Invisible Cities: Narrative Structures and Experience


This project had two parts, an examination of narrative structures, and a exploration of different ways to read Invisible Cities by changing the order in which the reader experiences the text. I digitized Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, put it into a content management system and using simple hypertext changed the order in which the reader could experience the text. Instead of the author retaining control, a linear reading experience, hypertext can allow the reader to have control, thereby changing the overall experience.

The following muddled brief also hoped to explore different ways we can share narrative cross cultures, communicating a story using a language understood by all.


I am interested in studying narrative forms in which people can contribute and interact with bodies of content. Organic forms of story telling are what I enjoy the most when I experience narrative on the web. We tend to oversimplify the story telling structure by thinking that it imposes linearization, and it is popular to try to extend or add variance to stories by adding different branches. But the idea that people read linearly is an oversimplification of a complex process. The reader or the user forms multiple pathways in their minds taking them forwards, sideways, and backwards through the story. It is these multiple pathways – the users imaginative response to the story – that I would like to support and have people interact with.

As well, both practical and theoretical ways in which we organize or categorize these stories is of interest to me. Practical in the sense that people need to intuitively use the system and theoretical in the sense of how this works and what is possible. Most of my prior work and study has been in organizing content to build a cumulative understanding of a particular domain over time – information oriented hypertext systems – where the user has ultimately total control. I expect a far different approach/process will be needed in “IA for literary reading” where people are not building conceptual models. I am interested in the visualization of these greater categories as a means of navigation for multilingual sets of users and as a means of supporting the imaginative qualities of the stories.

Starting separate experiences based on language is the current common practice for digital environments when catering to different cultural groups. Based on commercial expediency, and borrowed across other non-commercial forms, these choices do not encourage cross- cultural communication nor do they reflect the natural ways in which we interact in the real world. Inspired by the conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I am interested in exploring ways in which we can remove the need for language segregation in digital environments thereby encouraging cross- cultural sharing of common experiences. The context of which would be story telling. People of different cultures have met and have shared stories long before the invention of the world wide web, how can we replicate the techniques people use in real life in a digital environment? I believe that engaging and interactive experiences delivered via the web can help bring people of different cultures together across vast distances to engage in the same kind of conversation enjoyed by Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.

I see three clear directions for such an exploration. First, how can narrative be effectively delivered via a digital environment; can we actually improve the act of storytelling by delivering it digitally? Second, when creating the structure for the environment how would we categorize such a large body of data? Would we use facets and if we did how thorough an examination would we follow? If we are encouraging a language independent approach to the usage of this system would that require a visual thesaurus as well? What would be the cultural mindset? Thirdly, how would the user affect the system; can we create spaces that evolve overtime as the nature of the content and interaction change? Lastly, in dealing with a multilingual audience will a new visual language need to be created to enable usage of the environment? How far should the use of this language be created? Should the narrative itself be primarily visual in nature? As pondered by Calvino, which can come first the image of the story or the words?

In this project, I would like to explore how we can design interactive narrative that can be used by the widest possible audience specifically allowing as much use of the environment without a dependence on language. I believe that the work of Calvino and the way we communicate cross culturally in “real space” offers much in the way of examples and inspiration. I believe the solutions available to these challenges can provide models for other projects and I intend to demonstrate these possibilities.