Bits & Bytes Column: Interactive Narrative

Originally printed in the November/December 2003 issue of dialogue Magazine

Hold on to your seat. The world of writing and cinema is evolving. It may seem strange but, the visionaries of Star Trek may unlock some keys to the future of "interactive narrative." Think I am crazy? Read on…

Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the concept of the holodeck–an interactive virtual reality installation that simulates the participant’s chosen environment and allows for tactile responses. In Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway could engulf herself in her "holonovel" and have intimate encounters with the characters. The "holonovel" may seem like an invention of the distant future, but artists and engineers are currently using technology to create new types of interactive storytelling that one may find interesting, consuming and at times scary.

In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum created ELIZA, one of the first Artificial Intelligence computer programs. Weizenbaum states that ELIZA makes "certain kinds of natural language conversation between man and computer possible." ELIZA’s conversations are modeled after a type of psychotherapy popular in the 1960’s called "Rogerian analysis," in which a psychiatrist would ask questions only based on what the patient said. The program identifies key word(s) of the participant’s statements or questions and then is able to generate a response. In Weizenbaum’s article, ELIZA–A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine, he states that a typical conversation maybe the following:

Participant: Men are all alike.
ELIZA: In what way?
Participant: There always bugging us about something or other.
ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example?
Participant: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here?
Participant: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
ELIZA: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.
Participant: It’s true. I am unhappy.

ELIZA is a groundbreaking program that presents an example of a computer and person dialogue. By analyzing keywords of the participant’s typed text, the computer is able to generate a response.

A similar idea is Interactive Fiction (IF) that allows the reader to take an active role in the outcome of the story. It is a computer-mediated narrative where the participant reads a short textual description and then enters a command. The plot can change based on what the participant types and the reader helps determine the outcome of the story.

Emily Short, interactive fiction writer and chief editor of the forthcoming book, IF Theory says that she likes, "the idea of writing a story that shapes itself to the reader’s choices."

She goes on to say that "it’s also exciting to be writing IF now in particular, because it is (relatively) young. It’s exciting to experiment with a new and uncharted form of story-telling, even though some of the experiments don’t turn out to be hugely successful."

Artist Toni Dove is developing new forms of interactive cinema. Dove is currently in production on the interactive movie Spectropia, a time travel drama set in the future and in 1931 after the stock market crash. The story is about Spectropia, a young woman in the future who has created a machine that scans garbage and creates virtual realities. When her machine malfunctions she finds herself in 1931 in the body of Verna DeMott, a sophisticated older woman and amateur sleuth. Throughout the story, viewers are able to interact with the characters, navigate through cinematic spaces, move a character’s body, and alter and create the soundtrack.

"Sally or the Bubble Burst" is a scene in Spectropia where the participant uses a combination of mouse rollover and microphone to talk with Sally Rand, a virtual recreation of the burlesque star, in an interactive conversation that incorporates speech recognition and synthesis. The participant can sing to Sally to create and transform a bubble dance, move Sally’s body with the mouse and talk to objects in Sally’s dressing room that respond with song and spoken word. According to Dove, Sally has specific narrative goals within the story "as opposed to just being an interactive experience."

But we still haven’t covered the tactile senses as encountered on Star Trek’s holodeck. This is where haptics technology comes in. Haptics, a technology still in its infancy, simulates forced feedback that takes game information from the computer and translates it into instructions for a motor or vibrator in a game controller to simulate real life experiences such as feeling your light saber hum, shot gun blast and reload, or your plane’s landing gear engage!

With developments in the fields of interactive fiction, cinema, and haptics technology, we are on our way to seeing artistic projects developed similar to Star Trek’s holodeck. Is this a good or bad thing? That’s for you to decide.

Updated September 2006