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.