Dissimulations

Forking Paths and Synthetic Spaces

In his short story Garden of Forking Paths [2], Borges imagines a novel in which the path of the story splits, where all things are conceivable, and all things take place. The author of this story within a story is judged insane and commits suicide, and Borges’ narrator is arrested and condemned to death - thus the fate of the narrator and of the author in the interactive era is prefigured. It is not hard to see how the task of writing interactively might drive an author to insanity and suicide. To write not simply an account of what happened but a whole series of ‘what-ifs’ increases both the volume and complexity of an author's task exponentially. And if the reader chooses his or her own pathway through the story then the narrator - or director - can be done away with; in effect the function and authority of authorship is usurped by the reader. The ability to shout ‘cut’ or to make a gun go off, or to develop the action in a particular direction is no longer the unique perrogative of an omnipotent author but is partially devolved to the audience.

Interactivity implies forking paths and each pathway must be written and fitted together. The greater the number of pathways, the greater the sense of textual play for the reader, and the greater the amount of work for the writer. The volume of story web increases exponentially with additional points of interaction. An author is faced with an inevitable and depressing tradeoff - sacrificing time spent on the texture of the narrative, its literary or cinematic qualities, for an enhanced interactive complexity. The result can be interactive but schematic, resembling the outline of a story rather than the story itself.

How much interactivity does it take to make an interactive story? We don’t know because we don’t know what an interactive story is like, nor what it is for (more on this in a moment). It is true that the number and complexity of forking paths could be increased until the reader experiences a large degree of freedom and control within the text. The limits of this freedom are achieved within a model that dispenses with the network of lines altogether, replacing it with a fictional space within which readers can turn left or right, look up or look down, open a door, enter a room, at any time they choose - a spatio-temporal simulation which can generate a travelling point of view in real time, more commonly known as virtual reality or VR. In the VR model, although the reader/spectator enjoys seamless temporal and spatial liberty, the tradeoff between interactivity and richness of content holds true. VR to date has barely been able to dress the set, let alone cry ‘action’, or murmur ‘once upon a time’.

If the sheer complexity of building an interactive narrative is problematic at the technical level, there is another simpler and deeper problem. This is the question of what kind of representation an interactive representation is, if you like, the question of ontology. The change from a linear model to a multi-linear or spatio-temporal(VR) model is more than just the change from a simple line to a more complex diagram or model; it involves moving from one kind of representation - and one form of spectatorship - to another.

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