As worldbuilders it’s our job to create an environment where stories can thrive. That’s why we also add narratology to our list of key skills. Think of it as the 8th key skill.
Interactivity in storytelling (also known as interactive narrative) is a hot topic in entertainment especially as it’s so important to both video games and table top RPGs – two industries where worldbuilding is important.
But to understand why it’s hotly debated and important we first need to define what it is and how it affects our craft as storytellers and worldbuilders.
Let’s start with defining narrative as this is core to anything that involves stories.
In 1987 Gerald Prince made the following statement as a definition of what narrative is:
Narrative: the recounting …of one or more real or fictitious events communicated by one, two or several (more or less overt) narrators to one, two or several (more or less overt) narratees. A dramatic performance representing many fascinating events does not constitute a narrative, since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage. (1987, p58)
In this definition Prince states that a narrative can only occur when an event is being “recounted” by a narrator as opposed to it being performed on stage.
Yeah, I disagree with this definition of narrative.
The main reason is that many dramatic performances have a narrative structure and many even include a narrator.
Plus, it doesn’t provide a definition for other forms of media such as video games.
So, if Prince’s definition isn’t robust enough what is?
Luckily there are other people we can look to.
In his book Posey defines “narrative as ‘the stories our game tells.’ ” (2008, p55) where as Bennett & Royle say “the simplest way to define narrative is as a series of events in a specific order – with a beginning, a middle and an end.” (2009, p55).
These examples are getting closer, but they don’t provide a robust checklist we can follow to define what makes a narrative.
Expanding upon the ‘series of events’ mentioned in the Bennett and Royle quote a more robust definition can be taken from the 8 rules of narrative as proposed by Marie-Laure Ryan. They are as follows:
1. Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
2. This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
3. The transformations must be caused by non-habitual physical events.
4. Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
5. Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents, motivated by identifiable goals and plans.
6. The sequence of events must form a unified casual chain and lead to closure.
7. The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the story world.
8. The story must communicate something meaningful to the recipient.
(Ryan: 2006b: p8 )
These 8 rules act as a stronger test of narrative than Prince’s definition because they don’t attempt to restrict the definition to a specific range of media.
This is important because in a world where new media platforms are being developed Ryan’s theory means narratologist’s have a baseline of rules that are flexible enough to be applied to any new form of media that may be discovered in the future.
These 8 rules are the narrative test that will be used on The Worldbuilding School.
Next let’s look at creating a definition for interactivity.
Interactivity is the process of how an object or being interacts with another object or being. This might be a computer, a book or a human being.
If an object, concept or person is easy for a human to integrate with the then it can be described as being more interactive than something that is hard to integrate with or that provides limited options for integration.
Crawford defines it as this “A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks and speaks.” (c2005, p29) He further clarifies this definition with regards to the computer:
In this definition, the terms “listen,” “think” and “speak” must be taken metaphorically. A computer doesn’t listen in the strict sense of the term, but it does listen to its mouse and keyboard, metaphorically speaking. It may not speak, but it does something operationally similar when it displays output on its screen. And, of course, a computer never thinks in the true sense of the word, but it does process data, or calculate. (Crawford c2005, p29)
Clarifying this definition is important for the main reason that Crawford mentions above; computers cannot currently listen or speak in the conventional way that we do as humans and they certainly cannot think the way a human does.
On the subject of interactivity Herman, Manfred and Ryan define it as
“a feed-back loop through which user input affects the behaviour of a text… and it may result in the real-time creation of a story.” (2008, p250)
Which is very appropriate to the idea of an interactive narrative where the choices a user/reader/player makes can affect what happens in the story.
So, having defined both narrative and interactivity it is now possible to define an interactive narrative. We will define it as follows:
Interactive Narrative: a series of events about at least one emotionally intelligent being where an active agent can choose or change the specific events displayed.
This is the definition that will be used on the Worldbuilding School whenever we relate to interactive narrative or when something is being referred or compared to as an interactive narrative.
I believe this definition is important for worldbuilders to understand because it’s our job to create the worlds that Marie-Laure Ryan mentions are key in her definition of narrative.
And, many of the worldbuilding jobs are being created in interactive industries such as video games.
Without the world there can be no narrative. Without narrative there can be no story.