Mark Stephen Meadows: Pause and Effect

[Readings] (03.28.09, 4:32 pm)

Meadows addresses the question of interactive narrative from a perspective of visual arts. Meadows himself is an artist and has done a great deal of experimental work with digital media. His approach is strongly reminiscent of Barbara Stafford, and focuses on the roles of the visual and spatial in constructing narratives. The essence of narrative, in his terms, is the communication of a perspective. This approach is interesting and useful from my understanding of models as conveying a particular view and way of looking at the world. His ultimate resolution though seems to describe a spatially navigable world (with narrative environmentally embedded), which seems an anticlimax, narrowing something which could be made more broad.

My focus in looking through the book is on the first part. This is where Meadows summarizes and explains the dimensions and elements of interactive narrative most fully. The remainder of the book describes the relationship between story and image, as well as story and space. Meadows is interested in narrative extensions, particularly alternate reality games, and includes some discussion of these, but my summary does not cover these in depth.


Narrative is about conveying perspective. Traditional narrative conveys one perspective. Meadows’ goal is to expan the notion of narrative to include multiple perspectives (as seen in interactive narrative), and also to broaden the ideas of interaction design, and to emphasize the role of imagery within narrative.

Modern narratives are transmedial and multimodal, weaving text (print), image, video, web sites, games, puzzles, and so on. Meadows gives examples of magazines, television, film, commercial video games, as well as alternate reality games. Gradually, narratives come to exist in many forms and are disseminated over many forms of media. The strongest and most striking example is the alternate reality game, which is used as a form of marketing, but builds up a narrative universe that interweaves with the narrative of the marketed product. These are all described as narrative forms because they convey perspectives, but the perspectives are many and are interwoven.

There are two types of perspective: emotional and visual. These are deeply linked in our cognitive understanding of the world. The relationship between visual and emotional perspective has been explored for a long time in visual art. Meadows gives examples of renaissance painting, specifically Giotto, who obsessively explored the relationships between the perspectives of the subject of a painting and its viewer. Meadows describes Giotto’s process as heralding a “perspectivist” approach, which depicts both the dimensional and emotional perspective of a subject. This approach is dependent on the viewer’s position with respect to the painting. To capture the right moment, the viewer must physically move to the place at which it is possible to best see the work. This lends the process of finding the perspective out to the viewer. Like interactive narrative and games, this activity requires active engagement.

One of the effects of this process is that there exists one correct view of a work, a correct perspective to see, where everything will rightly fall into place. In this sense, interpretation is a regulated and moderated activity. It does entail more freedom than being simply handed a perspective, which makes the perspectivist view a revolutionary one in the face of the authority of the church. In renaissance painting, the church frowned upon unapproved and unsanctioned interpretations, making the act of interpretation a political one. In this sense, there is still a right perspective, but a conflict of power over to whom that perspective belongs.

The perspectivist approach challenges the authority of meaning and the objective interpretations. The elements of perspective are the relationships between foreground and background, context to decision, and the situatedness of artifact and meaning. These elements are common and integral to interactive narrative. Interacttive narrative, in this view, is like a painting in the sense that the reader has the capacity to navigate around it and see inside of it in different ways. This does not seem to include in great degree the internal dynamics of the artifact, though.

Meadows makes an extended argument that software and narrative follow the same rules, and that software can be understood as narrative. This is done in the context that it is authored, read, follows a plot (which in software are use case scenarios), and makes use of a set of metaphors. Meaning in software, as in narrative, is co-created. I find this argument troubling, though. Yes, connections may be legitimately darawn, but I think that it is not as useful to view software as narrative. The effects, contexts, uses, and practices surrounding narrative as compared to (arbitrary) software are incongruous and extremely different. The properties of formal structures (plot or use cases), metaphors, co creation of meaning, and so on, I would argue belongs neither to narrative or software, but are general properties of human cognition and engagement with artifacts.

Meadows describes interaction as fundamentally about communication, which is governed by three principles. The greater the depth of these, the richer and “better” the communication is. Again, this is something I find problematic because there are many kinds of communication, and not all of them aspire toward interactivity. For example, shouting to alert people in a building of an electrical fire ascribes to none of the principles of deep communication, but that does not make it less meaningful, important, or worse than a fluid conversation. The three principles are:

  1. Input / Output – Feedback and responsiveness. The depth and degrees of channels by which input and output occur with the system.
  2. Inside / Outside – Involves a linking between sign and idea. Inside denotes experience, feel, and meaning, while outside covers design, feel, and symbols.
  3. Open / Closed – An open system will come to include more via interaction, it is open toward accommodating additional state and input, and is wholly responsive. An open system should get better with use, whereas a closed system is fixed and cannot change.

There are four stages to interaction:

  1. Observation: the reader reads and understands the state of the system
  2. Exploration: the reader determines what can and cannot be done within the system, and plans an action
  3. Modification: the reader/interactor changes the system
  4. Reciprocal Change: the system makes a change on the reader (feedback?)

Meadows examines some dimensions of design concerns, and the dilemmas that interactivity poses to design. Design requires the treatment of both information and time. This involves decisions, but poses a conflict regarding the role of the author versus the interactor in constructing the narrative.

The modes of interactive narrative were heralded by the episodic story structure, which changes the modes of narration, perspectives, and identification. Episodic stories enable a shifting kind of identification, which often involves a cyclical structure, where each episode returns (at least partly) to its point of origination. This is like interactive narrative in the sense that the interaction has the capacity to return to an original state. It is a feature of all software to be resettable. Meadows gives a definition: “An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first-, second-, or third-person characters may actually be the reader. Opnion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.” (p.62)

Eventually, Meadows gives a review of several kinds of structures for interactive narratives, which may be modal, modulated, or open plot structures. These are presented as networks with nodes as decision points between them. One irritating thing about peoples’ understandings of interactive narratives is that they always involve node-graph models. These tend to almost always produce a spatial understanding and representation of the story. They convey that story is necessarily spatial. I disagree with this. Understanding decisions and paths is a property of analysis, not design. One characteristic about these designs is that they portray the narrative as soley the path or traversal along the nodes as the essential part of the narrative. While I agree that the process of navigating through the world is important, this seems to be omitting the importance of being in the world. When the plots are distinguished simply as graphs, this says that the two plots are different, and that the interpreter makes this judgment and distinction. This undercuts the value of the reader’s interpretation of the space. The reader may see there as being decisions where there may be none in the graph, or not see decisions that are in the graph. The reader may be actively forming attitudes and opinions that are not expressible within the graph structure. When decisions are spatialized, it is often represented that the story world is just a space that can be traversed, where decisions are navigational (as in the “open plot structure”, where each arrow is a double arrow). This is distressing, because if a decision may easily be undone, or if it is possible to navigate around it, then the decision is meaningless.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMeadows, M.S.
TitlePause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative
Tagsdigital media, narrative, cybertext, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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