Salon: Interactivity and narrative are incompatible

Have you guys seen this piece on Salon? … _the_book/ It’s about interactive features in ebooks, but it has obvious implications for IF. Here’s the quote with the most direct relevance:

It’s a running gag among comics fans that, every few years, an article appears with the title “Pow! Bam! Comics aren’t just for kids any more!” The article will mention whatever title is currently hot, and then go on to wonder if comics can really escape from its four-color superhero roots.

You have found the IF equivalent of that article.

Scenario transcends narrative; such is the joy of it.

Although comics won’t evade their four-colors roots, they haven’t been for children anymore since when the Joker broke Gordon’s daughter’s back in the Eighties. Thanks Alan Moore.

I don’t entirely disagree with this view … it does seem to me that narrative in IF tends to operate at about a 90-degree angle to narrative in conventional fiction … but you know, if anyone is looking for an idea for a mini-comp (or even a maxi-mini-comp, as the entries would need to have some heft), I think HamletComp would be a good one.

The idea being, in some way, shape, or form to draw upon as many of the major characters, themes, and events of Hamlet as possible, while turning it into a full-on IF game. Satire certainly allowed, but not encouraged. Iambic pentameter not required. Extra points for punctiliously correct usage of olde English.

A game that really is Hamlet, while taking the story in surprising and fresh interactive directions … I’ve just finished reading Gregory Maguire’s four-volume Oz series, so the possibilities of adaptation are much on my mind. But I think the best way to refute the negative view expressed in the quote might be to demonstrate in the most direct and concrete possible way (i.e., by doing Hamlet) that it’s simply wrong.

Okay, wait, here’s a straw man for you to practice on:

“Theater and narrative are in fundamental respects incompatible. A ‘Macbeth’ in which the director can decide to move the story to Depression-era New York, a ‘Hamlet’ in which the lead actor can decide to laugh at the ghost or marry Ophelia – these are no longer Macbeth or Hamlet. The power of these stories come from their feeling of inevitability, so any changes the director makes will interfere with that power. The meaning of the play comes from the nature of the character, so whatever external ideas the actor brings to the role will blur and obstruct that meaning. The only valid experience is reading the plays while sitting in a dimly-lit – hello? Hello? Where are you going?”

This seems apropos: … -mechanic/

I stopped reading at “save the book.” Who says the book needs saving?

I watched “Get Lamp” yesterday and my favorite part was where they talk about how 90% of what people do on computers currently is read. Look, you’re reading right now! Oh wait, I guess that doesn’t count because you’re here to talk about IF.

How does the author believe that this argument runs? “X would be a bad idea for an interactive story. Therefore interactive stories do not work.” This is not just N=1 induction, it is N=1 induction where the one case is a hypothetical one and all the real cases are ignored.

Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose your progress if it crashes?

Yeah, the bookmark might fall out.

Having now read the article, I would have to say, “That’s not entirely clear.” I’m not sure the article has any implications at all for IF – at least, not for parser-driven IF – because none of the interactive or otherwise digital features described in the article has anything to do with parsing or responding to text commands. Nor with branching lines of narrative, which is a staple of non-parser IF.

Digital bells and whistles (including sound and images) can be applied equally well to IF or to a digital version of a conventional story. So the points she’s trying to make (if there are any … this is what I’d call a “pretend-think piece”) would apply in the same way to IF as to conventional fiction.

The paragraph quoted by original poster is lifted from a book that is about video games. To determine its relevance to IF, one would have to read the book.

Concerning the original quote:

“By now, the theory that the novel of the future will be a game has become almost venerable.”

It’s a theory that could use debunking on both sides I think - IE people who like novels and not games, people who like games and not novels. Both groups keen to vaunt their fave medium over the other, one because it’s seen to be on the wane (relatively speaking) one because it’s been called kid stuff for awhile and its advocates want to cement its validity. The two media don’t really need vaunting because books and games are different in effect, so they shouldn’t be set up to fight each other in the first place.

I don’t want to nitpick the Hamlet example because it’s obviously being used because people know Hamlet, and the basic truth is in there: novels and plays aren’t interactive and that gives them their effect. Games are and that gives them their effect.

I can’t really go for Zarf’s straw man because new authors can certainly change the text of Hamlet , but then they still deliver it to an audience who don’t get to make any macroscopic decisions about the content or direction of the altered text. The line is between authors and audience.

David Cronenberg (who made a game about videogame authors, Existenz, amongst other things) described videogames as democratic, and the classic author/art-as-we-know-it model as a dictatorship. He didn’t do this to make one sound good and the other evil, he was just trying to characterise the relationship between author and audience in each. When it becomes democratic, you lose the possibility of certain effects but gain others. The democratic model’s a more recent development, but we’re likely to continue to want both kinds.

I haven’t played video games much since Centipede morphed into Millipede, so I can’t speak to that … but I dissent mildly from the idea that an interactive mode of storytelling is democratic. It may appear democratic, but that’s an artful illusion. In fact, everything the player can do in IF has been meticulously planned and implemented by the author. The player cannot influence what happens in any way, shape, or form.

A stage play is more nearly democratic, in that it is, of necessity, a collaboration between a playwright, a director, a stage designer, a costume designer, a lighting designer, and a gaggle of actors. Some plays, in addition, involve a few selected audience members in various ways, such as by bringing them onstage in a scene that requires the actors to improvise based on what the audience members say or do. That’s about as democratic as letting a few citizens ask questions of a candidate at a “town hall meeting” (which is to say, it’s not really democratic at all), but it’s less structured than anything in IF.


The magic happens in the myriad of ways these two models can meet in the middle, so I don’t know why people are always trying to point out the lack of a unified model as if it’s a bad thing or in opposition or tension. It’s not like we are describing the universe here. There is no need to be consistent even from one moment of a game to the next (as long as your players aren’t hopelessly confused).


The point, as I read it, is that talking to random things/ideas and saying that they are mutually exclusive is flat-out wrong. Obviously, when presented through different mediums, Hamlet is different. It’s a tautology: different Hamlet is different.

However, the original point is that narrative and interactivity are mutually exclusive… which simply means that the author has no idea what narrative actually is and was. The original Shakespeare was full of interactivity; the audience shouted at the players, threw vegetables, and generally interacted. The players would stop in the middle of a scene to talk with the audience. Often, the players would ad-lib, throwing in jokes about the various famous folk in the audience. And taking it back even farther, back to when bards would tell tales around a campfire - the same thing happened. They would change the story to incorporate the names and actions of those around them into the stories.

For a famous example, how about Sherlock Holmes? He was killed off, but after a flood of requests, the author brought him back. If that’s not interactivity, I don’t know what is. For a less famous, but perhaps more intimate example, the stories I tell my kids at night are run by democracy. I’ll ask what happens next, what a character’s name is, what decision a character will make. It’s interactive narrative.

But to answer the gist of what the article says… no, all the whiz-bang stuff added to ebooks will do very little to help or hurt them… until they make stories that are meant to be interacted with. How about a suspense book with quiet music in the background, that seamlessly transitions to a darker tone when you get to the really suspenseful part? Hamlet is good as it is, but imagine if an HP Lovecraft book had shadows scurry quickly across the page, or if the words themselves would try to “get away” from “scary” words. If it would calibrate your reading speed against page turning, and make a word actually “jump out” at you, right when you got to it? Or even the “real” versions of magical books from Harry Potter’s universe?

I would buy ebooks like that. They aren’t “classic literature” - they are NEW literature. Just like adding words to a picture book doesn’t make it better, adding videos and music to existing works won’t make them much better, either. But creating new works that actually use the medium, well, those may well be better than “plain books.” Maybe.

BTW: comics by its very name sure has roots in comic strips such as Krazy Kat and Little Nemo. Caped Crusaders are a later development, basically watered down pulp fiction for teens in the 40’s, which BTW were cheap crime stories inspired chiefly by the commercial success of Sherlock Holme’s short stories in the turn of the century. So, you can see Batman is basically Sherlock under a silly bat costume with bralws and battling penguins and clowns. In a way, the latest Sherlock movies pay Batman a homage.

Secondarily. The largest influence on pulp-crime stories were pulp-western stories which immediately preceded and overlapped with them in terms of commercial success. In fact, a significant number stories published as crime by pulp-crime magazines had been submitted to the editors as westerns, then re-purposed to fit the changing needs of the publishers. Just as “space opera” descended from “horse opera,” so too did the hardboiled pulps.

Isn’t this more or less what booktrack does? I haven’t tried it… Does it actually work or is it just annoying?

Booktrack sounds cool but I have a better idea. First of all, you don’t need a tablet; you can read on your old books made out of paper that smell nice.

Second of all, you need one of those helmets they use in psychology experiments that tracks what your eyes are pointed at with a high degree of resolution.

As you read, the eye-tracker helmet notices which words you’re looking at, and in particular, which letters. When you look at a letter that corresponds to a musical note (A-G), the helmet plays that note in your ear. So if you read these words:


You will hear a fairly disjointed version of the theme song from the Peanuts cartoon.

If you look at the words:


You will hear a haunting, slightly atonal melody, approximately as creepy in tone as the original sentence.

If you read the words:


You will hear a different haunting, slightly atonal melody, broken up by many long silences.

Those helmets are heavy, and expensive, but then, so are iPads. I mean an iPad is probably not as heavy or as expensive as one of those helmets. Definitely not as heavy.

I think both methods have their merits.