> classes > interactive narrative, spring 2016

21W.765J / 21L.489J / CMS.845: Interactive Narrative
MIT · Spring 2016

This course is a CI-M for Writing majors (and intended for those in the Digital Media option)


Instructor: Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom, coachmontfort on IM, 14N-233
Class meets Wednesdays, 7pm - 10pm, 14E-310
Office hours: Wednesdays, 5pm - 5:30pm and by appointment (in person or via IM)


This course does not use Stellar. Work is to be submitted on paper (in-class quizzes, critical paper, your “forking paths” story), or by email to the instructor (digital project), or by making presentations in class.


The percentages in parenthesis give the value of the quizzes and the other assignments.


You should attend class, mainly out of respect for your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community. Students are required to attend class on workshop days (when your and your fellow students’ work is being workshopped) and on days when you or your fellow students are presenting. An unexcused absence (or arriving late) on one of these days will result in a significant reduction in the grade of the corresponding presentation or project being workshopped. If a student misses any of the quizzes given during the first four classes (except for a medical reason or similar), there is no opportunity to make them up. Absences for medical reasons and the like are of course excused.

Required Books (all available at the Coop)

I · Narrative

In this unit, after a quick look at multi-sequential novels and electronic literature, we will focus on narratology (narrative theory) to gain a better understanding of the form and function of narratives. We will begin by looking at how narratology helps us understand conventional, unilinear stories. This background will be essential to our study of multisequential print narratives and electronic literature. The classroom lectures will elaborate on and help to better explain your (required) reading of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by Porter Abbott and your (required) study of A Dictionary of Narratology by Gerald Prince.

Because the goal here is to understand a body of theory better, every day will conclude with an in-class assignment, asking you to exercise some of what you have learned in writing and asking you questions about the topics. Narratology should also inform the papers that you write and projects that you do later in the semester. The in-class assignments will encourage you to learn the basics of this system of thought.

1 · February 3

“Bachelorette,” Bjork, dir. Michael Gondry

Quick exploration of multi-sequential novels that will be provided at the class meeting. Discussion of the course, its three units, the assignments and projects. Narrative questionnaire (not graded) and discussion thereof. Initial experience of The Unknown and “Continuity of Parks,” discussion.

(5%) 1st quiz. The first three in-class exercises/quizzes will count equally, 5% each, and the last will be worth 10%, for a total of 25%.

Assigned: Download and try out Curveship, particularly the “Simulated Bank Robbery.” Write your own simple, non-interactive Curveship narrative that is interesting when narrated in different ways. Read chapters 1-7 of the Abbott book for the next class; refer to Prince and bring questions about the reading. In-class exercises/quiz. Explore The Unknown further.

2 · February 10

“Let Forever Be,” Chemical Brothers, dir. Michael Gondry

Questions about the Abbott reading, Curveship. Further discussion of and mini-lectures on concepts in narratology. Sharing of student Curveship narratives. Further discussion of The Unknown.

(5%) 2nd quiz.

Assigned: Complete the Abbott book for the next class; refer to Prince and bring questions about the reading. Write two short narratives (index-card sized is fine) that deal with whatever aspects of Abbott’s discussion fascinate you most. Finally, the view of fiction I have presented in class, as requesting that we, as readers, recenter our thinking onto a fictional world, is due to Marie-Laure Ryan. To see how this perspectives relates to possible world theory, take a look at "Possible Worlds and Accessibility Relations: A Semantic Typology of Fiction" by Marie-Laure Ryan from Poetics Today, Fall 1991. (MIT certificate required.) Please read the abstract closely and at least look over the rest of the text so you can see what a scholarly contribution in narrative theory is like.

3 · February 17

Discussion of remaining concepts in the Abbott book. Short narratives (some of them videos) that relate to these concepts, in-class writing. Discussion of Marie Laure-Ryan's article.

(5%) 3rd quiz.

Assigned: Read Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Determine a single narrative (one sequence of events) of your own choosing and narrate it in two of Queneau's styles — you choose which ones.

4 · February 24

Discuss Exercises in Style. Be prepared to explain the relationship of the stories to narrative concepts. Discuss student writing based on this book.

Further narrative theory discussion and review, consideration of other short stories.

(10%) 4th quiz, concluding unit I of the class.

Assigned: Borges’s "Garden of Forking Paths." Also, read Shiga’s Meanwhile and be able to explain the beginning and how the book works; if you read it very well, you might solve it! Finally, write something toward your creative project, your multisequential story. It could be a single page, and/or just represent the first “move” a reader is to make, but should be enough so that you can see how your story “works” — how the reader is supposed to operate it and make choices.

5 · March 2

II · Forking Paths

We will study non-linear print pieces of different sorts. The books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series are probably the most famous of these, but we will also consider other juvenile fiction books of similarly unusual structure; parodies of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books such as You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero; literary works along these non-linear lines by Saporta, Queneau, Mathews, Pavić, Coover, and others; and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book, writing a paper on this book. They should also become familiar with the other books that are being studied in class, so that they can at least usefully compare their own book and the most relevant other books.

Graduate students taking the class for credit as CMS.845 are assigned to write a paper on two thoughtful selections, both of which should be thoroughly studied and compared in detail against one another and the other works being examined in class; the graduate paper will probably need to be about twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write their own creative non-linear print piece, to be proposed by email, developed, revised, and handed in during class on paper.

Small group reading of multisequential stories/novels, reports. Reading Queneau’s "Yours for the Telling / Story as You Like It" as a class, discussion of this text. Reading and discussion of a selection from Mathews’s “Trial Impressions.” Play "Infinite, Intimate." Contexts of reading, programmed instruction and antecedents. Initial thoughts on Shiga’s Meanwhile.

Instant book reports (as with our discussion of CYOA books) covering several multisequential novels. Initial selection of books as paper topics. The value of comparison.

Brief discussion of creative pieces in progress: Preliminary/draft text for creative pieces is due so that it can be discussed in today’s and next week’s workshop. Please note that workshop is not for abstract discussion of designs, ideas, forms, concepts, and so on; it is for sharing writing you have done — a rough draft, perhaps, but some sort of draft. We will respond to this writing. You may build on what you have started or develop something else for March 30, but have some sort of sketch or prototype, with some brief writing in place, to begin.

What is a workshop? In a workshop, participants read their writing aloud and demonstrate early versions of systems that they are developing. We pretend that the work offered to us in this way is our own writing or our own in-progress system, and that the the underlying goals and purposes of the author are our goals and purposes, and then we sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text, or modify the system, to better accomplish these purposes. We do not ask the participant to interpret or explain what is being expressed in his or her work — we respond, instead, to the work. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer/developer, the work, and the purposes behind the work, and will not resort to either euphemism or harshness.

Assigned: Solve Meanwhile. You will know when you've solved it. Do further work on your creative project, the multisequential story.

6 · March 9

Discussion of Shiga’s Meanwhile. Choice and destiny, comics, form and structure of multisequential books, the material qualities of books and multisequentiality.

Workshop discussion of creative pieces continues. You should bring some significant new work (revising/replacing last week’s draft or extending it).

Assigned: Complete your paper and continue work on your multisequential story creative project.

7 · March 16

(10%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear print pieces due (6 pages minimum). An excellent paper will show a thorough engagement with the chosen multisequential story and will use appropriate concepts from class readings, mini-lectures, and discussion (of narrative theory, of the materiality of texts, and otherwise) to discover one or more insights about the selected work.

Discussion of insights gained about multisequential works.

Workshop discussion of creative pieces continues.

Assigned: (for March 30) Complete your multisequential story creative project.

NO CLASS · March 23 · Spring Break

8 · March 30

(20%) Creative multisequential stories due (3 pages minimum; most will be significantly longer).Discussion of stories, papers.

III · Electronic Literature

We will focus on electronic literature that has narrative as an important component. Often, the "user" or "reader" is the one who gets to produce the narratives by interacting. A narrative electronic literature work can be a structured document that the interactor can traverse in many ways or a more complex computer program that simulates a world, accepts English input, and/or does other interesting things. Many computer and video games, including interactive fiction works (a.k.a. text adventures) are certainly in this category (although their narrative aspects may not be their most interesting ones), as are classic and more recent hypertext fictions.

Students are assigned to each give a somewhat formal presentation detailing work of electronic literature. Slides are permitted, but not required. The presentation should give the class a better understanding of the electronic literature work and lead the class through some of the more interesting aspects of it, in terms of how it works as writing and as a program or structure.

In addition to completing the other course requirements, graduate students in CMS.845 are required to submit an additional critical paper during this time that deals with electronic literature or another aspect of the course topic.

The major project for the term is to create (write and structure or program) a work of electronic literature of some sort. The choice of platform is open. Quality of writing, suitability of the structure/program and the writing to the theme, and the quality of the interface will all be factors in the final grade.

Overview of electronic literature: (Old) list of recommended interactive fiction, Façade, 253, "Concerto for Narrative Data," narratives on the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1 and the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. See also the main directories of Twine games and interactive fiction more generally. Commercial video games with important narrative aspects (e.g., Indigo Prophecy, Infocom games) and commercial hypertext fiction (e.g., Patchwork Girl, Afternoon, Victory Garden) may be chosen as a presentation/paper topic, too; I have focused here on the many works of electronic literature available for free and easily run on current computers.

Read electronic literature in groups, discuss: Varicella (scroll down), Howling Dogs. The best was to play Varicella is to download vgame.z8, download a Z-machine interpreter, and run the z8 file in the interpreter. You can play it on the Web, but save and restore are not available. Howling Dogs is made for play on the Web.

8:30pm A special guest to help us make the transition from multisequential stories (in print) to electronic literature: Andrew Plotkin, developer of the iPad edition of Meanwhile. He will present the iPad edition, discuss it, and will at least take questions related to his other digital media and interactive narrative work, such as Spider and Web, mentioned already in class.

Assigned: Read my article “Riddle Machines” about interactive fiction. Also, select an electronic literature work as the topic of your class presentation, for discussion in the next class.

9 · April 6

Students will briefy propose/share the basic idea for the electronic literature works they will present in class (beginning November 3). This just means that you’ll give the name of the piece, tell us what general form or genre it is in, and provide some similar high-level information about the piece. The point is mostly to check that you have selected a plausible platform for your general idea and to let you know who else in class is working on that platform. This will allow me (and everyone) to have an idea of what we’ll be covering. We’ll also sign up for specific presentation days.

Continue with in-class play/readings and discussion of some short electronic literature pieces.

Quick discussion (maybe interleaved with student "proposals" for projects) of electronic literature platforms, including Curveship, Inform 6 and Inform 7, Twine, and Ren'Py. I will introduce these platforms and will be able to provide some advice and help on how to use them, in class, during office hours, and by email. I will also connect students via email who are using similar platforms. Because the choice of platform is open, you should not expect our class meetings to include complete, detailed instruction in the particular platform you are interested in.

8:30pm A reading and performance of electronic literature by Todd Anderson, a.k.a. DJ Book Club, whose website looks deceptively normcore these days, at least at first. Todd is a graduate student working on digital literary art at Brown University; he is also founder and host of WordHack, a monthly event at the collective Manhattan gallery Babycastles.

Todd Anderson’s work is quite directly relevant to this unit as it is digital literary art, electronic literature, digital media in performance, and and engagement between langauge and computing. Please be aware that it is not being offered, particularly, as a model of the interactive, as narrative, or as interactive narrative. I am also inviting my "non-narrative" class The Word Made Digital which meets earlier in the day, and, if the timing of the classes were different, would have certainly invited this artist to that class instead.

Assigned: Prepare your in-class presentation. Slides of the PowerPoint ilk are not entirely prohibited, if you find it essential to explain some of the contexts that are involved and wish to use such AV. but discouraged. You are encouraged, however, to show us a running instance of your electronic literature piece. Have appropriate bookmarks/save points ready to allow you to make the points you wish to make. Also, email me with a very brief sketch of or proposal for an creative electronic literature piece. Just explain your basic idea in a sentence and describe what platform you wish to use.

10 · April 13

(15%) Oral presentation (with projection) on an electronic literature work.

First half of student presentations.

11 · April 20

Second half of student presentations.

Assigned: Bring a working version/draft/prototype of your e-lit project to the next class, not particularly complete.

12 · April 27

(10%) A working version/draft/prototype of your electronic literature (project) is due (containing 3 pages of writing minimum). Working versions need not be complete or polished, but they must be implementations of your basic concept with some significant writing in place. They are to be shown to the instructor (at least) in class.

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

Assigned: Continue work on your creative e-lit project.

13 · May 4

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project.

For part of the class we will have a workshop on materiality and digital media in the Trope Tank, 14N-233. We will relocate there after meeting in 14E-310.

Assigned: Complete your creative e-lit project.

14 · May 11

(20%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due (containing 6 pages minimum of writing). Brief final presentations of each project in class, emphasizing how your perspective and ideas chaged as you developed your project. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will join us.

    Note: Minimum Page Information

The “minimums” are not suggested lengths for papers and creative projects. They are the absolute minimums as required by the standards for MIT’s CI (communications intensive) requirement in the major. In some cases, those absolute minimums may actually suit your purposes and goals as a writer, but in others, you will probably want to write more. For instance, a three-page multisequential story would be very short in most case, but if you develop a story in which numerous short texts can be recombined in a number of interesting ways, three pages of writing may be adequate to your purposes, and would satisfy the assignment.

    Standard MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism — use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement — is a serious offense. It is the policy of the CMS/W Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center (E39-115) and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.

    Note: The Writing & Communication Center

The WCC at MIT (Writing and Communication Center) offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts (MIT lecturers who all have advanced degrees and who are all are published writers). The WCC works with undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs.

The WCC helps you strategize about all types of academic and professional writing as well as about all aspects of oral presentations (including practicing your presentations & designing slides). No matter what department or discipline you are in, we help you think your way more deeply into your topic, help you strategize to convey your message more effectively to particular audiences, help you polish your style, and help you see new implications in your data, research and ideas. The WCC also helps with everything from understanding genre conventions to analyzing what particular journals require. We also help with all English as Second Language issues, from writing and grammar to pronunciation and conversation practice.

The WCC is located in Kendall Square (E39-115, 55 Hayward Street, around the corner from Rebecca’s Cafe). To register with our online scheduler and to make appointments, go to . To access the WCC’s many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations, go to . The Center’s core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening hours vary by semester–check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.