Computational approaches to narrative

NYU ITP, Fall 2019. Instructor: Allison Parrish. Send me an e-mail.

Important links: Schedule, form for submitting homework.


Beginning with the release of Crowther and Woods’ “Colossal Cave Adventure” in 1977, the potential and unique affordances of computation as a means of storytelling have become more and more apparent. Combining approaches from literary theory, anthropology, computational creativity and game design, this class considers how narrative structure can be represented as data and enacted through computation, and invites students to implement practical prototypes of their own interactive and procedurally-generated narratives using a variety of technologies. Topics include (but are not limited to) hypertext fiction, “choose your own adventure”-style branching narratives, text adventures, visual novels, story generation from grammars and agent-based simulations. Students will complete a series of bite-size weekly assignments to present for in-class critique. Each session will also feature lectures, class discussion, and technical tutorials. Prerequisites: Introduction to Computational Media or equivalent programming experience.


Class schedule with readings, assignments, and due dates.

Ethos, methodology, structure, outcomes

This class concerns the concept of narrative and ways to represent and design narrative artifacts using computation. The class combines components of the seminar, the workshop, and the tech tutorial. During each session, we’ll examine topics in narrative structure (through reading discussions, discussions about artworks, and in-class lecture), and then learn how to use a computational tools to make something that engages with, expands upon and/or challenges the topics under discussion. We’ll also spend a good deal of time in class sharing work with one another for feedback and critique.

By the end of the last class session, students will be literate in a range of topics and debates in the study of narrative structure, and especially in how narrative relates to computation. Students will have made several prototype projects that exercise this literacy and a final project that shows their mastery of the material presented in class.


Students are expected to have access to a computer running a recent version of macOS or Windows. (Most, but not all, course material will be available for Linux as well.) All of the software we’ll be using for technical assignments is free or open source, but some of the works assigned for discussion are not free. (Students will need to purchase these works.)

Attendance, lateness, and in-class behavior policies


You are expected to attend all class sessions. Absences due to non-emergency situations will only be cleared if you let me know a week (or more) in advance, and even then only for compelling personal or professional reasons (e.g., attending an important conference, going to a wedding). If you’re unable to attend class due to contagious or incapacitating illness, please let me know (by e-mail) before class begins.

Each unexcused absence will deduct 5% from your final grade. If you have two or more unexcused absences, you risk failing the course.


Be on time to class. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, or if you leave early (without my clearance), it will count as an unexcused absence.

In-class behavior

Laptops must be closed while your fellow students are presenting work. You’re otherwise welcome to use laptops in class, but only to follow along with the in-class tutorials and to take notes. (Keeping all of this in mind.)

Assignments and projects

This class has seven deliverables:

  • Four tech sketches
  • Computer-generated novel
  • Topical connections presentation
  • Final project

Turn in sketches and final project here.

Tech sketches

Four “sketch” assignments will be assigned. The goal of each “sketch” is to make a small prototype project with the tools and concepts discussed in class that week. The word “sketch” is used to emphasize that these projects will necessarily be preliminary and limited in scope.

Sketches must be turned in at the beginning of the session listed as the due date in the schedule. Work turned in after the deadline will not be accepted.

You must write a public blog post to document each sketch. This post should talk about your experiences with the tool in question, along with a description of what you hoped to accomplish and along with an evaluation of how well your implementation matched your ambitions. The post should also include any source code written in the course of creating the sketch and (depending on the assignment requirements) a “playable” version or representative example of the sketch’s output.

If you feel uncomfortable sharing your meditation documentation with the general public, please talk to me and we can make alternate arrangements.

Computer Generated Novel

Students are assigned to produce a computer-generated novel according to the rules of National Novel Generation Month. (You don’t have to officially “submit” your novel to NaNoGenMo, but you can if you want to.) We’ll review the work you make for this assignment in class in mid-November, so you should have some progress to show by then. But you’re free to take until the final NaNoGenMo deadline to complete the work.

Topical connections presentations

Each student must deliver a 5–10 minute presentation on a topic related to (but not explicitly covered) in class. Topics can include individual games, or works of art, pieces of media, or examples of design; individual artists or practitioners; technologies and frameworks; genres; entire areas of study, etc. I’m especially interested in presentations on works whose formal characteristics or social/political context push the boundaries of what is normally considered to be “narrative.” We’ll make a list of possible topics collaboratively in class, but here are some examples:

  • Bandersnatch (Netflix interactive story)
  • Aristotle’s Poetics
  • Narrative techniques in VR
  • Dialogue trees in Bioware games
  • ChoiceScript
  • etc.

The purpose of these presentations is to encourage students to make connections between their own areas of interest and the content of the class.

Hint: Please keep these presentations under 10 minutes long! Doing the research for these presentations will be a lot of work, but paring the presentation down to under ten minutes—retaining what’s most interesting and relevant to the class—will be most of your work.

Students should post a version of their presentation to their blog. (This requirement can be fulfilled at minimum by posting your presentation slides, or posting an informal bibliography of the material you referenced in the presentation. More detailed write-ups are welcome but not required.)

Final project

The final project has no set requirements, other than to demonstrate emerging mastery of the concepts and techniques presented in class. But as a basic guideline, students are invited to further develop one of the tech sketches made previously in the class. Students must document their final project, using the same criteria given for the tech sketch assignments outlined above. We’ll set aside two class sessions for final project presentations and critique. (Plan for a 12-15 minute presentation.)

Grading policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 25%
Sketches 4 x 8% (32%)
NaNoGenMo novel 9%
Topical connections presentation 9%
Final project 25%

Here’s the breakdown of how grades correspond with percentages. Note that the completion of all components of the class is necessary to earn a passing grade.

Grade Percentage
A 90 to 100
B 80 to 89
C 70 to 79
D 60 to 69
F Below 60

For students taking the class as pass/fail (i.e., all ITP students), anything below a B (79% and below) will be graded as a fail. More information on ITP’s grading policy here.

Statements from Tisch School of the Arts

Statement of academic integrity

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as though it were your own. More specifically, plagiarism is to present as your own: A sequence of words quoted without quotation marks from another writer or a paraphrased passage from another writer’s work or facts, ideas or images composed by someone else.

Statement of principle

The core of the educational experience at the Tisch School of the Arts is the creation of original academic and artistic work by students for the critical review of faculty members. It is therefore of the utmost importance that students at all times provide their instructors with an accurate sense of their current abilities and knowledge in order to receive appropriate constructive criticism and advice. Any attempt to evade that essential, transparent transaction between instructor and student through plagiarism or cheating is educationally self-defeating and a grave violation of Tisch School of the Arts community standards. For all the details on plagiarism, please refer to page 10 of the Tisch School of the Arts, Policies and Procedures Handbook.

Statement on accessibility

Please feel free to make suggestions to your instructor about ways in which this class could become more accessible to you. Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please contact the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212-998-4980 for further information.

Statement on counseling and wellness

Your health and safety are a priority at NYU. If you experience any health or mental health issues during this course, we encourage you to utilize the support services of the 24/7 NYU Wellness Exchange 212-443-9999. Also, all students who may require an academic accommodation due to a qualified disability, physical or mental, please register with the Moses Center 212-998-4980. Please let your instructor know if you need help connecting to these resources.

Statement on use of electronic devices

Laptops will be an essential part of the course and may be used in class during workshops and for taking notes in lecture. Laptops must be closed during class discussions and student presentations. Phone use in class is strictly prohibited unless directly related to a presentation of your own work or if you are asked to do so as part of the curriculum.