I thought that this was an interesting article on the future of storytelling.
From New Media Magazine, October 3, 2000.
Original Article URL is: http://www.newmedia.com/default.asp?articleID=2316
Copyright 2000, New Media, Inc.
In Depth: What Is the Future of Fiction, Interactively Speaking?
by Russ Spencer
(10/3/00) The modern story no longer is about an author or playwright or filmmaker coming down from the mount with a finished product and unleashing it on the masses. The modern story is about computer games that allow users to affect their environments, online communities in which the story is an ongoing process of user interaction. Or, as with Pokemon, it is a whole world of character-and-story accessed through a number of different doors--books, television, movies, card games, and handheld devices.
Though the definition of "story" might be changing, not all agree with where it's heading. Andrew Glassner, a novelist, actor, and director from New York City, believes that a solid structure is the basis of all good fiction, and that structure is lost if audience members are allowed to interact. "The phrase 'interactive fiction' is the progeny of a shotgun marriage between two innocent words," Glassner warns. "Despite millennia of experimentation, direct audience participation in stories has never taken off because the classical story form requires authorial control."
Ana Serrano, director of Bell h@bitat, the new-media training facility at the Canadian Film Centre (she was featured as one of Maclean's magazine's top 100 Canadians to watch in the year 2000) sees the problem with the modern story going beyond interaction. She warns that whatever the medium, story doesn't do what story should do if there is no moral, no lesson learned, no parable.
"The problem is that right now interactive games are not really very meaningful playing," Seranno says. "They might be fun, and they might allow you to talk to other kids, but the most important thing about story and narrative is that they tell us things about our world and about ourselves. I really don't think the content of video games today is such that I really understand more about who I am by playing them."
Glassner agrees that online and video games lack life lessons or moral codes, and challenges the game designers to make the interactive process meaningful.
Is it possible, however, for a video game ever to contain and communicate the subtle meaning of a Grimm's Fairy Tale? Or a Dr. Seuss book? Glassner, who himself works in interactive story--he designed the highly participatory Web-based mystery show "Dead Air" for the Microsoft Network--says perhaps, but it's not happening yet.
"We have games that are out there now--Asheron's Call and EverQuest and other large games--in which many people come together/nand they are so close to doing it right. But to my mind, they miss the last bit," Glassner says. He suggests that game developers need to somehow create a guided experience with a solid narrative structure, within which players and avatars could act out their own dramas. "If we have a direction within a rich fantasy world," he says, "then we would have something wonderful."
The prostitution of storytelling
Others, such as Phoebe Sengers, a research scientist in Media Arts Research Studies at the German National Computer Science Research Center (GMD), dismiss the video game, film, and interactive online game industries out of hand, as a kind of perversion and co-opting of humankind's innate need to tell and learn from stories.
Sengers feels that the story form has been bought and sold by corporations that are telling only very limited kinds of stories--the kinds designed not to be spiritually satisfying but satisfying to the stockholders. "The mega-corporations that are vying for domination of the Web will inundate it with globalized 3D interactive repeats of tired narratives of the late 20th century--Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, now with Interactive Marilyn!"
Like Glassner, Sengers calls on game and interactive designers to more closely marry the tenets of great literature with great high-tech graphics and interactive capabilities to create a wholly new medium that "supports our need and desire to understand the world and express ourselves narratively."
She cautions against storytelling that is shared in a disembodied way, such as in online communities. "What we have is a generation of children who don't leave their houses," she says. "[T]hey have created these interactive [worlds] where they can live. So what is going to happen is that they are going to go to college and they are not going to have any real-world experiences to share with one another--but thank God they at least have Pokemon."
Mostly Sengers wants a technology that would allow the masses to tell their stories, instead of having stories created for the lowest common denominator.
Games let you see, hear, and change your world
Game designers see things a bit differently. Jesse Schell, a show programmer and game designer at the Walt Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, has helped develop such attractions as Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride, Hercules in the Underworld, Mickey's Toontown Tag, and an interactive Pirates of the Caribbean--all for DisneyQuest (Disney's chain of interactive indoor theme parks) or Disneyworld.
Schell points out that, regardless of its critics, the video game now is the fastest-growing and most lucrative form of "storytelling" on the planet. Thirty years ago, Schell says, there were no video games, but, last year, revenues from the game industry exceeded those of the entire movie industry. Whereas the James Bond film Golden Eye took in about $500 million, the video game from the movie took in more than twice that. Whereas movie revenues grow at about 6 percent per year, video game revenues are growing at about 11 percent. Schell says that there is a reason for this: Video games allow their audiences to actually participate and immerse themselves in ways books, plays, and films cannot.
"Why are people spending so much money on a medium that seems so primitive?" Schell asks. "The reason is that video games let you do what other mediums can only pretend to do. Instead of merely describing a fantasy world, video games put you in that world, letting you see it, hear it, touch it, change it, and become a part of it. At the technological extreme, all other mediums are subsets of video games."
Calling the best of the 100,000 video games that have been created so far "true masterpieces of art, psychology, and a deep understanding of human experience," Schell predicts that, because of the Internet, the best of interactive gaming and role playing is still years away.
"The Internet will take us from temporary microworlds to prominent megaworlds that are populated with actual human beings," he says. "These new worlds will change the way we live and work and the way we play. They will teach us, they will learn from us, they will change us, and they will grow with us. As we spend time interacting with each other in worlds where we can define the very fabric of reality, we will begin to see our neighbors in new ways, not as they appear on the outside, but as they strive to be on the inside."
Schell's well-crafted manifesto on the future of fiction may make some bristle. What if Shakespeare had let his audience come in and tell him how to structure King Lear? What if Hemingway had let a test audience figure out the ending to Old Man and the Sea? In the future, will audiences be happy with being given a narrative, or will they always want their own say in what happens?
Stories for kings
Bryan Loyall, co-founder of Zoesis Studios at Carnegie Mellon University, likens the online interactive storytelling experience to ancient times when kings and emperors had theater troupes that they could direct to write and perform certain plays. Now, through online opportunities, directors don't have to be kings and queens. "I think the main reason this medium is really exciting and does make a difference is that it allows us to do something that you could only do before if you were very wealthy," Loyall says. "You can essentially have your own personal troupe of actors and your own personal storyteller/director who is tailoring the interactive story just for you."
Loyall argues that online interactive theater is still in its infancy but eventually will be "one of the three most popular forms of fiction." Unlike Sengers, in fact, he says that the new technology will help take the telling of stories away from the rich and powerful and give it to the masses.
In the end, most seem to agree that this is an exciting time for storytelling and that when a new form emerges that is able to marry the tenets of traditional literature to the interactive opportunities of the Web, the world could be in for an extremely powerful new medium. Imagine a video game that can make you cry, that can remind you of your childhood, that can teach you lessons about life--and can be entertaining. It may not happen in five years, or 10 years, but it's coming.