Interactivity in storytelling

I’ve been noticing lately some interesting experiments in interactive storytelling. Take a look:

  • Black Crown is an online interactive story that The Verge calls “a strange blend of interactive fiction and a classic choose-your-own-adventure novel.” They also use the term “game.” Interesting that this thing is coming out of Random House UK — publishers can be a progressive bunch.
  • Haunting Melissa is a horror movie that is doled out bit by bit through an iOS app. But the interesting thing to me isn’t the serialized form or the App Store distribution, it’s the fact that the narrative can change a little bit in the rewatching, as TechCrunch explains: “To keep viewers hooked on “Haunting Melissa” even though there isn’t a regular schedule, the creators developed technology to allow them to add dynamic story elements to each chapter. In other words, if viewers re-watch a chapter, they see or hear different things that add new layers to the narrative and help set the atmosphere of the ghost story.”
  • A March Story was a serialized story that used suggestions from the twitterverse about how to fill in certain details, ranging from names to whole sentences, and those details helped guide the evolution of the story. Like Mad Libs, narrative edition.

These examples, in which the reader/viewer is given some measure of control, reminds me of the debate about whether games can ever be Art, or if their interactive nature disqualifies them. Roger Ebert thought that games could not be art even in principle, and one of his reasons was the importance of an single, intentional narrative. Here he is summarizing a debate with filmmaker and game creator Clive Barker:

“I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”

Well, yes, that is what I think. There was actually a time in history when a version of Romeo and Juliet was performed with a happy ending, and I can’t begin to tell you how much that depressed audiences.

Barker: “Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.”

Ebert: “If you can go through ‘every emotional journey available,’ doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.

Gamers also recognize the question of control as essential, and in fact deride games that have heavy handed storytelling that leads you along “on rails” without being able to move where you like. Games shouldn’t be like a novel or a movie. But, they say, that doesn’t mean they are not art — just a new art form.

Ebert continues:

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn’t qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages. It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. As Archibald MacLeish wrote: A poem should not mean, but be.

Ebert never settles on a definition of art, but note that the attempts above have to do with the things that art does to him: moves him, instructs him, engages his empathy. Of course no one could accuse Ebert of having been a passive consumer of art, but he seems to presume that one lets art work on you first, and then you emerge (from the movie theater, the gallery, the pages of a novel) primed to respond. I wonder if gamers have the same assumption, or if they see the action/reaction stages of art experience as much more collapsed.

Truth be told, I’m much more on Ebert’s side: I prefer to sit back and focus and let the author/director/artist guide me somewhere, show me something, and let me see out of someone else’s eyes. But I’m not ready to proclaim games and other interactive experience outside the realm of art on principle. I’m wondering, What would a more sophisticated interactive storytelling experience be like? How could we progress beyond a choose-your-own-adventure-type set of a few possible outcomes, paying only lip service to viewer/player empowerment, and still maintain a story that was coherent: ends that paid off beginnings, characters with satisfying arcs of development, etc.

The only way I can think of, and perhaps it wouldn’t work anyway, but the only way I can think of is to give the viewer/player more control over the story than they currently have in any existing narrative game. Recall the Kuleshev experiment, in which several viewers were shown the same few film clips, but in different orders: they constructed a narrative about who was looking at whom, and what they were thinking and feeling. Maybe for narrative storytelling to embrace interactivity fully rather than providing an experience “on rails” or weakly “choose your own adventure” among a set of four a five different plot threads, the author has to simply become a generator of raw story material that the viewer/player assembles into a story.

Would that mean that for it to be great art the viewer as well as the creator would have to be a great artist? Maybe not. We are all storytelling creatures, making sense of our own identities and those of everyone around us by taking some details, discarding others, and assembling them in a sensical way, constantly, quickly, and often unconsciously. Given the best ingredients and the best tools for splicing, the evolution of interactive storytelling might mean the “author” provides potential story material and the viewer/player provides the plot.

This recalls in a way Kenneth Goldsmith’s argument in Uncreative Writing about the promotion of the author from one who writes to one to controls, curates, programs, remixes literary material. In this vision, the artist is being promoted from storyteller to story material generator, or perhaps more catchily “worldbuilder,” creating the material and the tools for someone on the other end to splice together.

I don’t know yet what any of that would actually look like, but we’re not going to find out by debating what’s art and what’s not. We’ll get there by experimenting and then debating about what’s good and what’s not.

The Story

The story. From Mobstr via Ankur Thakkur

2 thoughts on “Interactivity in storytelling

  1. I’ll stick to film fr my comment. Hitchcock manipulated me exactly where he wanted me to go. Fellini made me work and wonder. Kubrick made me think and figure out my own interpretation and meaning to what I saw. All three were artists. I have no doubt that an interactive story, even a game, can be art – in the hands of an artist.

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