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Anne Toole of Writers Cabal left an interesting comment on Monday’s post talking about Reader Response criticism. She noted that “in other words, even linear narrative is inherently interactive.”

Anne is absolutely right (and brings up a point I hadn’t thought of); the way we read can greatly change how we understand or interpret a narrative. What we get from a book with, say, a close reading technique (as described in books like Reading Like a Writer, an excellent book which I have had for a while but only just had the opportunity to start) is far different from a casual reader might understand. The same applies to education levels. What you know changes what you read. In John Mullan’s How Novels Work he identifies components of modern novels and their origins in past classics. His interpretation of a particular novel is based in his comprehensive knowledge of older novels and is completely different from how I would see it. Of course, I know that I can point to a few of my own works that would be interpreted differently depending on the reader’s knowledge of other novels.

In a way, two people can see entirely different stories from a single work. If you need any empirical proof, all you have to do is take a look at the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Even when trying to stay as close to the bard’s original intentions as possible, groups can perform in radically different ways, based on how the director has interacted with the text, and in what way they have interpreted it.

This is absolutely true when it comes to “classic” written literature. But Anne’s comment got me thinking (enough to turn this into a post), how does this apply to game theory–particularly narrative game theory?

When it comes to game narrative, there are two extremes. On one side is the absolute linier narrative, as displayed in many (especially early) Interactive Fiction games. The other side is the free-form sandbox-type game, where narrative elements may come in different orders and may end or react in a number of different ways. (Of course, there are those games without narrative at all, say some arcade games.)

However, one could argue that in the most linier of IF games, of which many are, the ability for the reader (or player) to interact with the text through interpretation (as reader response criticism posits) is distinctly and purposefully limited. With little more then a few lines of text for each area and very specific commands, an incorrect interpretation will result in an incorrect response and an eventual (if not immediate) loss. The usual interactivity between the reader’s mind and the text is negated, because in order for the text to work, the reader has to think in a very precise and exact way.

In effect, this means that linier IF and adventure games, most of which work on similar principles, rely on a set group of players who think exactly the same way. In a sense, some of these games may be less interactive then sitting down and reading a book because the usual collaboration between mind and medium is curtailed. On the other hand, they do require an active imagination, otherwise you are just looking at text. Considering the spatial elements of many of the puzzles you need to be able to visualize a great deal from what is normally very little. Though anyone who enjoys reading does the same with a book.

On the other hand, the reader response is essential to driving a narrative forward in MMORP, sandbox-, or open-type games. This type of interaction with the player and world narrative is codified into some games, allowing players to work with groups who share their point of view and goals in the game world. The actual textual content in a game like World of Warcraft (quests and the like) is pretty bland, it is the interpretation of these quests and how you move to complete them that adds any spice to the gameplay. The grind is counterbalanced by the player creating their own narrative and content within a social (and in some cases economic) structure. Part of a game-creator’s responsibility is insuring that the back-story, content and mechanics are available to shore up and encourage these player-created narratives, much in the same way a good book can make you think.

Then, to bring The Human Brain Cloud back to the discussion, any ‘player’ entering words or clicking through the bubble chart is automatically creating their own narrative and participating in the type of interpretive feedback that is native to literature (if we accept reader response as a valid form of criticism, which I do). The human mind is, in this case, imposing a structure onto something that in many ways lacks such structure.

When it comes to the works in the Electronic Literature Collection, all of the ones I looked at pass the test. Of the three I reviewed: Martha absolutely passes, it creates its own narrative as well as an interpretive narrative (in that, the interpretation of the work is its own narrative: Martha is going crazy, attacked by angels, under attack by hackers, or her husband, or whatever). As does Alice, whose mystery leaves much in the mind of the participant; it even went so far as to make one of my classmates carsick. Even Deviant has that particular interactive quality of interpretation.

If interactivity is classified as “Communicating or collaborating: involving the communication or collaboration of people or things” [Encarta Dictionary] then even the strangest of narratives can’t really fail at creating it. The reader is always, in a way, collaborating with the author to create a consensual world (or, to call back the phrase, a fictional dream).

I suppose that the next question in this line of reasoning is: does interactivity then always bestow narrative?

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