The Forensic Narrative

One of the reasons I’m so interested in interactive narratives is that they often attempt some form of narrative innovation. Not always, of course: character building and storytelling are hard work even for traditional narratives, and interactive narratives that must center on some autotelic activity make it even more challenging.  Therefore many narratives choose to do their narrative work via “cutscenes,” clips that use all the familiar cinematic techniques developed over the past century or so (framing, camera angles, depth of field, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a tried-and-true method for telling stories.

In a way, I think right now we’re in a period similar to the early days of cinema.  In the beginning, movies took their cues from stage performances, and lots of early movies look like recordings of a play. Of course, cinema quickly started to experiment in ways unique to the medium.  Both traditions thrive today: many studio TV shows still rely on splayed-out stage sets, while other kinds of productions use techniques that could only have been developed in a mature medium.  So I expect that the cutscene variety of storytelling will continue in interactive narratives, but at the same time another vein of storytelling will develop innovations unique to the medium. We’re only at the beginning of the life of this medium, and it’s exciting to see what people are starting to do.

One of the narrative innovations we’re seeing is something I’m going to dub the “forensic narrative.” In this narrative scheme the consumer moves through the narrative world collecting fragments of narrative that they must stitch together to form a picture of past events. Often, the narrative world is the site of some disaster, and as more and more snippets of narrative are linked together they eventually coalesce into a picture of just what happened to cause that disaster, hence the “forensic” nature of this narrative technique. One of the most relevant recent works would have to be Bioshock (2007), in which the consumer explores an underwater city that seems to have once been a beautiful art-deco paradise, but is now a ruin filled with the murderously insane.

An audio diary in Bioshock (2007)

As the consumer moves through the city, he or she picks up clues recorded in the past that slowly form a picture of just what happened. Bioshock is not unique: this method of storytelling dates at least back to 1998’s Unreal, and is a major feature of both 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and 2013’s Dead Space 3, to name only a few major titles.

Snooping through emails in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Snooping through emails in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

However, the “narrative fragments” the consumer collects are not neatly narrated parts of a unified whole work that just happen to have been snipped apart. Rather they take the form of emails, diaries, letters, reports, voicemails and a host of other media formats that fill our daily lives. This method of narrating is inherently fragmented, non-authoritative and multi-perspectival. A consumer might read accounts of an event in the emails of both a disgruntled employee and his supervisor, or the reports of a military operation from both a general and a private. They may watch a company’s slick promotional video for a product then read the cynical emails exchanged by the employees developing it, or hear a politician’s lofty campaign speech and then compare it with the diaries of the people his policies affect.

This mode of narration is similar to detective stories in that the details of a past event are slowly revealed to the reader/consumer from disparate bits and pieces. However, the forensic narrative is inherently fragmented and dialectic. There is no narrator neatly explaining what has happened; in fact, there is no narrative authority at all. The consumer is left to weigh for themselves the reliability of the various, possibly conflicting accounts and stitch them together into a cohesive narrative.  In this sense the forensic narrative is functionally similar to Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s story “In a Grove (Yabu no naka),” which was made into the acclaimed movie Rashōmon.  “In a Grove” simply presents the transcripts of three contradictory accounts of a crime from three different people. There is no narrator present to lend authority to one account or the other; they are simply presented.  Since they cannot all be true, the reader is left to weigh the reliability of each of the accounts for themselves and, ultimately, consider the futility of establishing objective truth.  Forensic narratives regularly utilize this same narrative technique. Although they may only rarely reach the literary heights of Akutagawa’s masterpiece, they constantly challenge narrative authority and objective truth.

In a way, this narrative mode is perfectly suited to the era in which interactive narratives have come of age. The days when people could expect an authoritative narrative describing objective reality from a single newspaper or TV station are gone.  Now we scan news sites, TV, blogs, Twitter and a host of other mediums to get multiple perspectives on every incident and issue, then weigh the credibility of each report or the analytical depth of each criticism to construct for ourselves a picture of reality or our position on an issue.  In a sense, the forensic narrative is a simulation of the way we construct reality in the information age.

Another interesting feature of the forensic narrative is that it implies a dual-layered narrative.  As consumers navigate through the interactive world they are participating in two narratives; the narrative of the protagonist in the present, and the narrative of past events that they are reconstructing. This creates a constant tension between lived, first-hand experience and recounted, second-hand information. But more interestingly, these two narrative layers are aligned to one another by location.  Usually the fragments of the past narrative are found in locations relevant to their authors: the emails of a company employee can be read on the computer in his cubicle, for example.  Therefore, the two narrative layers are spatially superimposed.  The consumer is viewing the office building in the post-disaster present, probably devoid of people and strewn with rubble.  However, superimposed on that is the image of the past narrative they are reconstructing, when the office was filled with the bustle of everyday activity and an employee sent an email to his manager warning about the dangers of a new product.

While, like most narrative innovations, the forensic narrative stems from narrative techniques present in other mediums, interactive narratives have embraced this method of storytelling and made it one of the pillars of popular narrative entertainment. Consequently, consumers of interactive narratives are no stranger to the subjectivity of perception, balancing multiple perspectives and layered narratives.

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