A Review of Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative

by Sean Fenty

  1. Mark Meadows’ Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative is a beautiful book, more at place on a coffee table than a bookcase. One could argue that a book created with so few design restrictions would be needlessly costly, but this is certainly not the case here. Pause & Effect benefits not only from its many full-color photos, graphic reproductions, and illustrations, but also from the freedom Meadows had to lay out these images with the text on the page, creating effects more typically seen on complex web pages than in traditional print books. Although it is tempting, in an academic review, to dismiss these elements as superfluous bells and whistles and try to separate them from the “meat” of the work—the ideas being presented—this really is not possible with this book. From the Use-Case Scenario flow charts to the flipbook narrative that appears in the upper corners of the book and the related comic cell narrative that runs five panels to a page along the bottom of the book, Meadows is both telling us how interactive narrative “combines traditional narrative with visual art and interactivity” and showing us how these insights can be implemented in print (2).
  2. The careful way Meadows uses the design of his book to illustrate his points reflects his impressive work-history as someone with extensive web, environment, character, and graphic design experience culminating in his appointment as Artist-In-Residence doing research on reading and interactivity at Xerox-PARC. In fact, Meadows says that such a broad background is a prerequisite in a field as multidimensional as interactive narrative design: “[t]he best interactive narrative designers need at least a cursory familiarity with interface design, graphic design, interaction design, and information design... [as well as] story structure, graphic composition, animation, camera cuts, lighting effects, and the knowledge of the thread of technology that weaves these together” (216). Because Meadows believes that understanding the art of interactive narrative requires familiarity with such a wide range of principles, he attempts to cover an ambitious amount of information in Pause & Effect. This would be challenging enough if Pause & Effect was exclusively an introductory “how-to” book for would-be interactive narrative designers, but the book, as Meadows says in his preface, “is designed for anyone interested in narrative art forms” (xiii). Therefore, Meadows is engaging a general audience, and does not assume any pre-existing knowledge in the field. While such a broad approach may be good for sales figures, it is not without its costs. His writing, while always refreshingly clear, is at times overly simplistic, leaving many of the good ideas he puts forth insufficiently fleshed out. Meadows attempts to compensate for this limitation by incorporating interviews and case studies that give the reader alternate viewpoints about the production of interactive narrative. The incorporation of complementary and sometimes conflicting viewpoints from important creators of interactive content adds depth to the work, making it more interesting to the general reader and more credible as a design “how-to” book.
  3. The book, taken as a whole, offers a layered approach to learning about interactive narrative. Meadows compares interactive narrative design to architecture and like an architect, he designed his book from the ground up, layering information on top of an essential foundation of general theories of narrative, visual representation, and interactivity. He divides the book into four parts:
    •"Theory & Principle" establishes the basics of the rest of the book, laying out brief explanations of the key terms of the text—perspective, narrative, and interaction. It is here that Meadows gives us his definition of interactive narrative as “a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot” (62).
    •"The Second Dimension" further lays out the elements of all visual narrative with a focus on two-dimensional visual representations and with examples as diverse as 13th-century artwork and video games such as Turok Evolution and Star Wars Rogue Squadron.
    •"The Third Dimension" expands the notion of the image into three dimensions and shifts the metaphor of author as painter to author as architect, complicating previously discussed notions of time and space in interactive environments.
    •"Development & Practice" gives direct advice to designers and programmers for creating effective interactive narratives.
    Each part is subdivided into sections on Perspective, Narrative, Interaction, and finally Examples and Interviews and/or Summaries. Each section is broken down into very brief, but still useful sentence outlines in the table of contents. The book’s textbook-like design makes it very accessible and the repeating section titles reinforce the key concepts Meadows addresses and their relationship to each other across time and media.
  4. The basic claims of the book are easy to understand. The book assumes that an author can combine narrative and interactivity and claims that the development of imagery in the Western tradition gives us crucial insights into how this process should work. Meadows’ approach is to bring together traditional concepts of narrative construction, two-dimensional and three-dimensional art creation, and interactive systems design in a way that defines the role of the author in the new art form of interactive narrative design. In doing so, he is stretching traditional modes of thinking about narrative, visual art, and interaction design, but ties together these fields by what they share—perspective. If Pause & Effect can be said to have a linchpin, it is the concept of perspective. Meadows states in the first sentence of the introduction that “[a]uthors have one thing in common: They have a perspective to convey” (2). He goes so far as to say that “this is why narrative exists: to convey perspective” (2). Echoing the sentiments of Jean-François Lyotard (though without citing or mentioning him), Meadows reminds us that the word narrative comes from a Latin form of the verb “to know,” but none of us knows everything, and the sort of knowledge narrative provides is a subjective knowledge (5).
  5. Perspective is the critical characteristic of narrative, but it is also the critical characteristic of the visual arts, and of digital interactivity. All of these fields “allow information to be understood from multiple perspectives.” Meadows connects how this is traditionally done in these fields and establishes that interactive narrative, in combining these fields, also relies heavily on perspective. But the role of perspective changes in an interactive narrative, because the roles of the author and reader change (2). He likens this new, hybrid process of authorship to architecture in that the author of an interactive narrative is striving to provide an environment in which the readers can explore or even create the story paths for themselves. This process can happen in various visual media, from a comic book to a video game, but the principles of good interactive narrative design, while varying from medium to medium, are fundamentally the same. To understand these principles, Meadows reiterates again that one must have a broad knowledge base. One must understand how traditional narrative works, how interaction works, and how the visual arts work. The book is, in large part, a product of culling the basic principles from these fields and adapting these principles to an art form uniquely dependent on the reader.
  6. Meadows lays out all of these arguments very clearly, giving his readers useful background information and examples to illustrate his points. He also, in a style similar to a self-help guru, breaks down complicated concepts into easily remembered components or steps, such as his “Four Steps of Interaction”: 1) Observe; 2) Explore; 3) Modify; and 4) Change, or his “Three Different Structures of Interactive Narrative”: 1) Nodal Plot Structure; 2) Modulated Plot Structure; and 3) Open Plot Structure. Although this structure overly simplifies complicated processes at times, it is still admittedly useful for a book that is trying to be a practical guide as much as it is an academic exercise.
  7. Even keeping Meadows' aims in mind, however, warrants some criticism about just how broad and introductory he sometimes is in the text. While a general reader, new to concepts of narrative and interactivity, will appreciate Meadows' approach, even novices will, at times, feel insulted by just how little Meadows assumes we know, and those well versed in the debates surrounding the contentious and provocative term interactive narrative will be surprised and disappointed by the fact that Meadows does not address the term as problematic at all. He completely side steps all of the current issues of the problematic nature of the desirability of merging interactivity and narrative in general and in games and stories in particular. The narratology versus ludology debate that continues to rage on blogs such as Grand Text Auto, online journals such as Games Studies, and essay collections such as First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game gets no mention in Pause & Effect, nor do any of the major players in this debate such as Espen Aarseth and Marie-Laure Ryan. Perhaps this omission is because Meadows does not want to get bogged down in academic debates over ontology and taxonomy, which he may deem worthless and unproductive. It is a forgivable move considering the breadth of his work and how much he must leave out as it is. Nonetheless, these omissions are frustrating to those of us who would very much like to know how Meadows would answer the criticism levied against the term interactive narrative and some of the practices Meadows preaches.
  8. While he chooses not to acknowledge it in Pause & Effect, interactive narrative is at the center of heated interdisciplinary debates, and the bold move to so utterly dismiss these debates as to not even acknowledge their existence leaves one with all sorts of questions about how he would respond to potential criticism from within this hotbed of discussion. For instance, his concept of narrative, rooted in the Aristotelian notion of a dramatic arc and Freytag’s expansion on this concept in his triangle of rising and falling action works well in the context of his discussions, but one is left wondering how Meadows would respond to critics who might claim that his representation of narrative is often simplistic and dated and his definition of interactive narrative is overly broad and inclusive. Meadows does an excellent job in establishing a particular historical context for interactive narrative design—his own perspective so to speak—and provides great interviews with friends that are well-respected creators of interactive content, but he does not provide a contemporary critical context for his work, leaving the impression that his perspective is the only one available.
  9. Yet despite these omissions, Pause & Effect is a remarkably ambitious and impressive work. It is not a perfect work, or a complete work, but it is still a must-read for anyone interested in the narrative aspect of games, or new media in general. While the text is sometimes overly broad and too much space is wasted covering ground many of us have explored on our own, the complete package is still an impressive collection of ideas and practical advice giving us insight into the creative process of many great minds, including Meadows himself. It is a beautifully designed text that encourages readings at multiple levels, filled with fantastic illustrations and examples. The case studies alone, found in the Examples and Interviews sections of Parts 2 and 3, make it worth notice. Meadows, in a way only an insider could, conducts over a dozen interviews with important authors as diverse as famous comics scholar Scott McCloud, one of the inventors of virtual architecture, Marcos Novak, and the author of a project called Crutch, Mark Meadows himself (yes, he has a case study interview where he asks himself questions, tongue firmly in cheek). These interviews are for the most part unedited and give us complementary perspectives into the creative processes of interactive design and implementation. Other authors interviewed are from projects including the online multiplayer game Ultima Online, the internet game community Cloudmakers, the online world Banja, and the video game Deus Ex 2. Many of these examples highlight interactive narrative experiences not often discussed in game studies and add to the current discussions of the tension between games and stories, even if Meadows does not want to actively enter into these dialogues.