Interaction and Narrative: A First Rule

We’ve been looking at the blossoming relationship between narrative and interaction for some time now, but have precious little to show for it. But things are slowly becoming clearer and I think we’re finally in a position to declare our first hard and fast rule.

That rule is this: Interaction must go with the flow of the narrative, rather than against it.

Or in other words, interaction works at the key points and beats of a story in a way that is more important and powerful than interactions between them. There is a reason for this. It is about working with the flow of the user’s attention. It’s a bit abstract, but stick with it.

A lot is made of how a TV audience is in a mentally passive mode, letting the show wash over them, while gamers are in an active mental mode, sitting forward and engaged. Well, neither of these models really apply to interactive narratives, and it is big mistake to assume that they do. The more useful starting model is still that of reading books or especially comic books, where the reader is in control of the speed of story, and able to flick back and forward at will – which is distinctly different than watching a film and being powerless in front of it – but they are still being controlled, manipulated and pulled along by the writer’s narrative.

Now – with that mental state in mind – you have to keep track of where the narrative is focusing the user’s attention, and interactivity must go with this flow rather than block it. If your protagonist has just been told that a witch has kidnapped the princess (for example), the flow is to find the witch and rescue the princess. If they are then presented with an interactive activity about tidying up the room they are in, that breaks the narrative flow. That doesn’t work. But if they had also been told that they needed a golden apple to defeat the witch, and were then presented with an interactive activity about finding that apple in the room, then that goes with the narrative flow. That works.

Image

There’s a good example of making interactivity work in The Gift from Persian Cat (you may recall I interviewed this book app’s creator back in January). The protaganist in The Gift is a small boy who finds a baby that is washed up on the beach from the sea. The baby is asleep so the boy goes on a quest to discover how to wake her, by asking advice from a series of groteque monsters. It’s nice little story, assuming of course that you don’t think, “shit, the baby’s dead” at the start, in which case it becomes increasingly unbearable as each attempt to wake the baby fails. If you don’t think that, however, it is lovely. (Only adults would think that, of course, so here’s a nice – and sadly rare – example of a children’s story written to appeal to children, rather than to appeal to parents.)

Anyway – at the climax of the story the boy succeeds in waking the baby. At this point the artwork goes into a point-of-view shot of the baby, seen from the boy’s perspective – syncing the reader’s focus completely with the reader-identification-character of the boy, in other words. The reader then has to reach out and touch the baby in order for her to wake up. This simple interaction is perfectly synched to the key beat of the narrative, making it far more effective and rewarding than other, far more technically complicated interactive activities. It leaves the reader completely absorbed in this, the key moment of the story, which in turn makes the story a success.

And that’s the sort of effect you can only achieve with the merging of narrative and interactivity. True, it’s not an effect that is achieved by most applications of interactivity to narative, which is why it is worth declaring our first golden rule. But it is the sort of effect that makes developing this new media worthwhile.

Frankenstein

I nearly didn’t take a look at the new interactive Frankenstein novel, despite the good press it has been getting. It was described as short chunks of text followed by branching choices that change the story, so I assumed that it was another ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, of course. I used to love them as a kid. But their basic model has the reader making decisions for the protaganist, who essentially becomes an avatar for the reader during some form of quest, and that is a model which can be done better in videogames than in prose. It’s not the future of the novel.

What Frankenstein does is much cleverer, however. Here’s the promo vid:

Dave Morris’ retelling of Mary Shelley’s story is great. It moves the story a few decades earlier in order to use our hindsight about the French Revolution, which is ripe with the themes of horror and rebirth. The Hollywood imagery of castles and lightning are stepped over, and it is thankfully much less interested than Mary Shelley in long, long digressions about just how fantastic mountains are. Frankenstein is a story where it easy to go horribly wrong with the tone – just ask Kenneth Branagh – but there are no misteps here.  That’s not our primary interest here, though.  What’s interesting is how this is different to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

In a linear 1st person novel, the book’s narrator talks at the reader and the reader’s role is that of an observer or an audience. That’s also the case here, but instead of being an observer, the reader’s choices create a conversation with the narrator. The conversation is well done, flowing naturally and somehow avoiding skipping over key backstory or plot points.

So what is your role, as the reader, in this? You are not physically present, and you converse only with the narrator. You only have a minor impact on the events. What you have become, in actuality, is best described as the narrator’s conscience. Your role is to react to the narrator’s actions, and to challenge them to justify themselves. And this is why the Frankenstein app is so significant – it’s a first person prose narrative which has shifted the reader’s role from ‘observer’ to ‘conscience’.

And this new role is a hell of a perspective to experience the story of Frankenstein from. Being the conscience of Victor Frankenstein as his mind cracks under the realiastion of what he has done is quite an experience, as is being the conscience of the monster itself after the narrator changes, and you escape the laboratory and discover the streets of Paris.

True, when the book switches to using the monster as a narrator, it switches back to the 2nd person (“you can see a house”, etc) and becomes more of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure, with your choices ‘controlling’ the monster more than arguing with it. This does make some sense in context, however, with the newly-hatched creature not initially having the mental faculties to justify itself to you.

When I started this blog, I was looking to see if the experimental melding of narrative and interactivity would produce something that was more than the sum of its parts. There’s been many examples that have been interesting or promising, but overall it was not looking good. I had originally described these emerging book apps as an ‘unwanted Frankenstein media,’ so it is a pleasing coincidence that it is the Frankenstein book app where the potential of this new form finally comes to life.

I think what they’ve done here is, in the future, going to be remembered as very significant. I’d recommend that all writers of fiction have a good look at the monster Dave Morris has created.

Frankenstein was written by Dave Morris, developed by inkle and published by Profile Books. It (currently) costs £2.99 from the App Store. (Long-term followers of this blog will note that it is another example of a book app appearing in the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, and another example of a developer hoovering up a classic, out of copyright character rather than creating something new.)