Episodic Structure in Inanimate Alice

An episodic structure is one of the most common ways to tell a story. Television shows do it. Books are separated into chapters, and some stories are spread out among a series of books. The readings for this week, Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, both digital narratives, also used episodes to tell their stories. I think that this structure does a lot of the same things that a television episode or a book series does, but the fact that they’re digital narratives gives this structure some additional effects that print stories don’t have. Here’s a brief overview of the ways that I think this specific structure contributed to Inanimate Alice as a whole.

Character and Plot Development

Throughout the story, we see Alice grow up. The first 4 chapters span over 6 years of her life, and I think that the episodic structure highlights the changes she goes through personally in those years. The first episode is pretty simple, with an introduction, a conflict (losing the father,) and a resolution (finding the father). While this same basic structure remains the same throughout the episodes, they become more complex, a result of the fact that Alice herself is becoming more mature and her skills as an animator are also improving. The episode in Moscow, for example, requires the viewer to play a game in order to make it to the next episode.

Alice isn’t the only thing that’s changing. The setting also changes in each episode as the family moves around. While references are made to previous locations in some episodes (The last episode in England makes a reference to their life in Moscow,) each episode seems like an almost self-contained mini story that’s part of a larger narrative. I guess that’s essentially what an episode is, and the changes in setting give the reader something new to look forward to. As I was reading, I was always wondering where the family would end up next.

Uniform Structure Within Episodes

Readers and viewers expect certain things from media in the form of an episode. There’s almost always a basic structure: An episode begins in a state of normalcy, something happens to disrupt that and cause a conflict, and in the end, the conflict is resolved and the characters return to that state of normalcy. There are also specific things that we expect from characters. In a TV show, for example, certain phrases or character actions are repeated in almost every episode, and we eventually expect them.

In Inanimate Alice, although  the episodes get longer and increasingly complex in many ways, that same structure remains the same. There’s always a conflict, whether it’s losing her father, trying to make it through an abandoned building, or trying to collect enough dolls to make it out of Moscow. There are also certain elements that we see repeated in each episode. We expect to see something about her “player” and the new things she’s learning to do with it. We see whatever house her family is living in at the moment. We learn something about her family, mainly her father’s job or the increasing tension between her parents. And, of course, we always see Brad and he helps us find the way out of the conflict.

I think that an episodic structure is beneficial to the viewing experience in this way – it’s satisfying when we have expectations and they’re met. There’s part of us that seeks order and familiarity. I have a professor who is habitually 5 minutes late to every lecture. One day she showed up early, and it was jarring and weird. The same goes with characters in episodes. As we get to know them, we expect certain things of them, and it’s nice to be able to have that order and familiarity in the form of an episodic narrative (especially if we can’t have it in our own lives).

Increasing Interactivity

This idea of increasing interactivity is an attribute that Inanimate Alice has because it’s a digital narrative. As I mentioned before, she is growing up throughout the episodes and learning to do more advanced things with Brad. As a result, the episodes become more complex in a lot of ways, but especially in the way in which the reader interacts with the text. The first episode is simple, and we just read the story about how Alice and her mother go to search for her father, and we click a few buttons on the way to advance the story.

In later episodes, more is expected from us. We have to find all the dolls, for example, or figure out how to get Alice out of the building safely. For me, this was something I really enjoyed, and it’s something that a television show can’t really do. TV shows are under time constraints and have to be generally the same length, and there’s not much you can do in terms of viewer interactivity. Those limits don’t exist with digital narratives. The first episode of Alice was 5 minutes, while the last one was about 20, which allowed for this interactivity as you tried to figure out which way to go to exit the building.

Overall, I really enjoyed Inanimate Alice and I think that the structure of the narrative was a big reason why.

-Julie Howell


~ by juliehowell on February 7, 2011.

%d bloggers like this: