Almost since their very inception artists working within the various traditional entertainment media have been pushing against the boundaries of what is possible for narrative within their chosen field. In literature we have works like the Dictionary of the Khazars that encourages readers to piece together the “story” from fragmented often conflicting accounts, while in film we have the somewhat structurally similar in Rashomon where a rape and murder is told through the eyes of four witnesses, each with different perspectives on the crime. More recently we have something like Momento where the narrative is told in reverse chronological order.
Yet when discussions of interactive narrative come up, the usually reference point for narrative itself is the strict linear progression of events seen in the majority of films and novels, and rarely the other forms of narrative available. Forms that seem much more structually suited to the digital medium than something like Citizen Kane.
The arguments against interactive narrative are usually that choice is anathema to narrative structure, that any degree of choice takes away from the power of the narrative. This is true when it comes to strictly linear narratives, Romeo and Juilet would not have the same meaning or power if the reader could choose to let Juilet live. However when we consider the other possible narrative structures available the problems of choice become not problems but possibilities.
Recently I played Masq (Available from Alteraction’s website, and a title I would highly recommend) on the surface it’s a fairly straightforward branching story made up of discrete scenes; a choose-your-own-adventure. It’s possible to be entertained by a single play through from introduction to conclusion but at the end you are shown a sequences of scenes that may or may not have occurred for you. You are provided no context for these scenes, if you want to understand them you are implicitly encouraged to replay the game to see how else the story could have developed. Each choice you make leads to a different range of subsequent choices, and each character responds in a consistent manner to your actions, because of this different facets of the story are revealed each time you play. Over the course of multiple plays you uncover more about each character and how they react under different circumstances. There is no single defining truth but a range of potential truths, in the end it is entirely down to each player which is the real story of what happens or if there is a single canonical story at all.
Given the inherent strengths of the digital medium we should be looking at games to provide narratives that hinge on this multiplicity of truth. Where your understanding of the world develops as you experience the consequences of your choices; see how people’s motivations and actions change based on your actions. Games where we can see if Abraham Lincoln was correct by witnessing how somebody reacts to adversity or power, or both.
It’s not about remaking a choose-your-own-adventure game, but making a game focused on exploring the range of potential outcomes from any single decision. Television series spend hours building up webs of character interaction, layers of subtext and hidden motivation but games have a much better format for that, one where we can explore it at our own pace, where we can witness out actions affecting the world around like ripples in a pond. Such games could help us learn more about our place in the world, the consequences of our actions, and our responsibility to others.
Imagine a family gathering handled in such a game, we could take on the role of a family member and through our actions and their consequences we would learn much about the family itself and our place in it. Do we reveal our brother’s homosexuality or our mother’s affair, or do we keep their secrets and if so what does that do to the family dynamics? How does our father react to each of these revelations and what do we learn about his character from those reactions? What do we learn about ourseleves if we do choose to reveal or keep those confidences?
These might not be stories in the traditional format and would be closer to Rashomon than Citizen Kane, but no less powerful for it. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to traditional narratives as a target when we consider the potential for interactive narratives.