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.

Continue reading