Narrative is a tool

Artwork by Nour Malaeb:

“Don’t dismiss narrative as a tool.” That was the advice I gave two graduate students from my alma mater Saturday afternoon. They were working on a VR project that would create spaces that could be used to experience various emotions.

Janel and Nour had created a few beautiful scenes, ambient colored rooms with large, looping geometric objects. The scenes looked a bit like if you had fallen into a Tycho poster and stumbled into the world of James Turrell. The feedback I gave was that if it was going to be an engaging experience, it needed some sort of narrative connecting the spaces together.

One of their initial thoughts was that it would be more of a tool than a game. But narrative is a tool. Story telling is the most fundamental way people pass on knowledge and share emotion. My feedback was to introduce the emotional “rooms” through the framework of a story. This might help orientate a person in the experience of the ambient scenes. In the nature of good recipients to feedback, they were quick to take the input, ask more questions, and they seemed to have more ideas.

Later I realized this advice could have easily been given to the other two projects I saw as well. I met with Christine who is working on a small computer game to give better representation to members of the LGBT community. She had already faced the not insignificant hurdles of coding and getting a working prototype built. Now she is crafting the story of her game, imbuing it with all the elements of what makes a game engaging to play. In a departure from the digital, Sejal is working on a project to help others craft their own vacation narratives. This project is keen to acknowledge the need people have of telling their stories, and now one of the challenges will be in making an accessible framework to do so.

Over the course of four weeks as the students build their Kickstarter projects, they will be forced to craft the story of what they hope to build, and who they are wanting to engage with. A successful crowdfunding project relies on a clear story from the creators about why someone should care and what the project will be. So the importance of narrative is not just needed in the projects themselves, but also in the larger effort of getting the work off the ground and funded.

To give more context to what’s inspiring the diversity of projects in this interaction design graduate program, it’s helpful to know the students are all creating Kickstarter projects. The entrepreneurship class is a chance for students to create work they are passionate about, engage with a broader community, all while giving some real-world constraints. Gary Chou and Christina Xu are teaching the course, and have already written some really great stuff about it here.