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Allow for 'bendy places' in interactive storytelling

Flexibility of narrative structure can be an asset in some cases, but needs to be carefully considered. Basically in any interactive project you can let people roam free, guide them through an experience, or do a combination of those things. To make a story at least somewhat interactive, you need to look for the joints, or what I like to call the ‘bendy places’ in your story. These are places where you can allow audiences to exercise control. Writers for video games have long understood the ability of narrative to embrace multiple possibilities at one time: (If I shoot person A, B happens. If I don’t shoot person A, C happens). But what are the nuances within this flexibility? When is user choice appropriate? When should the reins be taken away in order for the story to move along? Another way to think about this is: when do you need to control the user? When is it ok to let them drive? The answers vary from project to project, but these questions must be addressed in the writing/brainstorming process.


There was a desire to let users share aspects of the bear’s world – the creatures in it, the topography. But while the primary experience (the audio story told by the bear) is linear, the other info is more ‘bendy.’ Users decide themselves whether to click on caches of supplementary information about other animals. They decide where to roam in the bear’s world, and how. They choose what supplementary content to uncover, what to ignore. The fact that many aspects of the story are left open does not detract from the overall experience, since each user only does what she is comfortable with, and is anchored to the main story by the bear’s audio narration. In addition the user can choose whether to turn on their own computer’s camera, bringing their own image into the bear’s world, giving them yet another way to understand what it feels like to be under constant surveillance, like the bear.

The main text-based narrative of this project tells the story of a small Canadian town that has disappeared off the map. The highly personal and well-told story has been hugely popular in and of itself – but people have also responded to the fun, quirky, yet simple interaction on the site. While the user moves through this linear story they are given the opportunity to click on and explore various specific aspects of the visual environment, according to their own interests. They can flip through a photo album, watch a home video of one of the key characters, etc. Thus the user gains a more active role, has a certain degree of ‘agency’ over the telling of the story, while being fairly firmly guided through the primary content. It’s basically linear storytelling that gives the user something to do with their fidgety fingers. The secondary content can be accessed in any order or passed over entirely according to the user’s preference.

This is true immersive storytelling. An interactive app by artist Stan Douglas, Circa 1948 was co-created by the NFB Digital Studio. In this case the users have absolute control over the way they uncover the story. Users can choose to explore two long-lost neighbourhoods of Vancouver, BC, at their own pace. At will, they click on parts of a loose, audio narrative of ‘mini-scenes’ that can be accessed in any order. Users slowly ‘gather’ elements of plot, character, and theme, as they explore the environment, organically gleaning a larger picture of life in Circa 1948 Vancouver.

So as you can see the actual dialogue/story in this piece is totally user initiated & therefore fairly random. Stan is fascinated with what he calls “liminal historical narratives” – the in-between places of history that did not make the history books. He’s interested in actual history not edited history, and in the relationship between the person looking at history, and the history itself. Hence the project marries story and intent to form, taking this open-ended, story-dwelling approach to narrative, as opposed to the more curated story-telling approach.

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