Narrative Essay

In what ways can traditional narrative theories inform our production of interactive texts? Discuss this in relation to the process of production of your group interactive project and with other examples of interactive narrative

“Narrative is the principle way in which our species organises its understanding of space and time” (Bordwell and Thompson 2008). It is a tool through which we communicate with each other, establish and maintain relationships, and construct identity. Narrative therefore functions on a variety of different levels extending far beyond the texts we read. For the purpose of this assignment nonetheless, we will be focusing on the elements of narratology that function to inform our production of interactive texts. Theories over the 20th century have served to illuminate the core dynamics of narrative. Structuralism is key here and focuses on narrative as a formal system. Vladimir Propp does just this with his formalist study of Russian folk tales. Stripping the textural décor of these tales to their structural units, he proclaimed  7 ‘roles’ and 31 ‘functions’ (1968). From Structuralism developed post-structuralism; a branch of theology stating that narrative structure is less rigid, and that meanings are shifting and unstable. Ronald Barthes accounts for this notion in “Introduction into the structural analysis of narrative” (1966) which will be later discussed. There are explicit links between these theoretical perspectives and the production of our interactive group project, but to what extent are they relevant? Is narrative best explained in terms of structure, or do we have to focus on the textual elements that bind the story together?

The all-encompassing term, “narrative” is composed of two main elements; Story and plot, which are often confused with one another. Cobley (2001) describes story as “all of the events which are to be depicted.” “Plot on the other hand is the chain of causation which dictates that these events are somehow linked and that they are therefore to be to be depicted in relation to one another.” It can be seen as the difference between structure and texture, or to be slightly more complex, diegesis and framing. Diegesis, referring to the internal integrity of the story world, and framing, to the devices that bind events together. For example, Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible” cannot hear the recurring non-diegetic soundtrack that is predominant every-time he is placed in an action sequence. This is embedded to enhance the overall effect and impact of the sequence, thus creating suspense. Narrative also has the ability to shape material in terms of space and time. It is organised in two modes: events and drama. Narrative of events as one would expect, refers to how the sequence of events progress synchronically (those which occur together). For example, an action sequence that resolves with an impressive cinematic explosion. The other mode, narrative of drama may not progress sequentially but can completely re-manipulate the aesthetics of a story. For instance, a marital break-up. Not much has happened in terms of events but a lot has happened dramatically. It is these tools that help us understand the complexities of narrative. These elements work in association with one another, creating enticing and compelling narratives.

As explained, structuralism concerns itself with the reduction of narrative into a formal system; the bare-bones of a story in other words. Propp’s analysis of Russian folk tales focuses solely on the diegesis and eliminates the textual ingredients that give a story validity. His reductionist view does, however, provide clarity of the key roles and functions present within a story. Many texts demonstrate these structural conventions because they are easily identified. In so many cases when the villain is overcome by the hero, we experience a sense of fulfilment. The popular children’s folk-tale, “Hansel and Gretel” (1969) is a prime example. The two protagonists are imprisoned by an evil witch, but manage to trick her into climbing into an oven. The two live happily ever after. Linking this theory to the production of our interactive project, it was essential to consider the building blocks of narrative, in which to create a consensual understanding of the story and the characters within. The finished interactive project thus presents to its audience, a detective that obtains a series of clues leading to the arrest of a murder suspect.

Post-Structuralism on the other hand, as one would assume, criticises the “rationalist impulse” assumed by most structuralists (Derrida 1969). The concept eliminates the systematic thought process of structuralism, and views narrative according to many other contributing factors. Barthes presents narrative as “international, transhistorical and transcultural; it is simply there, like itself” (1966 cited in ‘narrativity in history’). This model used to describe narrative is that of language, and illustrates that realistic representation, “is a matter of codes that are largely generic.” Therefore this model, although structured in a linear fashion, encompasses much more than just “dramatic situations” (Propp 1966) and “binary oppositions” (Levi-Strauss). It accounts for content rather than form, shedding light on the multicultural factors that a text inherits.

With advancements in technology, new story-telling platforms are emerging, giving us a greater variety of choice and more possibilities for escapism. Such platforms range from hypertext through to the ‘shoot em up’ video game and online role-playing games. World of Warcraft is a prime example of an expansive online multiplayer role playing game (1994). Players can interact with one another whilst defeating enemies and completing quests. They are submersed in a virtual reality that offers freedom and the ability to express themselves. It’s ironic to think, however, that despite the level of interaction the game provides, players are still ‘fragmented’ across the globe. Nonetheless, Murray (1997) accounts for these new mediums and claims “the traditions of story telling are continuous (despite evolution of technology) and feed into one another in both content and form”. So the methods of story telling have remained consistent, but provide active user-involvement. Thus every user, although playing the same game, has a different experience. Murray goes on to add that “the illusory world has become so powerfully enticing that it has subsumed physical reality itself”. New technologies, such as the internet, have therefore diminished the barriers of space and time, creating a society that is becoming increasingly dispersed and homogenised. The interactive project produced derives its inspiration from the foundations of games alike. It presents to its user a goal, which when fulfilled creates a sense of achievement.

To elaborate on the previous point made, it would be helpful to explore theoretical classifications of the level of interaction a text offers in more detail. Aarseth (1997) distinguishes between two notions. On the one hand, he refers to texts that require no effort to traverse, “non-ergodic.” Examples of this are simply reading a novel; “A reader however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative is powerless.” The only form of interaction lies in the small physical effort of turning to the next page. The other classification is referred to as ergodic literature. Here “non-trivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” For an example of this, we have to look no further than the self-governing peer to peer networking, where the concept of determinism is abolished. No one organisation withholds overarching authority. Rather, control is delegated democratically between users. Another example is the contemporary internet site, ‘Dreaming Methods’ (2008), which show cases some of the most recent and evolutionary of interactive narratives. The user navigates their way through a “labyrinth” of choices, creating a story as they go. Ergodic literature therefore places emphasis on the reader of the text. They, have the ability to determine the outcome and play an active role in doing so. Although the final project is ergodic, entailing user involvement, the story line follows a linear fashion where possibilities of branching are limited. Then, in terms of Aarseth, the project can be seen as unicursal.

Narratives that challenge conventions are often thought-provoking. Film-makers are constantly striving to break through the structural governance that most blockbusters follow, inviting alternate nodes of interpretation in how the text is read. These multilinear texts interweave a variety of diegetic and framing devices, that function to enhance the overall impact and prominence of the narrative. Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento demonstrates an interesting use of these elements. The story starts in reverse and rejects the typical conventions of structuralist approaches. It plays with what Ricoeur describes as “temporal transition” (1988 cited in ‘Story telling and Narration’). The events are arranged diachronically (over a period of time) presenting the two separate stories of protagonist Leonard; an ex-insurance investigator who suffers from amnesia. All the while, Leonard is attempting to apprehend the murder of his wife, by leaving notes in the form of tattoo’s over his body. One story line moves chronologically and the other tells the story backwards. giving the viewer more detail. The film therefore jumbles our pre-conceptions of the organisation of events within film. This example ,although less interactive, can be seen as relevant. As with the deconstruction of texts, every recipient formulates their own response, each of which differs from the other. Arguably then, all texts are to some extent interactive.

Another branch of thesis originating from the latter part of the 60’s, was that coined by popular theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. His view of Bretchian theatre was juxtaposed to what Goethe and Schiller describe as Aristotelian theatre. Brecht “regarded the theatre as more than a mere article of consumption…and despised the culinary theatre that provides mental food stuffs, to be gobbled up and then forgotten.” He goes on to add “the audience should not be made to feel emotions, it should be made to think.” Brecht disregarded a theatre of “illusion and identification.” He therefore detaches the audience from relating to that which is present on stage. Goethe and Schiller reject this notion of theatre, and argue that spectators have right to feel emotionally attached with the characters. The main contrast between the two viewpoints is therefore, that of narrative sequence. Brecht’s “epic” theatre presents to the audience events that are totally past, while Goethe and Schiller’s Aristotelian theatre presents events that are totally present. Mainstream films demonstrate elements of “catharcism.” The audience is expected to “passionately follow the action” without a hint of  “thoughtful contemplation.” Other films of course, as already discussed, are thought-provoking. With respect to “epic” theatre, the reader is encouraged to think. The online murder mystery game ‘Bow-street Runner’ (2008) relates well with this notion and is a source of inspiration for the final project. Created by LittleLoud and commissioned by Channel Four, the game plunges you into the grimy, crime ridden streets of 18th century, Covent Garden. The player, using the mouse scans the area for clues, and evidence. Once enough evidence is collected the next scene unfolds. The game, henceforth demands calculative thought, and an ability to piece together information. An interactive process, that has no place for passivity.

It has been exemplified, therefore, that traditional narrative theories do serve to inform the production of interactive texts, in a variety of different ways. As this essay has discussed, the fundamental viewpoints, that of structuralism and post-structuralism have helped to produce an interactive project, that is well balanced. Both form and content are explicitly interrelated in any given text, and cannot be separated. Thus, understanding the components of both structure and texture is obligatory. If we examine the bigger picture, then, both structure and texture can be seen as the difference of opinion between Marxists and Postmodernists. As addressed, narratives extend far beyond the texts we read. We narrativise events chronologically to make sense of the world around us. Considering the theories discussed, one may suggest that narrative is an ever-present tool, impossible to escape.



Hansel and Gretel by the Grimm Brothers. 1994. English translation by Margaret Hunt. Available from: [Online] Accessed on [4th February 2009]

Dreaming Methods- A fusion of writing and new media – Current. 2008. Available from: [Online] Accessed on [2nd February 2009]


Memento, 2000. Film. Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA: Newmarket Capital Group.

Mission Impossible, 1996. Film. Directed by Brian De Palma. USA: Paramount Pictures.


World of war craft, 1994. Blizzard entertainment.

Bow Street Runner, 2008. LittleLoud.


Murray, J.H., 1997. Hamlet on the holodeck: the future of narrative in cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K., 2008. “Narrative as a Formal System” in Film art: an introduction. London: McGraw-Hill.

Esslin, M., 1969. “The Brechtian Theatre: Its Theory and Practice” in Brecht, a choice of evils. London: Heinemann.

Aarseth, E., 1997. “Introduction: Ergodic Literature” in Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

Chatman, S., 1978. Story and Discourse: Narrative structure in Fiction and Film. USA: Cornell University Press.

Propp, V., 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. First edition translated by Laurence Scott with an Introduction by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson; 2nd edition revised and edited with a Preface by Louis A.Wagner/New Introduction by Alan Dundes. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Levi-Strauss, C., “The Structural study of Myth” in McQuillan, M., 2000, A Narrative Reader. London: Roultledge.


Kellner. H., 1987. Narrativity in History: Post-Structuralism and Since. Wesleyan University. Available from: [Accessed 4th February 2009]


Deleuze, Giles., The Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Originally published in French, 1969. Available from: [Accessed 4th February 2009]


Katriel, Tamar. “Storytelling and Narration.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Donsbach, Wolfgang (Ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Available from: <;. [Accessed 4th February 2009]


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