Blending the Virtual and Physical:Narrative’s Mobile Future? – Scott Ruston

The last few years have seen an explosion in the capabilities of mobile phones for uses other than traditional telephony—email, text messages, pictures, casual and pervasive games, even television and video.  For readers unfamiliar with these newer applications and capabilities of the mobile phone I will offer some examples and definitions. “Casual games” are those played by a single player for short periods to fill idle time; Tetris on the mobile phone is an excellent example. “Pervasive games,” which will be discussed at greater length later, take place “in everyday, real environments with players’ ordinary, everyday tools, and often utilize mobile media and Internet technologies in the course of game play” (McGonigal 2000, 5).  In terms of television and video, Sprint PCS offers MobiTV and Verizon offers VCast, both services offering television and video content on the mobile phone in the United States.  Much of this content is in the form of news programming, but in 2005 Verizon partnered with Fox Television to offer one minute micro-episodes of 24: Conspiracy, a spin-off of the popular 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland. In 2006, the online festival “The 4th Screen: A Global Festival of Mobile Media” offered prizes for videos made for and by mobile phones.  These two examples demonstrate the mobile phone’s increasing incorporation of existing televisual content and modification of televisual formats, as producers, network operators, consumers and artists all explore the possibilities of this developing technology. 

These video content to mobile phone services, along with the growing number of video-capable Personal Media Player (PMP) devices[1] , illustrate one way in which these new media technologies adopt aspects of prior, established media—a process Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin refer to as “remediation.”  As Bolter and Grusin define the term, remediation is a formal logic “in which [new media] refashion older media and … in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media” (1999, 15).  In this essay, I will apply the idea of remediation to the way that some new mobile art projects and pervasive games refashion the aesthetic form and cognitive structure of narrative found in prior media.  I will also extend remediation’s characteristics of challenge, influence and exchange from the realm of media technologies to cultural forms such as the database and narrative.  In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich suggests that the database is itself a cultural form, as dominant today as narrative was in the modern age (Manovich 2001).  The proliferation of computers in everyday life, the rapid rise of video games, and even the popularity of video blog websites, such as, which catalogues short content by searchable keywords, constitute evidence that supports Manovich’s contention.  I contend, however, that narrative has not been supplanted or replaced nor need necessarily be subordinated to the database or to computational logic; rather, I see the remediation process at work, as each form adapts aspects of the other.  In particular, I see the mobile phone as particularly well suited to employ its networked, portable, and computational capabilities to create a new kind of narrative experience.  Whether entertainment oriented or education oriented, fiction or non-fiction, these new projects immerse the participant in the experience by blurring the boundaries between the real world of the reader/participant and the crafted world of the narrative. 

I will build my argument in three stages.  First, I will examine a sample of mobile media projects and pervasive games in light of the tension between their database and narrative architectures.  In so doing, I will establish how and why we might consider them as mobile media narratives.  This leads to a further consideration of remediation—how these projects refashion the principles of interactivity, agency and immersion, the ideal balance of which has long been a goal of narrative in electronic media.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I suggest that the telephone’s cinematic, televisual and cultural history contributes to the mobile phone’s suitability in uniting narrative form with computational and participatory potential.

The Tension Between Old and New

The capability of small portable media devices (cell phones, PMPs, PDAs, etc.) to play video points to an interesting phenomenon that offers us an entry into considering these devices (and here the mobile phone will be the primary consideration):  it seems they exist on a timeline of the adoption of narrative.  A logical path proceeds from cinema’s adoption of narrative from novel and stage, to television’s adaptation of narrative from cinema and theater, towards the cell phone’s remediation of narrative content from film and television. Given the convergence of cinema and television with the cell phone, film and new media theory helps us begin understanding how mobile media devices can offer narrative experiences.

Thomas Elsaesser, writing in the January 2003 PMLA, suggests that film theory is at a crossroads in attempting to deal with changing modes of representing presence and experience:  “film theory is attempting to draw level with the multivocal surround immersion of space” offered by television and the internet, in contrast to the traditional “monocular, unifocal, perspectival projection of space, to which…our subjectivity is said to have been in thrall” (122). Elsaesser argues that the rapid and universal acceptance of the mobile phone, “nudges film theory more” (122).  The mobile phone offers instant and on-demand access to other spaces, places and times; the mobile phone makes any space a mediated space layered with intersections of information and data.  Tim Cresswell’s summary of David Harvey’s critique of postmodern mobility adds to Elsaesser’s observations:  “mobile finance capital and new forms of transportation and communication produce time-space compression and thus the dilution of place stability” (Cresswell 2002, 15; my emphasis).  The loss of perspective and the instability of place yield a confused landscape.  Cresswell goes on to suggest that “the way forward is signposted by theories of practice which serve to destabilize notions of place and space…places are never complete, finished or bounded but are always becoming—in process” (Cresswell 2002, 20).

How can the networked mobile phone, itself part of time-space compression, the dilution of place stability and the disruption of perspective, also operate as a practice of becoming and a structure of understanding?  By nudging Edward Branigan’s notion of narrative, proposed in the context of understanding film, to mobile media we can theorize how the mobile narrative experience also operates as a “distinctive strategy for organizing data about the world”— a postmodern world characterized by fragments of information coming from many directions in need of organization and comprehension (Branigan 1992, ix.)

As part of the remediation cycle, this connection between the mobile media narrative and the role it plays in postmodern life loops back to considerations of another new media form, at another time—that of early cinema.  Tom Gunning’s analysis of early narrative films suggests, “the newly emerging forms of filmic narration display a relation (simultaneously thematic and structural) to the way technology structures modern life” (Gunning 1991, 187).  This paper shares similar goals, seeking to understand the structure of mobile narratives, how they exhibit the remediation between database and narrative, and the particular ways they do so.  Examining the narrative role of the telephone in early film, classic Hollywood film and the contemporary moment will help explore the range of possibilities for the mobile phone as a narrative device, and suggest that its role in a new mode of narrative, one that itself is a process of reading, writing and understanding, is a seamless transition from its cinematic and televisual role.

Our first step, before delving into the history of the telephone on film, is to look at the form and structure of some representative mobile entertainment and art projects to understand their place in relation to our constant reevaluation of narrative.  Carolyn Marvin, in her social and cultural history of late 19th Century new media When Old Technologies Were New, points out that new media are “introduced into a pattern of tension created by the coexistence of old and new” (Marvin 1988, 8).  There are two sets of old and new at work here.  The first is the shift from Western culture’s single reference point representation of space and subjectivity to one born of multiple inputs, alluded to above.  News no longer comes from a well-established news bureau; rather multiple television, cable and Internet sources are available, and their sources might be a variety of anonymous bloggers as well as traditional reporters.  Importantly, this news is also available constantly, whether through a wireless laptop connection or SMS text updates to the mobile phone, changing the role of any given space as well as the individual’s perspective on that place.  In Elsaesser’s analysis, the “Where were you when…” question (referring to comprehension and memory of a major media event) no longer requires thought to piece together the delay between the event’s actual occurrence and the individual’s exposure to media coverage.  The ubiquity of media devices brings the place/time of the event coincident with the individual’s place/time, and brings not one perspective but an array from which to choose.  This disruption in the fixity of place is the ‘new’ formulation in contrast to the ‘old’, wherein any modulation of space and time took place under controlled circumstances and in specific locales.  As film historian Anne Friedberg describes, “The cinema provided a virtual mobility for its spectators, producing the illusion of transport to other places and times, but it did so within the confines of a frame” (Friedberg 2002, 186).  We shall see that the mobile narratives described below respond in simultaneously thematic and structural ways (recalling Gunning above) to the tension between singular, scripted and controlled narratives situated in space and time and those that are constantly available, assembled from many fragments, and navigable.

The second area of tension between old and new within which the mobile narrative exists is in conceptions of how culture organizes and understands data.  Lev Manovich suggests that the modern age “privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression” and that the computer age replaces this structure with that of the database (Manovich 2001, 218).  Identifying what he perceives to be an irreconcilable tension between these forms, he writes:  “Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world” (Manovich 2001, 225).  We shall see in the ensuing analysis that these mobile narratives draw from both sides of what Manovich positions as a competitive binary, suggesting perhaps that rather than an exclusionary relationship, these two methods of cultural expression exist in productive tension.

Mobile Games, Mobile Experiences—Narratives or Navigable Databases?

As mobile pervasive games and mobile media experiences are still not well known, I will provide a description of these types of projects, as well as highlight the key features relevant to a discussion of mobile media and narrative. This description will begin to sketch out how they might be construed as narratives, as well as how they differ from the more commonly known reference of narrative audio-visual content displayed on a multimedia-capable mobile phone (such as the Fox/Verizon 24 spin-off alluded to earlier, or television episodes available for download to video capable media players like the iPod.).

Some of the more popular and well known mobile experiences are the pervasive games designed by Swedish company It’s Alive! and the British group Blast Theory. Beginning in 2000, It’s Alive! produced in multiple European countries various versions of Botfighters, garnering an estimated 40,000 players (Dee 2006).  Botfighters is an action/strategy game in which robots battle in a futuristic world.  Locations in this futuristic world map directly onto the real world, and the robots’ movements through the fictional world correspond to the movement of the players’ mobile phones through the real world.  Players control their robot by commands submitted via text message.   (Essentially, the player is the robot and the robot moves through the game world as the player moves through the city).  The location-aware phones alert the player when other players are nearby, and “battles” take place via SMS-text message.  An online component manages logistics (re-outfitting the robots, views of large scale maps, etc.) and offers access to the narrative backdrop as well as introducing missions for the players to conduct.  Narrative information is delivered periodically, in the form of “episodes”, organizing events into comprehensible patterns motivating the players’ subsequent actions.  Structurally, this project is very similar to Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft and Star Wars Galaxies, that offer multi-player capability, a general fictional world in which to operate, and a narrative backdrop offering loose motivation for specific actions through missions.

As a physically immersive fictional experience, Botfighters calls to mind the “holodeck” of Star Trek fame in which the participant joins an electronically produced, explorable 3-D aural, visual and tactile simulation of a story of the participant’s choice.  Janet Murray uses the fictitious holodeck as the ideal model to keep in mind as she analyzes nascent digital and interactive narrative forms in her 1997 book, Hamlet on the Holodeck.  Writing before the proliferation of mobile media, Murray adroitly blends film and literary studies with computer programming experience to produce a work that is applicable to the operation of narrative within any computational medium.  Murray’s premise is that the computer of the 1990’s is much like the movie camera of the 1890’s:  “a truly revolutionary invention humankind is only on the verge of putting to use as a spellbinding storyteller” (Murray 1997, 2).  My contention is similar:  the particular computational medium well suited to operate as an immersive storyteller is the mobile phone.  In my view, the mobile narrative does not depend on a wholly electronic virtual world created by pixels and sound effects and text.  Rather, it immerses the participant in a hybrid world intersected and layered with media content, imagination, and narrative structures, all of which enrich the connection between art and life.  Murray’s examination of entirely virtual digital environments offers productive insights to understanding how narrative can operate in the mobile experience.

Botfighters offers an example of the type of digital environment Murray describes in Hamlet on the Holodeck, suggesting the computational basis of the project.  Murray identifies four characteristics of the digital environment in which narrative might operate:  procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic (Murray 1997, 71-83).  These characteristics are particularly important and useful.  I suggest that the first two characteristics embody the remediation process of narrative and database in digital environments:  narratives have an underlying logic the reader tries to ascertain, and databases sort, retrieve and index their data according to defined algorithms.  Narratives are produced in the act of reading and databases yield their contents in response to queries. In Botfighters, an array of computers tracks player location, manages SMS-message battles, and computes the results through a complex set of procedural rules.  In addition, players comprehend missions revealed within the online updates.  Additionally, Murray asserts that the participatory and procedural characteristics constitute the interactive component of an electronic narrative. Botfighters is highly participatory:  players participate in actions that have consequences within the world.  Murray further explains that the spatial and encyclopedic characteristics provide the immersive quality, which we will later discuss as a key component of the narrative aesthetic experience. Botfighters inventively sidesteps the screen limitations of mobile devices by making the real world the set for the imagined future world, and as the game world is coincident with the real world, the game suggests its environment contains equal breadth and depth. 

The lack of an encyclopedic dimension to Botfighters suggests that its narrative components do not operate with the same “wealth of detail” and “scope and particularity” as other digital narrative environments like the game Zork (Infocom 1980) or the ideal Holodeck.  Drawing on film theorist Edward Branigan’s description of narrative and alternative organizational schemes for perceived data and experience helps us understand how Botfighters exhibits some narrative-like components, but resists description as a narrative.  Branigan suggests that a “simple narrative” consists of a series of episodes put together as a focused chain.  An episode collects the “consequences of a central situation” and, importantly, “shows change”.   A focused chain involves cause and effect of a continuing center, “whether that center be a character, place, object or theme” (Branigan 1992, 19-20).  Botfighters might be construed as a combination of “episodes” and “unfocused chains” (which have no continuing center).  The backstory develops in episodic form, within which some player experiences (missions) will effect or observe change within the world, but many experiences (unexpected battles) will be at random.  Botfighters would fail the Branigan test as a narrative structure in the whole, though the episodes and unfocused chains of events are certainly narrative-like.  Botfighters represents an example, similar to many video games, in which a computational structure works in tandem with narrative-like components to create the complete experience.

The British group Blast Theory has produced their pervasive games in the U.K., Canada, Japan and Australia.  Uncle Roy All Around You (2003) and I Like Frank (2004) team online players with street players seeking the eponymous character.  The online players have access to a map identifying the location of key items and where the street players operate; the street players can move physically through the space in pursuit of key items.  Street player location is provided by the location-aware capability of their mobile phones; street and online players communicate via SMS.  The game requires cooperation between the two classes of players, and progresses similarly to a semi-cooperative treasure hunt (impediments to player cooperation must be overcome).  The projects share with Botfighters a similar orientation to Murray’s digital environments, though the games take place over a short duration (60 minutes) rather than days or weeks.  Uncle Roy All Around You added an additional element of the participatory and authorial: street players found postcards asking them to write a brief note about someone who never leaves them.  The postcards appear on the Uncle Roy All Around You website and range from the touching, “My Mom”, to the confused “I am waiting in room 817 waiting for something to happen” (Blast Theory 2005).  Viewed in terms of Branigan’s methods of organizing data, these two projects might be described as “focused chains” in that there is a continuation from event to event (cooperation and seeking objects), but the development and change critical to episodes and narratives does not exist.

While these three projects give a taste of how the mobile phone has been appropriated for uses beyond traditional telephony, their form, structure and market placement all emphasize their status as games.  In terms of remediation, we see the new cultural form of the computational medium refashioning components of narrative to offer context, motivation and detail.  To continue my examination, then, I will address two mobile media projects that, first, are not immediately identified as games, and, second, exhibit a more equal balance and cooperation between database and narrative characteristics. 

34N118W is a mobile experience in which participants navigate the streets of a downtown Los Angeles neighborhood with a GPS-equipped tablet PC and listen to stories through headphones connected to the PC.  While 34N118W does not make use of mobile phones, it is nevertheless indicative of the principles and concepts at play in mobile narrative.  The tablet PC displays a map of the area, circa 1905, with an icon representing the participant’s position (moving in accordance with the GPS signals) and icons representing hotspots that trigger audio content (unmarked hotspots also trigger sound effects for unexpected results).  The audio content consists of soliloquies, recorded by a voice actor from a script written by co-creator Jeremy Hight, of characters who might have lived or worked in the area during its heyday as a railhead.  At one location, the participant hears a man reminisce about a job clearing the rail tracks of dead bodies; at another a Latina cook speaks in stream of consciousness about the weather, the lunches she makes, and the correspondences in the rhythms of the two activities (Hight 2003).  The participant hears these soliloquies while simultaneously processing the modern day appearance and layout of the physical landscape (new buildings, missing buildings, and vestigial train tracks, etc.) with the information provided by the 1905 map, as well as any surprising sound effects encountered.  As there is no set path, each participant’s experience is unique, offering different sets of sequential juxtapositions of the audio/spatial combinations with each iteration. 

botVery quickly we can see the database structure of 34N118W.  The grid of the downtown area offers access to the data set—a combination of recorded speech and visual correlations.  The participant serves as the search engine, walking through this grid of data elements, encountering them in the sequence of his or her own choosing.  In this way, 34N118W shares the characteristics of the digital environment outlined above in terms of mobile games.  The tablet PC executes a regular series of procedural functions to properly depict the participant’s location on the map, as well as play the audio elements at the appropriate place.  The participatory and spatial elements exist physically in terms of perambulation, metaphorically in terms of searching this database, and interpretively (what Hight might call “archeologically”) in terms of considering the told and untold stories relating to the place.  If, as Manovich writes, “all new media design can be reduced to…either constructing the right interface to a multimedia database or as defining navigation methods through spatialized representations,” then 34N118W achieves both (Manovich 2001, 215).

If the project is an excellent realization of database structure and new media design, does it also “achieve something that new media designers and artists still have yet to learn—how to merge database and narrative into a new form” (Manovich 2001, 243)? If a simple narrative consists of episodes collected as a focused causal chain, then identifying the episodes of 34N118W is important to understanding and assessing its narrative structure.  One possibility is that each audio vignette is an episode.  An episode, according to Branigan, collects “everything that happens to a particular character in a particular setting” and “it shows change” (Branigan 1992, 19).  Some of the audio vignettes and their characters meet these criteria; however, each vignette is isolated, lacking any connection to the other vignettes, except through the choices, actions, and imagination of the participant. Together, the vignettes are more accurately described as an unfocused chain of episodes, continuing with Branigan’s terminology, making the experience more like reading an anthology of poetry than the comprehensive narrative structure of a novel.  This is not to say that either anthologies or novels should be privileged.  Rather, the process of reading an anthology bears a similarity to the process of retrieving information from a database, in that a selection process occurs.  In this way, 34N118W is a database-narrative hybrid, one that is more about a proactive reading process than about the discovery of cause, effect, progress and change.

Reorienting to focus on the participant as complicit in the authorial process suggests the possibility that he ‘writes in’ the causal connections between the episodes.  I think this is not the case.  Considering the first-hand experience of the participant as a narrative legitimately raises the question about whether a first-hand experience can be a narrative or if it only becomes narrative when narrated.  Branigan turns to Roland Barthes for assistance parsing the roles of narrator and author:  “‘the one who speaks (in the narrative) is not the one who writes (in real life) and the one who writes is not the one who is’” (Branigan 1992, 87).  Thus, “statements about an embedded fiction [the participant constructing a causal connection] cannot be made from within the fiction itself” where the narrator resides (Branigan 1992, 88).  Manovich also opposes the idea that the simple traversing of a database of records constitutes a narrative:  “The author also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative” (Manovich 2001, 228).

Can a non-sequential, locative media, database structure be combined with a narrative structure soundly rooted in the principles of cause-and-effect, along with character growth and development?  This combination lies at the heart of the student project Tracking Agama (USC Interactive Media, 2004), an alternative reality fiction[2] in which participants access pieces of the story by mobile phone, by entering codes, exchanging text messages with the host computer and receiving phone calls.  The participant obtains codes by solving puzzles embedded within the story, which successively give access to more and more “story nuggets” (audio components and text messages).  These “story nuggets” are the discrete units of information in the story, and as such are analogous to Roland Barthes “lexia” described in S/Z (Barthes 1974).  Like lexia, the story nuggets are distributed, connotative and only create meaning when collected together.  They also operate much the same as George Landow’s conception of hypertext lexia in that the embedded clues in one story nugget lead to one or many other nuggets, just as the hypertextual links in a given textual unit (lexia) lead to one or more units of story (Landow 1991).  The majority of the story nuggets exist as voice recordings ostensibly made by the protagonist, and to which the participant now has access.  While the protagonist, Agama, is a fictional character created by the project’s authors, he is presented to the participant as a current resident of Los Angeles.  This relationship is an initial step in immersing the participant in the fictional world—unlike 34N118W where the fictional world is at some remove, mediated through the PC, headphones and digital map, and unlike Botfighters where a map of the future is overlaid on the contemporary city, in Tracking Agama the fictional world is the real world.  Enhancing this blurring of the distinction between the fictional world and the real world is the antagonist, Shufelt, who shares a connection to an actual historical figure, the discovery of which unlocks more mysteries and facilitates the growth of the story and the characters.

Tracking Agama shares 34N118W’s dual design structure as both an interface to a multimedia database and a navigation method through spatialized representations.  The story nuggets consist of audio (recordings made by Agama called “AgamaNotes” and calls from the Shufelt character), website text, and text message.  The mobile phone serves as the interface for accessing this information and receiving instructions or puzzles about further action to take or information to discover.  In pursuing this action or information, the participant travels to six locations in Los Angeles.  The AgamaNotes offer insight into the character’s state of mind, consideration of particular sites, imaginative use of landmarks as settings for further fictions and subtly suggest to the participant alternative ways of looking at the locations.  The city becomes represented not only by the text evident on tourist placards, but through layered context delivered to the participant in the space and closely associated with physical exertion of navigating the locale (much like 34N118W).  Additionally, Tracking Agama’s digital environment consists of the same procedural, participatory, and spatial characteristics as the other works already discussed.

It is clear then, that Tracking Agama has a foundation in database structure and computational operation.  How does narrative operate in this case?  Applying Branigan’s models, we see the AgamaNotes as collecting Agama’s experiences, thoughts and sometimes events (such as when a kidnapping interrupts Agama’s recording) in a particular setting.  The calls from Shufelt in combination with the tasks completed by the participant reveal the causal connections between the episodes, and successive episodes depict the growth and change of the characters (such as the revelation that Shufelt, initially positioned as a friend of Agama, is in fact his enemy).  Above and beyond the simple narrative of a series of episodes arranged in a focused chain, Tracking Agama exhibits a complex narrative structure with a not-necessarily-sequential arrangement of Branigan’s component schema, including abstract, orientation, initiating event, goal, complicating action, and climax/resolution.  As a reader/viewer accumulates narrative information, the schema are applied any number of ways and any number of times and on any number of levels until the reader/viewer achieves comprehension to his own satisfaction (Branigan 1992, 18).  In the case of Tracking Agama, as the participant acquires more and more story nuggets, she experiments with assigning them to these functions.  For example, the kidnapping of Agama might initially be assigned the function of complicating action because it will disrupt Agama’s unlocking of the secrets of Los Angeles.  On another level, the kidnapping is an initiating event, altering the present state of affairs and launching the participant in the pursuit of the main character.  The narration, the component that seeks “to justify…why the narrator is competent and credible…and why the events are unusual, strange or worthy of note” (Branigan 1992, 18) is revealed by the participant’s accessing of the various story nuggets and piecing together the complex temporal structure that incorporates historical events, recent fictional events (such as the complicating action of Agama’s sighting of ghosts), and developing fictional events (such as Shufelt’s requests for research and detective assistance).  Unlike 34N118W in which growth, development and causation must come from the participant, a narrative consisting of these elements exists, waiting for discovery in Tracking Agama.  This project, in its physical materialization of the acquisition of the narrative schema components, refashions the database to serve the narrative functions of layering history, fiction and locality.

Interface:  Balancing Interactivity and Immersion

What does it matter if new media forms exhibit a tension between database as primary structure and narrative as the primary structure or if they exhibit both?  The examples above indicate they can be cooperative and complementary.  And to what end?  The computational element introduces the possibilities of interaction by the viewer/reader/participant, and the power this confers on this individual is the holy grail of new media.  From the proto-hypertextual novels of Calvino and Cortazar to the fanciful dreams of Star Trek’s “Holodeck”, interactivity has brought with it the ideal of agency, empowering the reader or viewer or participant “to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (Murray 1997, 126).  Within the cooperation of computational operation and narrative structure lies the capacity to realize this agency in material forms, and for those seeking this goal the tension lies not in the computer versus narrative, but finding the ideal combination of the interactive and the immersive, offering both the exercise of control and an emotional and aesthetic experience.

Murray discusses narrative as a “threshold experience” offering “something safely outside ourselves…upon which we can project our feelings,” but one that is fragile.  This “liminal trance” can be interpreted as the principle of narrative immersion—that fragile state of being “in” the story.  Traditionally, the strategy to protect and maintain the fragile liminal experience “has been to prohibit participation” (Murray 1997, 99-100).  Logically, then, introducing interactivity and agency into this liminal space can disrupt the fragile balance and that is the tension for interactive and narrative new media.  Murray offers a potential solution, one that is evident in Tracking Agama, suggesting that a maze-like structure of the piece can offer an interactive avenue.  She writes, “the key to creating an expressive fictional labyrinth is arousing and regulating the anxiety intrinsic to the form by harnessing it to the act of navigation” (Murray 1997, 135).  In this arrangement, the act of navigation, which in Tracking Agama combines both the mental act of solving puzzles and the physical act of walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles, offers an avenue for the participant’s “meaningful action” while still parceling out narrative material at a controlled rate, maintaining the fragile liminal state of immersion.  Thus, the forms of interaction, from walking the streets and using the mobile phone, are part of the diegetic immersion—these actions are the same in the story world and in the real world. Tracking Agama becomes an experience intertwining the narrative entertainment and aesthetic immersion with an interactive/participatory experience.  In so doing, Tracking Agama blends fictional, historical and contemporary worlds, offering different lenses to understand our relationship to our media, to our cities and to our history.

An additional solution to balancing interactivity and immersion appears in the report of an MIT Media Lab group working on physically interactive stories.  Their report suggests that physical interaction, given its connection to ritual, theater, charades and other miming games, is a natural mode of interaction that brings the participant into the story (Pinhanez et. al. 2000).  Games like Botfighters capitalize on physical movement to enhance the sense of urgency and thus immersion.  Tracking Agama, as mentioned, uses physical movement as well, but also, importantly, uses the phone to manage access to narrative content in exactly the same manner the phone operates in the real world.  We will return to the role of the phone in Tracking Agama shortly.

Building from Murray’s invocation of the Holodeck, Marie-Laure Ryan analyzes virtual reality as offering the possibility of immersive, interactive narrative and vice versa.  Mobile narratives include most of the eight aspects of virtual reality that Ryan identifies in Narrative as Virtual Reality (Ryan 2001).  Both Tracking Agama and 34N118W include active embodiment (the participants are taking action in the space), a spatialized display (the real world!), sensory diversity (audio, visual, text, graphics) and offer the experience as art. Tracking Agama also employs a transparent medium, in that the mobile phone interactions exist seamlessly as if their operation was in real life.  (With a tablet PC displaying a digital copy of a 1905 map and headphones, 34N118W cannot achieve this transparency of the medium.)  Neither work achieves the Holodeck-style dream of natural-language-responsive, artificially intelligent characters since all components are pre-scripted, nor do they achieve alternative embodiment, as the participants are always themselves.  Nevertheless, by incorporating a number of these VR characteristics these mobile narratives make significant strides in uniting interactivity with immersion, refashioning the computational to achieve the liminal.

In addition to the maze structure suggestion, Murray also recommends that the actions and behaviors required of the reader/user correspond to those in the diegetic world (Murray 1997, 106).  Most hypertext, for example, would violate this principle, for the action of mouse clicking has nothing to do with actions in the diegetic worlds of most hypertext stories, and serves as a reminder to the reader that he is operating a computer.  A racecar video game, however, with a steering wheel control follows this principle of mimicking diegetic action with the interactive interface.  Tracking Agama also follows this principle in that the interactive actions involve phone calls and text messages, which duplicate the actions within the story world (the participant accesses AgamaNotes in exactly the same manner Agama would have done so, and communicates with Shufelt in the same manner as communicating with any person).

Centering the interactive activity, and the narrative information received through that activity, on the phone in Tracking Agama brings up the special relationship the phone has to narrative and interactivity, rooted in the phone’s interactive exchange of personal narratives in conversation and desire for action.  Ned Schantz, writing in Film Quarterly, describes this connection of narrative and desire resident in the phone:  “Our gossipy desire to know becomes a desire for the phone to ring, or to place a call ourselves” (Schantz 2003).  Tracking Agama, as an example of the potential of mobile narratives, accesses both of these desires, and connects the mobile narrative to a long history of cinematic and televisual incorporation of the telephone as a seamless and naturalized narrative device.


“Early filmmakers incorporated recent technology into the plots of their films to naturalize film’s power to move through space and time” writes Tom Gunning in his article “Heard Over the Phone” about the telephone in early film (1991, 187).  The telephone assists in the naturalizing of film’s control of space and time and reciprocally this cinematic representation naturalizes the telephone’s role in controlling or modulating access to narrative information.  Gunning’s fascinating article offers a detailed analysis of the use of the phone in combination with cinematic techniques in rescue melodramas from Pathé’s Terrible angoisse (~1907) to Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911).  We can look at these examples to examine how the telephone operates with regard to Bolter and Grusin’s double logic of formal remediation:  immediacy and hypermediacy.  According to Bolter and Grusin, immediacy “leads one to erase or to render automatic the act of representation” and suggests a “unified visual space”.  Hypermediacy “offers a heterogeneous space” that “acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 33-34).

In Gunning’s analysis, films made after 1908 generally depict phone conversations by using parallel editing, rather than the split screen or superimposition effects popular before 1908.  Parallel editing, which exhibits immediacy in its effacement of the medium and construction of a unified and coherent space, visually emphasizes the role of the phone as the conduit for narrative information.  Using Bolter and Grusin’s terminology, the phone becomes a hypermediated object making visible the multiple acts of representation (the two sides of a conversation).  With both parties on screen in split screen arrangement, the situation is reversed.  The film medium offers a hypermediated vision of multiple, heterogeneous spaces, while the phone and the connection between the spaces are rendered automatic, natural and invisible, in accordance with our desire for immediacy.  In both cases of parallel editing and split-screen, the telephone, as a diegetic object as well as narrative device, works hand in hand with the film medium to articulate the double logic of immediacy and hypermediacy.  In so doing, it stands out as a necessary component of the transfer of information and the function of representation.  This process leads to the naturalized assumption that if a character wants access to some place in the story world, or if a character or participant needs to control multivocal representations, the phone is the tool.  By extension to the mobile narratives described above, if the participant wants access to the diegetic overlay of the Botfighters world or wants to navigate the multiple historical and fictional representations of Los Angeles in Tracking Agama, then the phone is the tool.

The phone is a tool that operates both in concert with the medium, but also within the diegesis.  This role of the telephone, particularly as a tool for action, develops over a long history of film and television narratives.  Gunning describes the husband as a telephonic witness to the crime at home in both Pathé’s Terrible angoisse and Edwin Porter’s 1908 adaptation Heard Over the Phone.  Here, the telephone is a device conveying narrative information, but tormenting the husband “with distance and impotence” (Gunning 1991, 192).  These early rescue dramas position women on the inside, with the phone, communicating their plight either to the men attempting their rescue or about the men threatening them.  By the 21st Century, the rescue melodrama takes hyperkinetic form in the Fox Television program 24.  Here the mobile phone becomes a tool of multiple uses:  nefarious legal action by über-terrorist Marwan; an execution by Kim Bauer via telephonic proxy; and every conceivable transmission of cause-and-effect narrative information and collapsing of time and space for the hero Jack Bauer in this over-determined melodramatic extravaganza.  24 also exhibits the double logic of remediation taken to extremes.  It heavily uses a hypermediated split-screen format offering both a visual representation of the numerous phone calls, but also a visual representation of the database of subplots.  Within this hypermediated screen space, though, operates a decidedly cinematic aesthetic of parallel editing that visually foregrounds the mobile and satellite phones as the ultimate tool of power for both hero and villain.

Along with the anguish delivered by phone in the early rescue melodramas and the televisual fireworks of 24, the noir period offers a particularly good example of the telephone as a complex narrative device and a tool for action in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry Wrong Number (1948).  J.P. Telotte, in both Literature/Film Quarterly and Film Criticism, offers an insightful account of the use of the telephone in Sorry Wrong Number.  The bedridden Leona uses the telephone to piece together her life and her illness, and to solicit aid once she learns of a murder plot. As the viewer’s narrator, Leona controls access to narrative units through her use of the phone, whether these narrative units are significant plot events such as the discovery of the murder plot, or other narrations that shed light on Leona and her situation.  The phone is also the means by which the film navigates its complex multiple narrator structure.  The telephone triggers flashbacks and offers representations of other characters’ knowledge of Leona (Telotte 1986).  This utilization of the phone as a narrative control device appears in Tracking Agama as well.  The AgamaNotes are Agama’s narrations, and the phone also exposes the participant to significant plot events, such as the kidnapping, by overhearing the action, just like Leona in Sorry Wrong Number.  The control of revelations in Tracking Agama is also managed through the phone, as the participant must input codes and text messages in order to receive the corresponding narrative content.  Because of this cinematic history, in Tracking Agama these actions of narrative content access do not seem to the participant as an interface with a database or computational architecture disrupting the diegetic immersion.

In addition to its naturalized role as a control mechanism for narration, the telephone also has been used as a nodal point in narrative progression, representing at least two paths of action for the character.  Luis Buñuel’s 1974 film Phantom of Liberty shows the phone in this manner.  The film is structured as a series of episodes in what Edward Branigan describes as an unfocused chain.  Each episode proceeds along its narrative vector until an intersection with another episodic vector takes the film in another direction.  These intersections are not causal, but rather are associative.  In one memorable sequence, the vector of the police commissioner playing dominos and chatting up an attractive woman is interrupted by a phone call.  Indicating the two possible paths, the police commissioner initially refuses to take the call in order to continue his conversation with the young woman.  He ultimately takes the call, sending the film on a new vector from the bar to a graveyard and an incident with police officers that do not recognize their commissioner.  In thinking about this sequence, we can apply a computational media concept to understand the function of the telephone.  Essentially, the telephone acts as a hyperlink:  it serves as a conduit for narrative distribution and connection of the two episodes (or lexia).  It does so in a manner consistent with the diegetic world, making its hyperlink function natural and invisible. 

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykver, 1998) is another film that exhibits the telephone in a role of narrative control, but also of database control.  Exhibiting the remediation cycle at work in ‘old media’, Run Lola Run is an example of narrative cinema refashioning itself in response to the challenge of video games and computational database structures.  The ringing red phone in Lola’s apartment initiates each of the three vignettes, and by the time the third vignette begins, the viewer knows that the ringing phone represents a resetting of time and place to the origin point, and the viewer expects a new sequence of events and set of obstacles for Lola to surmount in her effort to save her boyfriend Manni.  To apply Branigan’s component schema, the ringing phone is the initiating event that “alters the present state of affairs” (Branigan 1991, 18), very much like the kidnapping episode in Tracking Agama.  Each time the phone rings and the camera focuses on the red handset we are offered another of the many possible outcomes of Lola and Manni’s situation.  Film theorist Marsha Kinder describes films like Run Lola Run that expose “the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories” as database narratives, and suggests that such films “reveal the arbitrariness of the particular choices made, and the possibility of making other combinations which would create alternative stories” (Kinder 2002, 6).  In Run Lola Run, this arbitrariness is highlighted by seemingly insignificant items such as the delay caused by the dog in the animated sequence or the obstacle of the baby stroller, or the more significant choices of where to obtain the necessary sum of money—which change both Lola’s path to Manni through the streets and the story we experience.  Similarly, the participant of Tracking Agama has a range of choices to make in terms of navigation and discovery, each choice creating a different experience and each choice instantiated by use of the telephone.  Visually and structurally, the telephone in Run Lola Run serves as a sort of ‘reset button’ or ‘run’ command—a function common in video games and databases initiating the procedural algorithm.  The film both illuminates the cycle of remediation and provides further evidence of the telephone’s suitability for controlling, delivering and resetting access to narrative information in a computational environment.


In an observation that has resonance with Janet Murray’s recommendation of a natural interface that links the participant action with the story world action, Ned Schantz describes the “Classical Hollywood Telephone” as one that performs its narrative role of information exchange and insight smoothly, naturally and without calling attention to itself.  He also observes that the phone can function as a touchstone revealing possible paths—we might say an ‘operator’ within database narrative.  Schantz offers the Classical Hollywood example of It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) and the scene in which George Bailey discusses marriage and investment proposals in a three-way phone call:  “the telephone puts George in contact with what might have been and represents the alternative that must be rejected” (Schantz 2003, 28).  The telephone, then, is a natural narrative interface, whether for communicating distant action as in the rescue melodramas, as an access point for small narrative units as in the complex structure of Sorry Wrong Number, a tool for directing or taking action as in 24, or as a nodal point in alternate paths exemplified by Phantom of Liberty.

From Janet Murray’s recommendations for reconciling narrative immersion and interactivity to the MIT Media Lab group’s experiments with physically interactive narratives, interfaces that are as natural as possible seem to be the best option for maximizing the interactive and immersive experience.  The location-aware mobile experiences described here seem particularly well suited to operate as a computational interactive new media form and as an immersive narrative experience.  By using the physical world coincident with the real world, they yield an exploratory environment without the burden of unsupported video cards, helmet mounted displays or other disruptive equipment and they offer a procedural and constantly mutable narrative experience.  By using the phone as a diegetically motivated interface device they tap a resource that already plays a central role in daily life, is a naturalized narrative device with a long cinematic history uniting time and space (Pathé through 24) and navigates small narrative units distributed in a database-like arrangement.  David Thompson’s Film Comment article about the telephone includes this thought from Jean-Luc Godard:  “The phone reminds us that, whatever our present happiness, we cannot resist the unknown future…every phone call might transform our lives” (Thompson 1984, 27).  The future of interactive narrative is equally unknown, but the mobile phone will play a role in its transformation.

Media Works and Creators

24.  2001-.  Fox Television.

24:  Conspiracy.  2004.  Fox Television.

34N118W.  2002.  Jeremy Hight, Jeffrey Knowlton, Naomi Spellman.
Blast Theory. 2005.

Botfighters. 2002-.  It’s Alive!.

I Like Frank.  2004.  Blast Theory. 

It’s Alive.  2005.

Tracking Agama.  2004.  USC Interactive Media (Will Carter, Todd Furmanksi, Tripp Millican, Brad Newman, Scott Ruston, Jen Stein).  Los Angeles.

Uncle Roy All Around You.  2003.  Blast Theory.

Zork.  1980.  Infocom. 


Barthes, Roland.  1974.  S/Z.  Trans. Richard Miller.  New York:  Hill and Wang.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999.  Remediation:  Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Branigan, Edward.  1992. Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge.

Carr, Brian. 2002. “Strange Days and the Subject of Mobility.” Camera Obscura 17 (2): 190-217.

Cresswell, Tim.  2002.  “Introduction:  Theorizing Place”.  In Mobilizing Place, Placing Mobility, ed. Ginette Verstraete and Tim Cresswell, 11-32.  Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Dee, Johnny.  2006.  “G2: Big Kids on the Block”.  The Guardian, August 8, Features 12. 1&wchp=dGLzVlz-zSkVb&_md5=513654362c2751cdefb1eda51de87cb9

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2003. “Where Were You When?” PMLA 118.1: 120-22.

Friedberg, Anne.  2002.  “Urban mobility and cinematic visuality:  the screens of Los Angeles—endless cinema or private telematics.”  Journal of Visual Culture 1.2:  183-204.

Gunning, Tom. 1991. “Heard over the Phone.” Screen 32.2: 184-96.

Hight, Jeremy.  2003.  “Narrative Archeology.” Streetnotes, Summer.

Kinder, Marsha.  2002.  “Hotspots, Avatars and Narrative Fields Forever:  Bunuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative.”  Film Quarterly, 55 (Summer):  2-15.

Landow, George.  1991.  Hypertext.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore Maryland.

Manovich, Lev.  2001.  The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Marvin, Carolyn.  1988. When Old Technologies Were New. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGonigal, Jane.  2003.  “This Is Not a Game.” Digital Arts and Culture Conference 2003. Melbourne, Australia.

Murray, Janet.  1997.  Hamlet on the Holodeck:  The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Pinhanez, C.S., J.W. Davis, S. Intile, M. P. Johnson, et. al.  2000.  “Physically Interactive Story Elements.” IBM Systems Journal 39 (3/4): 438-55.

Ryan, Marie-Laure.  2001.  Narrative as Virtual Reality. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

—.  2002.  “Beyond Myth and Metaphor:  Narrative in Digital Media.” Poetics Today 23 (4): 581-609.

Schantz, Ned.  2003.  “Telephone Film.” Film Quarterly 56 (4): 23-30.

Telotte, J. P.  1986.  “Tangled Networks and Wrong Numbers.” Film Criticism 10(3): 36-48.

—.  1989a. “The Displaced Voice of in a Lonely Place.” South Atlantic Review 54(1): 1-12.

—.  1989b.  “The Call of Desire and the Film Noir.” Literature/Film Quarterly: 50-58.

Thomson, David.  1984.  “Telephones.” Film Comment: 24-32.

Wieberg, Birk.  2002.  “Beyond Interactive Cinema”. 2002.


1. Examples include the video iPod and similar devices that allow users to download television episodes, movie trailers and soon full-length movies to a handheld and portable device for on demand viewing.

2. This term is adapted from “alternative reality game”, which describes games that blur the line between game events and real world events, such as “The Beast,” I Love Bees and the game depicted in the film The Game (David Fincher, 1997).


Author Biography:

Scott Ruston is a PhD candidate in the Critical Studies division of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Both a practioner and theorist, his research focuses on narrative in mobile and computational media, the convergence of these media with cinema and television, and their potential in entertainment and education contexts.


  1. Dean Keep says:

    Hi Scott,
    just wanted to say thank you for providing such a great resource.
    Your papers on mobile media are always engaging and thought provoking.