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Janet H. Murray

February 12th, 2007

Excerpt from PBS Online Forum

PBS:Could you begin by explaining what a nonlinear narrative is? Are there different types of interactive stories?

Janet H. Murray responds:

Stories can be “nonlinear” or “interactive” both on and off the computer. Throughout the twentieth century we seem to be turning toward stories told from multiple intersecting points of view (like Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”), stories that have multiple possible outcomes (like Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” or the “Back to the Future” movies). The trend runs through high and low culture as my examples suggest. It has to do in part with the fact that we see our lives as more open to choice and possibility, less controlled by social convention or by what the Victorians called “Providence” than human beings have in other eras.

The computer offers new formats for such open-ended and multi-threaded stories. Hypertext stories let the reader navigate through segments of the tale, following different characters through the same time period or tracing different thematic connections. Interactive games and simulations allow us to replay the same situation in many different ways,observing and savoring the range of possibilities. Although most of these games are focused on battles or clever puzzle-solving, as they absorb more cinematic techniques they are increasingly plot-oriented and less concerned with winning and losing, and they are beginning to be populated with characters who are not just adversaries or puzzle-posers, but interesting in themselves.

Digital storytellers are learning how to let events unfold dramatically in worlds that have their own rules of behavior. For instance, a recent cd-rom game called “The Last Express” puts the interactor into the role of a passenger on the Orient Express railroad just before World War I, and populates the train with characters who speak different languages and walk around on their own regardless of what the protagonist chooses to do. I am charmed by the way the game lets you eavesdrop on the passengers’ conversations as they talk about books or politics, in multiple languages (with some subtitles). It is a satisfying experience that goes beyond the murder and intrigue of the game-like plot, because it is imaginatively compelling to be in a fictional place and to chose which characters to pay attention to as the story unfolds.

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