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  • Interactive Drama: Narrativity in a Highly Interactive Environment
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (bio)

The most talked-about, and potentially the most significant consequence of recent advances in electronic technology for the practice and theory of literature is the promise of interactivity. For literary theorists, the idea of interactivity is associated with hypertext, a form of writing through which the reader is given a choice of directions to follow. Compared to other electronic applications such as computer games, MOOs and MUDs, and especially “goggle-and-glove” VR, however, hypertext offers a relatively low grade of interactivity. The participation of the user’s body is restricted to the gesture of clicking, which stands for the choice of directions of a fictional body in a textual space. The reader is free to navigate and explore the fictional world, but she does not leave her mark on it. As for the so-called textual space, it is not a continuous spread allowing 360-degree freedom of movement but a rigidly determined network of links and nodes. At every intersection, the reader is faced with a choice of several predefined branches. Hypertext is therefore less spatial than multilinear. And finally, the interactivity of hypertext is a one-way affair rather than a dialogic relation: the reader responds to the text, ideally basing her decisions on what she reads on the screen, but the text does not [End Page 677] respond to the reader’s actions in anything but the most superficial sense: retrieving from storage different parts of itself according to the strategy written in by the author.

All of these limitations can be overcome in the richer environment of Virtual Reality. (“Richer” means here offering data directly to many senses, rather than mediating all sensory data through textual evocation.) In a VR environment, full-body participation is made possible by a quasi-Cyborgian symbiosis of human and machine. Computer equipment worn like a prosthesis tracks the user’s movements and relays data to the senses. This electronic extension of the body enables the user not only to “move the sensors” across the world projected by the data, but also to build and change it by grabbing, transporting around, manipulating, and molding objects. Insofar as the computer projects a continuous three-dimensional space, the user can move in all directions, rather than being sent along linear pathways. And finally, since the computer generates data “in real time,” the virtual world can be said to responds dynamically to the user’s input, and their relation is one of mutual interaction. The virtual world does not mechanically display hidden parts of itself at the user’s command, but actualizes through a constructive activity one of the many states that it contains potentially.

To the relatively low interactivity of hypertext, developers of VR systems oppose the high interactivity of a genre existing mainly in the conceptual stage: Interactive Drama. The term has been introduced by Joseph Bates and his colleagues to describe their project Oz, currently under development at Carnegie Mellon University. But in this essay I will apply it to any VR application designed for the purpose of entertainment, and involving some degree of narrativity.

The central idea of Interactive Drama is to abolish the difference between author, spectator, actor, and character. As Brenda Laurel writes: “The users of such a system are like audience members who can march up onto the stage and become various characters, altering the action by what they say and do in their roles” (Computer 16). In Interactive Drama, ideally, “the interactor is choosing what to do, say, and think [!] at all times” (Kelso, et al. 2). The performance of the users within the fictional world is not directed toward an audience in the real world, but toward the users themselves: Interactive Drama will [End Page 678] be staged “solely for the benefit of the interactor[s]” (Kelso, et al. 9). As beneficiary of the production, the interactor is audience; as active participant in the plot and member in make-believe of the fictional world, he is character; as physical body whose actions and speech bring the character to life, he is actor; and as initiator and creative source of the character’s...

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pp. 677-707
Launched on MUSE
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