> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2017

21W.765J / 21L.489J / CMS.845: Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2017

This course is a CI-M for Writing majors (and intended for those in the Digital Media option)


Instructor: Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom, 14N-233
Class meets Wednesdays, 2pm - 5pm, 66-160
Office hours: Irregular (check the top of and by appointment
Page updated: 11 October 2017


  1. Learn the basics of narrative theory, as they apply to interactive narrative but also as they can be applied across media.
  2. Write an excellent, hopefully awesome, paper-based multisequential creative project.
  3. Write an excellent, hopefully awesome, digital creative project in the vein of interactive fiction, electronic literature, or the like.


This course does not use Stellar. Work is to be submitted on paper (in-class quizzes, critical paper, your “forking paths” story), or by email to the instructor (digital project), or by making presentations in class.


A list of the multisequential books available in 14N-233 (The Trope Tank), by appointment or during my office hours, is available. The list indicates which books are also held by the MIT Libraries.


The percentages in parenthesis give the value of the quizzes and the other assignments.


You should attend class, mainly out of respect for your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community. Students are required to attend class on workshop days (when your and your fellow students’ work is being workshopped) and on days when you or your fellow students are presenting. An unexcused absence (or arriving late) on one of these days will result in a significant reduction in the grade of the corresponding presentation or project being workshopped. If a student misses any of the quizzes given during the first four classes (except for a medical reason or similar), there is no opportunity to make them up. Absences for medical reasons and the like are of course excused.

Required Books (all available at the Coop)

Narrative Theory

Throught this course, and particularly in the first unit, we will learn the basics of narratology or narrative theory, a body of thought related to narrative that is, perhaps surprisingly, extraordinarialy precise, that facilitates conversation and collaboration, and that allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

Learning narrative theory is now integrated mostly into the first of two major units, Forking Paths. I introduce the fundamentals of narrative theory beginning with the first class and require that some reading be done and quizzes be taken during all of the first half of the course (the “Forking Paths” unit). That is, learning about narrative theory is distributed alongside our learning about print-based interactive narratives.

Short classroom lectures on narrative theory will elaborate on and help to better explain your (required) reading of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by Porter Abbott and your (required) study of A Dictionary of Narratology by Gerald Prince. There will be in-class exercises/quizzes for each of the first seven classes.

I · Forking Paths

We will study non-linear print pieces of different sorts. The books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series are probably the most famous of these, but we will also consider other juvenile fiction books of similarly unusual structure; parodies of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books such as You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero; literary works along these non-linear lines by Saporta, Queneau, Mathews, Pavić, Coover, and others; and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book, writing a paper on this book. They should also become familiar with the other books that are being studied in class, so that they can at least usefully compare their own book and the most relevant other books.

Graduate students taking the class for credit as CMS.845 are assigned to write a paper on two thoughtful selections, both of which should be thoroughly studied and compared in detail against one another and the other works being examined in class; the graduate paper will probably need to be about twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write their own multisequential story, in print, to be proposed by email, developed, revised, and handed in during class on paper. This does not have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; it could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else.

1 · September 6

Today’s video: The trailer for Get Lamp, the text adventure documentary. Typically I will start a video for us to watch together right about 2pm. This will often be a narrative music video. We’ll begin the class at 2:05pm, as is traditional, but these videos — although you will not be tested on them — will be relevant to our studies in the class, for those who can arrive to see them. I’ll link to them so people who can’t make it right at 2pm can watch them later, if they wish.

In-class reading and discussion of (branded, classic) CYOA books.

Essentials of narratology: Distinguishing narrative and life, story and discourse.

Read for the next class 1. Narrative and Life, 2. Defining Narrative, and 3. The Borders of Narrative from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. for the next class. Read at least halfway through Exercises in Style, understand the concept, and pick out some of your favorite and least favorite sections.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz covering concepts in today's lecture and discssion.

2 · September 13

Today’s video: The official music video for Hey Ya! by OutKast. Lots to consider, with a frame story to the performance, representations of historical media technologies, and strong reference to a famous much earlier performance.

Preliminary discussion, in terms of narratology, of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

Read for the next class 4. The Rhetoric of Narrative, 5. Closure, and 6. Narration from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Complete your reading of Exercises in Style.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

3 · September 20

Video: “Let Forever Be,” Chemical Brothers, dir. Michel Gondry. Discussed in class (please also read on your own) Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”

Complete the discussion of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. I expect each student to have selected one exercise that (a) is somehow interesting from a narrative standpoint, and (b) embodies some sort of technique you might like to use, or direction that you might like to follow in your own work this semester.

Read for the next class 7. Interpreting Narrative, 8. Three Ways to Interpret Narrative, 9. Adaptation across Media, and 10. Character and Self in Narrative from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Read Meanwhile. This will involve reading around in it, getting an idea of what it is about and how it works.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

For discussion in the next class, create your own version of “Through the Park.” You don't even need to use your own writing! Just put text of yours into the Web/JavaScript or Python program.

4 · September 27

Video: “Drop,” The Pharcyde, dir. Spike Jonze.

(10%) First draft of multisequential stories due. We will discuss drafts in class. These should be drafts — not proposals, but pieces of writiting that we can work/operate/play, even if they are partial.

Preliminary discussion of Shiga’s Meanwhile. Choice and destiny, comics, form and structure of multisequential books, the material qualities of books and multisequentiality. By the way, Jason Shiga will be in Cambridge on Oct 21-22 at MICE.

Read for the next class 11. Narrative and Truth, 12. Narrative Worlds, 13. Narrative Contestation, and 14. Narrative Negotiation from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Solve Meanwhile.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

5 · October 4

Video: “Come into my World,” Kylie Minogue, dir. Michel Gondry.

The critical paper is now due next week.

Full discussion of Shiga’s Meanwhile. Choice and destiny, comics, form and structure of multisequential books, the material qualities of books and multisequentiality. This book is not fair game as the main focus of you paper, but you should certainly mention it in your paper when appropriate!

Our discussion of draft work on multisequential stories will extend to today.

In-class reading and discussion of a short multisequential story by Harry Mathews, one section of “Trial Impressions.” (We put this off and looked at digital media works, a.k.a. games, relevant to narrative theory and other theories discussed in class.)

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

6 · October 11

Video: “Bachelorette,” Björk, dir. Michel Gondry.

(10%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear print pieces due (6 pages minimum). An excellent paper will show a thorough engagement with the chosen multisequential story and will use appropriate concepts from class readings, mini-lectures, and discussion (of narrative theory, of the materiality of texts, and otherwise) to discover one or more insights about the selected work.

Review of narrative theory.

(5%) Final exercise/quiz, which may cover any aspects discussed in class/presented in lectures or in the Abbott book.

7 · October 18

Focused workshop on problem areas/open questions within our particular multisequential story projects.

For the next class, to finish our “Forking Path” unit, read “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges.

II · Electronic Literature

We will focus on electronic literature that has narrative as an important component. Often, the "user" or "reader" is the one who gets to produce the narratives by interacting. A narrative electronic literature work can be a structured document that the interactor can traverse in many ways or a more complex computer program that simulates a world, accepts English input, and/or does other interesting things. Many computer and video games, including interactive fiction works (a.k.a. text adventures) are certainly in this category (although their narrative aspects may not be their most interesting ones), as are classic and more recent hypertext fictions.

Students are assigned to each give a somewhat formal presentation detailing work of electronic literature. Slides are permitted, but not required. The presentation should give the class a better understanding of the electronic literature work and lead the class through some of the more interesting aspects of it, in terms of how it works as writing and as a program or structure.

In addition to completing the other course requirements, graduate students in CMS.845 are required to submit an additional critical/research paper during this time that deals with electronic literature or another aspect of the course topic.

The major project for the term is to create (write and structure or program) a work of electronic literature of some sort. The choice of platform is open. Quality of writing, suitability of the structure/program and the writing to the theme, and the quality of the interface will all be factors in the final grade.

8 · October 25


Multisequenital stories are due (3 pages minimum.) Please note that this minimum is meant to allow for projects that have quite spare amounts of text and complex rules for combining this text. Most projects will be considerably longer in terms of the amount of text, along the lines of 6-12 pages. You should also be careful not to plan a structure that requires massive amounts of writing!

We will not present the individual projects, but we will briefly discuss how it was to complete this project. Finished multisequential stories will be made available for students to read in 14N-233.

In-class play and discussion of electronic literature, including Varicella, by Adam Cadre, 1999; The Unknown, by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt, 1998-2002.

9 · November 1

In-class play and discussion of electronic literature, specifically, completing Shade by Andrew Plotkin and Mastaba Snoopy by gods17.

Having completed this, you might be interested to read reviews of Shade and writing about Mastaba Snoopy in Boing Boing and on Metafilter.

Special guest (last hour of class): Scott Rettberg, co-author of The Unknown, co-founder of the Electronic Literature Organizarion, professor at the University of Bergen, Norway.

Assigned: Prepare your in-class presentation. Avoid using slides (PowerPoint/Keynote/LibreOffice Impress). You are encouraged instead to show us a running instance of the electronic literature piece you have selected for discussion. Have appropriate bookmarks/save points ready to allow you to make the points you wish to make. Also, email me with a very brief sketch of or proposal for an creative electronic literature piece. Just explain your basic idea in a sentence and describe what platform you plan to use. Feel free to ask questions of me in this email, if you like. Because of our schedule we will try to accomodate all presentations in a single three-hour class session, so you should aim to present essential backgroun, highlights, and surprising conclusions, not entire summaries. Spoilers are unavoidable and you should not bother trying to avoid them.

NO CLASS · November 8 · I will be in Germany at a conference.

10 · November 15

(10%) Oral presentations (with projection, using the works themselves), each on an electronic literature work.

Assigned: Bring a working version/draft/prototype of your e-lit project to the next class (not next week, but the week after), not particularly complete but able to be discussed.

NO CLASS · November 22 · Thanksgiving Eve.

11 · November 29

(10%) Draft electronic literature works due.

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects, and specific aspects thereof. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project. Our focus will be on open questions, whether they relate to material or formal, narrative or non-narrative aspects of a project.

12 · December 6

Special guest (last hour of class): Aimee Harrison, 21W SB ’12; MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington at Bothell 2014; on further education and careers in literary fields.

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects, and specific aspects thereof. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project. Our focus will be on open questions, whether they relate to material or formal, narrative or non-narrative aspects of a project.

Assigned: Complete your creative e-lit project.

Your instructor will be presenting and reading from his new book The Future (MIT Press, Essential Knowledge series) at the MIT Press Bookstore today, December 6, 6pm, 301 Mass Ave.

13 · December 13

(15%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due (containing 6 pages minimum of writing). Brief final presentations of each project in class, emphasizing how your perspective and ideas chaged as you developed your project. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will join us.

    Note on Minimum Page Counts

The “minimums” are not suggested lengths for papers and creative projects. They are the absolute minimums as required by the standards for MIT’s CI (communications intensive) requirement in the major. In some cases, probably only a few, those absolute minimums may actually suit your purposes and goals as a writer, but in others, you will probably want to write more. For instance, a three-page multisequential story would be very short in most cases, but if you develop a story in which numerous short texts can be recombined in a number of interesting ways, three pages of writing may be adequate to your purposes, and would satisfy the assignment.

    Standard MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism — use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement — is a serious offense. It is the policy of the CMS/W Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center (E39-115) and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.

    Note: The Writing & Communication Center

The WCC at MIT (Writing and Communication Center) offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts (MIT lecturers who all have advanced degrees and who are all are published writers). The WCC works with undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs.

The WCC helps you strategize about all types of academic and professional writing as well as about all aspects of oral presentations (including practicing your presentations & designing slides). No matter what department or discipline you are in, we help you think your way more deeply into your topic, help you strategize to convey your message more effectively to particular audiences, help you polish your style, and help you see new implications in your data, research and ideas. The WCC also helps with everything from understanding genre conventions to analyzing what particular journals require. We also help with all English as Second Language issues, from writing and grammar to pronunciation and conversation practice.

The WCC is located in E18-233. To register with our online scheduler, to make appointments, and to see detailed directions, go to To access the WCC’s many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations, go to The Center’s core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening hours vary by semester–check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.