Interactive Story’s Fighting Words

“Interactive story” is a nuisance as a term. It resists a genuine description that would give some sense of its importance. And it’s difficult to know if it wants to be mysterious, or if the individual words are just being willful and selfish. The term promises great things if it would stop thwarting efforts to recognize it as something truly distinctive.

Interactivity’s Ambiguity

The word “interactivity” does its part to spread ambiguity, allowing all sorts of mediocre examples to be counted as story interaction. When posing as participation, simply turning a book’s page can be considered. When behaving like a reaction then gasping in fright at a horror flick can be included. If treated as engagement then warning the screen’s witless soon-to-be-victim not to enter the creepy cellar is all it takes to be in the midst of an “interactive story”. But each of these is an insufficient and lackluster ambassador for the term’s potential.

When not being ill-defined, interactivity can be downright misleading. Simply experiencing a story is said to generate an inner dialogue that qualifies as interaction. But the ongoing process of debating and concluding what is happening in the story is a lopsided operation. It’s completely internalized. We are interacting with ourself, so to speak, not with the story, which plows steadfastly forward impervious to the discussion chattering away in our head. The betweenness that ‘inter’ suggests is an illusion because nothing is being exchanged or shared. Interactivity seems to be misrepresenting itself here, but the failing is not with the concept of dialogue. Instead, it suggests an air of unwillingness on the side of story.

Interactivity finds clarity when it is compared to a conversation. In this most useful definition, both parties are expected to listen to each other, think about what the other has said, and respond (Crawford, 2003). But when it comes to conversation, story strikes a condescending attitude. Feeling wholly superior and self-assured in its skin, it is not interested in the suggestions, opinions or advice of others. It just wants to show off.

Story’s Culpability

Of course, we’ve known for some time that story is an egotist. Its structure has a history of being effective and fruitful. Enormous success has reassured it that its contents are perfect, and should therefore be kept pristine. Story has enjoyed widespread adoration as a soloist, so it’s understandable that with the spotlight comes a healthy dose of conceit. Rightfully, it should be proud as there’s no doubt it’s a flourishing art form. But it’s also a stage hog. And when asked to be an ensemble player, it can’t help but be fussy and temperamental. Clearly, if interactive story is behaving badly, then the principal offender is story.

Interactivity is kept at bay by the firmly entrenched regimen of storytelling. It spans the entire process, from creating a story all the way through to telling it. Minding all the intricate details and managing how they intertwine would be a nerve-wracking and self-defeating task if some of those details were unknown or unpredictable. Storytelling has kept its sanity by being exclusive, associating only with a very private company of elements, and keeping a tight leash on the whole proceedings. Interactivity can’t help but find it all unbearably anal retentive.

Story’s Rigidity

This firmly established version of story is rife with controlling measures.

For example, story often presents itself as a journey down a path. A path, with its linear quality, has all the maneuverability of a single lane road. No two elements share the same space and therefore one thing must follow another, like a stream of cars behind a farm tractor or numbers on a number line. The confinement of a line naturally creates order, a highly esteemed quality in a story. Yet the single file that a line imposes makes it difficult to imagine its contents in anything but an order.

The problem is not that a story ends up being a line, it’s that it starts off as one. A line’s order promotes simplicity, well-suited to a story’s conclusion by showing us exactly how we got there. But to create a story with a line in mind is to construct with rigidity; story elements have to clench together in a sequence to produce the order that makes a linear path. It’s hard for interactivity to find a meaningful way to cut in without infringing on the line’s integrity. The same organizing features that bring coherence by the end of a story are simply ill-equipped at the beginning to think of input as anything but an unwanted disruption.

The path metaphor also highlights another restricting feature. A story is a path that has already been laid out and to experience it one needs only to travel its course. It’s trickier to grasp what on earth the problem could be with this feature, but essentially, interactivity is looking for ways to have a choice. If the path is already laid out, there’s no opportunity to head in another direction or do something spontaneous. Typically, a story is pre-prepared so everything can go exactly as planned. You don’t get to make or determine anything along the way. From interactivity’s point of view it’s a little like an arranged marriage in disguise; there’s something nagging about getting to choose your future spouse as long as you choose the one that’s been chosen for you. And interactivity would like to choose for itself.

Story’s Need for Story

The main reason that interactivity is so stifled is because the part of storytelling that it has access to is, by its very nature, finished. Storytelling is basically done in two stages: first, an author creates the story; and second, a reader experiences what the author has made. Books, films and plays typically observe this principle.

To make a story interactive, only the reader’s side of the equation is asked to give interactivity some role in storytelling. To bestow this function a story that has already been authored has little choice but to somehow unfinish itself. It either makes some of its parts go missing or at least allows them to be rearranged. The contribution that interactivity is left to make is largely defined by the voids to be filled or the tolerance of the pieces to fit together in different ways. Both give interactivity something to do, per se, but they sadly shortchange its forte.

So why doesn’t story offer the author’s side of the equation for interactivity? Well, for starters, the author’s side doesn’t feel like an interaction between the story and the reader. If the story isn’t finished then it doesn’t exist yet, in which case it really boils down to an interaction between the reader and the author. The story is presumably nowhere in sight, so that leaves us asking “how do we know we’re in the middle of story interaction if we don’t have one to work with?” Despite all the headaches it’s causing, this is why the reader’s side of the equation is used. It may be a wonky explanation, but we just can’t imagine this new configuration without our precious, recognizable story.

So as the one largely responsible for the deadlock, it would seem that the onus is on story to find a way to embrace its partner. Perhaps if it had a better grasp of the nitty-gritty of interactivity, story’s course of action would be clearer.

Can We Get Story to Behave?

Despite how much simpler it would make things, interactivity is not a tool or weapon to just add to one’s arsenal. Unlike a young man being given a sword that can transform him into a warrior, one can’t obtain interactivity to be interactive. Which is also to say that it is not a state, or condition, in the way that something can be solid, orange or spicy.

From a fundamental standpoint, interactivity is a very specific kind of behavior. And it takes a minimum of two entities—whomever or whatever they may be—to make the interaction happen. Both need to behave in the specific way that brings the interaction about, which includes constantly listening, thinking, and responding to each other in a meaningful way. The key to interactivity is this behavior between individuals: to be interactive is to be in the midst of it, or to be capable of it.

So the question is, is story capable?

On the one hand, story can pretend to be one of these entities and exhibit this desired behavior. When a story’s parts are removed or their order scrambled, it can be pressed into needing interaction. Story essentially needs the other entity to fill in the missing parts or unscramble its contents. So can’t we assume that by mixing up the parts even more story’s inflexibility will eventually be undetectable, or even canceled out entirely?

Well, no. Because on the other hand, the fully-formed story that we’ve thrust into this role has no real capacity for interaction. It can’t truly engage in the required behavior because it is not equipped to behave at all. That would be counter-intuitive. It has settled into a static state for good reason. The state preserves all of its pieces in their necessary order, conveniently maintaining their composition for proper viewing by the reader.

Our contorted efforts to make it interactive are just a way of adding elaborate extra steps to the viewing process. It gives the reader some illusion of ‘sharing’ and ‘exchanging’ with the story, but it is simply a means of returning it to its completed state. All we’ve really done is made the story into a puzzle (Adams, 1999), whose superficial behavior consists of giving guidance on how to assemble, modify or reconstruct it in its own image—a pretty picture getting the help it needs to put itself together. It’s not quite the interactive “conversation” we were looking for; the scope of the discussion will be a one-topic endeavor, like trying to talk with a very self-centered person. Which sounds a little like we’re back where we started.

The Real Culprit

Our static story is failing miserably. We seem to have exhausted all the angles and this story remains infuriatingly unhelpful. Why is it being so bullheaded?

Before we point the finger in the wrong direction, this may be a good time to pull our heads out of the sand. Let’s wipe the buildup from our eyes, get a breath of fresh air and take another look at the situation. The truly stubborn culprit is staring us square in the face. The most obtrusive obstacle to story being interactive is a grossly mistaken expectation on our part—those of us responsible for defining what an “interactive story” is and coming up with wonky explanations to justify our own inflexibility and shortsightedness.

All along we’ve been asking story to behave and to somehow be capable of interacting. We treat it as its own entity so that “interactive story” can be an interaction between this comfortable story and us, the reader. We’ve proclaimed this story as the one that must work, but now we’ve seen that what we clutch to our heart as the dear friend we know and love and grew up with is not designed to converse with us.

Our static story is perfect the way it is—thousands of years of success have proved that. The reason it’s being disagreeable is because we’re dragging it, kicking and screaming and quite against its will, to take on new responsibilities it is simply unqualified to manage. Ultimately we have to ask ourselves, when we pressure this story into interacting are we just clinging to the pleasure of the finished piece we’ve always enjoyed as a reader? Are we unable to relinquish the familiar magic because we can’t imagine an alternative? Do we have an incurable case of tunnel vision or is it possible to see a completely new and undiscovered story equation?

We know we need a story something in some capacity. If interactivity is a kind of conversation between two individuals, and story can’t be one of those individuals, then where exactly does it fit in? Where is the magical place for story within this so-called conversation?

Interactivity’s Lively Nature…

When two individuals interact there is a distinguishing effect that is the hallmark of interaction. They set in motion a kind of live process. It takes the individuals behaving in a specific way to bring it into existence, and interacting keeps it going. Once the interaction ends, the effect—the live process—is over. The whole objective of interaction is to achieve this process. When we look at an example of interactivity, such as a conversation, we can see this in action. The objective is to be conversing. A conversation is the live process of conversing. A negotiation is the live process of negotiating. Each of these is a specific form of interactivity.

The magical place where story belongs—what it should be—is this live process that embodies interactivity. Like conversing or negotiating or playing a game it should be its own form of interactivity. But we already know our static story is pretty inflexible. Is it possible to convert it in some way, or use any part of it for this so-called ‘live process’?

If we look at interactivity in slow motion we discover something that sheds some light on a possible recourse. Interacting—the live process in motion—is about creating and experiencing something all at the same time. Or, authoring and reading, or authoring and viewing, at the same time. One could look at conversing as talking and listening. And negotiating as being in the midst of negotiating and witnessing the negotiation all at once. Playing a game can be thought of simultaneously playing it and watching it being played every moment. Interaction is very fluid, so it’s not typically broken apart in such a way. This is interactivity: a lively, ongoing process where individuals simultaneously create and experience something.

…Applied to Story’s Static State

Story, as we’ve seen, is typically created and experienced in two stages that don’t coincide. It’s authored in one, and read or viewed in the other. Story’s rigidity, inflexibility, and preference for a static state are all because it literally is the momentary pause between these two stages. Having just been completed, story has left the creation stage. But it has not yet been pulled into the experiencing stage. It stands in a kind of peripheral existence—alone, perfect, pristine and motionless.

The incompatibility we have on our hands can be phrased another way if we use a far-flung analogy. Story’s static state can be thought of as potential energy and interactivity’s live process as kinetic. Pairing these together creates a contradiction: expecting movement out of something unmoving. We have just as much difficulty getting “interactive story” working in this capacity as we do driving while stationary, jumping while suspended or dancing while paused. Story needs to match the kinetic energy that interactivity epitomizes.

On the plus side, the movement is there. Story’s active parts can be reinstated by incorporating the entire storytelling process, which includes authoring and reading/viewing it.

On the down side, it’s not without a major hitch. Recall that interactivity fluidly combines these two parts into one continuous process, but storytelling has them broken into completely separate stages: we create the story, it exists in its static form, and then we experience the story. It’s not so easy to just merge them all together. By design, the kind of activity required to create a story is wholly different than that used to experience it. Storytelling as we’ve been practicing it is cousin to many where these separate phases simply aren’t meant to co-exist: you don’t cook a casserole and eat it at the same time, or sew an outfit while wearing it, or skydive by simultaneously going up in a plane and dropping from the sky. The first part is intended to be completed before the second part can do its thing. The fact that these stages need to be separate makes the entire storytelling process as we know it unsuitable for interactivity.

It’s no wonder interactive story has had trouble getting along.

A New Kind of Story

There’s simply no other choice. We have to be willing to let go and allow our coddled story to evolve. You can do it, just cut those apron strings. If it’s going to be its own form of interactivity it needs to be able to shed its old ways and completely transform. No more self-centered attitude and solo spotlight. No more uncompromising tactics for organizing itself like the confining line, the exclusive set of elements or the pathway set in stone. No more disjoint between creating and experiencing it. Story has to leave behind just about everything. The only thing that it carries over from the shadow of its former self is that intrinsic quality that sets it apart as story. And it’s our responsibility to be clear about what that is—and isn’t.

So what is this new “story” then? As a fledgling word it doesn’t yet have a full definition. It’ll have to rely on interactivity as a starting point, and look to existing versions of interactivity to understand itself better and work out the details. If a conversation is the live process of conversing, then this new story is the live process of…storying.

Storying is a kinetic something that isn’t really a proper word. But it has the semblance of a meaning that suggests it is distinct—and quite promising. It just requires a stand-in until a suitably relevant term can be selected. ‘Interactive story’ seems a perfect candidate. If it has truly ironed out its differences, and the two words can be in tune with each other’s forte to the point of behaving as one, well, then, it may even be ideal.

Adams, Ernest (1999). “Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers”. Gamasutra (December, 1999).
Crawford, Chris (2002). The Art of Interactive Design: a euphonious and illuminating guide to building successful software. San Francisco: No Starch Press (2002).