A Review of Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative
- Meadows, Mark. Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative.
Indianapolis: New Riders, 2002.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
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
•"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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.