fexpend Interactive Narrative — 21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845, Fall 2023
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21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845
Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2023

This course is a CI-M for 21W majors and CMS majors.

This tentative/draft syllabus updated September 3, 2023. Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here. September 25: The oral presentation assignment has been updated. Slides / outlines are not required beforehand. All 10% we be assessed based on your presentation. Because we have the luxury of longer presentations, you may take 10-12 minutes to present.

Instructor: Nick Montfort, in@mkcinckm.com, office: 14E-316 (the MIT Trope Tank)
Class meets in 14E-310 Wednesdays, 2pm–5pm
Office hours: 12:30pm–1:30pm Tuesdays 14E-316
Beginning 9/19, except 10/10 (student holiday) & 11/21 (out of country)
And by appointment

Attending All of the First Class is Required

Generally, attendance is required. This is not a lecture-based class. We have class meetings that are filled with discussion, activities/exercises, and the sharing of student work. There is no straightforward way to make up what we do as a community when we gather. Students definitely have to attend all of the first class to enroll or remain enrolled in the class. (The only exceptions are the standard ones: for legitimate medical reasons, religious observance, etc. — and in those cases a student still needs to at least find out what topics we covered by discussing a missed class session with a student who was there.) Until I have made an announcement that the class size is within bounds and we have finalized enrollment, anyone who elects to miss a class will not be able to stay in the course.


Books in the MIT Trope Tank. Our interactive narrative collection has software and manuals directly related to interactive narrative, along with multisequental books, sometimes called “gamebooks.” The list indicates which books are also held by the MIT Libraries. I’ll do my best to make these books available for students to read. However, I’m never able to allow my books to circulate. They have to be consulted in the MIT Trope Tank. None of these items will be available during the Hops Ahead exhibit.


Participation (Including, not limited to, Attendance)

Participating in class is necessary to respect your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community. Participation starts with physically being in the classroom for the whole class session (presence), but also includes engagement with what is happening (attendance/attention) and your willingness to respond and to initiate discussion (full participation).

Absences for medical reasons, or personal or family emergency, or religious observance, will of course be excused. In such cases a student must work with another student who participated in the session to learn, as best as is possible, about the topics covered and be ready for the next sessions. If you will be absent and can possibly let me know, please do, so I can request that a student help fill you in on what we did.


What type of substantial feedback (aside from quantitative grading along the way and a final letter grade) should you expect from me?

I will gladly provide extensive and detailed feedback when it is explicitly requested. The ideal way of getting detailed feedback is via your communication with me in office hours. For instance, if you come to office hours I’m willing to review not only your sentence-by-sentence writing, but also the code you are writing for your digital project and the design of your booklet. Based on your preliminary work for your print project, I can suggest ways to better print and bind that work. I can also explain in office hours how to approach writing a critical paper, how to prepare a presentation, and how to draft and revise interactive narrative work, giving you specific pointers based on what you have done so far. I can explain aspects of narrative theory in greater depth and suggest ways to strengthen your particular creative writing. My preference is to meet with small groups of 2–3 students at once so we can benefit from each other’s questions and perspectives, but I can also meet with you individually. Remember that you must initiate the request!

Please understand that without your individual requests, I cannot offer this set of detailed and extensive feedback routinely, on a weekly basis, to every student. Because of this, the main sorts of feedback I will provide to everyone, based on assignments, is intended to answer these questions: Do you understand the basics of narrative theory? Do you see how narrative theory offers you new possibilities as a writer? Can you identify interesting aspects of existing interactive narratives? Can you exploit the different dimensions of narrative to go beyond the most obvious possibilities in your own interactive narrative work? Are you making good use of material properties and formal possibilities in both your print and digital projects? Is your writing, especially your critical writing, in a good and appropriate style and framework given the projects you are undertaking? This is the feedback necessary for this particular subject and for a subject fulfilling the CI-M requirement.

Required Books

Narrative Theory

Throughout this course, and particularly during the first half of it, we will learn the basics of narratology, also called narrative theory, a body of thought related to narrative that is quite precise. Specifically we will be learning about what some now call a pan-narrator theory, which holds that there is always a narrator (more or less overt) for any narrative. And we will stick to a two-part story/discourse or context/expression distinction, although others such as Mieke Bal argue for three levels. One may eventually settle on a different specific narratology, but one needs to start somewhere, and I have chosen what has proved to be a very useful starting point. It facilitates our conversation and collaboration in class and allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

The basis for learning about narrative theory will be class discussion and the textbook The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. During class discussions, the instructor will be ready to answer questions and clarify all the concepts, and time will be allocated for this during each of the initial class sessions. After the very first class meeting, students need to come prepared with questions that they have, as the in-class instruction in narrative theory will be offered in response to these questions. In-class exercises, which determine part of your grade, will be required to determine your understanding of narrative theory and guide our further discussion. These exercises may seem quiz-like in many ways, but, importantly, they require you to do short amounts of creative writing. Anything we have covered in discussions or assigned readings is fair game for these.

I · Interactive Digital Narrative

We will focus on digital works, including electronic literature and games, that have 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, generates text in response, 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, along with graphical adventure games, and classic and more recent hypertext fictions — some of you may know the recent ones as “Twines.”

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. There is no particular length requirement. This paper can (and ideally should) relate to graduate student projects being undertaken outside the class.

Students are assigned to do a short (“lightning”) presentation in class on one particular interactive digital narrative that the class as a whole is not studying. Details of the assignment will be provided two weeks beforehand.

During this unit students will each create two works of electronic literature, one shorter and more structured (in Curveship) and one longer (in Twine or Inform). Creating such a work requires writing, design, and structuring; depending upon one’s choice of platform it may also require programming. (To create an Inform work, you need to program.) 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. Neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.

II · Forking Paths in Print

We’ll 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 they are hardly the limit. We will also consider other juvenile fiction books of similarly unusual structure; parodies of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books; literary works along these non-linear lines by Saporta, Queneau, Mathews, Pavić, Coover, and others — with a focus on Cortázer’s Hopscotch — and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga (mainly Meanwhile) and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book that the class as a whole is not reading, writing a paper on this book. This will require checking out such a book from MIT’s Hayden Library or a an area public library, or requesting such a book via interlibrary borrowing, or buying such a multisequential book, new or used, from an online or brick-and-mortar bookstore. Many interesting ones can be obtained for less than $10. Students 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. We study the material qualities of multisequential books, looking at how to interact with the printed and bound objects. Because of this, a PDF is not acceptable. You need a printed and bound book.

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 almost twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write a multisequential story, first in draft/prototype format and then in revised, proofread, and final form. Both of these are to be produced as a print booklet, set of cards, or other material artifact, which can be produced using ordinary office supplies and a home printer, or using a printer at MIT, or by employing the services of Copytech. As with the electronic literature projects, neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.


1 · September 6

Narrative questionnaire distributed. Students are required to complete it, right at the beginning of class, for use in class discussion. This is not a graded exercise. We will begin with discussion of this questionnaire.

Discussion of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books.

Review of the syllabus, major required readings, assignments, evaluation.

Rapid introduction to narratology and the distinction between discourse/telling and story/content.

Read and closely study for the next class 1. Narrative and Life, 2. Defining Narrative, 3. The Borders of Narrative, 4. The Rhetoric of Narrative, and 5. Closure from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

(5%) Narrative exercise covering concepts in today's lecture and discussion. Yes, there is a graded exercise (you might even consider it a quiz!) at the end of class on the first day.

2 · September 13

Discussion of several very short narratives.

Is narrative hard to define? Discussion and review of chapters 1–5 of Abbott. As will always be the case, it is students’ responsibility to bring specific questions about the readings.

Read and closely study for the next class 6. Narration, 7. Interpreting Narrative, 8. Three Ways to Interpret Narrative, 9. Adaptation across Media, and 10. Character and Self in Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

(5%) Narrative exercise, in class.

3 · September 20

Questions about chapters 6–10 from the Abbott book?

Read and closely study for class on October 4: 11. Narrative and Truth, 12. Narrative Worlds, 13. Narrative Contestation, and 14. Narrative Negotiation from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Also read the glossary of this book by Abbott. This is to make your study easier, not harder! Also, note that even though we have our last in-class exercise today, the remainder of the book is still important.

Creative Project 1, in Curveship-js, is assigned. Create a variable narrative with three (3) different narrator files (and corresponding HTML files) and no more than ten (10) events. Due October 11 at 11am.

Play Varicella (by Adam Cadre) together in class.

(5%) Narrative exercise, in class.

4 · September 27

Class visit to the Hops Ahead exhibit. Meet in 14E-316. Students should also be visiting the exhibit throughout the week to help develop presentations about interactive digital narratives!

Oral presentation on interactive digital narrative is assigned. Prepare a presentation of 10-12 minutes on a specific interactive digital narrative. Most of the works in the Hops Ahead exhibit qualify. You may also choose something else, but choose something that is clearly an interactive narrative / potential narrative and has extensive and interesting narrative aspects. Consult me about your selection today. You are highly encouraged to show the interactive digital narrative itself, the actual game, interactive video, computer program, etc., to support your presentation. You can do this with save points, using tabs, etc. Due (to be delivered in class, using your computer) October 4.

Read for the next class: “Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover.

Special Event · Tuesday · October 3

(5%) Special due date, 11am today: 20 slides in PDF format with an outline of your presentation tomorrow. The outline should be what you need to help you structure your talk; there are no formal requirements in terms of length or level of detail. It should be spelled correctly and stylistically appropriate. Because our class size is small, we will not be highly constrained and you are not required to take this step. Bring a presentation on your computer tomorrow (10/4).

Special event: Quinxun Chen and Mariana Roa Olivia will be presenting their project Seedlings_: Walk in Time, a print book that was generated by interaction with digital systems they programmed. The collaboration originated with the project Seedlings_: From Humus, an interactive visual poem and artwork done for an online exhibit at MIT. Highly recommended! 7pm–8pm, 32-141.

5 · October 4

Our main discussion of the foundations of narrative theory concludes today. Of course, we will be discussing narrative theory throughout the course as we also deal with issues of materiality, interface, expectation, riddle and solution, etc. But this will wrap up our study of the Abbott book and of the fundamentals, so bring your questions about chapters 11–14.

(10%) In-class oral presentations on interactive digital narrative. These will be done using student laptops/notebooks and can take between 10 and 12 minutes. During presentations, all students will take notes to aid their own comprehension and help their fellow students with their presentation skills.

6 · October 11

Agenda: (1) Each of us will share our Creative Project 1 in class. (2) At 3:45pm we will walk over to 32-155, where Prof. Mark C. Marino and others will be presenting at 4pm about the first significant interactive digital character, also the first chatbot. The system, ELIZA/DOCTOR, was developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s at — where else? — MIT.

(10%) Creative Project 1, in Curveship, is DUE before 11am (emailed to me as a zipfile) this day.

Creative Project 2a, in Twine or Inform, is assigned. (If you are desperate to do a project in Ren'Py, we can discuss how you may be able to limit the scope of your project and accoplish your goals.) A working draft is due October 18 at 11am. The completed project is due November 1 at 11am. Because this is a CI-M course, I’m compelled to specify a minimum word count for all of your creative projects, 1, 2, and 3: 2400 words combined.

7 · October 18

Discussion of ELIZA/DOCTOR presentation.

Workshop for Creative Project 2a.

For next week, read and solve Meanwhile.

(10%) Creative Project 2a, working draft of Twine/Inform project, is DUE before 11am this day.

8 · October 25

Discussion of Meanwhile.

Workshop for Creative Project 2a continues.

For next week, begin your reading of Hopscotch. Let’s start with “From the Other Side,” chapters 1-20 for everyone. This takes us up to p. 91. I mentioned in class that it would be good to read all of “From the Other Side,” but that seems a bit much. If you’re driven to read on, though, let’s keep our reading to the Paris part of the book, which runs through chapter 36, p. 216.

9 · November 1

Brief discussion of students’ journey from project 2a (draft stage) to project 2b (final stage).

Discussion of Hopscotch begins.

Continue reading of Hopscotch.

(15%) Creative Project 2b, in Twine or Inform, is DUE before 11am this day.

Both the Critical Report and Creative Project 3a is assigned. The Critical/Practical Report is due November 29. Stage 3a (a laid-out mock-up draft in booklet or similar form) is due along with the paper on November 29 (on paper) at the beginning of class. Bring four copies so the class can look at your draft on paper. These are assigned together because what you learn from studying a print multisequential narrative should inform you as you make a print multisequential narrative, and vice versa. The final version of this creative project, 3b, is due December 13.

The Critical/Practical Report is a detailed report focusing on a multisequential, narrative book and its relationship to your own work as an interactive narrative author, digitally and in print.. Obviously the narrative qualities and “interface” are important to discuss in detail, but so are paratexts and contexts, intertextual references, and the book’s material nature including design and production aspects. If the book has aspects of literary riddle and solution, consider those. Comparisons should be drawn to other appropriate multisequential books. You should report on how the different dimensions of your chosen multisequential book come together to create a particular effect, and how that is related to the themes and subjects of the book. Of course you need to include references in some consistent citation format. And, again, the report should discuss, throughout, how you as an author are responding to this book: What techniques in this work are you going to appropriate, extend, elabroate? Do your goals and the author’s goals differ in certain regards? Does the work you are studying have a philosophy or principles that you agree or disagree with?

Because this is a CI-M course, I’m compelled to specify a minimum word count: 1800 words. Reaching this word count in no way assures a passing grade of course.

Creative project 3 is a multisequential, narrative booklet. Because this is a CI-M course, I’m compelled to specify a minimum word count for all of your creative projects, 1, 2, and 3: 2400 words combined.

10 · November 8

Discussion of Hopscotch.

Continue your reading of Hopscotch. We will figure out different ways to explore the book to get the best collective reading experience possible, including the “Expendable Chapters,” and different reading experiences of the chapters, next time and on November 30, class 12. Details to come!

11 · November 15

Discussion of Hopscotch.

Continue your reading of Hopscotch. We will figure out different ways to explore the book to get the best collective reading experience possible, including the “Expendable Chapters,” and different reading experiences of the chapters. on November 30, class 12. Details to come!

NO CLASS on November 22. Continue reading Hopscotch and working on project 3a.

12 · November 29

Discussion of Hopscotch concludes.

Each of us will briefly discuss what we learned in writing the Critical/Practical Paper.

Workshop for Creative Project 3a. Students will get a chance to look at each others’ mock-ups.

(10%) Creative Project 3a, draft/prototype print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

(15%) The Critical Report is DUE on paper at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day. It should be printed out, arrive in class stapled, and be handed in.

13 · December 6

Workshop for Creative Project 3a continues.

14 · December 13

Each of us will share our final Creative Project 3 (“3b”) in class.

Discussion of how to publish and share work, for those who wish to do so.

(10%) Creative Project 3b, booklet-length print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day, as a completed piece of bound printed matter, brought to class. Make at least four copies: One to hand in, one to keep for yourself, and two in case you would like to offer to trade for someone else’s project or provide gifts.

Minimum Word Counts

The “minimums” should not be considered maximums. They are required by the standards for MIT’s CI-M requirement (communications intensive within a major). The minimum length may be generally suitable for the critical report. In the case of the longer creative projects, those absolute minimums may or may not suit your purposes and goals as a writer.

Facial Covering Policy

This is MIT’s policy: Face coverings are not required. Anyone in our classroom community is welcome to wear a face covering and is allowed to request that others wear a face covering.

The MIT Writing and Communication Center

MIT Writing and Communication Center offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication specialists with advanced degrees and publishing experience. The WCC can help you learn about all types of academic and professional writing and further develop your oral communication skills. You can learn more about WCC consultations and register with the online scheduler to make appointments. Please note that WCC hours are offered Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m., and fill up fast.