Interactive Drama: Narrativity in a Highly Interactive Environment

Critical Writing
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The most talked-about, and potentially the most significant consequence of recent advances in electronic technology for the practive and theory of literature is the promise of interactivity. The idea of interactivity is traditionally associated with hypertext. But compared to Interactive Drama, a genre existing mainly in the conceptual stage, hypertext involves a relatively low grade of interactivity: the freedom to select an itinerary on a network of author-defined pathways. In Interactive Drama, ideally, "the interactor is choosing what to do, say, and think at all times" (Kelso, Bates and Weyhrauch); "the users of such a system are like audience members who can march up onto the stage and become various characters, altering the action by what they say and do in their roles" (Laurel). This essay investigates the basic dilemma encountered by Interactive Drama, a dilemma reminiscent of a familiar theological problem: how can the system grant users some freedom of action, and yet enact an aesthetically satisfying narrative scheme ? The predominantly epic structure of Brenda Laurel's VR installation Placeholder is contrasted to the Aristotelian design philosophy of Joseph Bates' Oz. In spite of these structural differences, both works uphold the ideal of a system designed in such a way that every traversal of the virtual world will provide a rewarding experience. This concern for the "safety of a controlled situation" suggests that in contrast to most forms of hypertext, interactive drama owes more to the spirit of classicism than to postmodern aesthetics.

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Scott Rettberg