Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Computational Narrative

What's the intersection of narrative and software? Narrative -- the ancient idea that stories are structured by elements such as protagonist, conflict, the Aristotelian three-act structure, or the Campbellian Hero's Journey -- would on its face seem to have little to do with software. But I think there's great potential to combine the two and see what comes out. This could be applied in many ways:

Can computers create narrative? There have been lots of experiments with computers creating various arts: painting, poetry, text. If something like the Three-Act Structure or the Hero's Journey is really a template, then is it possible to program a computer to fill in that template in a way that is still original? It's clearly possible to write a program that produces one of a finite set of options, but even a tightly constrained template like the Hollywood Three-Act Structure can support infinite stories (not that you'd know, but that's another
rant).

Can narrative be a part of the user interface? We grow up on narrative; almost everything we encounter is in some way a tiny story of a protagonist achieving an important goal over difficult odds. News stories, commercials, books, movies, all media are saturated with it. In contrast, our user interface experience is deathly dull, a monotony of stimulus and response. If it felt more like the Hero's Journey, perhaps it would be more compelling, and indeed more intuitive since we can all speak this language.

Can software support narrative? Online games like Ultima Online or Everquest are all the rage, but as far as I can tell from the outside (I've never played them), they are sadly lacking in true narrative. They do seem to have a sort of stunted conflict: you go out, you camp, you kill a monster, but that's hardly satisfying on a deep level. I'm not necessarily talking about computer-created narratives, although clearly for massively multiplayer games you need some sort of computational intervention, but simply the idea that software can be a narrative medium as powerful as film or television. Indeed, it has the potential to be much more so, as it is so much more customized, interactive, immersive, and social. So why are the narrative options offered so paltry?