nickm.com > classes > interactive narrative, fall 2022

21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845
Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2022

This course is a CI-M for 21W majors and CMS majors.

This tentative/draft syllabus updated September 6, 2022. Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here.

Instructor: Nick Montfort, in@mkcinckm.com, office: 14E-316 (the MIT Trope Tank)
Class meets in 66-156 Wednesdays, 2pm–5pm
Office hours: Regular office hours Tuesdays 12:30pm-1:30pm in person in 14E-316; I will also be available by appointment to speak in person and via Zoom.

Attending All of the First Class is Required

Interactive Narrative has been significantly overenrolled in recent years. It is not feasible to have a writing course, particularly a CI-M course, with more than 18 students — and even that class size is challenging. Additionally, this is not a lecture-based class. We have class meetings that are filled with discussion, activities, and the sharing of student work. There is no way to “make up” what we do as a community when we gather. For these reasons, students must attend all of the first class to enroll or remain enrolled in the class. (The only exceptions are the standard ones: for legitimate medical reasons, religious observance, etc. — and in those cases a student still needs to catch up by discussing a missed class session with a student who was there.) Until I have made an announcement that the class size is within bounds and we have finalized enrollment, anyone who elects to miss a class will not be able to stay in the course.

Resources

Books in the MIT Trope Tank. Our interactive narrative collection has software and manuals directly related to software on the top three shelves. The bottom three shelves are multisequental books, sometimes called “gamebooks.” While it may not be current, there is a textual list of the multisequential books at the MIT Trope Tank. The list also indicates which books are also held by the MIT Libraries. I will do my best to make these books available for students to read. However, I am never able to allow my books to circulate. They have to be consulted in the MIT Trope Tank.

Evaluation

Work is distributed over several assignments:

Participation (Including, not limited to, Attendance)

Participating in class is necessary to respect your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community. Participation starts with physically being in the classroom for the whole class session (presence), but also includes engagement with what is happening (attendance/attention) and your willingness to respond and to initiate discussion (full participation).

Absences for medical reasons, or personal or family emergency, or religious observance, will of course be excused. In such cases a student must work with another student who participated in the session to catch up. If you will be absent and can possibly let me know, please do, so I can request that a student help fill you in on what we did.

Feedback

What type of substantial feedback (aside from quantitative grading along the way and a final letter grade) should you expect from me?

I will gladly provide extensive and detailed feedback when it is explicitly requested. The ideal way of getting detailed feedback is via your communication with me in office hours. For instance, if you come to office hours I am willing to review not only your sentence-by-sentence writing, but also the code you are writing for your digital project and the design of your booklet. Based on your preliminary work for your print project, I can suggest ways to better print and bind that work. I can also explain in office hours how to approach writing a critical paper, how to prepare a presentation, and how to draft and revise interactive narrative work, giving you specific pointers based on what you have done so far. I can explain aspects of narrative theory in greater depth and suggest ways to strengthen your particular creative writing. My preference is to meet with small groups of 2–3 students at once so we can benefit from each other’s questions and perspectives, but I can also meet with you individually. Remember that you must initiate the request!

Please understand that without your individual requests, I cannot offer this set of detailed and extensive feedback routinely, on a weekly basis, to every student. Because of this, the main sorts of feedback I will provide to everyone, based on assignments, is intended to answer these questions: Do you understand the basics of narrative theory? Do you see how narrative theory offers you new possibilities as a writer? Can you identify interesting aspects of existing interactive narratives? Can you exploit the different dimensions of narrative to go beyond the most obvious possibilities in your own interactive narrative work? Are you making good use of material properties and formal possibilities in both your print and digital projects? Is your writing, especially your critical writing, in a good and appropriate style and framework given the projects you are undertaking? This is the feedback necessary for this particular subject and for a subject fulfilling the CI-M requirement.

Required Books

Narrative Theory

Throughout this course, and particularly during the first half of it, we will learn the basics of narratology, also called narrative theory, a body of thought related to narrative that is quite precise. Specifically we will be learning about what some now call a pan-narrator theory, which holds that there is always a narrator (more or less overt) for any narrative. And we will stick to a two-part story/discourse or context/expression distinction, although others such as Mieke Bal argue for three levels. One may eventually settle on a different specific narratology, but one needs to start somewhere, and I have chosen what has proved to be a very useful starting point. It facilitates our conversation and collaboration in class and allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

The basis for learning about narrative theory will be class discussion and the textbook The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. During class discussions, the instructor will be ready to answer questions and clarify all the concepts, and time will be allocated for this during each of the initial class sessions. After the very first class meeting, students need to come prepared with questions that they have, as the in-class instruction in narrative theory will be offered in response to these questions. In-class exercises, which determine part of your grade, will be required to determine your understanding of narrative theory and guide our further discussion. These exercises may seem quiz-like in many ways, but, importantly, they require you to do short amounts of creative writing. Anything we have covered in discussions or assigned readings is fair game for these.

I · Narrative 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, generates text in response, 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, as are classic and more recent hypertext fictions — some of you may know the recent ones as “Twines.”

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. There is no particular length requirement. This paper can relate to graduate student projects being undertaken outside the class.

During this unit students will each create two works of electronic literature, one shorter and more structured (in Curveship) and one longer (in Twine or Inform). Creating such a work requires writing, design, and structuring; depending upon one’s choice of platform it may also require programming. (To create an Inform work, you need to program.) 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. Neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.

II · Forking Paths in Print

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 — with a focus on Cortázer’s Hopscotch — and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga (mainly Meanwhile) and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book that the class as a whole is not reading, writing a paper on this book. This will require checking out such a book from MIT’s Hayden Library or a an area public library, or requesting such a book via interlibrary borrowing, or buying such a multisequential book, new or used, from an online or brick-and-mortar bookstore. Many interesting ones can be obtained for less than $10. Students 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. We study the material qualities of multisequential books, looking at how to interact with the printed and bound objects. Because of this, a PDF is not acceptable. You need a printed and bound book.

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 almost twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write a multisequential story, first in draft/prototype format and then in revised, proofread, and final form. Both of these are to be produced as a print booklet, set of cards, or other material artifact, which can be produced using ordinary office supplies and a home printer, or using a printer at MIT, or by employing the services of Copytech. As with the electronic literature projects, neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.

Calendar

1 · September 7

Narrative questionnaire distributed. Students are required to complete it, right at the beginning of class, for use in class discussion. This is not a graded exercise. We will begin with discussion of this questionnaire.

Discussion of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books.

Review of the syllabus, major required readings, assignments, evaluation.

Rapid introduction to narratology and the distinction between discourse/telling and story/content.

Read and closely study for the next class 1. Narrative and Life, 2. Defining Narrative, and 3. The Borders of Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Read at least halfway through Exercises in Style, understand the concept, and pick out some of your favorite and least favorite sections.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz covering concepts in today's lecture and discussion. Yes, there is a graded exercise (or quiz, if you like) at the end of class on the first day.

2 · September 14

Today's video: “Drop” by The Pharcyde, dir. Spike Jonze.

Discussion, in terms of narratology, of this music video and several very short narratives, presented in class.

Introduced in class, available for your use in your study of narrative: Curveship.js 0.4.

Is narrative hard to define? Discussion and review of chapters 1–3 of Abbott. As will always be the case, it is students’ responsibility to bring specific questions about the readings.

Read and closely study for the next class 4. The Rhetoric of Narrative, 5. Closure, and 6. Narration from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Complete your reading of Exercises in Style.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

3 · September 21

Today's video: “California” by Wax, dir. Spike Jonze.

Discussion of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

Questions about chapters 4, 5, and 6 from the Abbott book?

Read for the next class: “Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover. We’ll discuss it next class.

Read and closely study for the next class 7. Interpreting Narrative, 8. Three Ways to Interpret Narrative, 9. Adaptation across Media, and 10. Character and Self in Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Also read the glossary of this book by Abbott. This is to make your study easier, not harder!

Today we referred to “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World” (thanks for the link, CJ!) and, more directly relevant to interactive narrative, we played / interacted with Aisle by Sam Barlow.

Creative Project 1, in Curveship-js, is assigned. Create a variable narrative with three (3) different narrator files (and corresponding HTML files) and no more than ten (10) events. Due October 5 at 11am.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

4 · September 28

Today's video: “Bachelorette” by Bjork, dir. Michel Gondry.

Read and closely study for the next class 11. Narrative and Truth, 12. Narrative Worlds, 13. Narrative Contestation, and 14. Narrative Negotiation from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

Confirm understanding of character vs. narrator, the fundamental distinction between expression (discourse) and content (story level).

More play of Aisle. Play Shade.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

5 · October 5

Our main discussion of the foundations of narrative theory concludes today. Of course, we will be discussing narrative theory throughout the course as we also deal with issues of materiality, interface, expectation, riddle and solution, etc. But this will wrap up our study of the Abbott book and of the fundamentals.

Each of us will share our Creative Project 1 in class.

Interactive fiction will be assigned for you to experience outside of class: Watch this space.

(10%) Creative Project 1, in Curvship, is DUE before 11am this day.

For your reference, this is the article on CYOA books (the actual trademarked series) from The New Yorker. I sent the link out by email already.

6 · October 12

I cannot be part of class today due to circumstances beyond my control. Fortunately we have a very capable MIT professor with relevant expertise to convene the class and start things off: Prof. D. Fox Harrell.

In-class reading/play of digital interactive narratives. Some will also be assigned for you to experience outside of class: Watch this space.

I had planned that Prof. Lai-Tze Fan of the University of Waterloo would visit the class, and, indeed, she will be doing so. She will facilitate in-class play and discussion of interactive narratives.

Creative Project 2, in Twine, is assigned. (If you are desperate to do a project in Inform or Ren'Py, we can discuss how you will be able to limit the scope of your project and accoplish your goals.) A working draft/prototype is due October 20 at 12noon. The completed project is due October 27 at 11am.

7 · October 19

Discussion of interactive fiction you recently played.

Workshop for Creative Project 2.

For next week, read and solve Meanwhile.

A working draft/prototype of Creative Project 2 is due before 12noon this day.

8 · October 26

Discussion of Meanwhile.

Each of us will share our Creative Project 2 in class.

(15%) Creative Project 2, in Twine or Inform, is DUE before 11am this day.

9 · November 2

Discussion of Meanwhile.

Begin your reading of Hopscotch. Let’s start with “From the Other Side,” chapters 1-20 for everyone. Amber & Ari, read 20-26; CJ, Hudson, & January, read 27-30; Jordan, Lorena, & Yiou, read 31-36.

Both the Critical Report and Creative Project 3 is assigned. The Critical Report is due November 23. Stage 3a (a laid-out draft in booklet or similar form) is due along with the paper on November 23 (on paper) at the beginning of class. Bring four copies so the class can look at your draft on paper. These are assigned together because what you learn from studying a print multisequential narrative should inform you as you make a print multisequential narrative, and vice versa. The final version of this creative project, 3b, is due December 14.

The critical report is a detailed report focusing on a multisequential, narrative book. Obviously the narrative qualities and “interface” are important to discuss in detail, but so are paratexts and contexts, intertextual references, and the book’s material nature including design and production aspects. If the book has aspects of literary riddle and solution, consider those. Comparisons should be drawn to other appropriate multisequential books. You should report on how the different dimensions of your chosen multisequential book come together to create a particular effect, and how that is related to the themes and subjects of the book. Of course you need to include references in some consistent citation format. Only because this is a CI-M course, I am compelled to specify a minimum word count: 1800 words. Reaching this word count in no way assures a passing grade of course.

Creative project 3 is a multisequential, narrative booklet. Only because this is a CI-M course, I am compelled to specify a minimum word count for all of your creative projects, 1, 2, and 3: 2400 words combined.

10 · November 9

Discussion of Hopscotch.

Continue your reading of Hopscotch. We will figure out different ways to explore the book to get the best collective reading experience possible, including the “Expendable Chapters,” and different reading experiences of the chapters. on November 30, class 12. Details to come!

NO CLASS on November 16. I will be in Europe. Continue work on your project 3a.

11 · November 23

Workshop for Creative Project 3 in class begins (using 3a). Project 3a is due, as a piece of printed matter brought to class, at the beginning of class (2:05pm).

(10%) Creative Project 3a, draft/prototype print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

(15%) The Critical Report is DUE on paper at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day. It should be printed out, arrive in class stapled, and be handed in.

12 · November 30

Discussion of Hopscotch concludes. Read some of the “Expendable Chapters” while re-reading/looking over some of what you’ve just read. You should understand how these chapters are interleaved in what Cortázar calls the “second book,” when he gives an authorized order for skipping around.

Each of us will also (very!) briefly discuss what we learned in writing the Critical Paper.

The final phase of project 3 (that is, “3b”) is due December 14 at the beginning of class.

13 · December 7

Workshop for Creative Project 3 continues (using 3a).

13 · December 14

Each of us will share our final Creative Project 3 (“3b”) in class.

(10%) Creative Project 3b, booklet-length print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day, as a completed piece of bound printed matter, brought to class. Make at least four copies: One to hand in, one to keep for yourself, and two in case you would like to offer to trade for someone else’s project or provide gifts.


Minimum Page Counts

The “minimums” should not be considered maximums. They are required by the standards for MIT’s CI-M requirement (communications intensive within a major). The minimum length may be generally suitable for the critical report. In the case of the longer creative projects, those absolute minimums may or may not suit your purposes and goals as a writer.

Facial Covering Policy

This is MIT’s policy: Face coverings are not required. Anyone in our classroom community is welcome to wear a face covering and is allowed to request that others wear a face covering.

The MIT Writing and Communication Center

MIT Writing and Communication Center offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication specialists with advanced degrees and publishing experience. The WCC can help you learn about all types of academic and professional writing and further develop your oral communication skills. You can learn more about WCC consultations and register with the online scheduler to make appointments. Please note that WCC hours are offered Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m., and fill up fast.