Hypertext '08 Poster Presentation: Charlie Hargood, A Thematic Model for Narrative Generation

Because I’m unfamiliar with the poster paper genre, my own textual bias made me want to read all the text on the poster before I was ready to listen to the presenter’s explanation.   A couple times I had to tell the eager presenter to give me a minute to take in all the information before they started talking.

One poster I had no trouble understanding at a glance was Charlie Hargood’s poster on his narrative generation project. Themes, motifs, connotation, denotation — this is familiar language about storytelling, presenting in the context of a model for generating rich narrative.

At yesterday’s workshop, Chris Crawford dismissed the idea that an interactive narrative should be judged on anything other than its interactive depth; if you want literary richness, then read a book.   I would have like to hear Chris and Charlie discuss their differing approaches to the same problem. (Charlie says he was attending a different workshop yesterday.)

The core I took away from Charlie’s presentation (which is a proposed model, rather than a working demo or a finished product), was his term “natom” for “narrative atom.” In the past I have referred to the interactivity of a text-adventure game as a more-finely grained than a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, and “natom” is a wonderfully evocative term for each individual grain.  Charlie’s model includes tagging each “natom” according to its “features,” using the tagged features to denote “motifs,” and presenting “themes” as connoted by these “motifs” (as well as by other themes).

Since my approach to interactive narrative is so thoroughly colored by my knowledge of interactive fiction, I couldn’t help but point Charlie to the “recipe book” that’s part of the Inform 7 design environment. That recipe book includes about 200 examples, most of which were written by Emily Short, that present the code for such concepts as “a person who can be in love with exactly one other person at a time” or “a telephone that lets people talk to and hear characters in distant rooms.”  The IF community has done a lot of tagging and sorting of the corpus of IF works, and I wonder if IF would be a good testing ground for his world-building model. Can his model accurately represent the kinds of stories IF authors have generated?

At any rate, I gave Charlie some pointers for learning about the theoretical and critical output of the IF community.