5.1. Active multilinear nodal narrative

Active multilinear narrative describes a structure in which the audience takes decisions that subsequently determine the direction in which a story can unfold and potentially the ultimate ending (Pinchbeck 2007). The active aspect of the narrative structure refers to the necessity for the audience to take part in the media form in order to progress through the various states and nodes. Additionally, the multilinear nodal aspect of the structure refers to the potential for the actions of the audience to drive their given narrative down a multitude of potential routes (Backe 2012). Thus, rather than presenting a cluster of nodes that are to be accessed in no particular order (nodal-network narrative), or in a strict order (linear-nodal narrative), the multi-linear narrative operates in a similar fashion to a branching decision tree (Toolan 2001). At each decision point the audience moves to a different decision branch and the narrative adapts in line with these choices – effectively opening or precluding certain content based upon the decisions and pathways selected (Nolan 2003).

These decisions can lead to a multitude of outcomes (branching structure) or can expand out before recombining (foldback structure) – combinations of both foldback and branching structures are possible, for example, when the audience is able to explore a variety of options that branch out before folding back at a critical point prior to expanding out again (Nolan 2003). An example of an audience's potential journey through branching and fold-back multi-linear nodal narratives can be observed in Figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4
Figure 4: An example GIF of multilinear nodal narrative schema. In this instance the player's position in the narrative is represented by the blue dot, the possible story routes from the player's position are represented by green dots and the path to date is represented by a purple dot. Black links between the segments represent that it has been active or that the narrative node has the potential to still be activated. Nodes and paths that no-longer have the ability to become active are greyed out with no outline.
Figure 5
Figure 5: An example GIF showing the foldback form of active multilinear nodal narratives. As with Figure 4, the audience's position in the narrative is represented by the blue dot, the possible story routes from the player's position are represented by green dots and the path to date is represented by a purple dot. Black links between the segments represent that it has been active or that the narrative node has the potential to still be activated. Nodes and paths that no-longer have the ability to become active are greyed out.

Digital media, such as video games, can provide an additional set of computational and interactive elements to the basic multilinear narrative structure discussed above (Aarseth 1997). These additional, digital, elements might include aspects such as computational or calculation-based outcomes, dynamic audio, dynamic visual, intelligent feedback or conditional statements – all aspects that can certainly contribute to representing heritage works in a new light.

The case study presented here - Buried (Copplestone and Botham 2014) - was made in the Twine game-engine in a collaboration between L. Botham and T. Copplestone. The resulting game leverages both digital and computational affordances in its construction and consumption. The game itself used traditional active multilinear narrative elements (user decision trees interlinking between basic text) alongside specifically digital affordances (for example, computation, user inputs, conditional narrative statements, interaction specific styling). The basic premise of the game is to explore the concept of burial in a huge variety of archaeological contexts, allowing players to pick and choose what elements to explore and, to an extent, how they will explore them.

The basic structure of Buried follows a pre-set branching multilinear structure. In addition to this the game draws on specifically digital affordances allowing reflexive cycles, conditional statements and computational generation to be included. For example, the player begins by typing in variables that then proliferate throughout the story (computational generation from audience interaction). From here the player is presented with a series of 'or' choices (pick x or y or z) that dictate which of the multiple paths the player will pursue (standard multilinear pre-sets). A selection of 'or' choices in combination with 'if' statements log how the player interacts with a narrative node (i.e. the time they take, where they hover, how they navigate etc.) and are then used to calibrate a foldback section (reflexive cycle) in which the player's discussion can be overlaid against existing archaeological dialogue. Once the player has navigated to the end of the narrative an epilogue is generated off the computational, player input and player agency in navigation factors mentioned above. Thus the story not only has multiple potential endings or pathways (as is the case in many non-digital, multi-linear narrative structures) but also has, within the limits of the story structure and programming, a huge array of impact points that can additionally influence the narrative. In all, Buried has 17 unique structured endings, 50 computational variables and 20 additional user-set parameters, which alter how the narrative is structured and portrayed for any given iteration. Additionally, the game is made up of 157,172 words in total, but owing to the multilinear structure and digitally generative aspect of the text, any given play-through will result in anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 words being displayed to the audience. This variation of word count depends on how the player decides to navigate the narrative, how much detail they wish to access from the text, what elements they choose to focus on and how much they contribute to generating or changing variables within the wider multilinear structure (Figure 6 illustrates an example game structure).

Figure 6
Figure 6: Demonstrating the narrative nodes in Buried. Each white arrow line describes a link between discrete narrative nodes. Within the game structure you can see elements that loop, flow to linear sections, branch and combine. Within each of the nodes both discrete and omnipotent scripts can be run, activated, logged and on occasion exposed to the player so that they can influence the variables, progression and outcomes of the game.

The narrative structure of Buried is, due to the computational factors, one that can only exist in a digital format - even though the multilinear narrative structure and the use of plain-text communication is not inherently digital. To this end we observe the relationship between the analogue and the digital - the two not necessarily being mutually exclusive, with digitally specific elements extending and providing new applications and approaches to multilinear narrative structures. The outcome of the overall narrative in Buried is one that on the surface uses traditional text-based narrative structures to discuss the various contexts of burial, but at a deeper level allows the audience, through the system of the digital narrative nodes, to experiment with how choice, contingency and correlation can operate within the archaeological process. The narrative structure reflects and engages with the system of archaeology it is trying to discuss, rather than just stating it in a didactic fashion. While this form of narrative structure excels in certain areas it might also be observed that the effect of choice, while facilitated by the system and evident in retrospect, is not directly observable through the nodes themselves. To this end, it is not an inherently better method of narrative construction, simply a different one that sets up specific interactions between creator and consumer and affords certain methods for communication.


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