Interactivity and the death of Narrative

15th January 2012

As a film maker I’ve spent the past 20 years of my life trying to perfect how to tell a story (I’ll let you know when I’ve done it).  Along the way I’ve used untold techniques, structures and short hands. But the films I’ve made have had one thing in common. They’ve been a story from a single perspective, told by me, in the order of my choosing, with the tools I choose and at the time I choose. It is a story from one perspective – that of the narrator.

The narrator (and their perspective) has been at the core of story telling since cogent man first sat around the camp fire, but the world of the storytelling is changing. Whilst what makes a good story will never change, technology is warping how it is told (to find out what makes a good narrative read Story by Robert Mc Kee).

The digital landscape has changed how viewers understand the story they are being told, and at the heart of the change is interactivity. It might be a thriller, a romance or (as concerns me) the story of a brand through video. This post is really a chance for me to round up my opinions on interactive video and it’s implications for how stories are told.  We all want to tell the story of brands and products in the best way… so what is the best way when it’s interactive?

First of all, is interactive a good thing in the first place?  We spend much of our working lives telling the story of products and brands in an engaging way, so is it a really a narrative that should be left up to the viewer to discover?

Well for me the new technology presents a welcome change. Interactivity is in many ways improving the way people understand brands; it enables people to engage with messaging in totally new ways. As I’m writing this my 5 year old is asking me to go to switched on kids (a site with electricity safety messages), she has no worries about absorbing messages in a non linear way.

I have to wonder if the old safety films at school had been presented in this way we might have had less children flying kites into pylons!  But this site brings us to neatly to one of the first issues with interactivity – gaming.  Computer games, as anyone who has seen the movie remake of the ‘Max Payne’ game will know, do not require strong narrative to work.  In fact too much story at the expense of interaction and the experience can be ruined.

So there must be a balance between how people interact, and how the narrative unfolds. It is this balance that I believe interactive creative must look for when developing their ideas.   (the subject of narrative in computer games is vast and well documented but an accessible post by Laura Parker or a monster paper by Marie-Laure Ryan will get you started)

When considering narrative and choice, my mind thinks back to the game books (or branching-path books) we read as children.  In these the reader is offered a narrative choice – kill the troll and turn to page 8, don’t kill the troll and go to page 29 Etc.

The choices allow for interactivity but each result is carefully planned to give a successful resolution. A modern equivalent to this might be seen in Trapped – created for Shelter  or Survive the Outbreak. In these, viewers are offered the interactive experience of choice, but it is within the framework of a set narrative. This enables the storyteller to manipulate the emotions of the viewer, but just as importantly retain the vital control that brands need. 

So this leaves a conundrum – what exactly is the right amount of interactivity for online video.  At one end of the spectrum choice can be reduced to narrative direction rather than perspective.  Here I can draw on a successful piece of our recent interactive work for the Forza 4 XBox racing game.   This multi camera live streamed event followed the construction of a super car in a week. Viewers were guided through a narrative unfolding and could change it’s outcome through voting online but could not choose which cameras to watch. This gave viewers high engagement but allowed us as the narrators to control the content.

But at the other end of the spectrum, what if you want to give the viewer total control of what they see as well as what happens. It’s here that I think there are lessons from history that may well hold the answer… so bear with me for a paragraph or two.

If you visit the Basilica of San Francesco in Rome you can see the works of a Giotto di Bondone who painted at the end of the 13th Century. In this church are a number of murals framed by massive marble pillars.   The paintings can be viewed from any angle in front of the wall – and many people experience them in this way… but these people miss something. For unless you know to stand in a very specific place with your head at just the right height you will miss the true story that these impressive walls have to offer.  When your view the painting from the correct spot the perspective pops into life and everything makes sense.  It is as though you are truly standing and looking at the scene (for more on this see a great paper by Mark Steven Meadows that is a fascinating read on the art of interactive narrative.

The only way you can truly appreciate the majesty of the Giotto pieces is if someone whispers in your ear to move left or right, up or down. And in the same way that viewers of Giotto have to be guided to the best place so to must viewers of interactive video.

Just as you need a helpful tour guide in Rome to tell you where to stand, so must the interactive video maker give the viewer clues on which bits to watch.  This will help the viewer watch the right cameras or content and the at the right time. It retains every ounce of interactivity but a strong guiding hand can bring the best out of the story.

So how to round up this wide-ranging topic? Well for me, the very building blocks of storytelling are changing. Brands are rightly looking to change the way they engage their audience, and this may well reap big rewards. It must however be done in the right way. Interactivity could mean the death of narrative but not if we guide an engaged audience through the maze.  That way will lie the perfect balance of actions and stories.


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