verlag.
Koenitz, H., and Chen, K.-J. (2012) Genres, Structures and Strategies in Interactive Digital Narratives – Analyzing a Body of Works Created in ASAPS, In Oyarzun, D., Peinado, P., Young, M. R., Elizalde, A., Méndez, G. (Eds.): ICIDS 2012, LNCS 7648, pp. 84-95, Springer 2012 Berlin, Springer-Verlag.