Part 1, In search of the invisible narrative

This is the home of my work and findings as a narrative constructor that I would have liked to find myself in the late nineties when moving my skills as a writer and director within film and television to the development of digital and interactive media. At that time there was nothing called narrative design, and when I took my master’s in computer science, the narrative was recognized as not to be part of game studies and human-computer interaction (HCI). The narrative was like “It-Which-Must-Not-be-Named” until I met a Lyotard-reading captain of a robot football team who invited me to become a guest researcher at the Swedish Institute of Computer Science (SICS). Supervised by the team captain, who was like a Dumbledore to me, I developed a method called Narrative bridging which aim was to support the design process to organize, monitor, and control the generation of information (narrative) to create meaningful experiences.

In 2010, with the method under my belt, I left SICS and started Creating Interactive Narrative (CIN) with colleagues from the academics, marketing, and programming that all shared the vision to raise awareness about narrative construction within the development of interactive media. At that point, the game industry thought of narrative to be contextually bound to ancestors of media where the canonical story format (exposition, complication, and outcome) was applied to games. Influenced by film productions, game writers were employed to participate in the pre-production to write the story and dialogues, and when the manuscript was delivered the game writer had to leave while the development of the game continued. The only way to ensure a narrative continuity throughout the whole process was to make your own game.

The context bound comprehension of the narrative also attributed the person who constructed the narrative to be a: storyteller, screenwriter, writer, author, etc.; “Come on. Tell a story,” a producer urged in an interview, snapping his fingers as to tell me to be quick and proof my capability. The belief that I was some kind of Scheherazade in the Arabian nights was very common, as well as the disappointment when expectations were met by algorithms about the cognition-based construction of causal, spatial, and temporal links to the media-specific attributes.

The narrative comprehension also attributed they who “received” the construction as being listener, readers, viewers, players, etc. and were the thought-based narrative was compared with physical evidence of activities, and where the canonical and linear structure in literature, movies, etc., constituted some kind of proof by them who thought narrative and games were not compatible because of an audience watching a movie were noticeable passive, and players were active. And to emphasize the active player one also ascribed the player the role of being the storyteller. From a cognitive perspective, it is certainly correct to ascribe meaning-making activities to someone that interprets information (narratives), but it veiled, even more, the position of the constructor for the benefit of physical evidence of activities.

To not harp on about the confusing arguments causing difficulties to understand narrative construction, it was simply very hard to forward narrative as a cognitive process as the linkage between the body (brain included) and mind, and the interaction between constructor and the “receiver” was cut off. The advantage though, by making the players (users) be creators of their own experience was that evidence as eye movements, blood pressure, heart-frequency, brain activities, and organic chemical levels of dopamine, serotonin, etc., could be measured and proofed. Contradictory to current assumptions and categorizations, people were very interested in narrative, whereby I was invited to give lectures and workshops in narrative construction; although, the expectations were on storytelling in the film where I was more of an entertaining event to confirm desires, intentions, and beliefs.

It truly helped that the game writer Stephen Dinehart coined a “narrative designer” in 2006, which enabled communication of narrative possibilities from a design perspective and avoided cueing the comprehension to media ancestors. Even if the academics didn’t adopt the concept of “narrative design,” the game industry did. The first time a game company announced a “narrative designer” position in Sweden was in 2012. It was a serious step towards seeing narrative construction as a part of the whole production. Considering the narrative understanding was in its early stage, the likeliness to find various people meeting the requirements to be experienced in narrative design and have shipped at least one AAA-title wasn’t very high. The risk of having the same people ambulating between the companies doing the same thing was at stake. Later on, I understood that the game industry didn’t want to take risks. The risk was up to indie game developers to take.

In 2012 an indie game called “Journey” came. “Journey” was a beautiful example of a narratively well-balanced and composed game and received plenty of awards – but not for its narrative. At the Game developers award, 2012 “Journey” wasn’t even nominated for best narrative; instead, it was games recognized by its canonical story structure, a mass of texts, dialogues, the establishment of characters, environments, cinematic, cut-scenes, graphics, etc. While the concept of “narrative design” opened up for a more systematic approach to narration, the canonical story format grew literally bigger. “Story-monsters” I called the games, and it felt like being in a converted version of ”The Emperor’s New Clothes” trying to point out that “Journey” indeed “wore clothing”.

Next part 2 The benefit and disadvantage of unconsciousness

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