By Andy Cameron, 26 September 2008


The Illusion of Interactivity

The Interactive Story

...myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation. 1

The form of the story permeates every aspect of our cultural life. History, politics, memories, even subjectivity, our sense of identity, are all representations in narrative form, signifiers chained together in temporal, spatial, and causal sequence. Narrative appears to be as universal and as old as language itself, and enjoys with language the status of a defining characteristic of humanity and its culture. A people without stories seems as absurd an idea as a people without language, (a people with language but no stories even stranger, for what is language for if not to tell stories?)

Over the past few years there has been a tremendous investment in the idea of digital media, the use of computers as the site of culture rather than just tools for business or science. This is partly due to the drive on the part of manufacturers to create new markets as price/performance ratios in digital technology improve, but, at the same time, there is a desire at work here, a fantasy which exceeds its technical and economic conditions. Implicit in the notion of digital media is the belief (read desire) that digital computers and digital communications will provide a unified site for 1st world culture in the near future and that this new medium will offer distinct advances over existing media, above all by offering its audience interactivity.

Interactivity refers to the possibility of an audience actively participating in the control of an artwork or representation. For the purposes of this discussion, interactivity means the ability to intervene in a meaningful way within the representation itself, not to read it differently but to "(re)make" it differently. In its most fully realised form, that of the simulation, interactivity allows narrative situations to be described in potentia and then set into motion – a process whereby model building supersedes storytelling, and the what-if engine replaces narrative sequence.

There are those who see the replacement or narrative form of interactive simulation as political progress. Many who in the 60s and 70s rejected the blandishments of mainstream narrative, the elision of its own means of production and the naturalisation of passive spectatorship, discern in interactive media an opportunity to go beyond the impasse of avant garde structural materialist film practice. Similarly, in the rhetoric of neoliberal political thought interactivity can be figured as a form of freedom, a liberation from the tyranny of authorship and the servile passivity of reading.

This discussion is an attempt to speculate on the collision between a dominant cultural form – narrative, and the technology of interactivity. I will argue that there is a central contradiction within the idea of interactive narrative – that narrative form is fundamentally linear and non-interactive. The interactive story implies a form within which the position and authority of the narrator is dispersed among the readers, in which spectator-ship and temporality are displaced, and in which the idea of cinema, or of literature, merges with that of the game, or of sport. Can an interactive construct, or a simulation, successfully adopt a narrative form?

Forking Paths and Synthetic Spaces

In his short story Garden of Forking Paths2 Borges imagines a novel in which the path of the story splits, where all things are conceivable, and all things take place. The author of this story within a story is judged insane and commits suicide, and Borges' narrator is arrested and condemned to death – thus the fate of the narrator and of the author in the interactive era is prefigured. It is not hard to see how the task of writing interactively might drive an author to insanity and suicide. To write not simply an account of what happened but a whole series of 'what-ifs' increases both the volume and .complexity of an author's task exponentially. In addition the situation is one in which the ability to develop the action in a particular direction is no longer the unique prerogative of an omnipotent author as his/her role is partly usurped by the reader.

How much interactivity does it take to make an interactive story? We don't know because we don't know what an interactive story is like, nor what it is for (more on this in a moment). It is true that the number and complexity of forking paths could be increased until the reader experiences a large degree of freedom and control within the text. The limits of this freedom are achieved within a constructed model that dispenses with the network of lines altogether, replacing it with a fictional space within which readers can turn left or right, look up or look down, open a door, enter a room, at any time they choose - a spatio-temporal simulation which can generate a travelling point of view in real time, more commonly known as virtual reality or VR. In the VR model, although the reader/spectator enjoys seamless temporal and spatial liberty, the tradeoff between interactivity and richness of content holds true. VR to date has barely been able to dress the set, let alone cry 'action', or murmur 'once upon a time'. And there is another simpler and deeper problem. This is the question of ontology. The change from a linear model to a multi-linear or spatio-temporal (VR) model involves moving from one kind of representation – and one form of spectatorship – to another.

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

As he settled into the snug cockpit he tried not to think about the obvious thing. Ahead of him, through the windscreen, he could see a long low hill. It was further away than it appeared to be, and much bigger. Yellow through the blue haze, the hill squatted on the plain, low and indolent and massive. He wanted to be over that hill and look beyond.

Before him stretched the grey runway, on the left a yellow haystack, on the right a white airfield building. All around him was the blue aeroplane.

Afficionados of the Hellcats flight simulator will recognise the landscape – an American airstrip on one of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The time is WW2. This is the prologue to an account of an experience of my own, flying a Hellcat on a mission against the Japanese Navy.

Hellcats is effectively a screen and mouse based virtual reality system – 2 nd person VR – offering non-linear adventure stories. The reader – or should it be participant, or player – is free to move in any direction, at all times, as long as he or she never gets out of the plane. This cuts down the scope of the story significantly – it's like Top Gun with everything but the flight scenes cut out.

As a representation of the experience of Americans during WW2 in the Pacific, Hellcats can be compared to South Pacific or From Here to Eternity. Yet despite the similarities of place and time, Hellcats is a very different kind of representation. Hellcats represents one specific aspect of the experience of the war in the Pacific, but it is the experience of the pilot. More precisely, it is the experience of the pilot insofar as he or she is an extension of the machine. Certain key attributes of narrative form are missing3 . Narrative closure has to be fought for – if you crash your plane while taking off the 'story' is short, insignificant and unsatisfying. It is up to the spectator to ensure that the action comes to a satisfying and meaningful end – closure is contingent on the moment of 'reading'. Temporal and spatial coherence are more or less complete, but strictly limited to the skies above the Solomon Islands. There is no specific enigma to be resolved but a different kind of teleological imperative, that of a participant in a violent struggle. If we consider what Barthes has called the symbolic code, that code which accounts for the formal relationships created between terms within a text – the figurative patterning of antithesis, graduation, repetition etc, we find it absent in Hellcats. The simulator does not signify in this way. Neither do we find much in the way of a referential or gnomic code, the code of shared cultural knowledge about the world, nor the rich and diffuse code of connotations designated by Barthes as the code of semen. The complex interplay of signs, Barthes' 'weaving of the voices' across different registers, the 'multivalence of the text' is lost, replaced with a wide band of sensory information referring to specific and schematic aspects of a situation – the proairetics of flight, the hermeneutics of battle.4

However, although complex narrative codes are not hard-wired into the simulation, they are not therefore altogether absent from it. The simulation is re-invested with narrative sense via the subjectivity of the participant – a personal, transient, and contingent narrative unlegitimated by the external figure of the author.


I saw the movie last week. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen in the movie this week too, otherwise what is life all about?5

A key distinction to be made between an interactive representation, like Hellcats, and narrative representations like those of the cinema and literature, lies in the way time is represented. Narrative refers to the past. Its temporal referent is once upon a time, The simulator on the other hand operates in the present. If in a narrative an event happened, in an interactive narrative, whether multi-linear or spatio-temporal, an event is happening, its time is now. This temporal shift has important consequences.

A linear narrative exercises a textual authority which is dispersed by interactivity. In a linear narrative, the reader submits to the prior authority of the text. Only the author has the power to make decisions about the story-line or point of view, and the invention of narrative sequence is his or her sole prerogative. The text is certain of itself. Moreover this certainty has a legitimising function. Hayden White writes:

`We cannot but be struck by the frequency with which narrativity, whether of the fictional or the factual sort, presupposes the existence of a legal system against or on behalf of which the typical agents of a narrative account militate. And this raises the suspicion that narrative in general, from the folktale to the novel, from the "annals" to the fully realised history, has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy or more generally "authority””.6

Now this authority is expressed, and legitimacy conferred, at the moment of closure. By recounting what happened an author is also closing off those things which didn't happen. A character picks up the phone rather than letting it ring, someone walks down the street and turns left instead of right. Closure in this sense is dispersed throughout the narrative. The events unfold as a pattern which progressively resolves itself into an image, each event integrating those which precede it into progressively higher levels of narrative sense. This process continues until the final closure at the end of the narrative, at which point the meaning of the story is revealed at last, and is revealed to have been immanent in all the events all along. Closure can be considered as a function of time, or more precisely of the way in which time is represented, whether as past and complete or present and ongoing.7


In his standard work on aspect8 the linguist Bernard Comrie distinguishes two forms of time reference in language – aspect and tense. Tense 'relates the time of the situation ... to some other time, usually to the moment of speaking', whereas aspects are 'different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation'. Where tense distinguishes between situations taking place in the past, present or future, aspect draws a distinction between the perfective; a situation viewed from the 'outside' as completed, and the imperfective; a situation viewed from the 'inside' as ongoing. The shift from narrative representation to interactive representation entails an aspectual shift like that from perfective to imperfective, from outside to inside the time of the situation being described.

Thus aspect distinguishes between different ways of positioning the audience with respect to a situation. The perfective and imperfective aspect, and by analogy linear narrative and interactive simulations, correspond to two fundamentally different modes of spectatorship.

An interactive simulation appears to designate the conditions for events rather than the events themselves. The interactive simulation sketches a web of possibilities and constitutes a system for producing story events in time – a story engine rather than a story.

It is in their respective modes of closure that we can locate the apparent disjuncture between the nature of interactivity and that of narrative. Thus, the moment the reader intervenes to change the story, perfective becomes imperfective, story time becomes real time, an account becomes an experience, the spectator or reader becomes a participant or player, and the narrative begins to resemble a game.

Games and Stories

In AN EXAMINATION OF THE WORKS OF HERBERT QUAIN9, Borges invents an English multi-linear novelist of the 1930s. Less often referred to than GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS,

this short story is no less remarkable for its dystopian vision of a banal and meretricious interactive literature – what Borges terms the 'regressive, ramified novel'. Borges prefigures the transformation of reading into playing when he makes Herbert Quain say of his second novel, `April March',

`I lay claim in this novel... to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium. Indeed, 'Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species. "Every European," he reasoned "is a writer, potentially or in fact."


Does something which is interactive have to be like a game? And if so, does a game have to be as uninteresting as Borges suggests?

Max Whitby 10 argues that the term interactive narrative is an oxymoron – and believes that an interactive narrative can never be as satisfying as a traditional linear story. Interactivity gets in the way.

`Every successful form of communication involves protagonists, a set of conflicts and experiences, and at the end some sort of resolution so the thing has a satisfying shape. Interaction largely destroys all that. By giving the audience control over the raw material you give them precisely what they don't want. They don't want a load of bricks, they want a finished construction, a built house.

One form of Interactive multi-media that does make sense is that of the game.. Computer games are as spellbinding and absorbing as a good movie. However, what is going on in people's heads in a game is very different from what is going on with a play or a novel. I don't want to say that one is better than the other, but you can obviously do things in films, theatre or the novel that you can't do in a game, and vice versa. Most of what is generally regarded as being interesting belongs to the world of cinema and theatre and most of what we could regard as simply diverting or just a pastime belongs to the form of the game."


So far I have argued for a distinction between narrative and interactivity, or stories and games, which is based on the different way each represents time, leading on to differing modes of spectator-ship. However, as Max Whitby points out, games and stories also have very different cultural values attached to them. The game is frivolous whereas narrative is serious.

There is a general assumption here that narrative representation - literature, history, cinema and so on, has a deep and lasting significance which the game lacks. In the end Shakespeare or Proust or Pasolini seem to have more to offer than a game of football or Sonic. The game is outside of history, unworthy of serious remembrance. At the M.I.T. multimedia conference in Dublin in 1993 a speaker bemoaned the fact that his son spent too much time playing computer games and not enough time reading books. Thinking of my own child, I found myself nodding in agreement. Yet when a woman asked from the floor why reading a book was better than playing a computer game, he couldn't explain his assumption and neither could I. Two other speakers gave a fascinating account of an elastic movie. This was a multi-screen installation constructed as part of a student workshop at M.I.T. which the spectator moved through and interacted with. The speakers called it an interactive media environment, an installation, a transformational space, fine art circumlocutions for the obvious term game which they managed to avoid entirely throughout their paper. Then they showed a video of their undergraduate students discussing the design of the project and the word game cropped up over and over again. Finally, throughout the whole two day conference on interactivity, discussion of console and TV computer games was almost entirely absent, in spite of the astounding commercial success of Nintendo and Sega in the youth market, in spite of CD-i, in spite of 3D0...

A Literary You-topia

If the repressed reading of interactivity is that of the game, the preferred readings are interactivity as liberation, and interactivity as Post-Modernism come true.

In S/Z Barthes describes two types of writing, readerly writing and writerly writing. What happens if we take the notion of the writerly at face value, innocently? What if we read excessively, irresponsibly, futuristically.

"The goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text... The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing...


In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can see ...' 11


In this excessive reading the writerly becomes a fantasy of the multi-linear text, Barthes a kind of Nostradumus of literary theory, writerly writing the uncanny prophecy of an interactive literature come to pass. Indeed, a number of commentators have noted the way in which post-structuralist writing seems to anticipate the non-linearity of new technology. In


George P. Landow suggests that the literary theories of structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers (especially Barthes and Derrida) find their embodiment in interactive hypertextual forms made possible by new technology. Hypertextual and non-linear structures promise Barthes' writerly text, never far from the possibility of rewriting, multivocal, decentred, without boundaries, a text which can break free from the chains of closure, a text whose instability lies not in our post-modern apprehension of it but in its very condition of being. Hypertext for Landow is post-structuralism made flesh, transubstantiated – Foucault's death of the Author a corpse and a smoking gun, Derridean débordement actualized as hypertextual annotation... 12

The problem with this kind of literal and utopian mapping of post-structuralist theory onto new technology is that it fails to acknowledge its own excessiveness. To literally and deterministically locate a set of complex, heterogeneous and ambiguous ideas about the social processes of reading within a specific technology seems to be missing the point. One might as well argue that the telephone system is post-structuralist. It is ironic that a set of theories which stress plurality and indeterminacy should be employed in the service of a reductive equivalence between very different types of object.

Instrumental stories

`Science has always been in conflict with narratives' 13

We have seen how a putative theory of interactivity might oscillate between the preferred register of the post-modern (serious, plural, decentred and legitimated by the academy) and the frivolous register of the game (playful, ephemeral, banal and without value). A further approach is suggested in 'The Postmodern Condition' in which Lyotard outlines an opposition between narrative knowledge (convivial, traditional) and instrumental knowledge (cybernetic, scientific). The game can be considered as a cybernetic construct (a goal directed system of control and feedback) and as such, placed on the side of the instrumental, whereas narrative knowledge, argues Lyotard, is an older form – 'narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge...' and 'what is transmitted through narrative is the pragmatic which establishes the social bond'. Legitimation and authority are immanent to narrative form and are established within and through the act of narration itself (see Hayden White quote above).

By contrast authority and legitimation are extrinsic to the form of instrumental knowledge. In scientific discourse legitimation must be fought for. Moreover, instrumental knowledge according to Lyotard is set apart from the language games that constitute the social bond. The analogous oppositions may be summed up thus:















These oppositions sketch out the structural differences between two different kinds of representation, and two modes of spectatorship. It seems that the truth-effects of stories and games are very different. The question of legitimacy and certainty is central – the simulation remains a model which does not have the ability to auto-legitimate itself in the way an account does. Structured as it is around a core of what-if statements, the truth of a simulation or game can never be more than hypothetical.14


There are two potential endings for a discussion like this, either optimistic or pessimistic. Neither is sustainable. The `interactivity is post modern' school of thought sees interactive representation as a liberation from the repressive authority of traditional narrative form. There are echoes here from the avant-garde and anti-narrative movements in cinema and writing which have their source in the utopian ferment of the 60s. Yet the consequences of the opening up of closure -that interactivity will be `commonplace, unlaborious, shallow, un-literary, heterodox'15 are more difficult to accept.

Others see the simulation as promising post-symbolic representation, bypassing the patriarchal distortions of perspective and the controlling point of view. An interactive simulation, according to this argument, offers not the representation of objects but the representation of relations between objects within which the participant can select their own point of view. However, in characterising this as a shift from coded representation to experiential post-representation what is glossed over is the coding and mediation involved in constructing the simulation in the first place. Sim City, the town planning simulation game, is just as much a cocktail of opinion, received wisdom and political ideology as any other doctrine of urban decay and renewal – it simply hides its politics more effectively.

Is this the end of the road for narrative, grand or otherwise? Are we to become a people without stories? Once again the linguistic category of aspect provides a useful analogy here. We have seen how the shift from narrative to the interactivity involves a shift from perfective to imperfective, from outside to inside the time of the events being described. Thus, narrative representation and interactive representation might be 'different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation' as well as different forms of spectatorship.16 As interactivity increases, so the spectator is thrown inside the representation to become a player.

At the heart of the interactive representation narrative reinstates itself through the subject narrativising the experience making sense from (simulated) events. If narrative is a technique for producing significance out of being, order out of contingency, then simulation can be seen as its inversion, a technique for producing being out of significance, of generating simulation of contingency from first principles. Rather than a people without stories, interactivity offers the promise of people within stories, and rather than the end of narrative, an explosion of narrative within the simulator.

Like any other form of representation interactivity is an illusion. It puts itself in the place of something that isn't there What then might be the absent referent of interactivity? According to both neo liberals and techno-utopians interactivity promises the spectator freedom and choice. It is precisely the absence of such freedom and choice that interactivity would appear to conceal.

1 Roland Barthes, 'The Structural Analysis o Narrative' Image, Music, Text (London, Fontana 1977)

2 Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking Paths' Fictions, (London, John Calder, 1965)pp. 8 1-92

3 Pam Cook (ed) The Cinema Book (London: British Film Institute, 1987) p.212

In the Cinema Book, Annette Kuhn gives this account of the formal attributes of classic cinematic narrative:

*Linearity of cause and effect within an overall trajectory of enigma-resolution

*A high degree of narrative closure.

*A fictional world governed by spatial and temporal verisimilitude.

*Centrality of the narrative agency of psychologically-rounded characters.

4 Barthes, S/Z, (Oxford, Blackwell, 1990)

In S/Z, Barthes outlines 5 codes of narrative. These are used to submit a short story by Balzac - Sarrasine – to an extremely close textual analysis. Briefly the 5 codes are:

* The code of Semes – broad connotations within the text – femininity, age, etc...

* The Symbolic code – the code which structure the text in figurative patterns – antithesis, graduation, repetition etc. It is difficult to imagine this code within a non-linear, interactive structure the pattern imposed by the author would be lost in the meanderings of the reader.

* The Cultural code – shared knowledge, common sense. See note on Hellcats above.

* Hermeneutic code – 'the various (formal) terms by which an enigma can be distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense and finally disclosed.' An interactive story might be organised principally in terms of the hermeneutic code, a cluster of clues surrounding a mystery could be organised logically yet non-sequentially. The hermeneutic code is goal-oriented, as are most games.

* Proairetic code – the code of the actions, the code of the sequence. This code presents particular problems for non-linear interactive structures A change in one part of the sequence will have the potential to change every subsequent action The proairetic code embodies a relentless logic,

if X is killed in scene 4 then X cannot be alive in scene 5.To an extent then, the proairetic code embodies something of the Cultural codes, the code of knowledge. The proairetic code is the code of knowledge about time, and it is the certainties of this knowledge which interactivity appears to throw into question. There is a parallel between the interactive narrative and the electronic spreadsheet. The linear narrative is to the interactive narrative what the ledger is to the spreadsheet. Both inter active narrative and spreadsheet are 'what if?' engines. Both create the space for multiple parallel time. The best illustration of the problem o the proairetic code in interactive narrative is given by changing one of the numbers in a spreadsheet doing a recalculate, and watching the changes multiply and ripple across the whole sheet.

5 Woman outside the cinema in 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' dir. W Allen

6 Hayden White, 'The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality' On Narrative, (Chicago Chicago University Press, 1981) pp 1 - 23

7 Richon & Berger (ed) 'Fire and Ice' Other Than Itself (Manchester, Cornerhouse Publications, 1990: See Peter Wollen's discussion of the linguistic category of aspect and its effect on spectatorship in ' and the categories of perfective and imperfective in Bernard Comrie's standard work – Aspect.

8 Bernard Comrie, Aspect, (Cambridge, CUP 1976)

9 Jorge Luis Borges, 'An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain', Fictions, (London, John Calder 1965)pp. 8 1-92

10 Max Whitby heads the Multimedia Corporation, an offshoot of the BBC which produces interactive titles in London.

1l Barthes, S/Z, (Oxford, Blackwell, 1990) pp 4-5

12 'contemporary theory proposes and hypertext disposes; or, to be less theologically aphoristic hypertext embodies many of the ideas and attitudes proposed by Barthes, Derrida and Foucault.' Landow Hypertext, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, University Press 1992) p73

13 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, (Manchester Manchester University Press, 1986) p xxiii

14 For example, my 5 year old child enjoys crashing the aeroplane when he flies the simulator – it doesn't hurt him to crash the plane. However wheT watching a television documentary about early USAF jet planes, which showed a plane cartwheeling and exploding in a fireball, he was upset because he felt he had seen someone die. The simulated crash and the account of a crash had for him a very different status.

15 Jorge Luis Borges, 'An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain', Fictions, (London, John Calder 1965)

16 Holt's defintition of aspect, quoted by Bernar( Comrie, Aspect, (Cambridge, CUP 1976) p 3.

Dissimulations is also being published in the Sprint edition of 'Millenium' in New York.

Proud to be Flesh