Designing an interactive story to examine life’s complex narratives

Life is complicated. We tend to think of it in linear terms, as though we go from point A to point Z, but in reality it tends to be an interconnecting, complex, chaotic ball of overlapping narratives:

“Storytelling is traditionally reductionist, offering simplified narratives that follow a single protagonist or (worse) force the protagonist into a culturally conceived pattern, such as the Hero’s Journey archetype…But stories today show a different truth- we are cognizant that the world is full of diverse people motivated by individual goals and influencing the world in different ways. We are able to comprehend this complexity that was either simplified or ignored in the past…Our intellectual growth yearns for stories that describe the world, or imaginary worlds, in the terms that we understand: a complex web of individual agents.”
Agency. Or Why We Love Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.
life: what we think it is vs what it is in reality

I started to wonder if we can express this chaos into a form that can be explored. Imagine being able to explore interactive life stories of people? It would be like visiting a museum, except for a human being. We could identify themes, or see what was happening during a lead up to a major life event. We could get a sense of how someone has navigated their chaos.

We love biographies, but they can be one-dimensional, massively edited experience, narrated by our flawed memories. Can we leverage on data and technology to tell a more accurate, realistic story?

Steve Jobs famously said, we can only connect the dots backwards. Imagine being able to know where the dots are, interact with them, and see their connections relative to each other?

What exists now

These are mostly for the Quantified Self movement rather than trying to tell an actual story, typically expressed in a dashboard-style format:

Moves, Photos, Momento, Exist.io, Feltron Annual Report, Swarm, Gyrosco.pe

How can we take the data that we have and actually try to form a coherent narrative around them? As we can see from above, there is a ton of data points available, but they exist in separate silos. They probably have relationships to each other and could express a different level of meaning when put together in a greater whole.

There are others that try to express the story in a timeline format: Timeline.js and Lim Chee Aun’s Life:

Time’s Nelson Mandela and a snapshot of my Life

What is missing

Maybe what I’m imagining is a beautiful mashup of everything we’re seeing above:

  • Include both automatically generated data and manual input in an interactive wrapper. It could be a timeline, a map, a mosaic of pictures, or all of the above.
  • Levels of zoom: from a big picture data visualization, all the way down to the lowest-level detail.
  • See patterns and themes: identify clusters — does periods of intense activity indicate something was about to happen?
  • Include both major milestones and strings of ordinary moments in between.
  • Discover co-relations between sets of data. Example: the impact of health activity on one’s narrative.
  • Be able to explore where a story left off and continued.
  • Notes or stories can be manually added: what was in my mind when I was writing a particular poem? Why was this period particularly important to me, even though it seems like a string of random events?

What would be amazing

  • Have people in our lives contribute to our stories.
  • Explore how individual life stories interact with each other with relationship graphs or visualizations. An unintentional act on our part can cause a dramatic ripple effect in someone else’s life.

What next

I am going to use my own data to experiment with various interactive forms and see what comes out of it. A sneak peek:

a rough exploration-in-progress. data reflected is not accurate. Though I like the idea of this mashup, it is still lacking in narrative coherence.

Why this is important to me

Apart from being curious about people and getting a peek into their lives would be such an intriguing learning experience, I really wanted to be able to examine my personal history in depth.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

History is there to be learned from, even our personal histories. I have gotten a ton of surprising insights from periodically looking back at my writing and data — often discovering I have been repeating certain patterns or I have gone through the painful cycles of making the same old mistakes and then realizing I had the same epiphanies or breakthroughs years ago. I wanted a way to tie them up into something coherent I could then analyze and reflect upon:

The above tweet is actually a great meta example of what I am trying to convey here. I had this thought seeded all the way back in August, and if I wasn’t deliberately trying to excavate my own data, I would have completely forgotten that:

  1. This idea has been brewing in my mind for months
  2. It has evolved along the way, from being expressed in a journal-like form to more of an immersive storytelling experience

I tend to have a pessimistic recall of my own life so this also serves to give me an objective view of my life. My brain lies to me.

This is my way of altering my chronically depressed sense of reality: using what I know, what I love, who I am, to thoroughly examine my life.


This is part of an experiment: making anything I want for a year. I am intending to document the process publicly and open-source the resulting work. Follow “The experimental year” for updates and additional context. I am embracing the vulnerability of sharing something in-progress.