There is a key difference between a computational narrative system and the Choose Your Own Adventure books - procedurality and as a consequence, in the player agency.
While not all computational systems make use of this affordance to the same degree - for example Storyspace, the authoring tool used for Afternoon, A Story offers limited procedural functions in the form of "guard fields" that hide certain links until some conditions are met, while ASAPS offers tracking functions, global variables, timers, a random function and an inventory system; the exact procedural functionality in Walking Dead is not known, but most likely includes tracking function and maybe some level of AI.
More concretely, this means ASAPS has state memory and can track prior decision by a user and make them count in the form of delayed consequences. ASAPS narratives often have 6 or more different endings, and many branches are determined by condition checking functions that are based on the current state and prior decisions and are invisible to the user. In this way, a user's earlier decisions can influence later ones and/or have delayed consequences, just like in real life where we see the result of our decisions only much later. Ultimately, this improves the player's feeling of agency in the player as she starts to realized that earlier decisions are meaningful and accumulative. Choose Your Own Adventure books as a printed media form cannot remember earlier decisions, thus agency only exist over the direct branching decisions, and not over the slow development of a character.
Procedurality also has a big influence on the authoring side as not all branches have to be developed in a discreet manner, but instead can be distinguished programmatically by the procedural system, which removes at least some of the concerns regarding the manageability of larger branching systems.
At the same time we should be careful not to focus on the difference in outcome only - the interesting part in many narratives might be what happens along the way, and not only in the ending. Interactive digital narrative might be particularly suited to also explore such narratives.
I took a quick look at ASPAS and saw the obvious similarities between Imprisoned and a game like The Walking Dead. I suppose what I find the most interesting about both is the ways in which, while the narrative is interactive, there are still only very limited outcomes. At the end of The Walking Dead, for instance, our choices change some of the events that happen, but not the ultimate conclusion. I wonder if part of that isn't the amount of labor that must be put into multiple alternative endings, and the chance at sequels (The Walking Dead has to end a certain way for The Walking Dead 2 to continue a certain character's story). In that respect, more text based medias, like Choose Your Own Adventure Books or a hyperlinked text like Afternoon, A Story is better able to accommodate interactive narratives as described here.
I agree with Matt about the separation of identifying with a character, yet also recognizing them as a creation of someone else, and using a digital space to express ourselves in new ways. I think another interesting example in the creation of Facebook characters is the newly identified trend of "catfishing," or creating a Facebook character that is a false representation of the self, and often used to trick another into an online relationship with who they claim to be. This space allows the profile author to not only create a character, but to also get to live out an experience as that character, combining the identification with self and recognition of other. When someone creates a fake Facebook profile, though they may use the image of another "real" person as the profile avatar, it is still merely a representation of that other, possibly someone that the creator wants to be (or be like).
This new type of character is like the traditional narrative character in that the profile creator becomes like the narrative author, by creating a new character in hopes that a "reader" or potential partner will identify with the created character, but now the author actually gets to merge "someone else" with "themselves" in order to act out that persona in a digital space, rather than just on the pages of a book. I think this goes along with what Pedro says about the digital space being more malleable- this is an example of having more than two choices, because it is at once a representation of who the creator wants to be, mixed with some aspects of who they actually are, and again combined with facets of someone else (the 'them' they use as their catfish avatar).
You ask a lot of great questions that I am in no way qualified to answer. I do think the technology is coming that will help us to do some of the analysis you mention. NVivo is one that we are fortunate to have in one of our grad labs, that allows you to annotate video and audio files. Overall, though, when we write about it, we end up converting that content into text. It is not good at the quantified research you're looking at as well. Perhaps this is a good way to think about the values of collaborative research. I think trying to usefully use bigger data and archival work is going to create a shift towards collaborative work in the humanities.
I found the part where you said, "the process of sense-making that readers must undertake are still just as relevant" in digital forms interesting. I feel the multi-modal possibilities of digital spaces exceed even Flash and audio additions to a text. A variety of visual clues are possible within a digital space, of course, including colour, placement, and more. However, I wonder if digital space will allow more granularity in analyzing the reader reaction to a text, digital-born or otherwise. For example, using digital tools might allow tracking the amount of time reader's spend reading particular sections, providing quantifiable data concerning the reader's process of sense-making. Similarly, for embedded audio and video, the number of times these clips are replayed or if segments are replayed, might be useful in extrapolating the reader's experience.
I think that one of the issues is that, when we talk about our game avatars or our Facebook profiles, we identify them with some extension of ourselves. In traditional fiction, when we “read for character,” no matter how much we identify with a particular character, we still recognize them as a creation of someone else. This ties back in the the privileging of the author in the creation of texts in the Western tradition.
There is also a tradition of dismissal of the tech writing abilities involved in the creation of templates, which, really, is what an avatar or a Facebook profile is. They are templates that we may adjust and customize (to certain degrees) in order to express ourselves as authors, using a combination of features to make the template our own.
Laura, you highlight some interesting points in regards to the ways contemporary audiences interact actively with narratives. I will admit to also being a "lurker" on fan sites, often for shows that found little mainstream success (the names of those shows will be withheld to preserve my dignity - ok, ok, Legend of the Seeker is one example). Your example of Smash, and my experiences with campy, less popular, instantly canceled shows (Seeker shockingly got two seasons), made me wonder how we might theorize those efforts of viewers who both try to "save" their shows (Firefly is an obvious example and exception) and that may use these wiki spaces as a means of preserving a narrative that was found to be unprofitable and thus discontinued. In the case of Seeker, a lengthy book series existed first, but many viewers pressed forth, writing whole "episodes" drawn from the television adaptation.
You also mention that you believe this is a "new mode of storytelling in its own right." Does it have any historical precedence?
Finally, I was struck by your claim that you were at times frustrated when "fan participants who seem to revel in speculation and their own creativity will equally yield to the creator’s expressed intent when provided." I think this is an interesting line of thought to explore further. In a non-academic manner, I'm often delighted when author figures offer definitive answers; to me it feels like learning the end of mystery novel. In some ways, all the creativity and speculation is a guessing game; it adds to the experience of the narrative and is not erased when a "top-down" assertion is made. Another thought that occurred to me was that perhaps because those figures have a much wider audience than the typical fan, perhaps fans feel obligated to concede that authority due to sheer numbers, or even the lingering sense of hierarchy afforded the author figure who initially created the universe the fans are playing in.
Intriguing stuff. I need to go check my Dr. Who fan page now.
My own research is also interested in the ways that digital media and the everyday intersect. I think that the immersive feeling that we get from digital media, like video games comes not from an immersive virtual reality, but from pervasive media we pull (reading about games online) or pushed to us through everything from email to smartphones that reminds us of the digital worlds we inhabit even when we aren't inhabiting them. This helps us to extend the experience of a game and gives us alternative points of interactivity as well.
During early releases on the capabilities of XBox One, players were critical of the fact that the Kinect would always be on. Likewise, discussions of the Illumiroom were criticized as not taking into account that gamers play in shared spaces or in varied spaces. We draw definite lines between what is too much immersion and that line sits far from 90s notions of virtual reality.
Good point, Jamie. The notion of play suggested by the playlist metaphor could become yet another reason for traditionalists to dismiss digital publishing. Still, I wonder if the concept isn't a good way of thinking about book-based anthologies (as it arose for me twice), in that its use might at least open up spaces for further experimentation and that might eventually inform natively digital texts. I didn't name the anthology to which I referred because I'm not sure I should before it's out, but the publisher is Oxford UP, not exactly an upstart (!). This makes me optimistic about the trajectory of academic publishing and the influence that Media Commons and other such efforts have exerted.
Many of the points that you hint at within this piece resonate with some of the work that we do within MediaCommons (at least the front page). One of the trends that I have notices is that more open less "thesis-driven, hierarchically-framed prose" seems to gain more readership and more commenting. MediaCommons wants feedback and we encourage contributors to format this way. Developing this kind of publication is a different kind of genre that demands a slightly different kind of writing and skill set. I am not sure where it fits in a universal hierarchy.
I like many connections between the notion of play list, especially the way that the various types of media build meaning instead of supplementing them. I like notions of play and choice as well that come with a metaphor of playlist. I wonder, though, if such a metaphor does not introduce too much play for those that are already hesitant about the validity of online publication?