Conference PaperPDF Available

Design Approaches for Interactive Digital Narrative

Authors:
  • HKU University of the Arts Utrecht

Abstract

While authoring has long been a concern for researchers engaged in interactive narrative, generalized design approaches have been less of a focus. At the same time, the need for design conventions to aid in the creation of artifacts has long been recognized, starting with Murray’s 1997 Hamlet on the Holodeck. However, unlike in the related field of game design, widely accepted, generalized conventions are still elusive. In this paper I investigate the state of affairs and identify several broad trajectories in the scholarly treatment of interactive narrative authoring. I propose a process and a set of design heuristics developed in my practice of teaching interactive digital narrative.
Design Approaches for Interactive Digital Narrative
Hartmut Koenitz
University of Georgia, Department of Telecommunications, 120 Hooper Street
Athens, Georgia 30602-3018, USA
hkoenitz@uga.edu
Abstract. While authoring has long been a concern for researchers engaged in
interactive narrative, generalized design approaches have been less of a focus.
At the same time, the need for design conventions to aid in the creation of
artifacts has long been recognized, starting with Murray’s 1997 Hamlet on the
Holodeck. However, unlike in the related field of game design, widely accepted,
generalized conventions are still elusive. In this paper I investigate the state of
affairs and identify several broad trajectories in the scholarly treatment of
interactive narrative authoring. I propose a process and a set of design heuristics
developed in my practice of teaching interactive digital narrative.
Keywords: Interactive Narrative Authoring · Interactive Narrative
Design · Design Heuristics · Design Process· Design Conventions · Interactive
Digital Narrative
1 Introduction
Authors of traditional forms of narrative can rely on a rich body of design
conventions for structuring and presenting narrative material from Aristotelian
material and formal causes to Freytag’s structure for drama to the 20th century
dramatic conceptions of Brecht and Boal. Even the comparatively young narrative
medium of film has established a wealth of helpful conventions including continuity
editing and rules for framing particular shots. In the evolving field of Interactive
Digital Narrative (IDN), such design conventions are yet to be established. Indeed, in
their summary of future entertainment media in 2012, Klimmt et al [1] declare the
field of interactive narrative to be still in flux and emphasize how the development of
authoring will decide the shape of future artifacts.
The lack of generalized design conventions constitutes an important obstacle for
authors from traditional narrative disciplines interested in the expressive potential of
interactivity, and even more so for teaching interactive narrative to newcomers.
However, the call for such expressive building blocks now has a history by itself,
spanning the period from Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck [2] to a recent
paper on IDN authorship [3]. This fact is especially surprising given the number of
publications concerned with the related field of game design, which are built on the
premise of generalizable conventions, for example Salen and Zimmermann [4],
Fullerton et al. [5] and Schell [6].
In this paper I cast a light on the discrepancy by investigating scholarly perspectives
on authoring and design, before presenting a process and design heuristics developed
in my practice of teaching interactive narrative for the past several years.
2 Existing Approaches
Authoring, the design and implementation of concrete artifacts, has been a focus for
the research community for quite some time. Indeed the European IRIS project [7]
identified authoring as a major concern for research. Perspectives on IDN design
broadly exist in three different categories high-level, abstract descriptions, which
analyze the problem from a distance; dichotomic approaches, which take narrative as
an antagonistic element to game design or interactive design; and descriptions of the
design of particular works. In the first case, the high level of abstraction provides little
concrete design advice. In the second case, the emphasis on bridging an assumed
disciplinary gap forces a perspective on ‘inclusion strategies’ that prevents the
consideration of a combined design space. In the third case, concrete design
approaches are often described, however, the highly specific nature of particular
projects often make it difficult to identify generalizable conventions.
An example for a high-level perspective is Murray’s description of the “cyberbard”
[2], the interactive narrative author whose difficult task it is to create a “multiform
plot,” [2], along with rules and events. In order to help aspiring cyberbards, Murray
sees the main task in creating expressive building blocks conventions for the
interface, the use of language, gesture, but also themes like the murder mystery and
generalized plot patterns. For Murray, oral storytelling traditions especially how
they are able to constantly adapt a core message to a given audience provide
inspiration for IDN design.
One example for the dichotomic approach is Bateman’s edited collection [8] which
does provide concrete design advice, but is focused on fitting narrative as an element
within the confines of established game design workflows. Narrative here is relegated
to the role of underlying support structure and justification for gameplay:
[…] narrative strings together the events of the game, providing a framework and
what can alternately be called a justification, a reason, or an excuse for the
gameplay encounters.[8]
Another example in the same category is Bizzocchi and Woodbury’s case study [9],
which describes interactive narrative design as a compromise between two separate
design domains narrative and interactive. Narrative design is understood as a more
holistic perspective, while interactive design is seen as privileging the granularity of
individual puzzles. From this vantage point, the authors investigate the possibility of a
shared design space, which they frame as difficult exercise of translating between
deeply entrenched practices.
Design approaches for particular projects are featured in another set of papers. For
example, Strohecker [10] describes a specific approach in which a fixed narrative
structure is paired with interaction through character development and different
perspectives. Strohecker describes IDN as related to video games, but with distinct
qualities. In her paper, she provides a number of design recommendations, including
even pacing and sequencing, continuous interaction, and the ability for interactors to
“navigate freely” [10] within the story structure. In describing their own practice for
Façade, Mateas and Stern [11] explain the overall structure and detail many design
decisions, for example the combination of an “Aristotelian tension arc” [11] with
drama management, pre-authored dramatic elements and AI processing of natural
language input. While certainly highly successful as a particular project, the specific
nature of their approach towards AI make it difficult to deduce generalizable design
advice. The most important aspect of their paper in this regard might be their call for
deep procedural literacy essentially the ability to use high-level programming
languages as a requirement for IDN authorship. Echoing these sentiments in a
perspective focused on authoring tools, Spierling and Szilas [12] emphasize the need
to educate authors in procedural literacy for a more productive dialogue with
toolmakers.
The unfortunate lack of impact of Stephen Meadow’s 2002 book [13] which
shares many of my sentiments regarding the need for new design perspectives can
also be explained in terms of my broad trajectories his book combines a dichotomic
approach with many singular project-based design strategies, and therefore also lacks
in generalizable approaches.
3 A Design Approach for IDN
In my work, I start from a perspective on IDN as a novel from of expression in
which narrative and interactivity are deeply intertwined, as “system narratives” in line
with Roy Ascott’s call for reactive “system art” in contrast to prior “object art.” [14]. I
am also inspired by Bernstein et al.’s understanding of “contours” [15] narrative
structures that allow for their re-shaping by the interactor. From this perspective,
dichotomic approaches attempt to interactivizetraditionally static structures instead
of exploring dynamic modelsfor example cybernetic feedback loops.
Although related to existing practices in video game design and interactive art, I
understand my design work as specific to interactive narrative and as a critical
reflection, inspired by critical practice [16] and reflective design [17] that provides
vital clues for the continued development of my theoretical framework [18]. In this
model, the IDN artifact is understood as a protostory, comprised of the four elements
of environment definitions, settings, assets, and narrative design. This perspective
expands the analytical reach beyond structural aspects (which are covered in the
narrative design). The significance of protostory is in the recognition of the process of
digital instantiation that connects the digital artifact and its many possible paths to a
concrete output/product. If the output can be understood as a story, there must be an
entity that describes the space of potential narrative, hence protostory. Within
narrative design there are no preconceptions for any specific structure. The notion of
narrative vector describes micro structures that define the boundaries and junctures of
a given work.
The practical complement to this model is the authoring platform ASAPS [19],
which I use in my practice and teaching for several years now. ASAPS reflects the
four essential elements of the theoretical model and enables the creation of narrative
designs from the combination of atomic narrative units with functions like ‘dialog
choice’, ‘inventory choice’, and ‘spatial selection,’ but does not predicate particular
structures. In addition, ASAPS combines branching with procedural elements like an
inventory system, global variables, timers and general-purpose tracking functions.
I have earlier identified a tendency of students to create linear branching stories
influenced by Choose Your Own Adventure books [19], which fail to capitalize on the
procedural aspects and state memory. Once students start using the tracking functions,
they often create strong antagonistic choices, which often lead to predictable
outcomes. Another problematic outcome is in mechanistic pacing choice after
choice after choice with no elements of surprise or narrative development. The most
successful projects tend to either create big narrative spaces to explore, spanning 200
400 beats, or deliver well-focused smaller vignettes. Examples in the first category
are The Ship by Charlie Stafford, where the interactor explores a mysterious cruise
ship with a deadly destination, or Jay Hornyak’s Beaver Project, which investigates
the equally mysterious events surrounding a community of beavers and the adjacent
dam. In the latter category are the timer-based interactive bank robbery The Heist by
Jacob Harkey and DeathJack by Nathan Neufeld, which makes winning a card game
the key to survival.
While based in this particular practice, both design process and heuristics are
intended as a generalized approach toward the design of IDN artifacts. In my
teaching, I refrain from advocating specific structural models and instead emphasize
the need for experimentation. I do, however, provide guidance in the form of a design
process and general design heuristics developed from my own practice and
continuously evolved during several years of teaching interactive digital narrative.
3. 1 Design Process: 4 Phases
On the surface, this design process might not appear to be much different from
general game or application development. It differs however from other narrative
media development, e.g. film production, in the focus on procedural elements,
interaction flow and beta-testing. Authors of film scripts and books do not have to
provide decision points and alternative paths or worry about the impact of participants
on their work. The process includes four stages:
1.!Paper phase (idea to treatment to flow diagram)
2.!Prototype phase (check interaction and flow without (final) assets)
3.!Production phase (create (final) assets, structure and interaction)
4.!Tes tin g phas e ( beta u ser te sting, fi nal adjus tme nts)
During the paper phase, the project starts with a general outline of events, before
filling in details. The next step is to move towards a flow diagram to visualize
sequencing and choice points. Then, procedural aspects, like a character's changing
level of anger, the time limit for robbing a bank, or the tools necessary for fixing the
car are considered and noted in the flow diagram. As a final stage during this phase,
the paper design moves to index cards, complementing the flow diagram as rough
storyboard-like sketches for each visible element.
In the prototype phase, I leverage ASAPS’s capacity as a prototyping t oo l to build
an asset-less test version. This step is crucial to check interaction and narrative pacing
and therefore improves on more traditional wireframing approaches (and there are
many alternatives for this particular task that combine wireframing with interaction).
At this stage, unnecessary narrative elements will be removed and missing ones
added. To imp rove the un dersta ndi ng of vis ual aspects during this step, scans of the
index cards from the prior phase or rough stand-in graphics are then used. These
visualizations help in compiling a list of assets to be created in the next phase.
The production phase includes integration of final assets as well as adjustments to
structure and interaction. Finally, in the testing phase, the prototype is being used by a
group of beta testers and final adjustments are being made. A particu lar focus dur ing
this stage is on unexpected behavior, which can arise from procedural combinatorics
or the application of artificial intelligence (AI).
3. 2 Design Heuristics
For the present paper, I understand design heuristics in the sense of the term as used
by Flanagan and Nissenbaum [20], who are concerned with showing alternatives to
existing game design practices in order to support activist games. They propose
specific principles as “design aspirations” [20] to guide the concrete development of
an artifact. Similarly, I offer the following principles for interactive narrative as means
to overcome the simplistic and uncritical interactivization of narrative design methods
originally developed in non-interactive media.
The cyberbardic principle marks the contrast to traditional narrative authoring
process and the role of the author. In contrast, the cyberbard tells little, shows a bit
more, but most of all creates opportunities to explore and experience. Instead of
readers/viewers, the cyberbard has interactors as her audience. In regards to the
resulting work, the cyberbard says: I will sit back and watch with amazement what
the audience will do with it.’ Understanding the cyberbardic principle means to be a
“narrative architect” [21], a system designer.
Initial interest and continued motivation are essential for works that require
audience participation the “non-trivial effort” Aarseth [22] has identified. This is
another crucial aspect for IDN design, especially in comparison to video games,
which have the advantage of clear reward structure oriented on continued measurable
improvement and winning.
The initial interest principle casts the focus on strategies for initial engagement.
Questions about narrative development create such interest, either in a holistic sense:
‘Where can I take this?’, in regards to particular characters: ‘Who will this character
turn into?’ or in regards to particular perspectives: ‘Is this the whole story? What other
sides to it exist?’ In more concrete terms that means to start from a challenge (‘will
you reach the summit?’), confusion (what happened last night?’, ’Is this the truth?’)
or an abundance of choices (So many things to explore - where do I start?’)
The principle of continued motivation has to do with careful management of
interactor interest by offering just enough to keep her going without revealing all.
This key element warrants an extended look. A number of con crete s trate gies motivate
continuous engagement, for example ambiguous choices, small narrative gaps that
leaves space for the interactor to fill, and the temporary removal of control so that the
interactor feels more special about being in control at other times. Surprises if used
sparingly are another good strategy to keep the interactor motivated as long as they
do not invalidate prior developments to such a measure that the interactor feels
cheated. Equally, what should be avoided are design choices that can make progress
exceedingly hard or boringly obvious for the interactor. An example of the latter
strategy is a simplistic good/evil choice that puts the interactor on a predictable
trajectory without further complications.
Delayed consequences are a particularly powerful strategy for continued
motivation. Instead of providing the immediate feedback of many video games (if you
go left, you are eaten by a grue, so next time go right), delayed consequences build up
over time, as a result of the interactor’s continued activity. For example, in an
interactive version of Little Red Riding Hood, the interactor starts with Red as a blank
character. Depending on the interactors choices, Red develops into a timid, an
aggressive, or a flirtatious girl over time. The consequences of these developments
become apparent only much later, when faced with an attacking wolf, as the timid girl
has no way to defend herself, while the aggressive girl can fight the wolf and the
flirtatious girl can talk her way out of the situation. A key aspect of this strat egy is to
make the interactor aware that her current choice could matter in the future. Once
aware of this mechanic today’s interactors can sustain longer periods without
feedback. They are well versed in the use of computers and therefore need immediate
feedback to a much lesser degree than prior generations, but they are also trained to
endure uncertainty. Other media forms like the printed detective story, the thriller film
genre, and many episodic long-form TV series have been successful in withholding
clear and immediate information without loosing their audience.
Ye t an o th er im por tan t a sp e ct o f c ont inu e d mo t iv at i on i s t he p ro pe r “ sc r ip ti n g of th e
interactor” a strategy described by Janet Murray [2] in which the interactors is cast in
a specific role and given sufficient information to perform well in it. A particular
compelling example of this strategy is the way We izen bau m’s Eliza [23] (and recently
Blast Theory’s Karen [24]) put the interactor in the role of a patient consulting a
therapist.
The principle of opportunity magnitude pertains to the amount of narrative
material and opportunities for interaction. Providing choice means to always provide
‘more,’ which constitutes a challenge for tight production budgets and available
project time. In general, cyberbardic authors should prioritize interactive opportunities
over length of experience. While narrative does not always have to be fully specified,
as users will fill in the blanks, the interactor should never feel that she only has one
path to follow and alternatives are blocked. Ideally, an IDN artifact offers enough
narrative material to cover all alternate paths offered. However, there is also the
possibility of IDN stagecraft at times, a convincing, yet non-existing, impression of
alternatives might be good enough to create a compelling experience.
4 Conclusion
In this paper I have identified several broad trajectories in research concerning IDN
authoring and found that between high-level perspectives, dichotomic approaches and
specific project descriptions, little work has been done on developing and identifying
generalizable design conventions, a conclusion already drawn (although with a focus
on authoring tools) by Spierling and Szilias in 2009 [12], but unfortunately still true
today.
Based on my practice in teaching interactive digital narrative as a design effort that
combines narrative and interactivity, I have outlined a general design process, along
with several overarching design heuristics as well as strategies for implementation. I
hope to encourage further discussion on the topics of design conventions and teaching
of interactive narrative with my contribution.
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In this paper, we describe narrative game design as an area for empirical research and aim to promote additional work in this area. The focus of our paper is therefore on the process. We start by discussing the relationship between the design of the narrative aspects of video games vs. non-narrative aspects, as well as in comparison to earlier narrative media. On this basis, we identify specific challenges from the perspective of design. Then, we define "design conventions" and introduce our method for identification and verification using empirical methods. In this context, we discuss methodological issues and advocate best practices. Finally, we report on early results and outline future work.
Poster
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Teaching Interactive Digital Narratives (IDNs) to undergraduate students ought to be more than branching narratives and using popular authoring tools. Exposing them to challenges of IDNs and pushing them to address these issues can help students think beyond the conventional. Authoring tools may fail AQ1 to provide functionality to support tackling such issues but coupling a popular branching narrative authoring tool such as Twine with a gameplay focused level editor such as one for DooM provides for interactive narratives that reflect upon one such challenge: LudoNarrative Dissonance. A team of three students’ submission using such tools is described and its outcome discussed in terms of its relevance to the ICIDS community interested in teaching IDNs to undergraduate students.
Chapter
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Interactive digital narrative (IDN) challenges basic assumptions about narrative in the western world—namely about the role of the author and the fixed state of content and structure as the audience takes on an active role and the narratives become malleable. 1 It seems quite clear that narrative theory—as is—cannot fully account for these changed conditions. Many scholars have reacted to these challenges by adapting established narrative theories. This approach has clear advantages as terms, categories, and methods of analysis are already well understood. On the other hand, analysing IDN with theoretical frameworks created to describe narrative in traditional media carries the risk of misunderstanding the nature of the change. In this regard, Espen Aarseth rightfully warns of the danger of " theoretical imperialism " (1997, p. 16). For example, once we focus on similarities with ancient Greek stage play we can become overly wedded to the framework of Aristotle's Poetics and prone to disregard aspects that do not fit that particular frame of reference. A more fully developed theory of digital interactive narrative should be careful to avoid such theoretical pitfalls. Before sketching out a specific theoretical framework for IDN, I will analyse several existing theoretical perspectives to foreground the scope and focus of earlier contributions and investigate which aspects are not fully covered yet.
Conference Paper
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In this paper, we discuss the hypothetical nature of authoring Interactive Digital Narratives (IDNs) and the formal authorial process for this medium. We explore the current state-of-the-Art in IDN authorial approaches and consider the perspective of a traditional and technologically naïve author. We propose a combination of meta-narrative and autonomous agent approaches in a quest to democratize IDN authoring to a wider, less technically oriented audience. In doing so, we ask fundamental questions with regards to how the user experience can be expressed within the authorial process. We also, as part of this discussion, reflect on the nature of authoring IDNs and the author him/herself.
Conference Paper
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The Advanced Stories Authoring and Presentation System (ASAPS) has been used to build 60 interactive digital narratives (IDN) so far. The paper briefly discusses several salient aspects of the system, including the bottom-up approach of the project and observations from using the tool for teaching in an academic setting, as well as related work. Next, we describe several outstanding examples of ASAPS narratives before analyzing visual styles, narrative genres, and structural aspects, as well as identifying additional narrative strategies.
Article
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Advances in gaming and other entertainment technologies are evolving rapidly and create new conceptual challenges for understanding and explaining the user experiences they can facilitate. The present article reports a prospective study on a particularly promising entertainment technology of the future: Interactive storytelling (IS). Integrating various streams of computing technology, such as advanced visualization, natural speech processing, and autonomous agents, IS systems are envisioned to offer new, personalized and thus unique kinds of entertainment to mass audiences of the future. The authors refer to existing models of media entertainment for a theoretical analysis and analyze expert interviews with members of the international IS development community to lay out the foundations for a forecast model of the entertainment experience of future IS systems. The resulting model organizes fundamental requirements, modes of users’ information processing, and specific types of (pleasant) experiences, which holds implications for (future) entertainment theory and research that accompanies further development of IS media.
Article
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There is a potential conflict in the design of interactive narratives. The exercise of interaction in digital environments, including games, may interfere with the experience of story. The article uses the interactive CDROMCEREMONYOFINNOCENCE as a case study in the resolution of this potential conflict. It frames the design of this interactive narrative as the reconciliation of two independent design domains: the design of narrative and interactive design. Narrative design seeks a state of immersive surrender to the work. In contrast, interaction privileges choice and its consequences according to the logic of the interactive world. CEREMONY OF INNOCENCE uses two tactics to overcome this disjuncture. The first is the broad infusion of narrative sensibilities in the detailed design of the work’s subsidiary craft (sound, graphics, moving images, and text). The second tactic is to suborn certain design specifics of the interactive interface to the goals of narrative design.
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From the Publisher: This book offers a critical reconstruction of the fundamental ideas and methods of artificial intelligence research. Through close attention to the metaphors of AI and their consequences for the field's patterns of success and failure, it argues for a reorientation of the field away from thought in the head and toward activity in the world. By considering computational ideas in a philosophical framework, the author eases critical dialogue between technology and the humanities and social sciences. AI can benefit from new understandings of human nature, and in return, it offers a powerful mode of investigation into the practicalities and consequences of physical realization.
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Anyone can master the fundamentals of game design - no technological expertise is necessary. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses shows that the same basic principles of psychology that work for board games, card games and athletic games also are the keys to making top-quality videogames. Good game design happens when you view your game from many different perspectives, or lenses. While touring through the unusual territory that is game design, this book gives the reader one hundred of these lenses - one hundred sets of insightful questions to ask yourself that will help make your game better. These lenses are gathered from fields as diverse as psychology, architecture, music, visual design, film, software engineering, theme park design, mathematics, writing, puzzle design, and anthropology. Anyone who reads this book will be inspired to become a better game designer - and will understand how to do it.
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The essence of the computer as a representational m edium is procedurality - the ability of the computer to enga ge in arbitrary mechanical processes to which observers can ascribe meaning. Taking full representational advantage of the compu ter thus requires procedurally literate authorship, that is, artists and writers who are able to think about and work within computational frameworks; in the extreme case of developing new modes of computational expression, authors must be highly pr oficient in the use of general purpose programming languages. We examine issues of procedural authorship using the interacti ve drama Façade as a case study. Façade's explicit design goal is to provide the player with local and global agency ove r the evolution of the dramatic experience; this requires a level o f procedurality previously not implemented in interactive narrative .