book review

Pause & Effect
The art of interactive narrative

Mark Stephen Meadows (2003)

Pause & Effect is a beautiful book. Definitely the most visual work on the subject of interactive narrative I have ever encountered. From its almost baroque design it immediately becomes clear that Meadows has a multidisciplinary background that among other things has seen him working as a game-designer, photographer, portrait painter and writer. Clearly, this multifaceted approach is the book biggest asset, as Meadows, rightly so, positions interactive narrative on the intersection of literature, visual art and interaction design. In his view, a successful interactive narrative finds a way to transfer some of the traditional control of the author over the story to the reader who must be able to "affect, choose or change the plot". Control over the perspective and time are important to evolve normal stories with its fixed chains of cause and effect, to a new level. And with a new underlying temporal structure of 'pause and effect'.

We should be patient, however, the new art-form of interactive narrative will not blossom over night. It took literature several millennia to evolve from its epic (with its base and violent interaction between characters) beginnings to the current intricate form, with all its depth and reflections. Most video games (the most popular example of interactive narratives) are still in the initial cycle of development, although some games hint at the next step in the is evolution after only thirty years of development.

To me the best parts of the book are the first 'dimension' (or chapter) which explains Meadow's theory of interactive narrative and the interviews that conclude the second and third dimensions. Meadows interviews the creators of some very good and important examples of existing interactive narratives. These people have many profound things to say, and it becomes clear that they were a main source of inspiration to the general theoretical framework of Pause & Effect. But close inspection of these interviews also highlights what I think is a weakness in Meadow's work.

The possible structures that interactive narratives can use play an important role in both the theory and the interviews. Meadows presents three basic structures (the nodal plot, the modular plot and the open plot) which can all be diagrammed as networks of nodes and connections. I understand that these nodes some how represent story-points, events or scenes and the connections possible routes or reader choices. This reduces interactive narrative to a rather discrete network of possibilities, whereas interviewees stress the fact interactive narrative should move beyond discrete plot trees and to more analogous story worlds or simulations. Such worlds cannot be expressed in these diagrams, rather these are expressed in rules of simulation and rules of interaction. This approach will more easily incorporate procedural or algorithmical production of interactive narrative. This is (and I am confindent that Meadows agrees on this point) where the future of interactive narrative lies.

The second weakness in the book is related to its interdisciplinary quality. Though Meadow’s study is informed, it is not always as clear as I would want it to be. The many images are exemplary in this respect. The link with the text is not always apparent. In sometimes they are just illustrations, at other times they could be more integral to the argument of the text. But without captions and direct textual references you can never be sure. Many technical terms that come different art genres are taken for granted, as if Meadow’s assumes his reader is as well-versed as he is in the arts of painting, illustration, writing and cinema. Sometimes technical terms have very different meanings in these different areas and I am not always sure which particular connotation is the correct one. Worse, I doubt that technical terms can be as easily transferred between the different media as Meadows does. Especially his discussion of 3D perspective seems to suffer from this a little.

Still, Pause & Effect is an important work. Its discussion on the use of time and perspective as important tools or structures for interactive narrative remain valid. Meadows multidisciplinary, eloquent and intelligent perspective is a valuable contribution to the emerging field of interactive narrative. I do not expect the "holy grail" of interactive narrative to be conquered anytime soon, and will not chastise every knight that does not return with the ultimate prize from his explorations. After all, as with any quest it is the journey that counts more than anything else, and as Meadows reminds us on the last page of his book "This is, as you can see, just the beginning". What fun would remain otherwise?