Klaas Kuitenbrouwer

Emergent Narrative

What is the specific quality of interactive stories?

It is helpful to make a difference between two notions of interactivity:
- interactivity as a quality of a system (that can be a story space)
- interactivity as a user experience
How can stories be interactive in a relevant way?
What is the specific quality of interactive stories?


tools -

Espen J. Aarseth: in Cybertext states that cybertexts are texts that require certain non-trivial actions on behalf of the user (reader, player) to assume a specific form. In interactive stories the user follows one or more possible 'work paths' (Aarseth calls them 'ergodic paths') through the material. Without somebody following such a work path, the work simply hasn't reached a final specified form.

So, non-trivial actions are actions that call up one order in favor of another possible order in the interactive piece. Just turning the page of a book isn't interactive; it has no effect on the order of material. Zapping could be considered an interactive act, because it calls up an order of material that didn't exist prior to the act.

This means interactive stories always have to be performed to be there.


Of course every text or film has to be performed by its reader or viewer to some extent. That is the moment the piece is consumed by the reader/viewer and its possible meanings come to life his the imagination.
But an interactive performance requires special operations from the viewer/reader in the work, operations that really touch the material.
This opens the possibility for an explicit individual relation between the player and the form, effect and possible meanings of a work: an interactive experience (more about that later)
This is a rather new esthetic field that is only beginning to be explored.

Emergent narrative

I use the term 'emergent narrative' for stories that are not so much 'told by an author' but that emerge from the interaction between the player and the environment the author created.

In all stories that are read or watched or listened to, emergence to some degree plays a part. The viewer/reader/listener has to co-image the existence of the presented universe. The author is never in 100% control of the experience of the player.
But in interactive narrations, this aspect is the crucial element. The whole effect of a good interactive narrative rests on the active, ordering involvement of the player, and on the relations he imagines between what he 'does' and what 'happens'.

The experience of interactive relations

How do we experience the relation between our own action and the reaction of the system?

functional relation- - - - - - - - - - interesting relation - - - - - - - - - no relation

On the left are systems that do what they're told. (I press 'a' and an 'a' appears on the screen. I don't imagine any special extra layers of meaning in between my pressing 'a' and the 'a' that comes up. )
On the right things just don't make sense. Whatever I do, the system doesn't seem to notice me. It just does as it pleases. (I press 'a' and a 'q' appears, or no letter at all, and the next time I press 'a' something different happens. I can't decide whether there exists a relation between what I do and what happens at all.)
In the middle of this scale, the system reacts to us with some kind of flavour of its own. We are able to project some kind of character or intention in it. This where the dramatic possibilities of the interactive experience lie.

Note: we talk about how we experience an interactive relation, not about the technical functioning of the interactive piece. For a lot of people the interface of a videorecorder falls in the right side of this scale, while these systems are definitely intended to fall in the left side of it.

Note as well: for an interactive experience it is essential that the user imagines a relation between something he does, and something that happens next. The user imagines that what happened next is a result of what he did. This actually means that we don't really need interactive systems to create interactive experiences. We only need a situation in which a user can imagine that he causes an event. This does require the element of contact between the user and the piece.

Interactivity & Interpretation

There is an interesting specific relation between interpretation and interactivity.
A player is offered choices in the story space. The choice he makes is based on his interpretations of what is offered. This means that his own interpretation become manifest in his performance of the piece. Interpretation is an active, constitutive element of an interactive piece.

The classical form of interpretation - the reading of a work as a whole - is of course also still in place.

Types of interactivity of systems - a continuum

This is a continuum by which to classify different ways in which (story) systems can be interactive.The classifying criterion in this continuum is the kind of user freedom (more about that later) Most interactive works combine elements from different places of this scale.

The least interactive (but still interactive) kinds of systems are branching-tree types of environment. In those environments, there is a fixed set of material that is hard-linked. That is, the author created all possible paths. The player has no other option but to choose between prepared paths, like in hypertexts, prepared country walks, luna parks, etc. Typically the player has the freedom of timing, but he can't 'change' anything in the environment, he doesn't add information to the system (only to himself).
The author made and linked all material. He offers the user several paths. These paths form each other's context in the work. Their existing next to each other informs the user of a multi linear environment.

The next step on the interactivity scale is then an environment that consists of a fixed set of material with dynamic paths, paths that the user has an influence upon. Databased systems (like the Korsakow System) offer this possibility. The links are generated in response to the users actions.

The user leaves traces in these environments: the followed links between the nodes (pieces of material). The user adds information to the system. The users actions change the context of the content.

This offers interesting narrative possibilities: the system has a rudimentary form of reaction to the actions of the user. The environment is able to adapt itself.

The following step on the interactivity scale is an environment that allows a user to not only influence paths, but also to add and remove actual material within the technical restrictions of the environment. This amounts to an environment that has a dynamic set of paths, as well as a dynamic set of material.

In these kinds of environments the user has genuine authoring possibilities with regards to the content of the work. The user has maximum freedom of action, so this kind of user freedom has more to do with telling stories, than with reading or viewing them.

Here we get a clear picture of a new sort of author that emerges from the possibilities of interactivity: the author of the possibilities of a system, next to the author of the content.

The possibilities of a system can be regarded as its game rules. They are also a set of values, also constructions of meaning.

With authors and users having equal powers with regards to the content of a system, we enter the realm of multi-user environments. The freedom of action of users in multi-user environments can be expressed along two different lines. One kind of freedom has to do with the content, just like in single-user environments. The other kind of freedom relates to the influence that the users have to 'change the rules', to influence the ways of interaction that take place in the environment.

Multi-user environments are rule-based. With regards to the rules, we can again discern between different levels of user freedom. In multi-user environments like role-playing games, typically a lot of content is generated by the users, but the rules by which the users create content are fixed. The builders of the system decide them.

The next (and ultimate?) step on the interactivity scale is then for systems that also have open rules. The environment only specifies the medium of interaction, and leaves all else at the mercy of the users. These systems only thrive when self-organisation emerges.

An interesting form of freedom

Being interactive itself doesn't make a project more interesting. Offering a user more freedom obviously doesn't automatically increase the quality of a project. The trick is to offer an interesting form of freedom. The users freedom can be very limited, and still be very satisfying. (Who ever complained about the fact that in Quake all you can do is shoot?)
Limitations are of course essential: they are the structure and boundaries of the piece. The limitations a user encounters should be a constitutive element of his experience, and not work against it. an other way of saying this is that a users' freedom of action and his freedom of intepretation should be consistent with each other.

Concluding soundbite

Interactive experiences (that can be emergent narratives) are built from three components:

- the pieces of material created or selected by the author (who can be a user as well)

- the meaningful, informing parts of the environment in which this material appears. This context consists of other pieces of material and their possible meanings, the physical and media surrounding of the project, expectations, thoughts, possible emotions and physical sensations of the user, etcetera.

- the interactive timeframe in which the user decides and executes his next action, and at the same time determines and fixes his own momentary position in the presented universe.

last updated september 2005.