Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Interative Narrative

The Bidirectional Communication Art

-- The comparison of Interactive Narrative in Animation, Photography, Video Game and Theme Park.

Part One: Introduction:

“An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first-, second-, or third- person characters may actually be the reader. Opinion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.”
----- Brenda Laurel.

Interaction has been recognized for a long time, and widely used in many forms --novels, drama, music, photography, videos, software development, etc. The written novel is a very old interactive narrative, because there is an interaction between the word and the meaning, and between the author and the reader. The author can turn his meaning into words, while the reader translates these symbols into meaning. At the same time, through words, the author transfers his perspective to the reader, then the reader receives it as a new perspective according to his or her own particular world-view. During the process of translation-interpretation, the participation is greatly involved. Software development is also a kind of interactive narrative. A programmer writes code, while the user recognizes these symbols when using the program. Furthermore, the user could act as a secondary writer when inputting information to the system. Because the writer and user both add information to the database, their roles begin to blur. The level of interaction becomes deeper.

In a word, interactive narratives can be found in many fields for a long time. However, there are differences among them, such as in the aspect of plot structure, perspective, time, and participation level. How do writers take advantage of interactive narrative? In this paper I will take three artists (Brenda Laurel, Walt Disney, Man Ray) as research subjects to talk about these.

Part Two: Brenda Laurel

Brenda Laurel is a researcher, designer and entrepreneur in the fields of human-computer interaction. In 1996, she set up a company called “Purple Moon” to create video games and web activities for girls. In the process of producing the game Rockett’s New School, Laurel and her colleagues researched various plot structures for interactive narrative. What follows are three general models:

1. Nodal plot structure:

This plot structure is a series of events interrupted by points of interactivity. The advantage of this structure is that it allows a very strong back-story with a beginning/ending and clear character development. The disadvantage is that the user can’t change the development of the story but they can change some details of the story.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

2, Modulated plot structure:

Compared with the Nodal structure, this structure also has a clear development of the characters, even though it has more participation from the users. The user has the freedom to choose a straight line to avoid interaction, or to make a more leisurely route and increase the participation level, but takes a risk being a lesser dramatic arc. Therefore, the decision making of the user can alternate the development of the story.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

3, Open plots structure:

In this structure, the story relies on the decision making of the readers. So the dramatic arc is abandoned for the interest of exploration and investment. There are no specific entry points and the reader can choose wherever he/she wants to end the story. In an open plot structure, what the reader really appreciates is not the ending, but the journey.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

In regard to plot structure, the game Rockett’s New School of Purple Moon Company adopted the Modulated Structure. It has several alternative routes of nonlinear narrative with the same beginning and ending of the game. At the beginning, the main character Rockett begins her day meeting Jessie. The choices the player makes from here determine which story line is chosen. But all story lines end with the advice from her best friend Meg. This is a typical framework of Modulated structure. The whole structure has clear back-stories and characters developments. And player can partially alternate the development of the game by decision-making.

From the aspect of using points of view, this game not only provides a first-person’s camera like many others, but also a third-person view. The later one allows a sense of depth and background that is hard to achieve from a first-person camera.

Compared with traditional story, this game has different notion of time because of human decisions. User can carry his or her own sense of time. So they can determine speed, pacing, suspense and the order of sequential action by decision-making. In this kind of game, time can be seen as a spatial arrangement of decisions and that it can be jump back and forth along the line of the plot structure.

As for the participation level, the degree of interaction in this game is low, because the influences of the designer in this game are excessive. They “force” users to spend time doing things they may not otherwise choose. Such as, to get to the next level, you have to perform some simple function or you have to repeat a single function within a prescribed error margin. In other words, the designers of this game try to conduct the players onto the expected step at the expected time.

However, the goal of an interactive narrative is not to conduct the reader, but to provide a context, in which the narrative can be discovered and investigated by the readers. Therefore, “the designers and authors of interactive narrative are far more like architects rather than writers. The visitor is allowed to roam freely, explore, investigate, and make changes in the environment.” -- Mark Stephen Meadows.

As Doug Church, one of the most respected game designers in the US, puts it:
“Those of us doing immersive simulation strive to make the game the player’s not the designer’s. While we, as designers, are clearly creating the environment and rules, we hope to allow the player to act, plan, and decide.
There is nothing wrong with games which decide to place the designer center stage, and task the players with ‘discovering’ the will of the author. However, I believe that if we acquire the knowledge on how to effectively involve the players, we can create more satisfying experiences. A work in which the player must figure out how to turn the prewritten pages can be fun, but one which the player writes the pages seems far more likely to be transformative.”

Part Three: Walt Disney

1, Disney’s animation

As a film producer and animator, Walt Disney’s success greatly relies on public resonance. This is because Disney's stories came from the commoners, met the popular taste, and most importantly, his animations shaped the American cultures. Therefore, Disney’s animation might be thought of as a piece of a larger interactive narrative.

For instance, the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s, and during this period of time, Disney produced the animation Pinoccio(1940) with the idea of sentimental populism. This animation emphasizes the dignity of the little guy, and the nobility of his struggle for survival against powerful forces in a hostile world. This spirit was fully presented at the beginning of the animation. (The camera roams around Geppetto's shop "Once upon a time there lived- not a princess- not a prince-not a king-but a little old man named Geppetto.) This story greatly strikes a chord with general audiences who suffered from pressing social circumstances in the Great Depression. The same plot in their own life let them better understand the story, and let them blend their own emotion and personal experience into the animation. Therefore the audiences play an active role in constructing the story.

The second reason why the story appeals to the public is because the conflicts Disney usually chooses tend to be something universal, such as fear, struggle, love and desire. It is the relationship of the personal to the universal that makes such issues so touching for the audience. Snow White is a good example. For the audience, this charming story of virtue, kindness, and honest labor can let them forget wars, crime, and economic strife in a modern world. “It is a good experience for men to laugh together over something sweet and innocent and clean.”-- The Magic Kingdom, by Steven Watts.

2, Watching Eperience

The above quote by Steven Watts leads to another form of interactions represented in Disney’s animation. Watching Disney’s animations with many others provides a whole new experience than watching them alone. In a theater, audiences easily manipulated if the atmosphere is well developed. As the climax reaches in the animation, music or a cue from the animation will light up the theater. Even if you did not get an emotional response from the animation itself, the interactions of others sitting beside you will influence your mood and potentially make you excited as them.

Watching animations alone can be interactive as well. The viewer can control the pace and the action order by toggling back and forth, or he can turn the volume down. They can alter the interaction experience each time.

3, Theme Park

Disney’s management principles in Theme Parks successfully reflect the spirit of interactive narratives.

Firstly, through out the theme parks, there are Disney’s characters and references to Disney’s movies and television shows. The familiarity connects the viewer to the collective awareness and memories. This strengthens the interaction between the tourists and the parks. Furthermore, the parks resembled the back lot of movie studios. Traveling in the park is like a tribute to the Hollywood movie tradition as a whole. This permits people to investigate and explore places where only the camera had taken them before.

Secondly, Disney believes it is best to communicate with his guests using visual literacy. All of his parks are welled decorated environments like magical worlds, full with visual-magnets. For example, the modes of transportation, from horse-drawn trolleys to rockets, play an important role in establishing the atmosphere of the theme parks. By focusing on every detail, Disney makes his guests totally immersed in the environment.

Thirdly, the layout of Disney’s parks embodies open plot structure as mentioned in discussing Brenda Laurel. Disney’s team designs and arranges each individual facility in a systematic grouping based on different themes. Each of them is an interaction point. Tourists freely pick their own route to stroll around under the guidance of the park's layout. They plot themselves into their own stories. There is no standard entry point, ending, or dramatic arc. The story relies on decision making of the tourists. In other words, theme park presents a high level of interaction. The design team creates the environment and rules, and encourages the tourists to act, plan, and decide their own journey/story.

Part Three: Man Ray

In his explorations of many art forms, such as film, photography, and the readymade. Man Ray’s idea about “surprising” is well presented and introduced to us. Surprising work can cause logical contradiction and then stir inspiration of the audiences. Thus, even though most of his works do not contain any clear stories, they still provide viewers imagination and interpretation as their eyes trace the composition, the texture and the shape of the work. Based on the understandings and imagination, viewer can reorganize and build an emotional suspicion. Because there is no real answer regarding what Ray was presenting, viewers are free to express what Ray's works meant to them. Some may be reminded of a personal experience, and some may imagine a plot or a story.

For example, in his work New York 1971, Man Ray used pliers and painted wood to create a readymade. Stacked wood is placed on the oblique pliers. The audience in that period might connect this work with the phenomena of construction booming in New York during early 20th century. The readymade would be imagined to emit the skyscraper into the sky. The process of imagination and suspicion about Ray’s work turns the viewer into an investigator. This brings viewer one step closer to interactivity, as opposed to passively receiving the clear intention of artists.


Through the above analysis and comparison among the three designers, we can draw such conclusion:

Through the study of these three designers, I find an interesting place where animation and interactive narrative cross. Theoretically, any traditional stories can be evolved into interactive narrative—the former one is just one of a number of possible ways to interpret and present the world-view, while the later one tries to imagine all perspective and makes them accessible for the reader. A real interactive story does not simply refer to a story with interactive function, but with various perspectives, such as a story with several different tracks of time, or with the different time order in non-linear fashion, or with several effects/results. I want to study this direction in my impending independent study course. Brenda Laurel, Walt Disney and Man Ray have some useful methodologies for this.


Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows
The Magic Kingdom, by Steven Watts
The art of Walt Disney, by Christopher Finch
The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, by David whitley.
Disney and his world by Alan Bryman
Utopian Entrepreneur, by Brenda Laurel
Design Research, by Brenda Laurel
Computers as Theatre, by Brenda Laurel
The art of human-computer interface design, by Brenda Laurel
Narrative intelligence, by Brenda Laurel
Interaction: the New Images, by Brenda Laurel

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