The challenges of writing interactive narratives

Gameological has an interesting interview with writer Susan O’Connor, who is thinking of leaving the gaming industry for a variety of reasons, chief among them the limitations of narrative expression in the medium, and what she perceives as a software development focus rather than an entertainment focus in the industry.  I was particularly struck by this bit:

I think games are all for good story, but they really have to justify “Why am I shooting everything?”

She finds writing a plot that basically justifies shooting things very restrictive.  That’s a fair point.  I’m very interested in the narrative aspect of interactive narratives, but these are entertainment products that are focused on some autotelic activity, whether that is shooting or something else.   The narrative has to fit in that autotelic activity and give it context. That’s easy if you don’t want anything more complex than “you’re on Mars and demons are attacking you,” but a challenge if you want to write or consume more compelling narratives.

Of course, many mediums have similar restrictions, but unlike other mediums (books, movies, TV shows) the primary focus of the interactive narrative as an entertainment product is the autotelic activity rather than the narrative itself.  Other mediums may have to write around certain expectations (action scenes in summer blockbusters, for example, or a joke every 30 seconds in comedy TV shows), but the consumer is still there primarily to consume a narrative.  Consumers of interactive narratives are there to participate in an autotelic activity.  A good story may be absolutely essential to provide context for and interest in the activity, but it’s still not the primary focus. This is, perhaps, one of the unique challenges facing the medium.

Commercials as Co-text

One of the things I’m interested in is the impact advertisements can have on the narratives they are trying to sell.  The idea that a reader will draw on other texts as he or she constructs the meaning of text is not new.  Barthes, Kristeva and others have argued that readers construct the meaning of a text as they read by, partly, applying intertextual links.  But what outside text could be more relevant in forming a text’s meaning than an advertisement for that text?  Advertisements are often syntheses of narratives that break down the text they are selling into its most crucial (or attractive) aspects and present them in an extremely compressed format.  It should be no surprise that ads can be a powerful referent in a reader’s construction of a text

Advertisements are usually developed by independent agencies with little input by authors or creators of the target text and sometimes with little access to the actual source material.  Ads may be developed long after the target text is completed (for a second printing, for example) Therefore texts rarely refer to their own advertisements.   Readers may be referring to advertisements in order to construct a text’s meaning, but a literary analysis that looks at the intertextual references within a text itself will not pick up on those sources of meaning.  Readers (or generally, consumers) are immersed in a dialogic commercial landscape that inevitably contributes to the meaning they construct for narratives they consume.  I propose that commercials can be a co-text or pre-text for the texts they advertise.

Continue reading