The Pit & The Pendulum (Part 1)

This article is one of several I wrote almost a decade ago about the quest to create a genuine interactive narrative using digital media

Mention the words “interactive narrative” to people involved in digital design and the reaction is interesting. Eyes narrow or glaze over. Faces assume the expression of someone that has just been asked their opinion of life after death.

Alternately you’ll get a knowing half smile, coupled with a slightly condescending shake of the head. It’s one of those ideas generally regarded as a conceptual cul-de-sac or, at best, a quixotic quest. The old hands have seen waves of idealistic newcomers pursue and then abandon their search for this grail and the field is littered with botched or compromised attempts: games, installations, hypertexts – all masquerading as the real thing.

Yet a certain wistfulness underlies even the most sceptical response. Like a fabulous Eldorado, everyone wishes it was a goal that could be reached.

And with good reason: our culture is founded on stories. Narrative in one form or another permeates our lives from birth and shapes the world we live in at every level. A lingering suspicion persists that any cultural artefact which cannot effectively connect with that vast reservoir of human thoughts, feelings and experiences is forever doomed to be shallow and ephemeral. And that is probably a fair description of how most of the population feel about computer games: as things that cater for essentially immature tastes.

But games are the inevitable yard-stick because they provide at this moment in time the most developed models of human-computer interactivity we have. Both in conceptual and commercial terms the games industry has best succeeded in exploiting the full range of powers that digital technology has conferred on us. Any attempt to apply that model to narrative however runs slap bang into the same paradoxes that beset a time traveller. That is because narrative belongs implicitly to the past, it refers to something that has already happened. A game or simulation, in contrast, offers only the potential for narrative, it is a present tense “event” governed by arbitrary rules of play

If you can change the plot of “Hamlet”, it becomes “something else”; it enters a state of flux in which (theoretically) anything can happen. In practice of course the alternatives are limited to choices that are meaningful for the user. Introducing competition into the equation provides that “meaning” and that’s why a recent CD ROM based on Kenneth Branagh’s film turned it into a murder mystery game.

But such solutions are rarely satisfactory. This is not just because a game version of “Hamlet” cannot provide the same kind of aesthetic experience as a performance but because the goal orientated nature of a game produces a completely different kind of emotional involvement. The virtues of games playing are transparently instrumental; they are about getting things done, making things happen. Electronic games were around long before the evolution of the personal computer and the most successful PC games have kept in touch with their roots. The athleticism of the arcade, the testing of reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination, is still the base denominator and the purest pleasure on offer.

 

Elements of narrative (character and setting for example) are used in this context as correlatives serving instrumental ends. They only fail when they intrude too much upon the game play which is the true reason for interaction. On the other hand, those games that purport to offer a “narrative-type experience” frustrate the user for opposite reasons: the use of puzzles and tests which obstruct the flow of action. The conclusion that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between narratives and games is inescapable.

And for most people this is where the quest comes to an end: with an unbridgeable gulf (once famously described as the “pit of hell”) that separates the world of games from that of stories. The unspoken assumption is that games are what computers “do best” and it is coupled with an acceptance of both the limitations of the format and its cultural significance.

(continued)

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