Tales from the Digital Frontier: Breakthroughs in Storytelling

Posted by Carolyn Handler Miller on

As writers, we are practitioners of an ancient art: the art of storytelling. Storytelling is a continually evolving form of expression. The first storytellers had only one simple tool at their disposal - the spoken word. Later storytellers had more sophisticated methods of spinning tales, using staged dramas, printed texts, and ultimately, recorded sound and filmed images.

But while these innovations offered us new ways to convey plot, depict characters, and portray action, the fundamental elements of storytelling essentially remained the same. Today, however, thanks to the development of digital technology, not only do we have a whole new set of storytelling tools, but these technological advances are profoundly impacting the nature of storytelling itself.

Digital Storytelling

The new type of narrative made possible by advanced technology is often termed "digital storytelling." It's quite likely that you already have at least some familiarity with these new kinds of stories, for they include one of today's most popular forms of entertainment, the video game. But they also include lesser-known but groundbreaking work in interactive cinema, virtual reality, Web-based narratives, interactive TV, and a number of totally new genres of writing. We'll be taking a look at several of these fascinating new kinds of dramatic narratives, but before doing that, let's first do some groundwork and go over a few of the basic characteristics of digital storytelling.

Basic Characteristics

First of all, let's define "digital storytelling." The "digital" part of the name refers to the fact that it is supported by a diverse array of digital devices and media, including computers, digital video, the Web, wireless devices, and DVDs, just to name a few examples. And the "storytelling" part of the name refers to the fact that these new forms of fiction are narratives, too, just like the older forms. They depict characters in a series of compelling events, following the action from the inception of the drama to the conclusion.

But despite the basic similarity between traditional and digital stories, there is one major, and extremely radical difference between them: interactivity.

In older forms of narrative, events happen in a fixed order: A follows B follows C and so on. The story is depicted in a fixed linear manner; it never changes. But these new types of stories do not have a fixed linearity. Instead, they call for back-and-forth communication between the audience and the material, wherein the story changes and is shaped by these communications. In other words, audience members have an active relationship with the narrative. They are expected to make choices as the story unfolds, and these choices have the potential to determine a number of critical things about the characters they encounter and the story they are moving through.

This one factor, interactivity, dramatically changes not only the way stories are told, but also the way the audience experiences them. The relationship between the audience and story is so different from linear narrative, so much more intimate and personal, that we cannot even comfortably use the word "audience" here. Instead, we use terms like "user," "player," or "participant."

The Impact on Storytelling

In addition to offering interactivity, the new digital technologies change storytelling in several other profound ways. These new kinds of stories:

* Break the Fourth Wall

In traditional drama, an invisible barrier separates the audience watching the story and the actors portraying it - the so-called fourth wall. But with digital storytelling, that wall is often dissolved. Characters may speak directly to audience members, relating to them like old friends, or audience members may actually enter the story, interact with its fictional characters, and play a pivotal role in the drama.

* Blur Fiction and Reality

When you watch or read a traditional story, it is usually very clear that the work is a piece of fiction. But in digital storytelling, it can sometimes be difficult to determine the difference between what is "real life" and what is invented. For example, many of these stories employ contemporary communication devices to further the plot line or reveal character - things like phone calls, faxes, emails, and authentic looking websites. Parts of the story may even be enacted at real venues or events, employing actors who give no hint that they are playing a role. Sometimes animatronic characters cunningly impersonate living creatures.

* Vastly Expand the Story Universe

While traditional stories are told via a single medium - the spoken word, the printed page, or the cinema screen, for example - digital storytelling encourages the use of a number of different media, all tied together to serve the core story. In these new stories, the plot is advanced by everything from content on websites and DVDs to highway billboards to magazine ads to cell phone messages. They may incorporate mainstream media as well -including feature films and TV series. This method of tying many media together to tell a single story gives the writer a potentially enormous and versatile canvas to work on.

* Offer Deeply Immersive Experiences

While traditional media involve at most only two of our senses, seeing and hearing, some digital stories also involve the sense of touch and smell. They may also be projected as a life-like three-dimensional world that the participant can actually move through - a world that includes not only props and structures but also characters. These additional ways of "consuming" the story, coupled with each participant member's ability to determine what happens within the narrative itself, makes for a powerfully involving experience.

* Allow for New Kinds of Participation

In digital storytelling, an audience member becomes an active part of the drama, and these stories offer a variety of ways to become involved. You may act as a behind-the-scenes invisible assistant to the fictional characters, or step into the shoes of the hero of the drama. Or you may create an avatar for yourself - a personalized character put together from a selection of physical attributes, skills, and personality traits that you then control throughout the story. In some forms of digital storytelling, your avatar can even join forces with others and you can go on a mission or quest together.

* Instill Characters with Artificial Intelligence

Thanks to computer technology, the characters who populate these new narratives may possess a convincing degree of brainpower and personality. Simulated characters can engage in life-like dialogue with us and become our friends or our foes, depending on how we treat them.

Types of Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling is an extremely new form of narrative. It can trace its ancestry back only a little more than thirty years, when Pong, the first successful video game, made its debut. But in just a few decades, imaginative storytellers have moved beyond video games to invent a multitude of different ways to take advantage of advanced technologies and create new types of stories. The field is still so young that many of these new types of narratives do not even have generally recognized genre categories. But let's look at a few things these ground-breaking storytellers are doing.

* Making Make-Believe "Real"

As I noted earlier, digital storytelling excels at smudging the lines between reality and fiction. Take, for example, an episodic video drama called Rachel's Room that lived on the Web. The conceit here is that the 16-year old protagonist, Rachel, is going through a turbulent time in her life and, feeling misunderstood by everyone around her, decides to turn to strangers for help. She places webcams around her bedroom and creates a blog (Web log), where she posts excerpts of the webcam videos, along with her diary and a message board. Every evening Rachel goes online to chat with "cyber friends," soliciting their support and advice.

Though Rachel's Room was in fact a tightly scripted serialized story and Rachel was a fictional character, the drama unfolded as a believable account of a troubled girl. But everything put up on the website was fictional, except for the messages posted by visitors to the site and the nightly chat sessions. But if Rachel was fictional, how did she take part in these chats? Actually, the head writer of the series went online in the persona of Rachel and communicated convincingly with the evening's participants. Sometimes pieces of these discussions would be recorded by "Rachel" in her online diary, further blurring reality and fiction.

Many regular visitors to the site were convinced Rachel was a real person and were extremely concerned about the problems she was having. When the 50 installments came to an end, it was hard for them to grapple with the fact that it had all been just a story. They had become involved with Rachel and the drama of her life in a way they never could have become involved with a "linear" fictional character.

Majestic, a Web-based conspiracy story-game produced by Electronic Arts, is another example of how these new kinds of entertainments can be made to seem real. Soon after you registered to play Majestic, you would receive a terse fax from Electronic Arts notifying you that the game had been cancelled due to an explosion that had destroyed the offices of the game's developers. Shortly thereafter, you would receive desperate emails from the game developers, saying their lives were being threatened and pleading for your help. The emails would be followed by a menacing phone call from a stranger warning you not to get involved.

However, the fax, emails and phone call were all part of the narrative, along with homemade looking video messages, supposedly taped by the story's characters, and the "classified" maps and other documents you could access online. The story in Majestic was further conveyed by a number of realistic-looking websites, which furthered the story and offered clues about the conspiracy.

This technique of combing a story and game to create a synthesized reality belongs to an evolving genre of digital storytelling called an ARG, or Alternate Reality Game. Players of these story-games derive a great deal of enjoyment from the sense of participating in an exciting real-life drama.

Another such ARG was a mystery called Push, Nevada, which was told in quite a different way than Majestic - its centerpiece was a primetime series on ABC TV. The story of Push, Nevada revolved around the embezzlement of over a million dollars from a Nevada casino, and a quick-witted participant could actually determine where the money went, "recover" it, and keep it. The money was actually real, as was the chance to win it, but the rest of the story was fiction. Parts of the story were conveyed by the TV episodes while other parts were conveyed by a number of other media (the Web, cell phones, and so on), an approach termed an "integrated media production" by the company that created Push. Thus, Push, Nevada illustrates another characteristic we noted about digital storytelling: its facility for employing a number of different media to serve the same core story.

For instance, participants in this mystery game could learn more about the strange goings-on in the town of Push by visiting the extremely real-looking websites of its Chamber of Commerce, the town newspaper, and the dance hall and casino featured in the drama. Helpful clues could also be found on the website of a mysterious deep throat character. All these websites were closely tied to the TV show and updated regularly. In addition, participants could become further involved with the story by playing a version of it on their cell phones. They could even download and read a "tell all" book about Push.

* The "Distributed Narrative" Approach

Another technique used in digital storytelling is the scattering of little bits of the narrative across a great number of interconnected fictional websites. However, access to key sites may be blocked unless the participant solves various puzzles. This approach was used in a story-game developed to promote Steven Spielberg's movie, AI. The work, a murder-mystery set in the future and revolving around the emancipation of intelligent robots, had no formal name, but was called The Beast by its hundreds of thousands of fans, possibly because it was so demanding and addictive.

Although The Beast had game-like aspects to it, it was as much a story as a game, with structured story arcs, fully developed characters, and an emotional punch. Like Majestic (which it actually predated), parts of the story were communicated via faxes, telephone calls, and emails. The creative team developed a way for the story to penetrate the real world even further, by staging live events supporting the rights of robots, a major theme in the story. These "free-the-robot" rallies were well attended by enthusiastic participants in the game.

The major narrative thrust of The Beast, however, was carried by the hundreds of websites constructed for it. They contained not only text and graphics, but also audio, animation, and, in some cases, video clips. The fascinating thing about these websites is that each was a tiny fictional universe in its own right. The websites varied enormously in tone, style and content, from sites "built" by a poetry-writing scientist to others constructed by powerful corporations. Each site matched the personality of its fictional owner, much like a character in a screenplay speaks in his or her own unique voice, and each revealed a piece of the overall story. The head writer of The Beast termed this new genre of writing a "distributed narrative." In such a work, the onus is placed on the participants to gather the various story pieces and make sense of them, somewhat like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle.

* Immersive Worlds

All works of digital storytelling are immersive, in that they demand a high degree of active involvement from the participant. But some of these worlds are particularly immersive because they employ techniques that heighten the sense of actually being inside the story world. These elements include the use of virtual reality, physical props, synthetic characters who possess artificial intelligence and various devices that enhance the sensory experience.
Two of the places you are most likely to find sophisticated immersive worlds are in the experimental labs of military organizations and in major theme parks.

The military is extremely interested in using digitally rendered worlds for training purposes, aware that they are highly realistic and are far safer than putting soldiers in harm's way; cyber bullets and bombs cannot injure the trainees, but they can certainly focus their attention.

For instance, the US Army recently developed a virtual reality scenario called DarkCon to train soldiers in surveillance techniques. By donning a special headset, the trainee is able to take part in a frightening mission set in Eastern Europe where a civil war is taking place - it is his job to discover where a stash of illegal weapons is being hidden. To find them, he must make his way through a dark culvert and into a thick forest and then to a deserted warehouse, meanwhile avoiding detection by enemy soldiers and a savage watch dog.

The sense of reality is augmented by various sound techniques (for instance, he can hear his own footsteps - they slosh in the mud as he snakes through the culvert; twigs snap when he enters the forest; his footsteps pound faster if he should start to run). Reality is also conveyed by something called a "rumble floor" - if, when he is in the culvert, a heavy military truck passes overhead, the floor vibrates. The scenario even brings the soldier's sense of smell into play. A device around his neck called a "scent necklace" releases particular odors at appropriate times. For example, when he is in the culvert, there's a dank, musty smell and a slight scent of rat; when he encounters the watchdog, he smells wet dog fur and the dog's disagreeable breath.

All of these elements - the different scents, the sounds, the vibration of the rumble floor - are written into the scenario. They are as important to DarkCon as dialogue and action are to a traditional screenplay, and specifying them is part of one's role as a digital storyteller.

It is hardly surprising that theme parks create totally different kinds of immersive environments, since the objective here is to entertain, not to train. One such environment, created by the folks at Disney, is called DRU, short for Dolphin Robotic Unit. As the name suggests, DRU is a life-like robotic dolphin, a free-swimming audio-animatronic puppet. It communicates with humans by nodding or shaking its head or splashing water, all in a friendly manner.

At first DRU just swam around in a giant fish tank at Epcot's Living Seas exhibit. But he was then given a chance to swim in the real ocean as part of a prototype "swimming with the dolphins" attraction for snorklers at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, thus taking an immersive experience to an entirely new level - the open sea.

And, as with all good immersive environments, a story was created to enhance the experience - one about a pod of dolphins living just off the coast. And even though all the swimmers had been told in advance that DRU was an audio-animatronic creation, he was so life-like that everyone who swam with him was certain he was real. This worried the producers, who were at one point thinking of adding a shark to the performance. They finally decided to scratch the idea, feeling it wasn't worth the risk of a heart attack.

Rethinking the Relationship to the Screen

One of the most interesting things now occurring in digital storytelling is the way new media pioneers are experimenting with our relationship with the screen. Thanks to digital technology, we can now interact with material that is broadcast on TV and with narratives taking place on theatre-sized screens. We can even interact with stories we receive on the tiniest screens of all - the ones on our cell phones and PDAs.

Dozens of different approaches have been developed for screen-based interactivity. Let me give you one as an example. Up in Toronto, a company called Immersive Studios is doing work in creating interactive narratives for large curved theatre-sized screens. The events in the story are controlled by audience members sitting at small touch screen consoles, the size of small TV sets. This is the so-called dual-screen approach, a form of interactivity which is also being used in interactive TV.

Here is how this works in an Immersive Studios film about outerspace exploration: on the large screen, we, the audience members, see astronauts engaged in a hazardous operation outside their space ship, completing a repair job on a robotic arm system. Their mission complete, they are ready to go back inside the space station. But they find the door is locked, and their oxygen is running low! However, we, the audience, can save the day by using our console screens to work out a way to unlock the door. Thus the action on the small and large screens is closely interconnected.

This approach is just one example of how a traditional entertainment medium - the cinema screen - can become a vehicle of interactive storytelling. Thanks to digital technology, we are no longer restricted to a rigid one-way experience. We can now devise narratives that allow the audience to play a meaningful role.

Digital Epics

Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, or MMOGs, are epic adventure stories. But these are epics in which audience members play an active role and become deeply involved in the story's dramatic, often violent, events.

MMOGs live on the Web, and they are one of the fastest growing and most lucrative forms of digital storytelling. MMOGs are played simultaneously by tens of thousands of people, each controlling one or more avatars. They are set in sprawling fictional universes that include multiple complex worlds, all of which may be populated by an assortment of human and fantasy creatures, both friendly and hostile. These game worlds are also persistent universes, meaning that the stories continue even after a player has logged off, just as in the real world things continue to happen even when we go to sleep.

One of the most popular of these story-games is EverQuest, which, like many works in this genre, is set in a medieval time period and has a "swords and sorcery" motif. It is so addictive to players that it has been nicknamed EverCrack, and the majority of its players are young single men who devote hours a day to it.

But recently, Disney Online proved that a MMOG need not follow the EverQuest formula in order to produce a winning work in this arena. With Toontown Online, their brash entry into the field, they went at creating an MMOG in an entirely different way. This MMOG is set in a cheery world inhabited by Toons - cartoon characters. True, there are evil forces at work here, but you won't find violence in Toontown; all conflicts are fought with humor.

The Toons are being threatened by a bunch of drab business-obsessed characters called Cogs, who have names like Pencil Pusher, Number Cruncher and Head Hunter. They want to take over Toontown and turn it into a high-rise corporate mecca. Your goal as a Toon is to prevent this by any means possible, and that may mean going into battle, though these are hardly military types of exercises. A typical Toon versus Cog skirmish is a messy but non-violent affair. As a Toon, you'll do such things as hurl cream pies at the Cog or drench them with your own personal rain cloud. In turn, the Cogs may squirt you with ink from their fountain pens or fling their half-Windsor ties at you.
Toontown Online has proven to be popular not only with kids and their parents, but also with childless adults. Grownups are spending more time on the game than Disney had ever anticipated. These adults are enjoying the Dilbert-like workplace humor, the clever word play, and the tongue-in-cheek nature of the encounters between the Cogs and the Toons. The success of Toontown Online shows that there is a robust audience out there for MMOGs that go beyond the traditional medieval fantasy games. One thing is clear: we are just beginning to explore the potential of this type of storytelling.

Becoming a Digital Storyteller

If you are as intrigued as I am by these new storytelling techniques, you are probably wondering how you can take part in this rapidly expanding arena. As you may imagine, there is no one single entry path. Each person I know who works in this field found his or her own way in. And they did so without the help of agents, employment agencies, or managers, since virtually none exist yet in this field. But let me give you a few ideas of how to become a digital storyteller.

* Use The Expertise You Already Have

The question to ask here is what can you bring to the party? If you are already a writer, but in a different field of writing, you will find that many of the skills you have already mastered are highly valued in digital storytelling. For example, the head writer of The Beast was a science fiction novelist, and he used many of same plotting and character development skills in this work of interactive science fiction as he had in his novels. The DarkCon virtual reality scenario was devised by a Hollywood screenwriter who used the three-act structure and other dramatic techniques, just as he would in a screenplay. The head writer of Rachel's Room parlayed her expertise in adolescent audiences, acquired as an assistant on the popular youth-oriented TV series, Dawson's Creek, to develop her Web drama.

Skills from other professional vocations can also be ported over to interactive media. Among them are architecture (which, surprisingly, is closely related to digital storytelling); teaching; journalism; and cartooning.

* Research The Field

Digital storytelling is an enormous arena, encompassing everything from video games to interactive TV to immersive environments. You need to decide which specific areas you are most interested in and then learn everything you can about them. Which are the most successful works in these areas? What makes these titles outstanding? Play some of them yourself, or have an experienced player guide you through them. Read books on digital storytelling and take a course or two. Subscribe to print or electronic publications that cover the field. And also find out which companies specialize in the kinds of interactive storytelling you are most interested in. This will help you target prospective employers.

* The Garage Band Approach

Having a sample work of digital storytelling to show potential employers is extremely helpful. But what if you are skilled in one area, such as writing, but can't do animation or programming or composing or the other skills needed to make an effective sample? The solution here is to join up with a few other people who have these skills and make something jointly that you can all benefit from.

* Network

As with other job-seeking endeavors, networking is a great way to learn what is going on in the field and to potentially meet people who can steer you to employment opportunities. Find out what professional organizations represent people who work in the area in which you are most interested. Join one of these organizations and become active in it. If possible, go to electronic entertainment conferences, too. Conferences are an excellent way to see the newest titles in the field, and they often have informative panel discussions as well.

* Make Interactivity Your Friend

Many people erroneously believe that you need to be a technical geek in order to succeed in interactive entertainment. In point of fact, the work is highly collaborative and your computer-savvy teammates will carry the technical load. But you do need to have a basic comfort level with interactivity. For writers who are used to linear narratives, this can be a major mental adjustment. Some writers will never feel comfortable giving up the God-like control they have over the story, and will never welcome the audience becoming part of the experience. Other writers, however, are excited by the new storytelling techniques that interactivity offers, and the larger canvas it gives them to create on. Only you can determine if digital storytelling is for you.

Having a positive attitude about interactivity, along with an open mind, enthusiasm for the field, and a desire to explore its potential - this kind of mind set will carry you a long way towards becoming one of the pioneers of digital storytelling. Good luck!

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