What Is Interactive Storytelling?
Hi everyone, this is Jean-Noël from Immersive Consulting and today we are going to talk about a crucial field in immersive storytelling, which is Interactive Storytelling.
We hear more and more about Interactive Storytelling. Yet, it’s complicated to find a precise definition. Multiple definitions can be found relative to the field you’re in. There is not one true definition, but rather multiple levels of definition.
Please, keep in mind that in this article I deliberately put aside certain aspects of the field for the sake of simplification and conciseness.
Interactive Storytelling in Pop Culture
If there is one work of pop culture which put the spotlight on Interactive Storytelling, it’s the TV Show Westworld, adapted from the movie of the same name released in 1973. Westworld is a huge theme park in which customers come to live a story in which they are the heroes. The park has its own narrative arc, and the humanoïds robots living there have each a different personality and implication in different story arc. The robots AI and the park’s system are crafted so the players have a total freedom. The story adapts itself, reacting to their actions, with a global reset every 24 hours, notably to reintroduce dead characters.
The TV Show sometimes give us a glimpse of the control panels and tools the park’s writers and game masters use, and that’s quite the dream! For instance we can see the personality of one robot being altered thanks to a single finger swipe inside a User Interface nonetheless complex and complete.
What you see in Westworld is Interactive Storytelling in all its glory.
Video Games & TV Shows
In the real world, Interactive Storytelling does not exist in such an advanced form. On a consumer product standpoint, we can consider that there is a kind of interactive storytelling in multiple media.
In video games, for instance. The player is active, and in some video games, how the story unfolds is influenced by the player’s actions.
The Witcher 3 is a good example of this. Your actions and choices will influence the story all along your quest, and two different players won’t necessarily have the same endings.
Some video games are centered around this principle of choice, like the Life is Strange series, or the Telltale games.
Another medium is the film or tv show. For instance with Bandersnatch recently released on Netflix. In Bandersnatch, you will regularly have to choose between two options in a limited time. According to the option you chose, a different part of the movie is played.
Actually, if we take a look under the hood, in the end, all these experiences rely on one and the same principle : the principle of the “Live your own adventure” book, which is a non technological version of interactive storytelling.
Non technological Interactive Storytelling
Bandersnatch or Life is Strange are two rather literal adaptations of the principle in their respective media, where the user will select from a list, through an interface, which choice she wants to make when she is asked. The Witcher 3 will decorate this principle by offering a larger interaction palette to the player which allows her to indirectly impose her choices to the world, being through dialogues or fights.
However, behind all this, it is still a set of possibilities predefined by an author, on this famous “Live your own adventure” principle.
Another non technological vision of interactive storytelling is pen and paper role playing game. A Game Master will tell a story to a group of players, who will be able to choose which actions they wish to accomplish in order to progress in their adventure. The Game Master will then have to adapt the unfolding of the story according to the players’ actions and choices. Some Game Master don’t like to deviate from the story they have already planned, when other crave to be surprised by their players.
In the end, it is this conflict which is in the heart of interactive storytelling. The conflict between author control and user agency, or user control over the story.
The Research Field
It naturally leads me to the research field of interactive storytelling, which revolves around this main question. What place should be given to authorial control, and what place should be given to user agency ? There are other questions, such as the one about the tools needed by the authors, who, like in Westworld, begin to tell stories in a completely new way. Beside, can we still speak about the activity of “telling” a story?
These are not only technical questions. It’s also a question of how you approach writing, and of the vision of what makes a story. Some talk about Screenwriting 2.0, where the story is written hand in hand with the user, and I would add, with the machine.
That’s why, as with virtual reality, interactive storytelling is a mix of disciplines. Let’s briefly talk about a few having a major place in the field:
- Artificial intelligence, looks into, amongst other things, the generation of stories and the control of their unfolding according to user’s actions.
- Narrative Theory, which is all about exploring the structure of stories and suggests models we can then use.
- Cognitive psychology and neurosciences create cognitive models which can be used for the modeling of the characters of the story, like in Westworld, in order to give them a personality and emergent behavior. They are also used to analyze user’s behavior to predict its actions and trigger situations fitting its interests.
Of course, this is not a walled garden, and interactive storytelling will use all these fields to build new systems and models, in order to get, each day closer to Westworld.
Thanks for reading this introduction to Interactive Storytelling. If you liked it, do not hesitate to share or to get in touch!