The Narrative Paradox

I’ve had a hectic couple of weeks, which has left me with some catching up to do here. But its been an exciting time too, with lots of connections being made and, slowly but surely, a firmer idea of how I might approach this PhD beginning to appear.

Let me start at the beginning though, with a meeting two weeks ago with colleagues from the university’s English and Computing departments, as well as from  Kings College London and the University of Greenwich. We all of us were coming from different directions but arriving at somewhere approximate to the same place. I probably shouldn’t say too much about it now, after all we’ve got to find a lot of money first.

One thing we talked about though, was the idea of Adaptive Hypertext. This was a new term to me, and may prove to be a useful one. If I understand my colleagues right, it’s a bit like the principle of sculptural hypertext, in that all the content is available, but elements are filtered away based on user preferences, location or previous behaviour. What differentiates it (I think) from plan old sculptural hypertext is that its more dynamic, the sculpting is done on the fly, as the user explores the narrative. Clearly it’s something I need to understand better.

The thing I was most excited by though, was when Charlie Hargood put into words something I’ve been struggling with internally. The thing is, the more interactive a story is, the less good it is. Charlie called this the Narrative Paradox. I hadn’t heard of this term before, so I’ve been searching for its origin. The earliest reference to the term I’ve found so far comes from Ruth Aylett’s 2000 paper, Emergent Narrative, Social Immersion and Storification. She says “The well-known ‘narrative paradox’ of VEs is how to reconcile the needs of the user who is now potentially a participant rather than a spectator with the idea of narrative coherence — that for an experience to count as a story it must have some kind of satisfying structure.” Those quotes she around puts around ‘narrative paradox’ don’t come with an endnote, so though she says its “well known” I can’t find an earlier citation. Aylett may, therefore, have coined the term. If so, she deserves some credit, for her definition is a useful one.

Another of Aylett’s papers, co-written with Sandy Louchart is called Solving the narrative paradox in [Virtual Environments] – lessons from [Role Playing Games]. It got me very excited, not just because I’ve been playing RPGs since 1979, but also because I thought they might already have ‘solved the paradox’, but sadly they discover that “it would be much more difficult to build a computational system able to assess and act on user’s satisfaction levels.”

Engaging RPG experiences occur as a result of conversation, mediated by feedback between participants, just as the best interpretation occurs when people talk to each other. Until cheap open-source computer programmes consistently pass “the Turing test” we haven’t got a hope of building a system that replicates that process.

But I’m not that ambitious. I’m not looking for an emergent narrative created on the fly for the user, but rather an adaptive narrative, handcrafted in advance, with a satisfying structure, but which can adapt to the user’s needs and interests. Charlie’s own paper, The Narrative Braid, is closer to what I’m looking for, and his braid metaphor is useful not just for documentaries, but also for, maybe especially for, cultural heritage interpretation.

4 thoughts on “The Narrative Paradox

  1. […] So my next overriding question is, did confidence that they were changing the story affect users’ emotional engagement? I think I can do a cut of the data to find that out, but the sample size is too small to be really confident in what it might show. Given what I’ve been uncovering about the story structures of the video games I’ve played though, I beginning to wonder if there’s any value to this sort of interactivity. For me, Skyrim, with its wider story structure has been a lot less emotionally involving then either Red Dead Redemption or Dear Esther, both of which take the player towards one single, inevitable, ending. And then there’s the Narrative Paradox. […]

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