On language, software, structure and story

Speaking with Philo

I had one of those thick conversations rich with ideas and potential last Friday. It was with fellow storyteller and technologist Philo Van Kemenade. Philo has a background in AI and cognitive computing and convenes events like this one trying to bring multi-disciplinary approaches to interactive storytelling.

Now this interactive space is a fun frontier to be working in, though at times it can be difficult to cut through the dissonance, the many voices and sudden surge in platforms. The many disciplines that meander into it — media, tech, data, music, news, advertising to name a few — make for electric potential but it can feel at times disparate and disconnected. Guys like Philo are those rare ratchets that bring together these seeds of intent to hack and deliver, to build and ultimately make good on the promise. As a founder of an interactive video start up I know how integral people like Philo are for this nascent field to progress toward that big, bold and daring future we all envision.

Uncommon Languages

We met at Shorditch Grind for coffee after Philo had seen a few episodes of #OnTheLine and suggested we had a lot to talk about. Turned out he was right. Almost 2 hours in we had covered many aspects in regard to the state of interactive storytelling presently.

Sketches make for great mind melds

It was raining, I was soaked and Philo had forgotten his notebook. We thus stumbled over a problem many face in this field: the immaturity of the terminology. It’s simply a lack of native verbology to fit into what we were describing.It happens all the time. Whenever I write about the process behind what we do at Storygami it’s difficult to describe things that haven’t quite been defined outside of itself. I would throw out terms like ‘layering’ and ‘root video’ but know that someone out there might have a different interpretation of it, a different word or connotation. That’s a tough nut to crack, we need new words. But rather than halt a fizzing discussion I brought out my own notebook. Philo borrowed a page and drew out boxes, diagrams and arrows, explaining with scrappy sketches what we failed to do with language. Suited me well.

Pulling At Threads

We discussed terms like ‘branching’ and what it meant for both of us. I made no bones about the fact that a lot of stuff I’ve seen thus far has felt slightly gimmicky. The choose-your-own-adventure stories work for some and I’ve seen great use cases but I told Philo I was impatient for something that could breathe a bit more life into the story.

The primary discussion thus shifted to how much control a viewer should or could have in regard to telling a coherent story. Another tough one. I’ve always said that I enjoy producing story arcs and taking a viewer on a journey so to speak. There is craft there, an artform. Great stories are honed, ground and woven together to elicit emotion and resonance. Discovery is, of course, part of that pop and fizz feeling but I wonder if in our effort to provide click-throughs to find content we might have lost sight of simple stuff like dramatic device and character. How could interactivity inform thematic principles for instance?

In terms of fictional storytelling with online video, we ended up agreeing that allowing threads to be pulled loose in this way — the action itself, the trigger, the structure of the interaction in regard to the flow — should be considered alongside the disruption of the overall narrative drive. The trick is for the tech to get out of the way of the story but provide interactivity in a way that is intuitive. Problem is, we won’t know for sure until we keep telling stories in different ways. It’s a mulch this kind of thinking, I know.

The other side to the coin is in regard to non-fiction narrative, documentary for example or reportage. Here there is broader scope to develop interactive devices that allow for further information and media content. Now that’s a whole other game and one we’ve been concentrating on currently.

Closed or Open Sandboxes?

Bridging interactivity from ‘experiences’ to simple video content

We also moved on to the applications for the authoring tool we’re currently developing (and openly inviting developers to work on) For Storygami the goal has always been to develop an approach to interactivity that could be used across industry. For this to be at all feasible we need to get in the hands of news makers, brands and organisations that can use this tech to explore ways of telling deeper, media rich and nuanced stories.

For Philo and I the question then became whether a we should produce a sandbox that is closed and structured or an open platform which allows greater dexterity on a grander scale. I optioned for something in between: something that exists on the web but feels human, intuitive, has one foot in the realm of creativity and possibility and another in the grounded space where online video currently presides. I added that our tool will nevertheless be something that provides a focus on user interaction, beautiful design and a philosophy that is storytelling first. We intend to bridge the gap between the wonderful sprawling experiences currently out there to simple video content that can be created within 24 hour production cycles. Philo concurred and mentioned that if we stuck with those ideas we’d be many miles ahead in terms of our approach at least. Good call then, I thought.

When parting ways, I commented on the psychotic nature of Dutch cyclists in Amsterdam and he pointed at his own bike chained by the side of the road. Laughing I asked him to put the word out about our CTO position at Storygami. He mentioned I should come to MozFest this October and talk some more.

These conversations are rare and contain lightning in a bottle.

So I booked.

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