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  • From Narrative Games to Playable StoriesToward a Poetics of Interactive Narrative
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (bio)

The genres of digital narrative are, if not innumerable like the genres of narratives, at least very varied. They include stories generated by artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which have yet to produce narratives that people would want to read for the sake of entertainment; human-generated stories, such as the news, gossips, or autobiographical sketches that circulate constantly through the Internet; and interactive narratives produced through a collaboration between the machine and the user—or, to be more precise, through a manipulation by the machine of human-produced data in response to the user’s input. In this article I focus on the third kind, more particularly on the design problem of integrating the user’s activity into a framework that fulfills the basic condition of narrativity: a sequence of events involving thinking individuals, linked by causal relations, motivated by a conflict, and aiming at its resolution. [End Page 43]

Whether or not interactive narratives practically exist or are still chimeras depends on what is expected of the user’s participation: the more active and the less constrained the user’s role—in other words, the more lifelike, though life is not free of constraints—the more problematic its integration into a well-formed narrative arc. For intensity of user participation, freedom of choice, and depth of immersion, nothing can beat the imaginary Holodeck of the TV series Star Trek, which Janet Murray, in her 1997 classic Hamlet on the Holodeck, proposes as the model of the new kind of narrative experience that digital technology will make possible. The Holodeck is a computer-generated, three-dimensional simulation of a fictional world. The user is invited to step into this world, to impersonate a character, and to interact through language and gestures with synthetic (i.e., computer-created) agents. No matter what the user says or does, the synthetic agents respond coherently and integrate the user’s input into a narrative arc that sustains interest. The Holodeck may be the Holy Grail of New Media, but it is also, as Brenda Laurel calls interactive narrative, “an elusive unicorn we can imagine but have yet to capture” (2001: 72). It would take an artificial intelligence far beyond the capabilities of existing systems to be able to process whatever the user decides to do or say, and a creativity far beyond the imagination of the best novelists and playwrights to be able to integrate this input into a well-formed plot. (Imagine Shakespeare having to write Hamlet without being in control of all the characters!)

At the other end of the spectrum of ease of implementation is hypertext fiction, a genre that limits the user’s agency to selecting an item from a menu of possible choices. What hypertext gains in actual feasibility over the Holodeck, thanks to the simplicity of its algorithm, it loses in ability to create narrative meaning and immersion in a fictional world: narrative is a linear, causal sequence of events whose significance depends on their position on a temporal axis, while hypertext is a network of textual fragments that can be read in many different orders. Unless the user’s choices are severely restricted, it is highly unlikely that they will produce a sequence that respects narrative logic. This is not to say that it is impossible for hypertext to tell stories; but if readers are to construct a causal sequence of events out of fragments presented in a variable order, they will have to do so by mentally rearranging the fragments [End Page 44] into other configurations than the order in which they were initially presented on the screen.

The purpose of this article is to explore forms of interactive narrative that offer a compromise between the unrealistic demands made on AI by the Holodeck and the very programmable but narratively challenged and interactively limited algorithm of hypertext fiction. In these moderately interactive forms, the user manipulates one or more characters in the fictional world and affects this world from within, rather than manipulating fragments of text from a metatextual perspective. My overall purpose is manifold: to provide reference points and...