Practice: narrative environment design - Currently no debate


We are working on building a description of this practice

Related Practice(s):
Socially engaged art

Related Terms:
narrative ecology

definition pending - see debate

scenario building

Scenarios are stories or narratives that portray what might happen, why it might happen, and with what consequences
Scenarios can be very powerful tools to contemplate the range of possible futures that could develop from the influence of key drivers, events and issues.

?a tool for ordering one?s perceptions about alternative future environments in which one?s decisions might be played out? (Schwartz, 1996).



Defamiliarization is a term coined in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device”.

Defamiliarization is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A basic satirical tactic, it is a central concept of 20th century art, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre and science fiction.”  (Wikipedia, accessed 2009)


The Environment is that which surrounds, and the objects which hold the meaning specific to that environment.

In the MA CPfNE course definition, environment is a space we read or experience as dimensional and ‘physical’, whether it’s real or virtual or imaginary, and 1, 2, 3 or 4D.


polymath is a person whose knowledge is not restricted to one subject area. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply refer to someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today’s standards.



The notion of authorship, of the author, is much debated across a number of disciplines. What is generally accepted in most disciplines is that the ideas embodied in the notion of the “Great Tradition” (F. R. Leavis et al), i.e. that the author speaks to us with a magisterial voice, has ‘authority’, and it is our job to receive and understand the author’s message, no longer hold. In the postmodern debate initiated by Barthes and Foucault (Barthes, Roland (1968), “The Death of the Author”, Image, Music, Text (published 1977) ; Foucault, Michel (1969), “What is an Author?”, in Harari, Josué V., Textual Strategies), meaning is unstable and transitory, assembled in a number of ways from a number of sources, in a process over which the ‘author’ (conceived as the original assembler or producer of a text) has little control. These issues become even more complex in the fields of theatre and music performance, where it is accepted (including by ‘authors’) that the ‘text’ is only received via the performers’ ‘interpretation’.

In the field of narrative environment creation, it is clearly important for makers to understand their position within this debate. Given that they will almost certainly be working with heterogenous elements (e.g. the items in a museum collection, a variety of different media deployed in a complex space, etc) it is necessary for them to consider how these elements will be perceived, understood and threaded together by a public. Questions of whether the story is told top down or bottom up, how the story is being constructed at any given moment and by whom, the relationship of the public to the narrative, have to be considered in order to generate a coherent narrative.

Stuart Jones

The diegesis

The diegesis is the world of the narrative. It includes objects, events, spaces and the characters that inhabit them, including things, actions, and attitudes not explicitly presented in the work but inferred by the audience. That audience constructs a diegetic world from the material presented in a narrative. The narrator may or may not be inside the diegesis (extra- (outside) or intra- (inside) diegetic). Note that this formulation of extra- and intra- diegetic differs from and is simpler than the classic formultaion of Genette (homo- hetero- extra- and intra- diegetic and combinations thereof)*. This is so for two reasons: the first is that the diegesis in a narrative environment is typically constructed of real thing: real place, real objects, real people; the second is that we have found that we do not need such a complex formulation as Genette proposes - inside and outside suffices.

A diegesis may contain other narratives, in which case the narrative it belongs to is called a framing narrative. Stories that are told (usually by characters) within the main narrative are part of its diegesis, but also each has its own internal diegesis. If the diegeses of these subnarratives are related to the diegesis of the framing or master narrative, then in narrative environment design we call the framing narrative a meta narrative.

The diegesis is an important concept in narrative environment design because it will most likely contain real places, spaces, objects. Because the audience (narratee) is in direct physical relationship to these elements, the borderline between intradiegetic (part of the narrative’s world) and extradiegetic (outside the narrative’s world) can be extremely porous, making metalepsis comparatively easy. This is a powerful tool for engaging the narratee. See intradiegetic narratee and metalepsis.

*See under “Voice’ in Genette, Gerard; Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1980)

Stuart Jones


This is commonly the position of the narrator (third person, sometimes omniscient, narrators, for example the typical curatorial voice in museums and galleries).

it is typically the position of the narratee. However, please note that often, in narrative environments, the narratee will be physically inside the elements that constitute the diegesis while remaining mentally and psychologically outside the story.


inside the world of the narrative. This and its contrary term extradiegetic are usually used in reference to the narrator and the narratee, but not necessarily exclusively.

If a space itself, or a series of objects and/or inscriptions within it, is identified by the narratee as telling the story then we can say that the narrator is intradiegetic.

In a more complicated formulation, in a museum a curatorial voice is typically intradiegetic to (inside) the diegesis of the museum itself (but not necessarily narrating the story of the museum, though it could be), but extradiegetic to (outside, telling) the diegesis of the collection or exhibition it is ‘talking’ (sometimes really talking) about.

the narratee can be drawn into the story (intradiegetic narratee) through metalepsis, to become a participant in the world of the story, even to be the protagonist, as is often the case in gaming. In narrative environment design this can be a very powerful tool indeed but needs to be used with discretion, as the intense emotional engagement that it can engender has to be handled with care. See metalepsis.


Metalepsis means moving from outside to inside a diegesis (or vice versa). In narrative environments it is usually used to refer to the process by which the narratee moves (is moved) from the extradiegetic to the intradiegetic position. This is typically caused by eliciting participation/performance/performativity in the story, commonly through interaction between the visitor and the space or objects within a narrative environment. This interaction can be through digital technology, but not necessarily so.

Referencing narratology: Genette (1980) defines narrative metalepsis as an intrusion by extradiegetic   elements into the diegesis (and vice versa). He recognises that anyone or anything   can slip from one diegetic level to another if the boundary between the levels is porous, and it worries him: ”The most troubling thing about metalepsis indeed   lies in this unacceptable and insistent hypothesis, that the extradiegetic is perhaps always diegetic, and that the narrator and his narratees-you and I-perhaps     belong to some narrative” (Genette, G. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.  Trans. Jane E. Lewin.    Ithaca: Cornell UP (1980) page 236). This, in a sense, is pretty much what we consider to be the case in narrative environments, where the diegesis typically is constituted of things that exist in the real world. 

Here’s an example of metalepsis in a short film: as the narrator walks along, elements from the story he’s telling appear on the side of the path. The Man Who Walked Around the World

For further discussion of metalepsis see my essay: Louis, Mr Dog and Rabbit: metalepsis in an interactive narrative. Originally published in: R. Aylett et al. (Eds.): ICIDS 2010, LNCS 6432, pp. 248–251, 2010. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg


Stuart Jones

Framing Narrative

Framing narratives in narrative environment design have a lot in common with framing narratives in textual and verbal storytelling, so here is the narratology definition to start off:

A framing narrative contains a second (or more) embedded narrative(s), for which it provides a context or setting. Sometimes the framing narrative will begin and end the narrative as a whole, providing book ends,  other times it will simply be present at the beginning of the narrative, acting as an introduction, sometimes it reappears as a linking device between a series of embedded narratives. The framing narrative “sets the scene” for the embedded narrative(s), giving us a context in which we can read and interpret the text.

A framing narrative may frame a single sub narrative; “we were sitting round the kitchen table when D started talking in a low, fearful voice: “I was staying at X’s house many years ago when…” etc

Or it may frame many: The 1001 Nights

If in the first example D had said: “I was staying in this very house many years ago when…” and the whole narrative had been a story about the house itself (perhaps about persistent haunting, for example), then both the framing and the sub narratives would have shared to some extent the same focus and the same storyworld; when this is the case we say the framing narrative is a meta-narrative.

Often framing comes as a set of nesting (we say Matroushka Doll) narratives: The British Museum has a narrative of power and authority told through the architecture and and the use of external space; then inside, the collection as a whole tells a story of imperialism, adventure and scholarship, which itself is broken into many sub narratives of particular instances. Within this context, a particular exhibit may be framed by a particular curatorial discourse, and itself consist of or contain sub narratives emerging from the objects themselves or the way they are related to each other.

In narrative envionment design, as this example suggests) the framing narrative may not just be of a different order from the narrative(s) it encloses, it may be of an entirely different kind, in a different medium: a curator will create a framing narrative around a collection of object or images, which in themselves tell stories, or are curated to imply stories through ordering and juxtaposition. This framing narrative may be dispersed through the exhibition in texts on display, and/or contained in the catalogue; it might be told in part or entirely through sound or lighting or the use of space; all of this is already framed by the physical characteristics, volumes and location of the building and the stories they tell.

Or landscaping may tell a framing story about the buildings it contains, e.g. Scarpa’s Brion Vega Tomba, where spatial layout, acoustics, borrowed landscapes and soundscapes weave a story around the narrative of the key architectural moments, 

Or a city brand narrative may contain or frame a multitude of localised sub narratives.


Here is an example of a series of nesting narratives

Floating Numbers at the Jewish Museum Berlin

The museum building tells through its architecture a story of fragmentation and destruction. In particular, the bird’s eye view shows it as a broken and unravelled Star of David. 

The exterior looks as if it has been attacked and slashed

even the memorial garden looks off kilter, and in winter, bleak

The interior is often bare, sometimes looks abandoned

ans sometimes the sense of being only inhabited by fragments and memories of pain is explicit and refers explicitly to the death camps

On the other hand, the exhibition content is typically joyous and full of life. One particular exhibit uses narrative, symbolism and ritual to draw us into the arcance world of numerology, which is a very important part of both the Torah and the Kabbalah.
You enter a room which contains a long table round which visitors stand.

This evokes the Jewish traditon of eating together on every Shabat, and in particular at Pessach (Passover), when people stand to eat. Anyone who is Jewish or watched Woody Allen films will know that jewish people love to talk during the meal, typically arguing, gossipping and telling each other stories.
The table is covered with numbers instead of food

as people reach for the numbers (food for the mind)

the numbers open up and tell their story of their relationship to Jewish learning and culture.


Leitmotifs are threading devices consisting of an image or a sound or a phrase that recurs, and reminds the reader/audience of states or agents (usually characters in the story, but can be other agents such as objects or forces). Originated by Wagner for the range of melodies that cluster round the characters, objects and states in his operas. Transformation in leitmotifs depict transformations in the elements to which they are attached. They are a very powerful structural tool.

Meta Narrative

A framing narrative that refers to the narratives it encloses and frequently shares diegetic elements with them: they share (at least partially) the same storyworld. The enclosing can (often will) be physical/spatial as well as narrative.

Stuart Jones


Narration is one of the key terms where narrative environment design departs from narratology. Because narratology typically deals with texts, it is easy, in general, to distinguish between the narrator (a figment of the author’s narrative approach) and the author per se. In narrative environment design this is not necessarily rhe case. In fact, if we look at non european, non text based forms of narration, already it is becoming hard to distinguish: 1) between diegesis and mimesis; and 2) between author and narrator.

In both Bunraku (Japanese Puppet Theatre) and Wayang (Indonesian Puppet Theatre). there is someone who narrates the story through a mixture and speech, and also does (performs) the voices of the characters. In both traditions, the stories are episodes from traditional legend and myth, however, in Bunraku the text ts formalised in a version handed down through generations, whereas in the Wayang tradition the story, which will be an episode from the Ramayana or Mahabharata, retold and embellished by the performer - a lot of the audience pleasure is in hearing a familiar story renewed. This is also the case in the various traditions of story telling in India, which will tell stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata, usually through a mixture of accompanied speech and song, combined with vivid gesture and dance.

Bunraku video

Wayang video

In the above traditional styles a mixture of media (puppets, lighting, speech, gesture, music, song, dance) are used to tell the story. This relates clearly to narrative environment design where, typically, objects, space and media - graphical, time based, interactive, will all be used to tell the story (or stories).


Stuart Jones (in development)


As will be clear from the definition of audience in other practices, it refers to a collective: either a collective that is conscious of its collected self, as in theatre or music, or completely unaware and dispersed, as in television. This makes it a problematic term in narrative environment design, where most often the environment is expected to be experienced on a one-to-one basis by individuals who do not perceive themselves as a collective. Terms from ‘visitor’ through to ‘perticipant’ are in this sense much less problematic. However, in some narrative environments, especially where multi user interaction is present, individual participants can fuse into an active collective. This relates to ‘audience participation’, which is long standing in the theatre, particularly since the 1960s. For example, “Akropolis” directed by Jerzy Grotowski: in it the company of actors (representing concentration camp prisoners) build the structure of a crematorium around the audience while acting out stories from the Bible and Greek mythology. Later, in “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” based on the Elizabethan drama by Marlowe, foregoing the use of props altogether, Grotowski let the actors’ bodies represent different objects, establishing an intimate dynamic of relation between actors and spectators by seating audience members as the guests at Faust’s last supper, with the action unfolding on and around the (human) table where they were seated. These kinds of theatrical performances can be viewed as antecedents to contemporary narrative interaction based design.

Stuart Jones


Communication of something by imitation or representation, as opposed to diegesis: communication of something by narration or report.

Mimesis and diegesis are very sharply separated in Aristotle’s account and thence in literary theory and narratology.

Things are not so clear cut in Narrative Environment Design. Many Narrative Environments incorporate mimesis in their ‘telling’ or narration’ strategy. In which case one could say that the mimesis becomes part of the diegesis of the Narrative Environment.