Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interactive Narrative

Definition: the intersection of storytelling, visual art, and interactivity.

When it gee-wowed me: During my several month stay at Nonchalance headquarters. I would sit every day at the office facing a fantastic map on the wall. This map visualized the entry points, segue ways, and end points of each of the three phases of the Jejune Institute - the interactive narrative game that, in this humble blogger's opinion, is trailblazing in the realm of immersive media.

I could trace, for example, a curling arrow from an icon that read "flyer with phone number" in the bottom left corner of the map, to a "Jejune Institute Orientation Meeting phone message" icon. This same icon was also reachable by two other arrows, which directed players from "graffiti art with phone number" and "Dolores Park radio transmission", respectively. In essence, a willing participant could access the phone message from one of three distinct entry points to the game, and also have no idea that the other two existed. Then, once the phone message was digested and curiosity actually led a participant downtown to the orientation session, literally so many variables for alternate modes of play presented themselves that how and what a person explored within the game's narrative became their own prerogative. Indeed, from the "Orientation" icon, the map on the wall became an intricately linked labyrinth of possible paths of narrative travel, some dead-ending, others leading a player to the very heart of the game.

And I think the dead ends are what made the Jejune Institute so special. Consider, for example, the elaborate backstory constructed for the purely fictional Hip Hop Shoe Repair, itself a now-decrepit, in-story hangout for the fictional characters who used to populate the Mission. When they track it down through various means, players come across a chained-up newsstand on Valencia Street that apparently doubles (in-story) as the Shoe Repair stand. Whether or not you are then supposed to glean anything meaningful from the structure in order to advance your own narrative is a question that took me and my intrepid partner about twenty minutes to determine.

Was the newsstand actually a piece of the puzzle, or was Nonchalance's goal of reclaiming the Third Space (more on that at another time) as an adult playground actually working? Because when it comes right down to it, you really start to appreciate a chained-up newsstand the more you look and realize how beautifully random and absurd its existence is. Here I was seeing an unremarkable little detail of the city in a brand new, devastatingly exciting light, and it made me want to treat every object I passed with the deserved level of reverence.

Though the scrutiny ultimately led nowhere, the experience of the narrative turning literally everything into a potential clue for our discovery was a feeling of real-world excitement no single-medium-bound story could ever replicate. The more you looked, the more you noticed the stuff around the city that really was an element of Nonchalance. You also started seeing everything that wasn't in the same mysterious light. And everyone knows mystery is what makes the world go round.

Conclusion: The more irrelevant detail an interactive narrative provides, the more meaningful and immersive an experience it weaves. I am reminded of Roland Barthes' essay "The Reality Effect," which explores referential and aesthetic restraints in literary narratives. Put very simply, the more meaningfully random the descriptor, the more tangible the experience. Without Hip Hop Shoe Repair, the Jejune Institute still would have kicked ass - it just wouldn't have kicked ass so fully. A newsstand is a newsstand unless it's a clandestine hangout.

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