Steve Anderson 1 Jan 2004

Select and Combine

The Rise of Database Narratives

With the flick of a mouse, we glide effortlessly down the gloomy corridors of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, floating past cavernous ballrooms and windows overlooking elegant gardens and swimming pools. Around each corner and behind each door, ghostly figures replay events from a past that is at once real and imagined. A Kennedy died here along with countless villains and plots of Hollywood noir. The number of possible paths trough this story space seem limitless. Even familiar rooms tell different stories with each visit and earthquakes periodically rumble through the dilapidated building, triggering a barrage of images and hurling us into new spaces and timed.

This is the world of Pat O’Neill’s Tracing the Decay of Fiction, a DVD-ROM made in collaboration with the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, which for the past five years has been a key player in the loose global network of digital artists and designers charting new territories in the field of interactive database narrative. The O’Neill project is just one of many such projects that has sprung up in recent years, a happy marriage of technology, art and theory that may well be changing our most basic relations to storytelling.

But while the technology that drives interactive database narratives may be new, the idea isn’t. Director of the Labyrinth Project, Marsha Kinder reminds us that virtually all stories – like language itself – derive from combinations of narrative elements within a given set of parameters. Database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes or thematizes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories, Kinder explains, particular data – characters, images, sounds, events – are selected from a series of databases or paradigms, which are then combined to generate specific tales.

Where novelists are bound by numbered pages and filmmakers are constrained by sprocket holes and time code numbers, the digital artist is afforded a seeming infinitude of possibilities through the recombination of bits (or SNU’s, “smallest Narrative Units