> classes > interactive narrative, spring 2011

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

Spring 2011


Officially, "Interactive and Non-Linear Narrative: Theory and Practice"
3:30pm-5:00pm Tuesdays and Thursdays in 8-119



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 that is showing digital media art (this may include the List Gallery on campus), an event in the Boston Cyberarts Festival, or a talk in the Upgrade! Boston series. You should email two paragraphs to the instructors, 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.

You 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 on one of these days will result in a significant reduction in the grade of the corresponding presentation or project being workshopped.

Required Books


Friday, January 21 was the last update to this page. The page will almost certainly be updated throughout the semester. If a substantial change is made (for instance, to what is required in assignments or to the schedule) we will also let you know either in class or by email.

I · Narrative

In this unit, after a quick look at multi-sequential novels and electronic literature, we will focus on 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 electronic literature. 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.

1 · Tuesday, February 1

Quick exploration of multi-sequential novels that have been brought to our class meeting. Lightning reports by each person in class. Discussion. Students are each assigned a small-scale work of electronic literature to present next time from a list that includes:

2 · Thursday, February 3

Very brief (no slides) student presentations on the form, structure, media use, narrativity and interactivity of electronic literature works. Introduction to fictionality and fictional worlds. For the next class, read Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

3 · Tuesday, February 8

Questionnaire on narrative. Introduction to narratology. Demonstration of narrative theory basics using Curveship. Introduction to interactivity.

4 · Thursday, February 10

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

5 · Tuesday, February 15

Read Abbott chapters 9-14 for this class, use Prince to better understand terms that are encountered. Lecture building on these readings. Bring questions about the readings.

6 · Thursday, February 17

Discussion of Queneau's Exercises in Style. Continued coverage of narrative theory. In-class analysis of narratives.

Tuesday, February 22 (no class; Monday schedule)

7 · Thursday, February 24

(20%) Test on narrative theory in class.

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

8 · Tuesday, March 1

Borges's "Garden of Forking Paths," Queneau's "Yours for the Telling / Story as You Like It" (read before this class). Focus on formal aspects for this class. Contexts of reading, programmed instruction and antecedents. Selection of specific works as paper topics.

9 · Thursday, March 3

Continue with discussion of Borges and Queneau. Mathews's "Trial Impressions," Shiga's Meanwhile (read before this class). We were going to have some in-class reading time for Saporta's Composition No. 1, but will have to skip this.

10 · Tuesday, March 8

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.

11 · Thursday, March 10

Workshop discussion of creative pieces in progress: Preliminary/draft text for creative pieces is due so that it can be discussed in today's and next week's workshop.

What is a workshop? In a workshop, participants read their writing aloud, demonstrate early versions of systems that they are developing or explain the structures of unusual texts that they are assembling, or otherwise present work to the group. A workshop is for showing work, not musing about ideas. We will pretend that the work offered to us in this way is our own writing or our own in-progress system, and that the the underlying goals and purposes are our goals and purposes, and we will sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text, or modify the system, to better accomplish these purposes. We will not ask the participant to interpret or explain what is being expressed in his or her text. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer/developer, the work, and the purposes behind the work, and will not resort to either euphemism or brutality.

12 · Tuesday, March 15

(10%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear print pieces due. Workshop discussion of creative pieces in progress. Preliminary/draft text for creative pieces is due so that it can be discussed in today's and next week's workshop.

13 · Thursday, March 17

(20%) Creative multisequential stories due. Read electronic literature in groups in class to introduce the next section: Varicella (scroll down), The Unknown. The best was to play Varicella is to download vgame.z8, download a Z-machine interpreter, and run the z8 file in the interpreter. You can play it on the Web, but save and restore are not available.

Tuesday, March 22 and Thursday, March 24 (no class; Spring break)

III · 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 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. In-class instruction will be provided in Curveship, a language for interactive fiction development that was developed by one of the instructors. 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.

14 · Tuesday, March 29

Overview of electronic literature: 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 works of electronic literature available for free.

Introduction to the supported (and free) development system for creating interactive fiction, one type of electronic literature: Curveship.

15 · Thursday, March 31

In the first 20 minutes or by email beforehand, students will propose the electronic literature works they will present in class (beginning April 7). Then, as a class, we will attend the Purple Blurb/CMS Colloquium talk by digital poet Amaranth Borsuk. The talk is scheduled to last past the time class normally ends at 5pm; those who have other obligations and need to leave at 5pm can do so.

16 · Tuesday, April 5

More on Curveship and interactive fiction.

(15%) Presentations by students on larger-scale electronic literature. 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.

17 · Thursday, April 7

18 · Tuesday, April 12

19 · Thursday, April 14

Send an email before Sunday with your individual project concept: What the theme, subject, literary form etc. will be as well as what platform/development system you will use.

Tuesday, April 19 (no class; Patriots Day)

20 · Thursday, April 21

21 · Tuesday, April 26

Reading of a large-scale electronic literature work (to be announced) will be assigned for the next class.

22 · Thursday, April 28

Discussion of a large-scale electronic literature work. Also, in-class reading of e-lit, including Steve Tomasula's TOC.

23 · Tuesday, May 3

Workshop with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

(10%) A working version/draft/prototype of your electronic literature (project) is due. Working versions need not be complete or polished, but they must be implementations of your basic concept with some significant writing in place. They are to be shown to the instructors in class.

24 · Thursday, May 5

Workshop with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

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

25 · Tuesday, May 10

Workshop with desk critiques of specific projects and discussion of interesting problems. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

26 · Thursday, May 12

(20%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due. Final presentations in class. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will be present.

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.