Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Thoughts on Koenitz's "Understanding Interactive Digital Narrative"

Harmut Koenitz's latest book, Understanding Interactive Digital Narrative, quickly establishes itself as being postmodern and political. I am grateful for his overt framing, although significant portions of the book contradict the tenets of moral relativism and subjective truth, as I will discuss below. Whether populism truly is a "cancer" that only leads to violence and trouble does not come up again in the text beyond the introduction.

A primary contribution of the book is Koenitz's System-Process-Product (SPP) model for analyzing interactive digital narrative (IDN). SPP recognizes that the system is created by the developers, that it is reified through a process of user interaction, and that this results in a product, which can be the discourse about the experience or a recording thereof. SPP includes a "triple hermeneutic" that users would bring to the experience, recognizing the interpretation of possibilities for interaction, the interpretation of instantiated narrative, and the reflection on prior traversals, which entails using memory from prior traversals. The explanation of SPP draws explicitly on familiar concepts from object-oriented software development, describing how IDN systems are instantiated through interaction as being like how objects are instantiated from classes. I remain surprised that this model would be considered revolutionary since it is exactly how any reasonable game developer would think of their work: design ideas are captured in code and assets; the player interacts with the dynamic system; and as a result of that experience, players can talk about it or share their playthrough.

Koenitz brings up the cautionary tale of Microsoft's Tay, the chatbot that was taken down after only 16 hours due to its absorbing and then repeating racist content. In a book that is otherwise about the boundless potential of IDN, the author here exhorts the reader that there must be protections in place to prevent IDN from exhibiting such behavior. This reveals a significant gap in his analytical model. SPP has no affordance to talk about morals and ethics outside of a participant's or scholar's subjective interpretations. The analytical framework in the text lacks the epistemological power to claim that any player activity is ethical or unethical. The claim that some interactions are universally unethical reveals that the author is using a different interpretive lens than the one he describes.

I appreciate his lengthy treatment of the narratology vs. ludology wars and its numerous references. I transitioned into games scholarship when this conversation was cooling. Koenitz's claims that the ludologists' primary mistake was narrative fundamentalism. Because they believe in only one kind of narrative, they misunderstood the narratologists, who had special knowledge of the avant-garde and multiplicity of narrative forms. I am not conversant enough in this literature to support nor critique his arguments, but the unyielding insistence that the opposition has no merit leaves me wanting to hear a bit more from the other side.

The book includes a discussion of the interpretation of Bandersnatch. He explains how interactors have created different mappings of this IDN's formal structure based on their experience, pointing out that none of them are "the structure of Bandersnatch" but rather are each "an interpretation of the structure of Bandersnatch." He also claims, however, that "unless the original design documentation is released, we cannot be sure, and therefore different interpretations of the underlying structure exist." 

Two things struck me about this claim. The first is that he presumes the existence of an authoritative and correct "original design documentation." This seems like the same fallacy that desires design bibles in games and BDUF in software development. My experience is that there may be some original design documentation but that the design-as-such is only definitively manifested in the system. Anything that specifies the possible player experiences at the fidelity matching actual player experience is homologous to the system itself. (Incidentally, one of the reasons most of my projects are released as open source is to allow the curious to study the actual system and not just interpretations of it.)

Second, there is a contradiction inherent in defending the recognition that Bandersnatch has a structure and that all interpretations are valid. He states that the differences in mappings "do not mean that any of these interpretations are wrong in absolute terms, but rather that we need to be aware of their epistemological status as post-factum interpretations." How can the interpretations not be wrong and yet the difference in interpretations be contingent upon the original design documentation not being released? That is, there is an implicit acknowledgement that there is an absolute and authoritative structure, and that these interpretations are approximations of it, such that if one had the former, some of the latter could be shown to be wrong. It is possible that a commitment to postmodernism requires one to admit the viability of demonstrably-wrong structural interpretations, but if that's the argument here, it's awfully subtle. If there is a difference between someone's structural analysis of Bandersnatch and its actual structure, then that means that it can be demonstrated with formal analysis or automated tests. I would call that interpretation of the structure "wrong." Aside from this engineering-design perspective, one can see the problem from the lens of constructivism: the interpretation yields a non-viable mental model because it makes incorrect observations about the world. It reminds me of Koster's point about Monopoly: you can use house rules all you want, but you have to acknowledge that you're playing a different game with the same pieces. If someone's model of Bandersnatch leads to contradictions against the actual thing, then it's either wrong or it's a model of something that doesn't exist.

Koenitz uses a cooking analogy to distinguishing between the prescription of a recipe (a specification) and the description of food (a product of the experience). It's a reasonable metaphor, but here is where also writes, "Far too long have we tried to learn how to cook from descriptions of finished meals." There is no referent for "we," but I don't consider myself included. When I decided I wanted to get better at making games, I didn't turn to descriptions of games: I turned to the writings of people who talk about why and how to make games. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how one could expect to get better at any art form by only looking at descriptions of experiences of that art form. Who is "we" then? He must mean "my community of IDN designers."

The penultimate section of the book provides advice on how to design IDNs. It is what any seasoned designer would expect, and it repeats what has been documented in countless books on video game design: specify goals, create prototypes of increasing fidelity, produce the software, and test. This is the conventional production process that has been talked about in games since at least Cerny's Method talk in 2002 and well before that in user-centered design. The approach is so well established that it allows scholars like me to interrogate it to determine where agile software development methods can improve it.

Reading Understanding Interactive Digital Narratives helped me understand both IDN and the community of IDN scholars. I learned some new ideas from it that will certainly be helpful in my thinking and writing, including narrative fundamentalism, narrative ambivalence, and the cognitive turn in narratology. I applaud Koenitz for his insistence that precise definitions of words like "story" and "narrative" are necessary and that lazy or colloquial use holds back progress. Indeed, I respect that he doesn't insist that people use his definitions necessarily, but that one has to define their terms in order to ensure that they are understood. I believe the SPP model will provide a useful starting point for learners who wish to analyze IDNs, including games, especially those learners who don't have a background in systems design. However, for my students who want to get better at writing for games, I will continue to recommend Bateman's collection.

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