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Narrative: The Final Frontier. Posted on 05/08/2002.

"Narrative as Landscape" is a remarkably thoughtful essay on formal aspects of narrative, it's basic thesis being that we shouldn't think of narratives as "paths", but as "spaces". Any narrative, not just hyperlinked ones.

Reading this essay brought up all manner of thoughts and connections. I'm particularly enamored of how the author addresses the problem through good ol' touchy-feely ruminating, excursions into emergent properties, and dips into cognitive science research on narrative.

The most obvious were the discussions of information spaces, and the spatial nature of the Web, that have occurred here at

His main point resonated with experiences I'd had with interactive narrative. Back in the day, the primary model for interactive narratives were branching paths--at certain points along the story, the audience/reader could choose from a set of options (usually 3), and continue. This never ever ever lead to a satisfying experience. A different model was first exemplified by The Residents' FREAK SHOW CD-ROM, wherein you wandered into, and behind the scenes, of a freak show tent, learning the stories of its various performers, and uncovering connections between them. The narrative built as you wandered, and the experience was flexible; if you met Wanda the Worm Woman before Tex the Barker, you developed a distinctly different impression than if you had stumbled across them vice versa.

While Infocom had explored such notions with their "interactive fiction", what made Freak Show special was that it was *not* a game; there were no puzzles, no goals. Like a good book, there was no point to it except to tell stories.

Thinking of FREAK SHOW reminds me of the work of theater TAMARA. I first became aware of TAMARA while at Voyager--we considered producing a CD-ROM version of the work. It takes the FREAK SHOW concept another step; whereas there is really no "time" in FREAK SHOW (the characters aren't doing anything until you meet them), TAMARA is a remarkably complex play, that takes place over a fixed period of time, with scenes occurring simultaneously in different rooms, and members of the audience are free to take their own narrative paths.

Researching TAMARA turned up this Media Lab thesis on an Automatist Storytelling System, specifically the chapter on interactive narrative, which addresses many of the issues I'm raising here, and has an interesting story about TAMARA:

Krizanc described his recent discussions with a developer about producing Tamara in CD-ROM form and showed the lengthy design document the developer had produced outlining an approach to the project. Amid concerns over bandwidth, the document suggested that the play be recast as a game with the viewer choosing plot lines resulting in one of many possible endings. For Krizanc, the very idea that his main character, the Count, might live instead of die depending on the actions of the "player" was unacceptable; it "completely destroyed the whole point of the story" as he had written it.

I do remember that we at Voyager proposed ideas of making TAMARA more game like. I don't remember us suggesting such fundamental story changes, though I suppose we might have--around this time the CD-ROM market was beginning to fail, and the idea of marketing "interactive theater" didn't seem as sure-fire as, well, "game".

Getting back to the "Landscape as Narrative" essay, the author also delves deeply into the metaphors we use for narrative, sounding quite like Lakoff, and then probes cognitive science research into how the brain processes narrative.

All in all, a thought-provoking read.

Much thanks to Sip, whose on the list pointed me to this essay.

3 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "petermedia report."
Next entry: "Some things are better left unspoken."


seems reminiscent of Time Code. Great links Peter, thank you.
Posted by evan @ 05/08/2002 10:44 PM PST [link to this comment]

Nice article. It's good to see the topic approached fom an "artistic" perspective, i.e with examples from fiction and poetry.

Here is a comment and some link on the Path/Space subject that I think you might find interesting.

Comment: Path vs. Space

I would argue that saying that a non-hyperlinked article is a path and not a space is incorrect. A novel/any "linear" piece of text that is designed to be appreciated by being consumed in a predefined sequence is most certainly a path. It is a path TROUGH a space, but it is a path non the less.

Think of "Family time" cartoons (I think that's the name) The one where they show the little kid running all around from place to place, perhaps intersecting his own path. Even though the path looks more like a ball of string, I think that we still consider it a path, distinct from say two paths or a branching path.

The difference between a path and a space must be explicit. A path leads you from place to place, and a space allows you to wonder on your own.

Matt Webb writes about hypertext and implicit/explicit links. Some early self promotion my me at bottom :) An early post by me, "your reading experience would not be much different if you had read what you did on a ticker tape" A colourful analogy to reading. "Where we are heading".

Posted by Alex Shapiro @ 05/09/2002 02:58 PM PST [link to this comment]

Hi Peter, We (Voyager) didn't suggest a game or alternate endings to Tamara. We simply suggested replicating the experience on the web with graphics distributed via CD-ROM. A tactic that Everquest made famous.
Liz (aka Elizabeth S)
Posted by Liz Katz @ 05/14/2002 04:35 PM PST [link to this comment]

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