What is interactive storytelling?

And why we care so much about it…

This article belongs to a larger collection of resources about interactive and transmedia storytelling. Check it out !


Interactive storytelling is the art of telling stories enhanced with technological, social or collaborative interactive features to offer content adapted to new behaviors in a rapidly changing cultural ecosystem.

News forms of storytelling have been stamped with many different labels: non-linear, interactive, transmedia, deep-media, and more. Some people have become advocates for one term or the other, I chose myself to use “interactive storytelling” as it simply seems broader.

What we all have in common — whether we ask our audience to click / touch / scroll, to contribute to a participative project or to follow a story spread across several platforms — is our search for an interaction, for the transformative power of a meaningful dialogue through our work. Here, interaction broadly means “the exchange of information between two parties through a medium”, no matter the nature of both information and medium.


Why do we feel this interactive temptation?

It has to be noted that the intent of combining interactivity and storytelling has not been spawned by the Internet alone. It is deeply rooted in our cultural DNA, from the earliest forms of theater to videos games.

Neither has it been a collective decision made by an hypothetical assembly of all storytellers. This temptation has been driven by new audience’s behaviors in an accelerating and overly connected world.

Such a shift has been eloquently described by Kevin Specey in his lengthy speech in Edimbourg in 2013: “People want the control. They want the freedom. […] Give them what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price.”

Content producers and creatives are by definition looking to be heard / watched / read — whether by millions or a small group of fans. So as soon they felt this shift among their audience, they had to adapt. Those who are still trying to force the audience into obsolete distribution schemes will keep experiencing the slow erosion of their popularity.

Yet no interactive storyteller has waged a war against linear content. This change is not a conflict but a new proposition of value. Yes the crisis is brutal but most players are gradually finding new models.

Models including interactive content, but it’s a given that these will never account for the majority of the cultural and journalistic production out there. However, there are many cases where interactivity is actually a better alternative to represent our reality and to engage in a true dialogue with an audience submerged by information.

Trying to mimic the acceleration of our world with frantic content publishing will not participate in people making sense of our reality or feeling more empathetical towards one another. This is where interactivity can make a difference. By showing us the intricate mechanics of the world, by giving people the power of choice, interactive storytellers produce experiences that are more demanding but also more rewarding than a thousand articles.


Interactivity as a way to describe reality

So. How can you decide if your story should be linear or interactive? As we still lack economical incentives, going interactive remains a question of instinct and appetition. Some creatives feel that it is time to try something different, to explore a new form of expression and dialogue.

Simplistically put, if you only have one story to tell, and most of all if you have only one way to tell it, you won’t have much need for interactivity.

Even if there is no clear “decision making canvas” to choose between linear and interactive, I think that the fundamental question to ask oneself is “will my story have a greater impact with these interactive features?”.

Sometimes, when looking at the way our world works, it might prove difficult to describe it in a linear way. To relate the story of a long journey, linearity will more or less force the narrative into some sort of a captain’s log. But how can this format depict the sensation of “serendipitical” exploration the traveler felt since it does not allow the audience to take control of the journey?

The mechanics of our reality are profoundly complex and contingent on the individuals and circumstances forming it. And if linearity seems fit for a demonstration, a subjective train of thoughts or a chronological depiction of time, it might prove limited to reproduce these complex dynamics of our world.

Façade (2005)

This choice of interactivity has thus been made by many creatives, such as the team behind Jeu d’Influences (French for A Game of Influence), a serious game in which we embody a CEO in crisis management mode. Or Façade (see on the left) — an experiment reproducing with high fidelity the complexity of human interactions within a struggling couple — and Unspeak — exploring in depth the manipulative power of words.

Those themes have been successfully tackled with linear formats. However their interactive treatment might allow for greater empathy and comprehension for their topic and protagonists.


Interactivity transforms storytelling

The impact of interactivity on the art of telling stories is as multifaceted as interactivity itself. It can be seen in both format and content, but also on the creatives that had to transform the way they think, write and collaborate.

New formats to explore

It will (soon) take another article to offer a typology of new narratives formats — to ease your thirst for knowledge and discovery, you can already watch this selection of interactive projects. For the time being, let’s just notice that no media, no art form has been spared by the interactive temptation.

Our field consistently grows, with numerous projects in audiovisual production, publishing, museography, journalism and of course video gaming.

Among these new formats, some will remain in a state of experimentation — whether it is for economic and usability reasons. Others are becoming full fledged genres such as interactive documentaries or newsgames.

And beyond stand-alone forms of creation, you can even engage in transmedia storytelling (woohoo!), i.e. the clever and coherent delivery of various elements of a narrative universe across multiple platforms.

Regarding transmedia, don’t mind the definition and rather focus on the opportunity: when your creative concept is strong enough to make sense on multiple media, you can build content that interacts with different audiences in different ways. Audiences that can form a community around a global and ambitious storytelling universe.

Storytellers evolve into something different

New forms of storytelling have greatly redefined the author’s status and position, asking of him/her new skills and trades.

Among those, there is what Chris Crawford calls “second-person thinking”, the ability of an author to anticipate the audience’s motivations and reactions when put in front of a choice.

This empathic creative style has to be cultivated and exercised, so that storytellers can reconfigure their brain and enter a multidimensional writing space:

Writing in 1, 2 or 3D.

Each creative will need a different amount of time to adapt but what a satisfaction to achieve a beautiful and intricate non-linear scenario!

By @juliengoetz, author of Jeu d’Influences.

An equally fundamental change among storytellers is their increased ability to collaborate and the willingness to consider “creative technologists” as fellow authors.

The goal here is not to write a scenario with eight hands, but to recognize that the early input of a designer, a developer, a game designer (…) will considerably improve your chances to create something innovative in both form and content.

This collaborative spirit levels the playing field and refuses a sacralisation of the author’s position. It requires a certain level of humility, a special attention paid to building trust and creativity among the creative team.

For each member of said team, it implies a greater distribution of responsibilities, hence a loss of control over the global creative process. This loss should not be a source of regret but rather seen as a great opportunity to reinvent the way we produce digital content.


But interactivity does not change everything…

Reading these words, you might think that nothing is left unchanged. However the basics rules of storytelling never ceased to be relevant. Interactivity does not question the great principles of Aristotle’s Poetics, it simply offers storytellers new formats and possibilities to explore.

In his work, Aristotle made a list — in decreasing order of importance — of the various elements of a story: structure, characters, thought, diction, song and spectacle. All these components, without exception, are still of outmost importance to understand what makes a good story.

One of them is “characters”. Characters… making choices. Without choices, the story never moves forward and the narrative becomes irrelevant. What is the use for an omniscient narrator if he can’t describe the mechanics of the ongoing drama? Why bother with a subjective point of view if it does not foster empathy for a character and his motivations?

Understanding the outmost importance of choice, storytellers were quick to look for ways to represent it. For quite some time, they lacked the technology to do so. Now that technology enables instead of restrains, we’ve entered an exciting era. Storytellers enjoy a level of freedom that few experienced before. It becomes our responsibility not to waste that chance and to constantly question our emerging field of interactive storytelling.


This article belongs to a larger collection of resources about interactive and transmedia storytelling. Check it out !


Further reading:

Chris Crawford on Interactive storytelling (2005)

New Documentary Ecologies by Kate Nash (2014)

Creating interactive narratives by Ingrid Kopp, The Big idea

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