> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2009

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

Fall 2009


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: Thursdays 2:30pm-4pm 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.

Note that for 5% of your grade, at some point during the semester you are to attend a digital media event (lecture, reading, performance) or visit an exhibit, for example, a talk or reading in the Purple Blurb series, a digital media exhibit at AXIOM or another local gallery, including the List Gallery on campus, or a talk in the Upgrade! Boston series. You should email me with at least two (farily long) paragraphs, the first describing the most interesting aspects of the event or exhibit and the second discussing these in relation to what we are studying in this course.

Required Books


Thursday, September 21 was the last update to this page. It may be updated throughout the semester. If a substantial change is made (for instance, to assignments or to the schedule) I will let you know either in class or by email.

1 · Narrative

In this unit, after a quick look at multi-sequential novels, we will study narratology (narrative theory) to gain a better understanding of the form and function of narratives. We will begin by looking at how narratology helps us understand conventional, unilinear stories. This background will be essential to our study of multisquential 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 (required) study 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. Narratology should also inform the papers that you write and projects that you do later in the semester. The test will encourage you to learn the basics of this system of thought at this point.

Thursday, September 10

Quick exploration of multi-sequential novels that have been brought to our class meeting. Lightning reports by each person in class. Discussion. For the next class, read Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

Tuesday, September 15

Questionnaire on narrative. Discussion of Queneau's Exercises in Style. Introduction to narratology. Introduction to interactivity.

Thursday, September 17

Read Abbott chapters 1-8 and selected terms from Prince for this class. Lecture building on these readings. Bring questions about the readings.

Tuesday, September 22

Read Abbott chapters 9-12 for this class. Lecture building on these readings. Bring questions about the readings.

Thursday, September 24

Continued coverage of narrative theory. In-class analysis of narratives.

Tuesday, September 29

(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 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 creative non-linear print piece, to be proposed by email, developed, revised, and handed in during class on paper.

Thursday, October 1

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." Selection of specific works as paper topics.

Tuesday, October 6

Roundtable discussion of books chosen as paper topics. Each person in class should prepare a few points describing things they have learned since their first glance at their book and offering some ideas about what these things mean.

Thursday, October 8

(15%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear print pieces due. Workshop discussion of creative pieces in progress.

Thursday, October 15 — No class. Work on creative pieces.

Tuesday, October 20

(20%) Creative multisequential stories due. Play Varicella and read The Unknown in class to introduce the next section.

Thursday, October 22 — No class. Relax.

(But over the weekend, do complete the reading for the next class.)

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 students 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. In-class instruction will be provided in Curveship, a language for interactive fiction development that was developed by the instructor. Quality of writing, suitability of structure/program and writing to theme, and quality of interface will all be factors in the final grade.

Tuesday, October 27

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) may be chosen as a presentation/paper topic, too; I have focused here on the many digital narrative systems available for free.

Introduction to the unsupported but free development systems / languages for creating digital narrative systems: HTML, Inform 6, Twine, Processing. "Unsupported" means that you are welcome to use these, but I cannot guarantee that I will be able to help you with them in class, during office hours, and by email. I will still try to do so.

Introduction to the supported (and free) development system for creating digital narrative systems: Curveship. "Supported" means that I will do everything I can to help you use this system, including — given that it is a system I developed — fixing important bugs in it.

Preliminary assignment of presentations.

Thursday, October 29

Curveship workshop.

Confirm presentation dates for everyone.

(15%) Presentations on digital narrative systems. Students will choose or be assigned to present on particular days. If there is time after the presentations we will continue with some discussion and lecture on each day.

Tuesday, November 3

Thursday, November 5

Tuesday, November 10 — No class. Work on final projects.

(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.)

Thursday, November 12

Thursday, November 17

Tuesday, November 19

Thursday, November 24

Tuesday, December 1

Workshop with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems. Bring a working version of your digital narrative system.

Tuesday, December 3

Workshop continues, with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems. Bring a working version of your digital narrative system.

Thursday, December 8

Final day of workshop. Projects should be complete (if still in need of some polishing) by this time. Bring a working version of your digital narrative system.

Tuesday, December 10

(25%) Creative digital narrative systems due. Final, brief presentations in class. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will be present.

(5%) Writeup of digital media event/exhibit due. But it would be better to submit it earlier!

Note: The Writing & Communication Center

The Writing and Communication Center (12-132) offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. Go to and click on "Appointments." The Center's core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening and Sunday hours vary by semester — check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.