> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2008

21W.765J / 21L.489J / CMS.845: Interactive Narrative

Fall 2008

Officially, "Interactive and Non-Linear Narrative: Theory and Practice"
Instructor: Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom
Class times: 1pm-2:30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays
Location: 1-379 unless otherwise announced
Nick's office hours: 12:30pm-1:30pm Mondays and by appointment, 14N-233; Nick is also available on IM/iChat (screen name writingnick) by appointment


The percentages in parenthesis give the value of the one graded test and the other assignments.

The only hard "requirement" for attendance (reflected in your grade) is that you come to class and present when your presentations are scheduled. Beyond that, it is very highly recommended that you come to hear your fellow students' presentations - they may influence the future work that you do, and it is a slight to your fellow students to miss their presentations. Obviously, it would also be great for you to attend on days when lecture, discussion, and in-class study are scheduled, but if you can't make it one day, there's no need to email the instructor to explain.


This page was last updated on Thursday, October 2. It may be updated throughout the semester. If a substantial change is made (for instance, to the schedule) I will let you know either in class, by email, or both.

1 · Narrative

In this unit we will study narratology (narrative theory) to gain a better understanding of the form and function of narratives - initially, just linear, traditional narratives. This background will be essential to our study of non-linear print narratives and digital narrative systems. The classroom lectures will elaborate on and help to better explain your (required) reading of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by Porter Abbott and your study, outside of class, of A Dictionary of Narratology by Gerald Prince.

Because the goal here is to understand a body of theory better, the unit concludes with an in-class test.

Thu Sep 4

Questionnaire on narrative, introduction to narratology, introduction to interactivity, examples of non-linear books and digital interactive narratives.

Tue Sep 9

Abbott chapters 1-8 + selected terms from Prince.

Thu Sep 11

Abbott chapters 9-12.

Tue Sep 16

(20%) Test on narrative theory in class

2 · 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, Nabokov, Cortázar, 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 work, which will be reported in a paper. They should become familiar enough with all the others being studied that they can usefully compare their main work and the most relevant other pieces. 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 creative non-linear print piece, to be proposed by email, developed, revised, and handed in during class on paper.

Thu Sep 18

Look at specific works during class time, prepare lightning reports for next class.

Tue Sep 23

Lightning reports and discussion of works.

Thu Sep 25

Borges's "Garden of Forking Paths," Queneau's "Yours for the Telling / Story as You Like It," contexts of reading, programmed instruction and antecedents, Mathews's "Trial Impressions," discussion of specific works.

Tue Sep 30

Discussion of kinds, forms, and qualities of narrative encountered.

Thu Oct 2

(15%) Analytical papers on specific non-linear print pieces due

Workshop discussion of creative pieces in progress.

Tue Oct 7

Abhi, Kendra, Kim, and Mats bring a selection from their work-in-progress to class; we discuss these.

Thu Oct 9

Gina, Jaroslav, Jesse, Joe, and Josh bring a selection from their work-in-progress to class; we discuss these.

Tue Oct 14

(20%) Creative multisequential stories due

Play Varicella and read The Unknown to introduce the next section.

Thu Oct 16

No class - students may meet to play/read digital narrative systems together.

3 · Digital Narrative Systems

A digital narrative system is a means of producing narratives by computer. Often, the "user" or "reader" is the one who gets to produce these narratives. It 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, 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 (slides are permitted, but not required) detailing a digital narrative system.

In addition to completing the other course requirements, graduate studets in CMS.845 are required to submit an additional critical paper during this time that deals with digital narrative systems or another aspect of the course topic.

The major project for the term is to create (write and structure or program) a digital narrative system of some sort. Students will be introduced in class to HTML, Processing, and Inform; they may use other systems and programming languages with instructor approval. Quality of writing, suitability of structure/program and writing to theme, and quality of interface will all be factors in the final grade.

Meet in 14N-233 from here on!

Tue Oct 21

Overview of digital narrative systems for playing/reading and to present: recommended interactive fiction, Façade, The Unknown, 253, "Concerto for Narrative Data," narratives on the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1. Commercial video games with important narrative aspects (e.g., Indigo Prophecy, Infocom games) and commercial hypertext fiction (e.g., Patchwork Girl, Afternoon, Victory Garden) and may be presented, too; I have focused here on the wealth of work available for free.

Overview of development systems / languages for creating digital narrative systems: HTML, Inform 6, Processing. (These are the "supported" systems that I can promise to offer low-level help with.)

Preliminary assignments of presentations.

(15%) 2 presentations on digital narrative systems will be done per day by students during this time; after the presentations we will continue with some discussion and lecture on each day; whatever introduction is necessary to HTML, Processing, and Inform will also take place.

Thu Oct 23

Nick presents The Storyteller and his work in Inform 6.

Tue Oct 28

Gina presents Shade

Thu Oct 30

Jesse presents Aisle, Pick up the Phone Booth and Die, Pick up the Phone Booth and Aisle (Inform 6) and Pick up the Phone Booth and Aisle (Uncyclopedia)

Tue Nov 4

Kim presents The Fall of the Site of Marsha, Joe presents Bronze

(Thu Nov 6)

(No class. Send an email with your project concept: What the theme, subject, literary form etc. will be as well as what platform/development system you will use.)

Thu Nov 13

Jaroslav presents Gun Mute, Josh presents Lost Pig

Tue Nov 18

Kendra presents Slouching towards Bedlam, Abhi presents Anchorhead

Thu Nov 20

(5%) Due: Three transcripts (per student) of playing through Façade sessions.

Presentation about and discussion of Façade with Michael Mateas. (Confirmed.)

Tue Nov 25

Workshop with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems.

Tue Dec 2

Workshop continues, with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems.

(30%) Creative digital narrative systems due, presentations in class

Thu Dec 4

Tue Dec 9