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    Posted: Mar-04-2015 at 1:14pm

Narrative Evolution Ruminations on the Future of Storytelling, by Manuel Cuervo

Humans love a good story. How else can we explain the existence of multi-billion dollar industries such as Hollywood? How else can we explain the power of myth and the fable-rich traditions of religion? The need to hear, see, and experience stories is universal. 

Narrative is a dynamic process -- never static, always changing. The familiar narrative forms found in most novels have led to a widespread view of narrative as a static system. This is not the case. The elements of narrative have evolved throughout human history; have been changed, however dramatically or subtly, by technological advancements. Developments in the field of computers and electronics have driven narrative beyond linear structures and given way to multi-linear and network narrative architectures. Each narrative form is based on a unique technology whose properties and elements directly influence its structure and development. 

A snapshot history of narrative 

Our early ancestors painted their stories on cave walls. Some archeologists suggest that the paintings were created as part of religious practices and others believe the paintings served more decorative functions. Whether cosmic or cosmetic, one thing is clear, the paintings acted as mediums of narrative. They served to tell stories -- snapshots of life frozen in time. 

Our ancestors were also fond of oral media. Lacking a written symbolic system, ancient storytellers relied on their speaking abilities and memory. In what mustve been a brain-taxing feat, tribal storytellers had to learn, memorize, and then perform tales for the tribe. Imagine having to memorize hundreds of tales, let alone create them from scratch. It wasnt until much later that the dominance of the oral tradition ended with the introduction of a new narrative medium -- a medium that was more efficient and functional than the spoken word. 

The exact origins of writing are not known. Archeologists hypothesize that it may have first developed somewhere in the Middle East. This idea, however, has been recently challenged in light of new evidence that suggests writing may have originated in China, 8600 years ago (Rincon, 2003). 

The ability to record ideas and edit them systematically had a great impact on the development of narrative. For the first time storytellers were able to keep accurate records of their creations and to recombine elements at will. The methods and techniques of the written word quickly helped consolidate the general structure of what we consider modern narrative. 

The printing press 

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, writing and reading were activities that only a few had the luxury to perform -- primarily the Clergy, nobility, and upper classes. As such, writing was a limited tool, used for the purposes of religious teachings, academic research (often conducted in secret), commerce, and entertainment. Since books were written and read by a limited number of people the impact on the evolution of narrative, in terms of pace and quality, was undoubtedly adverse. 

The monopoly on the printed word quickly ended, however, in 1452 when Gutenberg appeared on the scene with a major technological breakthrough. Gutenberg's movable type and press allowed the mass printing of books at a lower cost. More people could now afford to read books, although the practice was still confined to those who had the money and time to do so. 

It is important to note that the printing press was not a single technology per se. Instead, it was the convergence of various technologies developed for over five centuries, including paper, oil-based ink, and the wine press. As will be discussed, this concept of technological convergence plays an influential role in the development of narrative. 

Linear Narrative 

Publishing Engines 

As the printing process became more cost effective and as literacy spread, the business of selling books flourished. The first major publishing houses established themselves in New York during the 18th and 19thth centuries. At this time, there were no standard methods of publishing and distributing books. Penny presses, auctions, magazines, newspaper supplements, and vending machines were some of the publishing and distributing techniques tried in the early stages of commercial book publishing. 

As press technology advanced and as booksellers became increasingly market savvy, books grew in popularity. By the mid-1800's the paperback revolution was underway. Books became available to a wider and more diversified audience. Inevitably, this increase in popularity created a suitable environment for the further development of narrative forms. 

Linear Narrative 

Long before the advent of the popular press, Aristotle discussed the means, modes, and methods of narrative. In his, Poetics, Aristotle defined Poetry (comedy and tragedy) as a kind of "artistic imitation" defined by neat and orderly causal chains of plot, character, thought, and diction. Aristotles work established the properties and elements of narrative in terms of a linear progression of events. Causality, for instance, was treated in Newtonian fashion, where one action triggered an event and caused subsequent reactions. A leads to B leads to C, and so on until a resolution is achieved and the story ends. The structure of narrative was (and still is) seen as a clockwork beating to the rhythm of plot, story, and theme. 

By the Early 20th century, a few books -- most notably, Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce -- tried to break the linear structure of narrative. Joyce juxtaposed words, phrases, images, and symbols in a fashion that can be described as a mosaic of plot, story, and theme. Other authors have tried a variety of methods to transcend linearity. Think of William S. Burroughs and his "cut-up" method. He used this method to fragment his stories and rearrange them in non-linear order. Yet, narratives like those mentioned above, are the exception rather than the rule. The narratives presented in books are for the most part, linear. Understandably, the limits of this medium do not allow authors to experiment with other narrative forms. New technology is needed to go beyond the constraints of the printed word. 

Multi-linear Narrative 

Motion Pictures 

The impact of motion pictures on contemporary narrative cannot be underestimated. Film technology allows us to experiment with the elements of narrative in a way not possible with printing technology. Techniques such as the cross-fade, split screens, slow & fast motion, montage, and transparency can be used to subvert our ideas of linear story telling. The structure of narrative achieves a multifaceted form, different from that of traditional narrative. 

The movie, Run Lola Run, demonstrates how linear logic in narrative is transformed by film technology. Run Lola Run is the story about a girl who relives the same event repeatedly. Every time she relives the event small changes in her actions lead to large-scale changes in the narrative. Split screen and montage techniques provide us with glimpses of the multi-linear structure of the film. Time and causality are treated as multiple overlapping threads, instead of an unbroken chain of events. 

Yet, one could argue that film is still a linear medium. The apparent multi-linearity is only a trick giving us the illusion of multiplicity. When seen in this light film technology is still a linear medium. So how then can true multi-linearity be achieved? 

Digital Environments 

Digital technologies have taken us over the threshold of linear narrative. Computers give authors the power to create environments where multi-linear narratives are the norm. In virtual environments, the audience is not limited to a set of predetermined sequences and events. Instead, they are able to follow multiple paths determined by their own choices. Plot, story, and theme are still present but are not integral components of the narrative. 


Computers deliver narratives in a number of platforms. One of the most popular platforms is the electronic game. A game player can take on the role of a fictitious character (human or non-human) and through a series of choices, he or she can advance the story to a personally satisfying state. This state is not reached in a linear manner, but through a process of choice making, input, trial and error, and luck. In some cases there is no end-state, instead the narrative changes and grows in an organic manner. 

Games tend to subvert our expectations of what narrative should be. A game like, The Sims, for instance, delivers a story that has no predetermined path. Players create environments for their virtual families, and through a series of choices, they help the families evolve. Given that multiple paths can be taken neither the players, nor the designers, know exactly how any given game will unfold. The story is unpredictable. There is no story arc to speak of. No ending in the traditional sense. 

The ability of a story to dynamically adapt to different audiences is a relatively recent phenomenon. Advanced systems of AI (Artificial Intelligence) make it possible to create responsive environments that change with the user. These virtual environments have properties that bear mentioning, since they also affect the properties of narrative. 

The properties of digital environments 

In her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray has outlined four main properties of virtual environments: 

1. Procedural Digital environments are designed to embody rules (algorithms and heuristics) that comprehensively structure and generate a coherent interpretation of the world. 

2. Participatory Digital environments allow humans to actively engage with the environment and to cause changes in its behavior. 

3. Spatial Digital environments are able to represent navigable space in a realistic way using 3D technology. 

4. Encyclopedic Digital environments have limitless amount of space on which to store digital information -- words, numbers, images, sounds, motion, etc. 

These four properties affect how narratives are structured in virtual environments. A story told through the virtual medium is much more dynamic than those told in books or movies. The procedural and algorithmic nature of virtual environment makes it possible to create ever-changing narratives. These environments are responsive to the users behavior and engage him/her in a deeper and wider level of interaction. 

Much has been said about the interactive nature of computers. One could argue that a book is also an interactive system. A reader needs to hold the book, open it to the desired location, and then flip pages to advance the story. The degree of interactivity in books, however, is limited when compared to that found in virtual environments. Most narratives developed for a virtual environment needs to consider audience participation. Game narratives deal with this issue by providing a structure that does not have a single path but multiple possibilities. 

The third property of virtual environments -- spatial -- is unique. The sense of space in books is usually conveyed through description. In movies, space is conveyed by camera angle, motion, as well as other methods. Virtual environments are not limited to a mere description of space, nor are they bound to the creative choices of a director. Virtual environments display space using interactivity, motion, and graphics. Navigating through narrative space becomes a pleasure in itself. Space is no longer an epiphenomenon of plot or camera angles, but a fundamental component of the narrative's architecture. 

The encyclopedic property of virtual environments makes it possible to create rich, complex narratives. The quantity of information stored in any given book pales in comparison to the storage capacity of virtual environments. There is no physical limit to how much information virtual environments are capable of containing. This information is not confined to words either, but encompasses a wide variety of elements including sound, video, motion, interactivity, and so forth. Everquest and Ultima Online are good examples of the type of narrative worlds that can be created using the encyclopedic nature of virtual environments. 


As previously noted the printing press was not a single invention, but rather a convergence of technologies. This concept of convergence also became popular during the dotcom era, and while this is no longer the case, the idea is still relevant. Books, movies, games, and other technologies are no longer being treated as independent media, but rather as interdependent elements of a unified field of narrative. 

Convergence has led multi-linear narratives away from mere "path-taking" to a point where multi-linearity is experienced as a poly-sensory structure. The Matrix story is a case in point. Before the opening of the latest installment of the movie, several shorts were released on the Internet under the name Animatrix. These animated shorts, set in the world of the Matrix, are an integral component of the overall story. 

The Matrix Reloaded is also accompanied by a video game that, like the Animatrix series, delves deeper into the world of the Matrix. Both the Animatrix clips and the video game are not just derivative byproducts of the Matrix story. They are important elements of the story. If one is to experience the Matrix narrative in its entirety, then it is not only necessary to watch the movie, but also necessary to watch the Animatrix clips and play the video game. Convergence eliminates the barriers between mediums and allows narrative to be experienced through multiple means. Multi-linearity is no longer just a technique, but a central property of the narrative structure. 

Network Narrative 

From here on things get a bit weirder. We have entered what I like to call virgin territory (although Twilight Zone might be a better name). There are a few sketchy maps out there concerning network narrative, but they are incomplete. Most of the important features of this landscape are still a mystery, still waiting to be discovered. Indeed, they may not have even formed yet. 

Take for example attempts at networked narratives such as MUDs. MUDs-or Multiple User Dungeons- are text based games played over a computer network. Players (agents) can interact with each other; this interaction has a direct effect on the storys development. Each player has unique characteristics and behavior. Their aim is to explore the game narrative by inputting commands and undergoing a process of adaptation and learning. It is through their action that the narrative emerges and the system evolves. 

Online multiplayer games have evolved from the text-based world of MUDs, into stranger creatures. The transformation has come about because of the increase in computer power. Life-like avatars, realistic environments, 3D navigation, and flashy special effects are but a few of the techniques being used in multiplayer games. The central concept behind online games is to form a network of players. As players interact with the game system and each other, they give rise to the game's narrative. 

Mobile technologies are the most recent platform for network narratives. Mobile games connect players using wireless devices such as cell phones and PDAs. The narrative in these games emerges out of the interaction between players, as opposed to unfolding in a predetermined manner. Currently, many of these mobile games are limited in complexity. Higher broadband connectivity and more powerful wireless devices, however, will increase the complexity of play and narrative. The new mobile games will rely on the properties of networks to deliver stories that are as dynamic and engaging as those found in the world of online multiplayer games. 

During the 90s, much was said about Virtual Reality. The medium was to allow people to immerse themselves in an environment that was as close to real as one could get using computers. The hype concerning Virtual Reality died down, but not the idea. As computer become more powerful and smaller, Virtual Reality will make its way into mainstream culture. Prototypes already exist for displays that are small enough to fit on reading glasses, allowing the user to move freely without the need of wires and heavy hardware. 

So, what will this mean for narrative? If such devices were coupled with network technology then it is possible that narrative will become an ever-present aspect of our lives. The challenge presented to the author is to create a narrative that is dynamic and complex enough to meet the demands of the audience. 

Our conceptions of narrative have been altered by developments in media. The view that narrative is a system with a static structure is giving way to the view that narrative exhibits a more complex architecture that depends on the medium used. The printing press provided us with a medium for linear narrative. However, newer technologies are demonstrating that linearity is not the only structure available. The properties of virtual environments show that we can think of narrative as a multi-linear system. The audience is no longer a passive observer, but an intricate component of narrative. 

Computers have also proven to be effective tools for creating network narratives. Such narratives are dependent on the behavior and activities of the agents involved. Their structure is not designed by external forces, but emerges out of the interaction between users. Network narratives are quickly gaining wider acceptance in our culture. One can only imagine what will happen when wireless technology becomes embedded into our clothes or even better, into our own bodies. Even now systems exist that can be implanted into the human brain to receive electrical signals from the outside. Will we someday have massive multiplayer narratives existing solely in cognitive space? Its hard to say, but technological innovation will certainly alter the way we tell our tales.
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