Maximising the interactivity of narration

January 2006

1. Preface

In this paper I wish to explore the field of interactive narrations to find the maximum amount of interactivity possible in narration without resorting to life as the most interactive narrative ever. By doing so, I hope to find hints and grips on how the interactivity of narration can be maximised.

I will first determine ‘Interactive Narrative’ itself and then explore three of the most interactive types of narratives known to me: Alternate Reality Games, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games and Live Action Role-playing Games. At that point, I hope to be able to find a satisfying conclusion on how to enhance the interaction in interactive narratives.

2. Interactive Narrative

In this chapter I will focus on determining the term interactive narrative. Many people have done exactly the same before, so I won’t waste too much text on that.

When I’ve got as far, I will make a step towards how the term interactive narration can be applied to games, since all of my topics are referred to as games as well.

2.1 What is an interactive narrative?

I like to keep things as simple as possible, so let’s put it this way: an interactive narrative is a narration made interactive. I bet this does make sense but it doesn’t tell you anything new.

Simply put – again – a narration is a story told. It does not matter who (or what) is telling the story, nor does the medium used to do so. A movie is as much a narration as a play in a theatre, or a book indeed.

When we apply interaction to narrative, the narrative no longer simply is a story told. Now there is interaction between the narrator and the listener; the listener can influence the narrator to alter its story. Again, it is not important how this interaction takes place, it only is important that it does.

2.2 About interactive narration and games

Already much has been published describing the narrative in games and questioning if there even is any1. The conclusion one can draw from al this information is more or less that it is dependent on the game (or kind of game indeed) considered. At least, that is what I did, and below I will explain why.

Further I’d like to state that any interactive narration is in essence a game. Of course, I’ll try to explain why so I think.

Games and narratives

Some games really don’t have anything story-like in them except the manual – which even doesn’t resemble a story very well. Probably there is some kind of story about saving a princess who is locked away in a tower by an evil warlock and that one has to solve the game to free the princess. In many cases this is just a bad excuse to explain the goal of the game. An example of a game that has nothing to do with narrative at all is Tetris2, where the player has to stock bricks on top of each other in an increasing pace.

Other games do tell stories and can therefore be considered a narrative. That is to say, an interactive narrative, because the listener (or rather: player) is in the position to influence the narrator to change its story. A good and well-known example of such a game is Myst3. By playing the game, the player influences the flow of the story being narrated and which parts are and which parts are not. Thus based on the input by the player the game can narrate the story in different ways.

Why interactive narrations are games

Although this subject is certainly worth a paper by itself, I’ll try to line out my opinion here in short.

There are many, many sorts of interactive narrations out there. There are, of course, the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’-books, which hold on to a very physical form as well as the classic text-adventures like Zork45,. Both narrate stories the old-fashioned way: one has to read them. As some bit of the story is told, the player is offered a limited number or choices (either via multiple choice or text input) and depending on the choice made the story will continue.

This is in essence the same thing as what happens in the more narrative kind of game (frankly, Zork itself qualifies nicely as a computer game as well). A bit of a story is narrated, and the player is offered a variety of choices. Based on their choice, the story will continue in one way or another. The story might not be narrated by using letters (either printed or displayed on a screen) but it is narrated, either by the use of imagery, cut-scenes, audio or any other way.

Because of this I find it save to state that an interactive narrative is game but a game is not necessarily an interactive narrative.

3. Alternate Reality Games

Alternate Reality Games (ARG) aren’t games. At least, that is what they try to make us believe. We, however, know they secretly are. ARGs are often used for promotional reasons but they can be very exciting nonetheless.

Instead of putting a reference to ‘Szulborski, 2005’ in almost every sentence of this chapter, I think it will suffice to do refer to this work once6. At the moment this is the only hardcopy available on ARGs but the author is working on a new title. For anyone interested in Alternate Reality Gaming I can but refer to this book and, how can it not be, the internet. The Alternate Reality Gaming Network (found at 7">www.argn.com7) offers a good start.

3.1 A brief description

As said, ARGs are often used for promotional reasons. This is no coincidence: working out a good and watertight ARG may occupy a team of so called ‘puppet masters’ for a good few months.

Most ARGs use the internet as their basic medium, although I find that not at all necessary for an ARG to be what it is, but the world-wide-spread internet surely comes in handy since the bigger ARGs target this whole wide world.

ARGs are said to take place in an ‘alternate reality’, hence the name. In fact, they don’t, since they don’t even take place in a virtual ‘game world’ as most games do but, indeed, in the world as we know it. The fact that it is called an alternate reality is because the events that happen in the game don’t necessarily have anything to do with ‘our’ reality; an event may, for example, take place in 2142 instead of 2006. An ARG tries to blur the boundaries separating fiction and reality.

The beginning of a new ARG

As an ARG is launched, a few hints will be released and, occasionally, someone will run across a hint and try to figure out what it means. As they continues their search they most likely will find more information and an occasional puzzle – although it might not look like one. Especially in the beginning, an ARG relies heavily on denial: it is not a game; all of it is real. Mysteries appear and it is to the player to resolve them.

Then what happens?

If an ARG is at least a bit successful, more players follow and most likely large groups of players team up to help each other solve the mysteries they discover.

Whilst the players are busy discovering clues and solving mysteries, the puppet masters, as the game-designers and -masters are called, might as well secretly team up with the players and see how they are doing. Thus they can give hints to the players, or, which is far more interesting, alter the course of the game so it fits the path the players are taking.

Finally, as all the players have solved all the mysteries, the game is over. There is usually no prize, the reward lies in playing – and experiencing – the game.

3.2 Interactivity

As ARGs tell us they are no games, they cannot put restrictions upon the players about what actions they may or may not undertake.

Most of the time, it might well be possible by limiting the amount of possible actions by several means, like limiting the knowledge the player has or offering puzzles which have a clear goal and but one solution. However, it is barely inevitable that at some point players can and will interfere with the game flow. This can assume vast proportions to the point where the puppet masters have to rewrite large parts of the script in order to let the game continue without telling the players they want something impossible (which is quite common in many games). This can further be illustrated by a quote from Szulborski: “Even the most well crafted story cannot anticipate and account for the interaction or choices of the players using this method of segmented and scheduled storytelling8.

3.3 Narrativity

ARGs rely not only on telling the players they are not a game, they also heavily rely on telling stories. I expect you not to find this surprising at all, because how can a game be so compelling and immersive as an ARG, not admitting it is a game and still have no vast narrative component?

Of course it is the story which draws players into the game, and not the game-play itself like Tetris nor the beautiful graphics, simply because those are basically non-existent.

The story is mostly not created by the players but merely discovered. However, in some cases the players can have very much influence on the story, and thus the narration.

3.4 Conclusion

Although at some points an ARG may seem limited in interaction-possibilities, players may just take another course and confront the puppet masters with unexpected solutions they had never thought of before. In the most exceptional case this may result in large parts of the plot to be rewritten. Players thus may have a great influence in the narration.

4 Massively Multiplay Online Role-playing Games

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs) are games played by numerous of people together (or against each other) at the same time over the internet. People interact with each other as well as with the game, which provides the world for the game to take place in.

4.1 A brief description

Even at the dawn of the computer age people realised computers could be used for more than just compute endless streams of dull data. Soon the first games saw the light and in 1978 the first ‘MUD’ (Multi-User Dungeon, the predecessor of what we call MMORPG today) went life9.

Basic principles

Already at that time the basic principles of the genre were laid out: players could interact with each other in a (usually fantasy-like) setting in a very free and fairly unlimited way. Players can engage themselves with a variety of actions, ranging from chatting with friends to killing other players or monsters deployed by the game. Players can play alone or team up with other players in a guild and embark upon dangerous quests – or not if they choose so10.

Better than reality

Due to the fact that MMORPGs take place in a fictional world it isn’t limited by reality. Often magic plays a great role in MMORPGs, players are not limited to the usual capacities of the human body. When speaking of the human body: it is not at al necessary to play with a human character; players often can choose from a wide range of possible races, ranging from the more earthly creatures like rats and bears to creatures from fantasy realms like dwarves and elves.

4.2 Interactivity

As said, players can interact which each other and have many degrees of freedom, only limited by the rules of the game and, of course, the medium. It might, for instance, not be possible to cut down a tree to build a bridge over some savage-flowing river they cannot cross, because the game does not offer an interface for such actions. Because of the medium used (a computer game), there are also many kinds of interaction possible which are not possible in the ‘real world’ like casting magic spells and the like.

At some point, the game may spawn opponents or other non-player characters but these aren’t nearly as interactive as the other characters played by humans.

MMORPGs also offer large social communities, in which players engage in various relationships11. This can range from a couple of players teaming up to defeat an enemy to founding a settlement. This, of course, brings the interactivity and narrativity to a very personal level.

4.3 Narrativity

The game itself provides merely an environment for the players to interact in instead of a story. Of course there are the monsters and non-player characters (and some back story supporting them), but because they are not controlled by humans and thus less interactive, their narrative value is much lower that that of the other players.

Although the game itself doesn’t really provide a story, the players make the story. They go on quests, fight, build and talk and thus create their own, personal part in an immense story, which is different to each player.

4.4 Conclusion

MMORPGs allow for an amazing level of interactivity between the players, and thus have a large influence on the narration. Although there are limitations by game rules and medium it is also possible to act inhuman and, for example, use magic. The narrative resulting from the game-play is very personal and highly influenced by the player.

5. Live Action Role-playing games

A Live Action Role-playing game (LARP) is very similar to a MMORPG but differs in one mayor respect: LARPs are played out in real life. Players meet with each other to play, usually dressed up in costume and equipped with special (harmless) weapons.

5.1 A brief description

In a LARP players physically perform the actions of their characters. As a LARP takes place in the world we usually refer to as real: a real location is required to play, which is picked by the organizers of the game. The players assemble there and at a given moment begin their game, which may take from one day to over a week. Also, the game may continue in future events and thus extending the storyline12.

LARP relies heavily on role-play, since every player actually has to ‘be’ their character and thus act like they are their character. Because of this, and the great variety of situations a player’s character can encounter, a great deal of improvisation is required13.

Setting

LARPs are about creating a setting with it’s own background, characters, culture and so on. It is up to the players to immerse themselves (and the other players) in this setting14.

The material setting is adapted as much as possible to the desired setting imagined by the organizers and scriptwriters. Environmental parts that can easily be changed to fit in the settings, like costumes, food and properties, may be adapted15.

Impossibilities

However, one cannot (or is not to allowed to) change everything to their will. For example, if a game takes place in a village, often there is no village present and one cannot easily build one. This may be solved by the use of tents and imagination.

Also, LARPs, like MMORPGs, often incorporate impossibilities like magic. Unlike in MMORPGs, there is not a computer which will render fancy special effects or cause other characters to be struck by lighting (which would be quite cruel anyway, since in LARP that means the player would die). A fair amount of role-playing, imagination and special properties (like throwing bean-bags instead of blasting out fireballs) solves this12.

5.2 Interactivity

The interaction in LARPs takes place on a rather physical level. Players can look each other in the eye, talk to each other, touch each other and even fight each other if they desire. Of course, this is subjected to certain rules, so players won’t really hurt each other (of course it is allowed to hurt people’s characters). Fighting then usually happens with non-dangerous weapons, like swords made of latex. In some games, though, (slight) physical harm might even be allowed12.

Players may be subjected to certain other game rules as well, for example not being able to understand ‘foreign’ languages or the use of magic.

Players have a fair degree of freedom in choosing how to act. Although in most situations they will not be allowed to cut down a tree to form a bridge over that savage-flowing river (which, in reality, might not even exist), in most games they may act as if and form an imaginary bridge.

5.3 Narrativity

Mostly, a plot is present when a LARP begins. This plot, however, usually only crafts the beginning of the game. By playing together, the players in a LARP together constitute their story16, evolving on the primary plot.

Like MMORPGs, also LARPs know non-player characters, but these are played out by humans as well and thus offer many opportunities to create, alter or enhance storylines.

5.4 Conclusion

LARPs offer almost as much (or more, depending on how you look at it) interactivity as reality itself, since they take place in reality. Almost everything and everyone can be interacted with, eventually resulting in drastic changes in the story and allowing for unexpected events.

Where MMORPGs have restrictions imposed by the medium, LARPs virtually have none except for the game-rules. As in MMORPGs, depending on the game, magic and the like may be used to enhance the narrative even further.

6. Conclusion

Besides exploring some highly interactive forms of interactive narration, the main goal of this paper is to find out how the interactive part of interactive narration can be boasted to the maximum.

When reading through each conclusion I can sum up the following remarkable facts:

From this I draw the following conclusions:

Humans interacting with other humans offer the greatest interaction, because humans don’t have the limitations computers, other media and pre-defined stories have. They can react to almost every situation within a flash and come up with the most unpredictable and surprising actions.

A computer, for example, can only respond to certain actions to which it is programmed to respond. It doesn’t have the flexibility to come up with a response to everything. The same goes for a pre-defined story, as is common in ARGs, but those can be rewritten during play – by humans, indeed.

Here we also see why it is important for interaction that the medium used for the narration is as less present as possible, because the medium limits the ways of interaction. In a computer-game, like a MMORPG, it might not be possible to act a certain way, just because the game doesn’t provide the flexibility for that. The medium opposes undesired limitations upon the interaction.

I can then conclude that the level of interactivity in an interactive narration will increase as more interaction between human beings is added and limitations are eliminated.

Footnotes and references

1: For example, see Meadows, 2003 and Juul, 2001
2: Alexey Pajitnov, 1986
3: Cyan Inc, 1993
4: Smith, 2000
5: Infocom, 1980
6: Szulborski, 2005
7: Unfortunately, this website is now defunct. Historical snapshots are available at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/*/agrn.com
8: Szulborski, 2005, p. 97
9: Koster, 2000
10: Wikipedia, MMORPG (www) (2006)
11: Chick, 2003
12: Wikipedia, LARP (www) (2006)
13: Geir, 2005, pp. 92-96
14: Geir, 2005, p. 7
15: Geir, 2005, pp. 69-79
16: Gräslund, s.a.

Literature

Brenne, Geir T.: Making and maintaining frames (Thesis), University of Oslo, 2005
Chick, Tom: MMO’s: Building whole societies, www.gamespy.com, 2003
Gräslund, Susanne: Building Dramatics, fate.laiv.org, s.a.
Juul, Jesper: Games telling stories?, www.jesperjuul.dk, 2001
Koster, Raph: Online World Timeline, www.raphkoster.com, 2000, updated 2002.
Meadows, Mark S.: Pause and effect, New Riders Publishing, 2003
Smith, Johan H.: The empowered Reader, www.johansmith.dk, 2000
Szulborski, Dave: This is not a game, eXe Active Media Group, 2005

Games

Cyan Inc.: Myst, Brøderbund, 1993
Infocom: Zork, Infocom, 1980
Alexey Pajitnov: Tetris, Spectrum HoloByte, 1986