29 Mar

Story 2.0

On what new media has to offer to engage us in stories.

Interactivity is the buzz word in the new media realm. But what are we really after when we strive for interactivity? I would argue that the goal is to have the reader/viewer/player/listener engaged. It’s that simple.

Of course, the pinnacle of engagement is in the creative process. I learn much more, for instance, when I teach a class than when I take one. In creating the curriculum, I need to be more invested — mentally and emotionally — in the product of that creation. This sort of logic is, I would argue, behind many of the web 2.0 innovations we’ve seen in recent years. It explains the popularity of sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr. They don’t stop at offering their users content to ingest; they allow the users to create the food they’re eating, too.

But if one of the defining characteristics of web 2.0 is interactivity, does Story 2.0 require the same? As I explained in my last post, I don’t think that the audience of a story can ever co-author it. But I do see the current media environment as doing two important things to engage people in stories. First they (the proverbial they) are giving us some great new tools to create content. And secondly, they are giving us some very engaging delivery systems.

The new media environment has been especially friendly to the visual and audio arts, providing plenty of free services and software that actually help people create more interesting and sophisticated content. A site called aviary has been developing various online software tools to manipulate photos, create vector art, and do other fancy design work. And there are tutorials out there for everything, so even casual Star Wars geeks can make movies with light saber effects.

But when it comes to storytelling, there’s not much in terms of software that you can give people to actually help them craft a better story. I suppose free movie editing programs, bundled with most new computers, have had some impact on how many people are producing movies, but as I’ve learned after 7 or 8 years of teaching video production to high school students, the tools don’t guarantee good stories.

Other people can help you craft better stories, though. And I guess if tutorials are tools, so are internet communities. I can’t say whether the various poetry and fiction forums out there in cyberspace have improved storytelling in general. But they are out there. So in addition to software, add communities to the list of tools.

And then add one more: publication. The arts need an audience. And if the web is good at any one thing, it is good at giving people a stage, however small that stage may be. Blogs, web cams, and image/video hosting sites make it possible for everyone to get published.

Combine the software, a community, and publication, and you have a site like xtranormal. Here’s their “about”:

Xtranormal’s mission is to bring movie-making to the people. Everyone watches movies and we believe everyone can make movies. Movie-making, short and long, online and on-screen, private and public, will be the most important communications process of the 21st century.

Our revolutionary approach to movie-making builds on an almost universally held skill—typing. You type something; we turn it into a movie. On the web and on the desktop.

I decided to give it a try and came up with the following:

So there you have it. Clear evidence that the new media environment offers some new tools for story production. And also clear evidence that the story’s only as good as the storyteller.

But the question isn’t about whether Story 2.0 will be better than previous iterations of narratives. The question is whether our new forms of story are increasing the engagement of the readers.

The tools may or may not help the creators of tales to make more engaging content, but by engaging more people in the creation process, it can’t hurt the consumption end of that cycle.

If story-building tools aren’t helping Story to evolve, though, the various delivery systems offered in the new media environment are certainly adding layers of audience engagement.

The most obvious enhancement brought about by the web is its multi-media nature. Sites are capable of delivering images and sound along with the text we’re reading. Our minds tend to be captivated by information assaults, which is why tv is so good at lulling us into hypnogogic states. But as such mesmerism proves, engagement isn’t always active engagement.

I think Story 2.0 improves upon television by requiring a little more active navigation than is required by the remote control. How? Well, all internet browsers read html and php, and most of them read flash and javascript. These are all coding languages capable of producing dynamic user involvement — to put it simply, they allow for the user to click on things.

I’ve already delved into hypertext fiction, which is the simplest form of “dynamic user involvement.” Even noncritical user involvement (i.e. when the user’s interactivity has no bearing on the direction the story takes — like clicking on next gets you the next page) is still user involvement and is a level higher than television.

And then there’s gameplay, which gives us challenges that exist within a context of a story. Certainly, games are capable of getting us to engage with a narrative quite actively. Even if I maintain that they don’t allow any co-authoring, I must grant that games produce active engagement.

And if we’re talking about games, we’ve got to return to communities. Not only are communities tools in the creation of content, they’re also sometimes part of the delivery system. Book clubs, casual discussion of movies, and academic study — such tried and true community engagement with narratives has always been a part of story delivery. But now we can add group gameplay to that list.

And if we’re really going for gold, we can take a look at “alternate reality games,” which might be the current pinnacle of active audience engagement.

ARGs, as they’re called, begin with a narrative hook that describes some sort of mysterious event. Dana’s Aunt Margaret is having trouble with her website — weird trouble. Or some sort of strange red light has been seen in coastal waters worldwide. Or six amnesiacs wake up, blindfolded, in labyrinths around the world with tattoos on their arms that read, “Trovu la ringon perditan.”

As you investigate these mysteries, you will inevitably stumble upon links to related blogs, email updates, and some sort of forum where you can discuss the details of the mystery with other players/readers. A community of puzzle-solvers forms around the narrative, and more of the plot is revealed as the various players uncover more clues. Typically, the gameplay extends from the virtual world into the real world. So, for instance, the game Perplex City, which began with a magical cube being stolen from some other planet, ends with some real person in England who found the cube in a park in Northhamptonshire.

The vast majority of ARGs are commissioned by some sort of corporation which wants to build hype for a product of theirs. The one that starts with Aunt Margaret having trouble with her website was actually a marketing scheme for the release of Halo 2 and was called “I Love Bees.” The strange red lights in the sea is a current tie-in with the video game Bioshock’s story and is also about building hype for an upcoming Bioshock 2. The six amnesiacs were part of a game called “The Lost Ring,” launched by McDonald’s and the IOC in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

More and more television shows are creating ARGs to help expand the universe of the series’ fictional narratives. Dollhouse, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes, Lost, and a slew of others have all attempted to increase engagement via ARGs. And according to a recent article in the Economist, it’s working.

ARGs may be the best glimpse we can get into what Story 2.0 might end up looking like. They’re marketable, and they lend themselves well to cross-promotion and advertising; as a result, they have some real money behind them, and they get promoted. Most impressively, though, they combine almost everything that the new media environment has to offer: community, interaction, and a multi-media experience.

24 Mar

Video + Interaction

On whether video games are the new media of choice for delivering stories in our digital age.

Are all video games stories? No. Tetris.

But the vast majority of games at the very least have a back story. That is, there’s some story that precedes the interactive game the player partakes in. Even Space Invaders as Jesper Juul points out, has a back story. He writes, “A prehistory is suggested in [Space] Invaders: An invasion presupposes a situation before the invasion. It is clear from the science fiction we know that these aliens are evil and should be chased away. So the title suggests a simple structure with a positive state broken by an external evil force.” Just to emphasize: a story is suggested by Space Invaders, but not actually stated.

Following Space Invaders, though, there were plenty of games that did state the story that preceded play. Classic arcade games like Double Dragon, Alien Syndrome, and Paperboy usually had some minimal introductory scenario that got the story rolling (click the titles to see the intros). The typical one had some evil mastermind kidnapping your girlfriend. Wasn’t that the premise of most of the Super Mario games? Princess Peach is kidnapped and we’re off.

In a lot of these “back story” games, though, the play doesn’t move the story forward much. The initial computer animated sequence provides a context for gameplay, but what follows is a series of challenges that have little to do with plot.

This situation continues nowadays with online shooters, which dispense with story altogether. Even the ever-popular Halo series, which has a definite narrative thread, throws story out the window for its online play, where a player is usually on a team of marines fighting against another team of marines. Such a scenario actually runs counter to the Halo story, where the player never fights against his own species.

Speaking of the Halo story, though, in it we can see a more sophisticated method of conveying the narrative. It doesn’t just begin with back story. It then proceeds to fill in gaps between the various “levels” or chapters using “cut scenes.” The cut scenes exist to propel the story forward and they alternate with actual gameplay.

But it’s rare (and a fairly recent phenomenon) that gameplay and narrative are actually delivered at the same time. RPGs and action-adventure games sometimes attempt to offer the player various narrative choices, but often those choices take place in interactive cut scenes rather than in the gameplay itself. One of my favorite examples of such an approach comes from the game Deus Ex: Invisible War. Are there any games that don’t pause the gameplay to allow the player to move the story forward through interaction? Prior to reading Jesper Juul, I would have said yes, definitely.

But now I’m not so sure.

He makes the claim that you “cannot have interactivity and narration at the same time,” an argument he bases on a pretty complex discussion of story time, narrative time, and reading time. But I think I have a simpler explanation.

If you’ve ever played a game with a narrative component to it, think about whether the narrative thread of the game would have been different without any of the player’s game challenges like fighting, puzzle solving, platform jumping, etc. In most cases, I think, it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re fighting baddies, collecting coins, doing whatever you’re character is supposed to be doing OR you’re watching the story progress through cut scenes and/or through choosing pre-packaged lines of dialogue for your character to deliver. Thus, with every video game I can think of, if you were to fast forward through the gameplay sections, the story would remain completely intact.

Modern games are getting more fluid with this alternating narration/gameplay format (a game like Fallout 3 being a good example of that — see the fifth video here for an example), but that’s all they’re doing — they’re alternating better. They’re not actually making the narrative as interactive as many game developers claim they are. Pretty hefty claims, if you ask me. “A growing number [of developers],” according to the “Brainy Gamer,” now believe that “the designer builds a system, but the player authors the story.”

Except they’re wrong. The player cannot co-author the story. As Jonathan Blow notes, “Story is a filtered presentation of events that already happened.” The player’s interaction with a game consists of alternating between navigating the pre-written (sometimes choose-your-own-adventure) story and the challenging situations that don’t really matter to the narrative. There’s no authorship on the player’s part.

Steve Gaynor articulates this sentiment well: “Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se. The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld. These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself.”

What I think Gaynor means is that there are stories delivered by the video game and stories that arise from the video game. Stories delivered by the game are in no way co-authored by the player, and stories that arise from the player’s experience — from the “box of possibilities” — are, I would argue, experiences, not stories. Sure, when you tell someone about what happened in a game, it’s now a story, but in the game itself, it’s an experience.

Gaynor continues: “Unlike a great film or piece of literature, (video games) don’t give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else’s work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player’s to own and to pass on.”

The goal of many developers, then, is to provide a rich world that the player can navigate freely; these worlds are often referred to as “sandboxes.” But the purest sandboxes eradicate narrative.

Enter Second Life, the perfect example of a virtual experience that has no narrative element to it. Sure, some stories may arise out of it, but Second Life itself has no more plot than the state of Wisconsin does.

In a figurative sense, sure, we’re all authoring our own life story, but that’s just a metaphor. We’re experiencing our lives. My life isn’t a story until I craft it into a “filtered presentation of events that already happened.” Thus, narrative and experience are somewhat at odds. The listener/reader/viewer/player cannot tell the story she’s receiving. It’s an impossibility by definition. She can choose between various options if the storyteller gives her any, but to say she’s then co-authoring the story is hyperbole.

As for video games, they use story to create an enjoyable context for gameplay. And they are undoubtedly an effective delivery medium for some pretty good stories. But the player’s interactivity isn’t as revolutionary as some would make it out to be. They do raise some interesting questions, however: what is the storyteller’s goal for his audience and what is the ideal reception on the part of the receiver of the story? I’ll explore those topics next.

14 Mar


Another pause in the exciting essay action to bring you my latest interactive story: Polaroids.


It employs javascript to give you a veritable clickfest! (Which means that you can click on pictures and text to reveal more pictures and text.) This one utilizes the same code I used in my telescopic text story, but it demanded a lot more css tweaking and a lot more time in photoshop. I got all the images off of flickr, which provided me with about three dozen pictures of pertinent graffiti. Not entirely happy with the final resolution of the images, but there’s always something that’s not perfect.

10 Mar

Wrongness Theory: Or, When It Rains, It . . . Oh My God, Did You See the Size of That Squirrel?

We take a break from our scheduled examination of digital fiction to bring you these words from our sponsor, Discontent™.

We’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law, right? There are some variations in the wording, but the concept behind the law is that things go wrong frequently. Well, I recently did some research to figure out if there’s a different law, or maybe a corollary to Murphy’s Law, that describes how wrong things tend to congregate in groups (like teenagers who smoke), or, in other words, “when it rains, it pours.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a name for such a situation. Finagle’s Law gets close. It states that “whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way.” But it doesn’t state explicitly that wrong things pile up.

Home owners are surely familiar with this fact. It’s not just an issue of the plumbing leaking; it’s that your furnace also stops working that same week. And then all the lights in your house burn out simultaneously. And, no, it’s not because a leaky pipe is drenching your circuit breakers in water. It’s just that everything goes wrong at once.

I’ve written about this before, but this time, I decided to do some hard research rather than just complain about the squirrels we trapped in our attic, the soffit we had to get repaired, the inch of standing water we had in our basement, the five hours we spent vacuuming it up, or the huge electricity bill that will be coming this next month as a result of said vacuuming (with a 6 HP shop vac).

I’ve also decided to remain pessimistic, since, according to the Non-Reciprocal Law of Expectations, “Negative expectations yield negative results. Positive expectations yield negative results.”

Not that I won’t act. I got an estimate from a basement flooding guy, who’s coming on Thursday to install a sump pump. But I know that I can be assured of a couple other laws governing the repair project. First, there’s Parkinson’s Law, which states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And coupled with the Ninety-Ninety Rule of Project Schedules, I can count on the job taking longer than expected since “the first 90% of the job takes 90% of the time, the last 10% takes the other 90%.” And I can also be sure that the job will result in other mandatory home improvement projects since Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics is true: “Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to use a larger can.”

Of course, the mere fact that I’m vocalizing any of my pessimistic predictions is problematic; the Unspeakable Law notes that “as soon as you mention something, if it’s good, it goes away; if it’s bad, it happens.”

And I’m also sure that somehow, most of this is my fault. Hanlon’s Razor, a corollary to Finagle’s Law, admonishes, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I’m definitely stupid when it comes to home ownership and repair. I mean, I heard those squirrels a month ago. The flooding has happened before (though never this bad). And I just don’t like paying lots of money unless I absolutely need to, so I’ve put off things like the soffit repair and an upgrade to our gutters and downspouts (which I’m probably going to add to the list of hired-out jobs soon).

Ultimately, though, it’s sad that I can’t refer to this whole series of unfortunate events with a less clichéd phrase than “when it rains, it pours.” Enlightened though I am by my research here, I have found “no answers, only cross-references” (that’s Wiener’s Law). Of all my options, though, Jenning’s Corollary might fit best: “The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”

I’ll let you know how much that carpet costs once I get an estimate.

07 Mar

Established Storytelling Adapted

On what’s currently happening to established forms of storytelling in the digital age.

Part of the issue in figuring out where fiction will go from here is to determine whether current forms will be improved or whether new forms will be invented. The novel was not a huge departure from its predecessors. It was simply a longer story. So it’s really more of an enhancement of previous fiction rather than a complete revolution, like film.

What will happen from here on out, though? Will we maintain current forms of fictional stories and adapt them to the web, or will we come up with fundamentally different ways of delivering narrative? That’s the question.

In a talk he has given multiple times, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine explains that when internet content was starting to take off in the 90s, the powers that be thought it would be like “TV, only better.” But it surprised them because a) it wasn’t at all like TV, and b) it ended up producing content nobody could have predicted.

I have no illusions here: I don’t claim to know what will happen with the future of storytelling. But we can look at what has happened already in the relatively short period of time that digital media has thrived. And today, I’d like to examine how already-established forms of storytelling are faring in this new media environment.

I want to first mention the novel, even though I know I’ve already said quite a bit about it. The Kindle, and various other ebook readers, were developed for one primary purpose: to keep the novel alive. Or, if not the novel, then at least novel-length books. That’s one of the reasons I don’t see the novel dying any time soon. It’s a priority for our society still. We’re creating technology for it.

On the other hand, I don’t see the novel faring well online with our current web interfaces. For all the reasons I stated earlier, I think shorter chunks are the key to the current digital media environment. So what about serialized novels, you ask. Good question.

I don’t think they’re doing too well either. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of them. There are. They go by the name “webserials.” And you can find plenty of them at webfictionguide.com. But for now, they remain one of those relatively obscure niches on the web, mostly populated by aspiring authors.
For webserials to really be successful, they’re going to have to be featured on sites that attract readers. This has been done, too. Sites like Salon, boingboing, and Slate have published serialized fiction. But they have some problems. The Salon one, according to one reader, just kind of faded into obscurity by the 35th installment (I can’t verify that). The boingboing one linked to a pdf file, so you were essentially just downloading one chapter per week of a book that had already been published, thus robbing the serial of its much-needed sense of what’s-going-to-happen-next-? And the Slate one I can’t even get to load.

Ultimately, though, serials just haven’t ever gotten back the popularity they enjoyed in the Victorian era, despite some notable exceptions here and there. As one informative piece on serialization points out, though, serials never actually died; they just changed form.

Two such forms have done well on the web. One is the comic. Webcomics are cheap to put together and some enjoy as wide a readership as print comics. Xkcd is my personal favorite, though it, like Bizarro (my other favorite comic), doesn’t have an ongoing narrative (with a couple notable exceptions here and here: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5). Others, like Penny Arcade and Weregeek are pretty popular, and there are some very clever ones that have attractive interfaces, making them fairly interactive. The Right Number and Nine Planets without Intelligent Life are my favorites.

Beyond webcomics, video series, or webisodes, have done alright, too. A quality webisode usually requires a big monetary investment, though. Which is why some really good ones, like 72nd to Canal and The Remnants, have just fizzled out. But Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, Chad Vader, Lonelygirl15, Quarterlife, Red vs. Blue, and several others have gotten a significant viewership.

With the development of personal media devices like the iPod, and with the addition of 3G internet access to sophisticated cell phones, I think the video format of storytelling is adapting well to new media. They don’t even need to be in serial form. Some of my recent finds include excellent stories like Evol, Ida’s Luck (Part 1 & Part 2), and Glory at Sea.

Ultimately, video on the web is both better than and quite inferior to television. There’s certainly enough quality out there to rival traditional TV. But finding it is a little more difficult. Fledgling programs like Miro and joost and hulu have had some success, but miro is the only one of the three that is pure internet tv and I just haven’t found many channels worth subscribing to.

So even video, I would argue, hasn’t achieved its optimal form of propagation through the internet tubes. There remain issues of accessibility and consolidation. Clearly the internet won’t kill video (like video killed the radio star), nor will it kill comics or novels. But I’d say video is in transition. Might it be headed toward something with more interaction?

That’s what I’ll look at next time. Video + interaction = _______. Fill in the blank.