A Challenge to Narratology - How to Understand Interactive Digital Narrative

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.


Image on front page by Matt Saunders and available on Flickr. 


I took a quick look at ASPAS and saw the obvious similarities between Imprisoned and a game like The Walking Dead. I suppose what I find the most interesting about both is the ways in which, while the narrative is interactive, there are still only very limited outcomes. At the end of The Walking Dead, for instance, our choices change some of the events that happen, but not the ultimate conclusion. I wonder if part of that isn't the amount of labor that must be put into multiple alternative endings, and the chance at sequels (The Walking Dead has to end a certain way for The Walking Dead 2 to continue a certain character's story). In that respect, more text based medias, like Choose Your Own Adventure Books or a hyperlinked text like Afternoon, A Story is better able to accommodate interactive narratives as described here. 

There is a key difference between a computational narrative system and the Choose Your Own Adventure books - procedurality and as a consequence, in the player agency.

While not all computational systems make use of this affordance to the same  degree - for example Storyspace, the authoring tool used for Afternoon, A Story offers limited procedural functions in the form of "guard fields" that hide certain links until some conditions are met, while ASAPS offers tracking functions, global variables, timers, a random function and an inventory system; the exact procedural functionality in Walking Dead is not known, but most likely includes tracking function and maybe some level of AI.

More concretely, this means ASAPS has state memory and can track prior decision by a user and make them count in the form of delayed consequences. ASAPS narratives often have 6 or more different endings, and many branches  are determined by condition checking functions that are based on the current state and prior decisions and are invisible to the user. In this way, a user's earlier decisions can influence later ones and/or have delayed consequences, just like in real life where we see the result of our decisions only much later. Ultimately, this improves the player's feeling of agency in the player as she starts to realized that earlier decisions are meaningful and accumulative. Choose Your Own Adventure books as a printed media form cannot remember earlier decisions, thus agency only exist over the direct branching decisions, and not over the slow development of a character.

Procedurality also has a big influence on the authoring side as not all branches have to be developed in a discreet manner, but instead can be distinguished programmatically by the procedural system, which removes at least some of the concerns regarding the manageability of larger branching systems.

At the same time we should be careful not to focus on the difference in outcome only - the interesting part in many narratives might be what happens along the way, and not only in the ending. Interactive digital narrative might be particularly suited to also explore such narratives.  

After reading about Heavy Rain, I noticed one interesting feature is that the game will continue regardless of whether the player hits all of the correct button prompts (Lebowitz & Klug, 2011), with the following events changing depending on this success or failure. This could apparently eliminate the development of a character, so I wonder how this would play out in the narrative.  In traditional narratives like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, if the character you are "playing" dies, then that would be your ending- however, in this game, the game continues with or without that character. I would think this type of game continuation would make it more difficult for players to figure out what was the "right" or "wrong" choice for their character, enriching player experience tremendously by making it feel much like the real world.  When we are faced with moral dilemmas (though hopefully nothing like murder or drinking poison, like in Heavy Rain), we don't always know what the right answer is, but the world continues despite our choices. Though the characters' choices are limited by fixed situations, which is unlike the real world, I still think this quality allows games like Heavy Rain to create richer narrative experiences than those available in traditional media forms by allowing them to imagine themselves in scenarios where their specific characters are not always the center of the gaming world. 

Lebowitz, J., & Klug, C. (2011). Interactive storytelling for video games: A player-centered approach to creating memorable characters and stories. Burlington, MA: Focal Press. 

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