Book Review: Pause and Effect – the art of interactive narrative
Looking at the title of Mark Stephen-Meadows’ book, Pause and Effect – the art of interactive narrative, one might think that it revolves around video games as an interactive narrative medium; after all, the term ‘pause’ is one that is traditionally related to video games. However, this manifesto on interactive narrative deals not only with video games, but with all forms of narrative, focusing on interactive narrative, which makes it an ideal read for anyone interested in theoretical aspects of narrative. The book is divided into four sections: Theory and Principle, Imagery and Perspective, Space and Architecture, and Development and Practice.
In the first chapter, Meadows discourses about the history of narrative and how it has changed. He talks of how traditionally narrative was linear. This is because language, both spoken as well as written, are linear, therefore, so was the narrative that spawned from them. However, as narrative has shifted into more visual medium, narrative has become more and more nonlinear. Stephen-Meadows talks about the different definitions of narrative, and also presents the reader with the potential of narrative in emerging media types, such as computer software and video games. The best arguments in this section are Stephen-Meadows’ definitions of narrative. From defining interactive narrative as “a narrative form that allows someone other than the author to affect, choose, or change the plot” (Stephen-Meadows, 2003, 2) to “an emerging art that borrows from multiple disciplines” (Stephen-Meadows, 2003, 67), Stephen-Meadows covers all possible definitions of interactive narrative as well as gives examples for each form.
The second chapter focuses on points of views. Event though the author also discourses on line of sight, visualization, and interactivity, the true merits of this chapter are found in the sections that discourse perspective. This chapter offers a historical analysis of perspective and point of view, including the evolution and the modern perspectives on narrative. Stephen-Meadows writes how in modern narrative there are three points of view, and gives examples using contemporary video games, which are “some of the highest forms of interactive narrative possible” (Stephen-Meadows, 2003, 238). The author talks about how first person interactive narrative is best depicted in games like Doom and Halo, while second person interactive narrative can be best defined using Dungeons and Dragons as an example, and third person narrative involves games like Civilization. Using games as primary examples of the different types of narrative shows that games are, indeed, important forms of interactive narrative, and, perhaps, even the next step in the evolutionary life of narrative.
The third chapter deals with architecture and its role within interactive narrative. Of all the chapters in the book, this is the least convincing. It is common knowledge that in narratives of any kind, setting is set as part of the plot as well as an invisible limitator. In interactive forms of media like video games this is no different. Designers place buildings, walls, and barricades in order to prevent the player from accessing certain points in the narrative that they should not be exposed to yet. However, to say that in any type of media the architecture is considered as narrator is a bit of a stretch. In interactive media, the unseen narrator is whomever developed the story, the architecture of the designed world is nothing more than a means of telling the story, a sort of storytelling device very much like tone or pitch in the oral narrative tradition or like voice in written narrative tradition. Still, with the exception of a few loose statements, this chapter, just like the rest of his work, is an insightful look at the topic it discusses.
Even though the fourth, and final, chapter of the book is titled Development and Practice, the chapter works more as a wrapping-up of everything discussed in the book instead of as a discussion on the development of interactive narrative. Even though Stephen-Meadows does write about system design, what truly stands out in this chapter is the discussion on how character roles combine literacy, visual, and interactive perspectives . His discussion on how interactive media is a hybrid genre of other narrative mediums and his historical analysis of traditional narrative versus interactive narrative are also well done and highly agreeable statements. One of his more controversial statements in his conclusion is that “contemporary video games represent the ‘Epic’ stages of interactive narrative” (Stephen-Meadows, 2003, 238). Stephen-Meadows compares contemporary video games such as GTA4, Oblivion, Halo, and Final Fantasy, which are, to him, the ‘Epic’ stages of interactive narrative, to Gilgamesh, The Illiad, and Beowulf from the ‘Epic’ stages of traditional narrative
In the end, Pause and Effect is an amazing work regarding narrative. Anyone who is interested in any of the various styles of narrative, interactive or otherwise, is sure to find this book a solid addition to their library.