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Title: Pause & Effect
Author: Mark Stephen Meadows
Publisher: New Riders
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0735711712
Pages: 272
Price: $45.00
Rating: 87%

We're in the middle of one of the most interesting artistic challenges since language was first invented.  And that's no exaggeration.   

In old times, storytelling and narrative was simple: There was an old man by a fire, and he told you stories.  Occasionally someone would ask a question, and he'd answer it... But never would your question change anything.  Hercules always flooded the stables of Augeas, Achilles always got the spear in his heel.   

Time went by and things became more sophisticated - movies, plays, pictures, and books encouraged experimentation with narrative structure, using techniques like multiple narratives and changing perspectives - but none of this ever changed the fact that the reader was a passive entity.  Protest though audiences might, Jason is always going to chop up fifty teenagers at a summer camp, and nothing can stop him except for that virgin teen at the end of the film.   

Enter videogames.   

Now narrative was facing a new challenge, and one that had never existed before: What happens when the reader can interact with the environment?  And if the reader can interact with the environment, does it then not follow that perhaps he can change the outcome of the plot

All the plotting in the world won't help if the reader refuses to walk into the room that has the smoking gun.   

The danger of a book like Pause & Effect is that because it deals with a very esoteric subject - narrative - it can fall into the trap of approaching everything with a scholarly distance.  A lesser book would analyze five thousand different narrative approaches without ever once asking the critical question: But what works best?   

And yet the triumph of Pause & Effect is that it never loses sight of its audience's goal: Creating entertainment.  Mark Meadows searches for new tools to show his readers the many ways in which stories can accommodate meddling readers.  He draws on his own experience to people who've not only designed a narrative designed for one player, but also to show the challenges in creating a shifting plot with thousands of players working together to create an environment.  He's interested in the background and fundamentals of narrative, but only insofar as they make things more entertaining. 

In this, he largely succeeds.  The final part of the book, where he gives many guidelines on how readers should approach interactive narratives, is worth the cost of this book alone.  He guides the reader towards explicitly shaping the project, asking the right questions to make sure you've framed it appropriately - from the blunt-idiot questions of, "How many people do you expect to serve with this, and do you have the servers to cover it?" to "Where will people need to do the most interaction (is it with objects or the plot of the story)?"   

He brings up very useful hints on why seemingly-useless ambience media, like the canned radio announcements in Grand Theft Auto III, are important (it makes the reader feel like he's a part of a larger environment; thus, when he changes things it feels like a much greater accomplishment, and leads to greater investment on the part of the player).  He discusses emerging trends, like time-saving trick of creating complex environments via algorithms and then tweaking them for afterwards for maximum interactive impact, rather than tediously hand-crafting every single aspect of a space.   

Furthermore, the book stays away from mere theory by continually presenting case studies and interviews with people who have worked on interactive projects. The interviews are invariably excellent, asking and answering vital questions.  Mark's goal is to give a sense of how the originator of each of his case studies approached the challenge of reader-aware plotlines, and how effective each approach was.   

Unfortunately, Meadows often assumes that you're already familiar with each of his case studies.  If you didn't follow the media campaign for Steven Spielberg's A.I., for example, you're out of luck.  Considering that it had a user base of millions and was one of the widest uses of interactive narrative to date, it sounds fascinating... But Meadows frequently refers to specific plot points and characters, asking about how they were developed without ever bothering to explain what they are.  Admittedly, you could probably hop on the web and find out - but it would have been a lot handier to have a comprehensive discussion of what each project was before launching into an analysis of how it was developed. If you're willing to do a little web research to supplement the case studies, this book's final score climbs to the mid-nineties. 

Another flaw is that the first section is mighty slow going.  Admittedly, you need to understand the ways that narrative has been used until now in order to see how interactivity breaks those rules... But the history as presented here is tedious.  Meadows does a staunch job in trying to make it interesting, scattering the section with pictures and diagrams and whatnot, but it still felt bloated. It could be tightened. 

But in the end, this is a solid book that continually asks the right questions, trying to shed light on one of the most experimental areas in any media.  As with any work of art - and games are a work of art, don't fool yourself - there is no one answer to the question, which narrative approach works best?  But in presenting any number of ways that other people have used effectively, Pause & Effect expands the artist's toolbox, giving you ideas as to how to best approach your particular challenge.  That's worth the cover price alone. 

William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America.  He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for and editing various websites.  He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.