Interactive stories are stories which you don’t watch, but engage with. Projects like Bear 71, Gone Gitmo, Forget Me Not, Days With My Father, Honda Press R, and BlaBla show a range of beautiful examples of the many ways in which you can explore a story actively.
To make an interactive story happen you need a script, storyboards and maybe a film shoot or some animation. But you also need interface design, solid UX, reliable hosting, and of course some way for people to find it once done. And above all, lots and lots of code.
Because of all these different moving elements, all with their own conflicting priorities and specific challenges, pulling off an interactive project of any kind is a small miracle. When I launched The Most Northern Place, it was only after almost giving up many times, and only thanks to the help of so many amazing collaborators.
I thought I’d share with you some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made over the past few years, and the lessons I drew from them.
Story: Writing a script is half the job. Figuring it out as you go it is twice the work.
Writing an interactive story is complicated because you have so many options. But remember, the story isn’t the interaction. In other words, choosing the mechanic by which the user interacts with your story — choose-your-own-adventure film, scrolling website, virtual reality experience — comes after you write your core story.
So before turning to questions about format and interaction — before tackling design, filming, or anything else at all — think only of a simple core narrative.
Keep it simple, and don’t rush. Draw it out with boxes on a piece of paper, or type a stream of consciousness into your phone. Make a story curve. Whatever, but work on it until you feel it has a solid beginning, middle and end.
Interaction: Try to imagine how the viewer will perceive the story differently, because they are interacting with it.
When your story is in a good place you can start to think about the type of interactions you think will work best.
But interaction is interesting — unlike a linear film or a book, your viewer is involved in the story. They are clicking and looking around, they are inside your story world.
Before settling too quickly on an interaction mechanic, try to brainstorm a little by asking:
● How will the viewer see the story unfold differently, now that it’s interactive? What consequences does this have for understanding the story I want to tell?
● Are your stories’ characters able to communicate with your viewer?
● Is the viewer playing someone inside the story world? Or are they an invisible, all-seeing observer?
● What if your viewer misses something important? Think of Virtual Reality, for example. You can entice your viewer to look in a certain direction, but your viewer has the freedom to miss something important. Then what happens?
These kind of thought experiments allow you to make the right decision, with careful consideration.
Planning: As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.
The creative process isn’t just about blue sky thinking. You’ve got to think practically, and make small decisions every day. You’ve got to narrow things down constantly, like sharpening a pencil a little bit at a time.
What is the viewers’s journey through my story? Where do they start, and where do they end up? But also, how will it work on different devices, like a mobile phone? Or how does it connect with social networks? Where will my story ultimately live? How many visitors do will I have? How will people find it once it’s out there?
Planning your project means thinking about all of these things in detail. Asking yourself questions and then answering those questions, and then not changing your mind. Its better to work with assumptions than not to even think about these things.
It is about solving problems before they become an actual problem.
Collaboration: Future collaborators will get excited about your ideas but turned off by bad planning or moving goalposts.
Everyone is looking for something meaningful to do. The world is full of talented passionate people, waiting for a story to apply their skills to.
But people are busy and worried about getting involved unless there’s a clear path to follow. So before you ask for help, think of two things:
● Think very carefully if there’s a tool out there that could help your story come to life. It might be a way to create a prototype or simple example of what you want, without anyone else’s involvement. Explore tools like Klynt, Racontr, Interlude, they are great and one of them could be the tool for you.
● If you ask someone for help, it’s important to translate your idea to their specific skill or talent. In other words: what do you want from them?
An illustrator isn’t someone who draws, every illustrator has their own unique style. Each designer has a unique approach to making interfaces look great, or working with typography. And developers all have a particular type of project they like coding, or if anything, specific languages they specialise in.
Remember, you’re not just asking someone to push buttons for you. You’re bringing someone into your world. And they’ll change your world. So understand that someone, and the work they do.
Determination: Stay true to your original idea no matter what. In the end you’re the one who has to live with it.
You will spend more time looking at your own work than any of your viewers out there. When you make a web documentary, a film with multiple endings, an interactive comic book or a VR experience, whatever it is, you’ll be seeing the same little detail over and over again while making it.
So do something you think is beautiful, meaningful, and important. Stay true to that original concept that made you want to start this journey.
The road is long, make sure it is meaningful for you to create this project. And if somewhere along the line you lose your original vision, then stop to ask yourself how you can get back to it.
I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.