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Story from the Inside Out
by James Tichenor
As a follow-up to Stephen L. Near's article Storytelling in Cyberspace
(issue 1.3), James Tichenor of Crescent Entertainment in Vancouver, BC,
offers his insights into the process of creating an interactive storytelling
Interactivity? Why is this strange new word suddenly the coolest
"catch phrase" of the computer set? Every way we turn, someone
is touting the next "interactive" book, movie or game. What does
"interactivity" really tell us about a product that wants to be
considered as art? And does anyone really want it?
A possible definition for interactivity: a method whereby one has the power
to change and affect what is experienced, which then incorporates and responds
to choices. Could we argue that film is already interactive, that in the
act of viewing we interact with the story? I don't think so. Whatever our
responses to a film may be, the fact of the matter is that the film is in
and of itself a completed whole. We cannot actively change the story, it
is what it is. If we apply the above definition to an interactive movie,
say, writers would be asking -- in fact demanding -- that readers make choices
that affect story. Can we take this responsibility, humble readers that
we are? And if so, how do I as an author write a story that allows for personal
modification on the part of you, the reader?
"Story" in the new interactive medium is radically different from
what we are traditionally used to. The new media demands that we rethink
the act of story creation and possibly learn to tell the interactive yarn
from the inside out. Crescent Entertainment is currently working on a project
called A Ghost in the Dark. Our group is trying to incorporate this new
paradigm, where a story cannot exist separately from the whole piece. As
a result, many questions and issues have been raised with this project.
These are some of them.
I came to interactive writing on a whim. As an experienced computer user,
I started digging into the trove of computer games and found that most had
typical elements: guns and ammo, swords and sorcery, girls and gore -- pretty
unexciting stuff. After attending a local conference with 200 of my skeptical
writing colleagues, I sought out the one game fingered as the one worth
the time and money: Myst. As I started spinning the disc, I found myself
almost mesmerized as I wandered trails, beheld beautiful pictures, solved
intricate puzzles, and tried to piece together a story that, although thin,
kept me playing until the end. Riding home on my bike one night after a
few hours on this fictitious island, I looked up the road, and all I could
see were hundreds of possible choices: I could turn to the right or the
left, go straight, drive over the lawn, cut through the forest. Rarely had
I seen the world full of so much possibility. Myst had done something to
my brain, and soon I was sketching ideas and thoughts, things I might like
to write, using the ideas in Myst as the starting point of possibility.
What would happen if a writer were to take his knowledge of story and apply
it to a brand new medium? What would happen if you tried to tell stories
From the interactive story point of view, the tale is not fully told until
the final moment of the game is played. This is where the active viewer
comes in. Playing is the key concept, as it implies actions and reactions
on the part of the traditional viewer that were not necessary in traditional
storytelling. The author must now radically rethink his or her role. How
the old conventions are replaced and recreated will define how the new media
can be used to tell immersive, cathartic, and emotional stories.
Our current models of storytelling could be called "Story From The
Outside In," meaning that we as viewers come to a story which is already
written and complete. The viewer then takes hold of the completed story
and creates meaning and emotional harmony through the acts of conception
and understanding. Traditionally, the story exists, for all intents and
purposes, outside of us, as an objective piece of art. We indirectly place
ourselves within the story in the act of identification, usually alongside
a main protagonist.
"Story From The Inside Out" is the exact opposite. In this new
paradigm, the story cannot be conceived without the active participation
of the viewer, now the player. The player takes a proactive role in helping
to shape the story. The author simply sets up a "potential for story,"
and it is in the act of navigating that potential that an objective story
emerges in the final moment of play. This new paradigm is the underpinning
The idea of "inside-out storytelling" demands that the author
create a world of potentials: characters with traits, motivations and goals;
settings with dynamic characteristics, possibilities and potentials; objects
imbued with history, aspect and character; themes to shape the manipulation
of objects and affect the motivations of characters; ideas which constantly
modify themselves according to the player's interactions, as well as to
those of the created characters. Theoretically, a world can have a specific
theme, and all the objects in that world will relate, act or counteract
with or against the theme. The job of the player is to manipulate the objects,
interact with the characters, explore the setting, realize the inherent
goals and characteristics of each, and try to accomplish a task or series
of tasks motivated by their own goals and ambitions, all within the overall
theme of the story. We can consider the player to be the protagonist of
this new media, with an arc, distinct characteristics, motivations and thoughts.
That dynamic element, the interactive protagonist, will affect everything
he/she comes into contact with. It will shape the relationships of characters
and objects and finally create that which we may confidently call a story.
Moving to this new paradigm is problematic, at best, and mind numbing at
worst. Interaction required for this level of an emotional, cathartic story
is still some years away. Technical considerations, such as natural language
understanding, real-time graphics, storage and memory limitations, all add
up to a sense of paralysis in the development of what is hoped to be the
true interactive experience. With these considerations come the age-old
problems of communicating emotion and understanding of intent, especially
in a media whose language is still in an infantile stage of development.
Traditional narrative depends on concepts such as time, foreshadowing, buildup,
etc. These are techniques theoretically impossible within this new, nonlinear
Another issue that often arises is making sure the player sees important
information that may be crucial to the plot. At the same time, the author
must allow the player enough interaction so that they don't feel as if they
are being lead through the story by the nose, which would defeat the purpose
of the new media. The author must realize that the player may not want to
enter the door at the end of the room, or more realistically, will want
to enter a door that may have nothing to do with the story. To try to cover
all the bases is hopeless and impossible.
Interactive storytelling demands its elements to be dynamic, fluid and interchangeable.
To meet the demands of the media, the player must be allowed to customize
his/her playing experience. Many tactics can be employed to induce the player
to enter the door; writers must return to their psychology textbooks and
study human motivation to see how to entice audiences in such a way that
they don't feel manipulated. When writers create a world where not only
the player surprised but us as well, they will have taken a giant step toward
Many have wondered whether the general audience of story will want to participate
as actively as writers such as our group demand. Are we eliminating something
essential in story, something that has been the essence of the art since
the days of campfires and oral inheritance of the tribal identity through
myth? What of the act of surrendering one's soul to the guide of the informed
and enlightened shaman, the storyteller? There are two possible answers.
The first is that people instinctively enjoy participating, whether it is
in a baseball game, a hunting expedition, a rock concert, a video game or
simply in a conversation. The new media are offering the convergence of
two different forms of experience: the participatory and exposition. Donald
Norman breaks down these states in his book Things That Make us Smart (Addison-Wesley,
1992). In interactivity, the goal is to balance those states, to let them
feed off one another.
The other answer is a simpler one. The new media will not replace the old.
The traditional forms of entertainment -- film, music, literature -- will
live on, and will inevitably be affected and influenced by the new media,
just as the new media is influenced by the former. As the language of interactivity
develops, the art will have more freedom to create experiences that provide
powerful, cathartic and emotional responses.
A more exciting prospect for exploration cannot be imagined. Interaction
is more than video games and Space Aliens. It may be the development of
a new portal into understand who we are and what we can do in our lives.
For myself, something very special happened when I first played Myst. The
melding of active play and emotional journey, I realized, was something
similar to a dreamstate. Is it possible that we can create dreams, not in
the Hollywood sense, but in the emotional and psychological sense? Is it
possible that by using interactivity we can create religious experience?
And if so, is it really that different from film and literature, or just
an extension of the traditional storytelling methods? These are questions
unanswerable for now, in the medium's infancy. Who knows where this new
storytelling paradigm can take us, what value it will have in our lives.
My only response is: it's worth trying, isn't it?