5.2. Active emergent narrative

Some of the key features of native digital narrative structures mentioned earlier have the potential for systems-based generation, multiple outcomes, computation and multi-user input (Louchart and Aylett 2004). Foremost of these is the ability for computational systems to support a narrative structure that is emergent from that system. Emergence reflects Aristotle's (1994, 1045a-10) metaphysical argument: 'the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts'. For a narrative to be emergent the resulting outcome must be beyond the pure text written by an author, beyond the level of organisation, beyond the rules that govern how the system is organised alone. Thus, for emergence to be in operation with regard to narrative, it must be populated by the system according to rules that are not reducible back to the rules themselves, or alternatively, to be populated by content generated by the users that can then be reflexively embedded into the systemic narrative through its digital structures (Louchart and Aylett 2004). While it is possible for an emergent narrative to be passive (i.e. controlled by a system), the example given here leverages audience interaction to facilitate the ongoing narrative. An example of this structure can be seen in Figure 7.

Figure 7
Figure 7: A GIF demonstrating active emergent narrative as facilitated through a system. In this example the audience enters the narrative structure by means of a fixed node, then through interaction with a computational system the remainder of the narrative is proliferated.

The Clifford's Tower: Voices prototype was developed by Copplestone et al. (2015) as part of a Master's module in heritage interpretation. The project took place in an immersive cave room, which projected a 3D reconstruction of a chronological journey onto the four walls alongside a narrative that aimed to demonstrate how the tower had been associated with a huge array of experiences, emotions, activities and outcomes over time, and how audiences' interpretations and experiences now interrelate and continue that lineage. It leveraged a systems-based approach with the aim of supporting an emergent narrative across its iterations. An initial, introductory series of fixed narrative nodes were established around the chronology of the tower; in each of these fixed nodes a digital narrator presented the dates and key points associated with archaeological evidence from the area. Following on from this the audience's ideas and experiences (gathered through a linked application) were designed to be used as a method to inform and generate the narratives presented by live actors, as well as the final digital elements which displayed a collage of the audience's experiences, ideas and thoughts. A still image, rendered in 2D, can be seen in Figure 8.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Screenshot taken from the first narrative node in which the tower is introduced to the audience. The image is wrapped around four screens with the audience standing in the middle of the application.

The static nodes created the superstructure for the narrative while the digital application, computational interfacing into the experience, and the live-actors' adaptations created a system by which audience interaction produced emergent narrative elements. To this end, it was planned that the core narrative, derived from archaeological investigation, should remain intact across performances. The audience and the experts were afforded the chance to contribute to the overall exhibition, while also interpreting the exhibition. Thus, experts, audience and the exhibit inform each other, making the piece an active experience. In other words, part of the narrative about the Tower was emergent (though still structured and informed by the surrounding context) from the audience's active participation with the application - across different audiences and iterations - rather than via their navigation through a predetermined set of narrative nodes. By structuring the narrative in this way it was possible to thread together the physical archaeological evidence at the site, established archaeological interpretations by experts, interpretations of fleeting human stories, and finally a collage of the audience's ideas and experiences (both modern and interpretative) of the site. An image demonstrating the interpolation of a selection of different 'voices' contributed by the audience can be seen in Figure 9.

Figure 9
Figure 9: A GIF demonstrating some of the emergent narratives included in the collage section at the end of the project. These narrative nodes were also planned to be interpolated into the performances by live actors.

Though the outcome only ran for one performance, the digital system that interfaced between the performers, the visualisation and the application used by the audience, was designed to log and map responses (both other audience perspectives and statements from expert sources). To this end each narrative pathway generated by the system would be informed by the links and networks that related interpretations, comments, artefacts and data. This system-generated narrative could create pathways, for example, that pulled all the different audience ideas about how it might have felt to inhabit the Tower during the 13th century, and align those against database images, reconstructions or a variety of expert interpretations - allowing a space for multivocality and discussion to manifest.

This case study emphasises the abilities of digital media to collate, present and inform audience participation in real time, for the system to draw from prior instances or networks, and for the system to construct and display the emergent narratives immediately. This improves upon the practice of leveraging audience participation, such as in certain theatrical (Aarseth 1997, 10) or museum exhibits (Caulton 1998), to alter narrative nodes. Within Clifford's Tower: Voices audience participation is facilitated through the affordances embedded in the digital technologies (Bateman 2000; Beale and Reilly this issue). The system sets a framework using the set narrative nodes, interpolating audience participation to generate new ways of approaching and delivering the narrative. To this end, the narrative progression in any given run of Clifford's Tower: Voices is entwined with the audience (past and present) and the system that interpolates and serves the nodes during runtime; thus the digital resources allow the narrative that is produced to be multivocal, dynamic and reflexive in its structure, rather than just in its explanation.


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