Interactivity and Digital Storytelling…

NB– this is primarily cannibalized from a post I made on the class blog of the Digital Storytelling class I’m currently taking. I like to keep my stuff all in one place, though.

I have to admit that, while many of the examples of “digital storytelling projects” that my classmates posted to the class blog were quite interesting and well-done, and some where quite thought-provoking and evocative, they felt a little… old media?

Basically, they were just low-budget, one-person documentary shorts.

One of the really fascinating things about new media technology, however, is the interactivity of it. If you use the internet in 2010, you are almost certainly not just a media consumer. You are a producer. The most successful sites on the internet– from Youtube to Facebook to Twitter to Google itself– are not content creators. They are frameworks that host user-generated content, sort it, make it manageable, encourage discovery. From the moment Tim Berners-Lee began to conceptualize the World Wide Web as something interlaced, hypertextual, navigated by users, the web has challenged models of passive viewership. The web is interactive. New media is interactive.

So where’s the interactivity in digital storytelling? Well, it seems to be coming. Though it is still pretty primitive in its application.

A sidebar of sorts:

Is it still storytelling if it’s interactive? If the author relinquishes some degree of control to the audience, is it still his or her story?

I would argue that it absolutely is. While a was a voracious and omnivorous reader as a child, one of my sisters’ and my favorite series of books was Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series. Essentially bound hypertext, the book would take a forking narrative format, where the reader was, at key moments, presented with choices. The reader’s choices determined the outcome, but the author’s vision remained at the center. Forked stories could fork back into themselves at time– especially in a time-travel story.

While most video games are admittedly thin on narrative, some of the best follow a similar course– allowing player decisions to influence the chain of events within several forked narrative outcomes.

That digression over, I have to say, I haven’t found exactly what I was looking for. I haven’t found any single example that illustrates well how exciting this possibility is. But let me run through a couple examples– all imperfect in some way– that illustrate what kind of thinking I’m talking about. All of these take advantage of Youtube’s fairly recent annotation feature.

“B-Boy Joker” is very well-implemented, though it’s more of a game than a story. Even by game standards, there’s not much narrative: The Joker and Batman are having a dance battle. You have to match your opponent’s moves or he will defeat you. Not really a story at all. But the action is compelling, the use of annotations is highly effective, and the stop-motion animation is top-notch. One could imagine making a project that was more narrative along similar lines.

logoSimilarly, “Youtube’s first weekly game show” Truth or Fail, is pretty lacking as a narrative, being more of a game. But while B-Boy Joker was more like a video game, Truth or Fail resembles a (highly eccentric) quiz show. Nevertheless, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and since many of us if not all of us are interested in the informative and pedagogical uses of digital storytelling, I thought it bore mentioning because it’s pretty easy to see how such a framework could be used educationally.

Finally, I found two more traditionally narrative interactive videos that unfortunately seem to be experiencing technical difficulties. Annnotations on some of the videos in these series seem to be broken, so clicking on the screen doesn’t always work. But go and check out The Time Machine: An Interactive Adventure and Choose Your Path: Find Sparta! and try to imagine them actually working.

At any rate, it seems obvious to me that interactivity is a pretty exciting possibility in digital storytelling. And that, unfortunately, we might not be quite there yet.

One reply on “Interactivity and Digital Storytelling…”

Tad, I enjoyed your article about the lack in interactivity in many works of Digital Storytelling, and liked the examples you did come up with that seem to work on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” model. These two are new to me. However, it might interest you to know that I’ve written an entire book on the use of interactivity in Digital Storytelling. It’s called “Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment.” It’s now in its second edition (Focal Press, 2008). I hope you’ll have a chance to check it out, since not only does it stress the value of interactivity, but it is also packed with examples of works that integrate interactivity into narrative.

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