> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2014

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

Fall 2014

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

Final Projects

These are descriptions of final projects as sent by students; not everyone replied with descriptions and not all students wished to share their work.

Anish Athalye

Shipwrecked is an IF game where the player acts as a captain who gets stranded on an unfamiliar island as a result of a container ship crash. The piece challenges some of the traditional modes of interaction in text-based IF by having the narration be influenced by the player’s state and sometimes having the system push back against the players choices.

Cara Giaimo

[NatFlix.] Introducing NatFlix, science & nature documentaries that morph before your very eyes, depending on YOUR decisions — just like their subjects.

Ari Green

Circle of Lethe is a investigative journey of interrogation and tactful conversation navigation with film noir influences. Use a handful of speech techniques on an assortment of characters to track down what happened to a missing child. Made by Ari Green in Inform 7.

Will Kalb

pers3phone is the story of a black hat hacker in the Future as envisioned by the cyberpunk authors of the early '90s. pers3phone plays with the visual capabilities of text-based IF in the Twine engine.

John O'Sullivan

[A Love Story.] A Bring-Your-Own-Context story of love, relationships, and how they can go wrong.

Sophia Wang

You already know this story. Or do you?


3:30pm-5pm Mondays and Wednesdays
In 14E-310 (in Building 14, the same building that houses the Hayden Library)


Nick Montfort, associate professor of digital media, nickm at nickm dotcom, office hours by appointment in 14N-233 - or by appointment on AIM (screen name: coachmontfort) - regular hours to be determined.


This course does not use Stellar. Gasp! It’s still legal to not use Stellar as of Fall 2014. Work is to be submitted on paper (for critical writing and your “forking paths” story) or by email and by presenting the work in class.


The percentages in parenthesis give the value of the in-class exercises/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.

Required Books (all available at the Coop)


November 4 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, every day will conclude with an in-class assignment, asking you to exercise some of what you have learned in writing and asking you questions about the topics. Narratology should also inform the papers that you write and projects that you do later in the semester. The in-class assignments will encourage you to learn the basics of this system of thought.

1 · Wednesday, September 3

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 chapters 1 and 2 of the Abbott book, The Unknown, and “Continuity of Parks” in preparation for discussion of these. Also, bring in your narrative questionnaires next time with any revisions you wish to make and with brief notes about why you chose to revise.

2 · Monday, September 8

“Let Forever Be,” Chemical Brothers, dir. Michael Gondry

Bring your narrative questionnaires. Discussion of The Unknown and “Continuity of Parks.” Mini-lecture introduction to narratology, fictionality and fictional worlds. Read chapters 3-7 of the Abbott book for the next class; refer to Prince and bring questions about the reading.

(20%) Each in-class exercise/quizzes will count equally. All of them together, will be worth 20%.

In-class exercise/quiz.

3 · Wednesday, September 10

Questions about the Abbott reading, introduction to Curveship.

For next time, download and try out Curveship and read chapters 8-10 of Abbott, consulting the Prince Dictionary of Narratology as needed.

In-class exercise/quiz.

4 · Monday, September 15

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

The view of fiction I have presented in class, as requesting that we, as readers, recenter our thinking onto a fictional world, is due to Marie-Laure Ryan. To see how this perspectives relates to possible world theory, take a look at "Possible Worlds and Accessibility Relations: A Semantic Typology of Fiction" by Marie-Laure Ryan from Poetics Today, Fall 1991. (MIT certificate required.) Please read the abstract closely and at least look over the rest of the text so you can see what a scholarly contribution in narrative theory is like.

In-class exercise/quiz.

5 · Wednesday, September 17

Discussion/demo of Curveship, analysis of narratives. For the next class, read Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

In-class exercise/quiz.

6 · Monday, September 22

Discuss Exercises in Style. Be prepared to explain the relationship of the stories to narrative concepts. Further work in Curveship, analysis of narratives.

In-class exercise/quiz.

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.

7 · Wednesday, September 24

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. Brief play of "Infinite, Intimate." Contexts of reading, programmed instruction and antecedents. Selection of specific works as paper topics.

8 · Monday, September 29

Follow-up discussion of Borges and Queneau’s forking story. Mathews’s “Trial Impressions” (read before this class). Shiga’s Meanwhile (read a few pages/branches, be ready to discuss the structure and beginning).

9 · Wednesday, October 1

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.

10 · Monday, October 6

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, 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.

11 · Wednesday, October 8

Shiga’s Meanwhile (read it completely — solve it!). Choice and destiny. Follow-up workshop discussion of any open questions or requests for response. If you wish to continue the workshop discussion of your piece, bring the current version of your piece.

(10%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear print pieces due (6 pages minimum).

Monday, October 13 (no class, MIT holiday)

12 · Wednesday, October 15

(20%) Creative multisequential stories due (3 pages minimum). Discussion of stories, papers, and (finally!) Meanwhile.

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. 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.

13 · Monday, October 20

Read electronic literature in groups, discuss: Varicella (scroll down), Howling Dogs. 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. Howling Dogs can be played on the Web.

14 · Wednesday, October 22

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 and easily run on current computers.

For next time, read my article “Riddle Machines” about interactive fiction.

Monday, October 27 (no class)

15 · Wednesday, October 29

In the first part of class, students will propose the electronic literature works they will present in class (beginning November 3). This just means that you’ll give the name of the piece and maybe tell us what general form or genre it is in, so everyone has an idea of what we’ll be covering. We’ll also sign up for specific presentation days.

We will continue with in-class readings and discussion of some short electronic literature pieces (including ones that didn’t work on the classroom Mac.)

Some on electronic literature platforms, including Curveship and IF platforms generally, Twine, and Ren'Py.

16 · Monday, November 3

Workshop on materiality and digital media in the Trope Tank, 14N-233.

17 · Wednesday, November 5

(15%) Three student presentations: Ari, Anna, Will. Also, send an email before class with your electronic literature project concept: What the theme, subject, literary form etc. will be as well as what platform/development system you will use.

Monday, November 10 (no class, MIT holiday)

18 · Wednesday, November 12

Three student presentations: Charlotte, John, Anish.

(10%) A working version/draft/prototype of your electronic literature (project) is due (containing 3 pages of writing minimum). 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 instructor in class.

19 · Monday, November 17

Student presentations continue and conclude: Julia, Cara, Sophia.

20 · Wednesday, November 19

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

21 · Monday, November 24

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

Wednesday, November 26 (no class, happy Thanksgiving)

22 · Monday, December 1

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project. By this time it would be ideal to be polishing, proofreading, and putting the finishing touches on your project.

23 · Wednesday, December 3

(20%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due (containing 6 pages minimum of writing). Brief final presentations of each project in class. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will be present.

24 · Monday, December 8

Planning session for the in-class collaborative project. What framework/platform shall we use? How shall we organize ourselves and our efforts? Do we want to publish the final project, and if so, how? Brainstorming and discussion is on the agenda; the writing and development will happen on Wednesday.

25 · Wednesday, December 10

(5%) In-class collaborative project. No preparation (other than participating in planning, during the previous class meeting) needed, just participation.

    Note: Minimum Page Information

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, those absolute minimums may actually suit your purposes and goals as a writer, but in others, you will probably want to write more.

    Note: The 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) in Kendall Square (E39-115, 55 Hayward Street — the same building that houses Rebecca’s Café) offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers (who all have advanced degrees and who are all are published writers) about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. To register with our online scheduler and to make appointments... To access our many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations... 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.