I have a deep love of storytelling. However, unlike others who focus on creating a variety of stories in a single medium, I have always been interested in specific sorts of stories and how they can be told in a variety of media. Similar stories when told using words, pictures, music or movement seem to bring new and unique perspectives to our understanding of life through each medium. These perspectives can perhaps be broadened and/or deepened when combined in different ways.
From very early in my life I have had the opportunity to play with computers. However, it was not until around 1990 when I was given a copy of Literary Machines by Ted Nelson, at a time when I was employed as the editor-in-chief for a computer games magazine, that it finally struck me that the computer is a way in which I can experiment with blending a variety of artistic disciplines and media, and thereby further expand how a story can be told.
My research, therefore, has been focussed upon how to tell a story using a computer. How is it different from other types of storytelling? How is it the same? What do I need to know to more effectively use it as a storytelling medium? How can the task be made more manageable for the creators, and how can the experience be made more comprehensible for the audience? The answers to these questions proved more elusive to begin with than I had anticipated.
This hyperbook began as a theoretical examination of creative and critical work in the field of digitally based storytelling. I soon discovered that the existing work was not going far enough into what seemed obviously possible. On the one hand were the people creating and writing about story as it related to computer games. Within that context what can be done with story tends to be limited, since the gameplay takes top priority. On the other hand were those people interested in digital narrative as an extension of the practice of prose poetry. They tend not to be concerned with plot or story. When discussing their work they write primarily from a critical perspective, rather than an instructional one for creators.
To learn more about this medium I found it necessary to personally create a digitally based story, Odysseus, She. In this way I could become immediately aware of what issues were involved, and demonstrate theories I had been developing, which were not being explored by other digital creators/theorists. Odysseus, She, therefore, forms the proof of a new and broader approach to digital storytelling.
This exegetical background for my project covers the information I needed in order to have a full grasp of my creative tools, both technical and aesthetic, the theories I developed, the methods I applied in the creation of my project, and my conclusions upon completing the project.
My examination of the history and breadth of digitally based storytelling started with interactive fiction such as Colossal Caves (aka The Original Adventure). I subsequently explored plot generating software, computer-mediated collaborative round-robins, computer-mediated collaborative theatre, hyperfiction or cybernovels, and Web serials.
From this experience and basis for understanding, I noticed that certain navigation structures were repeatedly used in the creation of digitally based stories. Other researchers had also noticed such navigation structures, but a comprehensive and truly basic list had not yet been formed. So a significant step in my research was creating a list of standard storytelling shapes, which can form the foundation for diagramming, designing, implementing and constructing comprehensible stories within the computer. These are the single path, enhanced path, multi-pathing, braided multi-pathing,sequential sets, tree-branching paths and omni-directional pathing shapes.
Where some creators had come to the conclusion that plot was outside of the scope of an interactive story, I found that clarifying these shapes made it easier to recognise how a computer-mediated story could be plotted. This led to the re-examination and consequently redefinition of plot and other standard storytelling elements.
Through observation of others' work and the creation of Odysseus, She, one of my early discoveries was that the single climax plot structure, as portrayed by Freytag's Pyramid, is in fact insufficient for application within most of these shapes, which might explain some story creators' difficulty with the medium. A more useful plot structure would be the Odysseyan or episodic plot structure.
What also became apparent through experience with Odysseus, She was the crucial part theme played in holding together a loose plot structure, so that a story has the opportunity to form a coherent whole. I was eventually able to quantify those story elements under the influence of theme, which could provide unity to a computer-meditated story. Those would be: character, action, time, place, style and symbol. The computer medium also seemed to best support and even be representative of certain themes which certain creators may be interested in exploring.
Finally, the technology at this stage offers specific choices which can be made on the part of the creator, and which the creator can offer to the audience. Those choices creators can make available to their audience include: different focal characters or perspectives, character modifications, environment modifications, graphical metaphors, paths of navigation, exploring the consequences and outcomes of differing actions, expanding their knowledge or experience of a scene, and selecting presentation format (e.g. text, audio, video).
Between the framework of theory and knowledge set forth here, and the practical example of Odysseus, She, I believe that I have created a firm foundation upon which other storytellers can build richer, fuller computer-mediated stories.
Copyright © 1999 Katherine Phelps