> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2012

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

Fall 2012


Officially, "Interactive and Non-Linear Narrative: Theory and Practice"
11:30am-1pm Tuesdays and Thursdays in 14E-310



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

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 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, August 10 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) I 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.

1 · Thursday, September 6

Quick exploration of multi-sequential novels that will be provided at the class meeting. Discussion of the course, three units, projects. Narrative questionnaire (not graded). The assignment for next time is to read The Unknown in preparation for discussion of it.

2 · Tuesday, September 11

Discussion of The Unknown. Mini-lecture introduction to narratology, fictionality and fictional worlds. Read chapters 1-6 of Abbott book for the next class; refer to Prince and bring questions about the reading.

3 · Thursday, September 13

Questions about the Abbott reading. For next time, download and run Curveship and read chapters 7-10 of Abbott, consulting the Prince Dictionary of Narratology as needed.

4 · Tuesday, September 18

Questions about the Abbott reading. Work in Curveship, analysis of narratives. Complete the Abbott book (chapters 11-14) for the next class; refer to Prince and bring questions about the reading.

5 · Thursday, September 20

Further work in Curveship, analysis of narratives. For the next class, read Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

6 · Tuesday, September 25

Discuss Exercises in Style. Further work in Curveship, analysis of narratives.

Thursday, September 27 (no class)

7 · Tuesday, October 2

(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 · Thursday, October 4

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.

Tuesday, October 9 (no class, MIT holiday)

9 · Thursday, October 11

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, October 16

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, October 18

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, October 23

(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, October 25

(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, October 30 (no class)

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.

13.5 · Thursday, November 1

Story generation - class led by Prof. Rafael Pérez y Pérez.

14 · Tuesday, November 6

Overview of electronic literature: recommended interactive fiction, Façade, 253, "Concerto for Narrative Data," narratives on the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1 and the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. 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 class's "supported" and free development system for creating interactive fiction, one type of electronic literature: Curveship. (By supported, I mean that I can provide the most specific help on using this system, and can also maintain it if you find problems.)

15 · Thursday, November 8

In the first part of class, students will propose the electronic literature works they will present in class (beginning November 13). We will continue with in-class readings and discussion of short electronic literature pieces.

16 · Tuesday, November 13

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, November 15

18 · Tuesday, November 20

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

Thursday, November 22 (no class, Thanksgiving)

19 · Tuesday, November 27

(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.

20 · Thursday, November 29

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

21 · Tuesday, December 4

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

22 · Thursday, December 6

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

23 · Tuesday, December 11

(20%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due. Brief 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.


(5%) You get 5% credit just for noticing that the percentages listed don't add up to 100%.