Dateline Nov. 6, 2002: Reprint: Article on Nonlinear Storytelling by Michael St. Hippolyte

March 16th, 2010

Mr. St. Hippolyte was kind enough to allow us to reprint his article entitled “A Plot Beyond A Line: New Ways to Be Nonlinear”. The piece was first published it in 1995 and remains largely relevant to this day.

Of course, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are inherently nonlinear and unbounded. Playability, plot development, and character interaction are all critically affected by how one structures the overall game and by the specific focus given to the various elements of the game.

This article discusses a number of approaches to nonlinear story development. I’ve added limited annotations to point out examples and details relevant to ARGs.

A Plot Beyond A Line: New Ways to Be Nonlinear (Original [http://users.rcn.com/mash.interport/nonlin.html])

How do you tell an interactive story?

It sounds like a simple question: “How do you tell an interactive story?” But in reality it contains a deep philosophical contradiction. If being interactive has any meaning, then it must be that the person who is experiencing (viewing, listening to, playing, reading) the interactive story affects the way the story goes, and perhaps even the way it comes out. That’s what makes a story interactive. But to tell a story implies that you have a story to begin with. How do you tell a story when you do not and cannot know exactly what the story is in advance?

The starting point of a useful answer to this question, as any interactive storyteller would attest, is that there are limitations. Either you put limits on the viewer, or your story, or both.

You can limit the viewer of your interactive story to activities such as playing with gadgets and solving puzzles, which may entertain but do not advance the story: getting the bunny to hop by clicking on it, but not in a direction of your choosing. Such a narrative would be only marginally interactive. Or you can limit your story to the idea of a story, minus the details, with the viewer himself ultimately responsible for the story. Consider, for example, the excellent simulation of a village economy, SimCity: like L.A. in Dragnet, it has a million stories; only in SimCity none of the stories exist until you run the program and start developing real estate. The story you get may be long or short, poignant or pedantic; all SimCity guarantees is that the story will fit the SimCity model of urban development. SimCity is immensely entertaining and informative, as many good simulations are; but a simulation is not by itself a narrative.

There is, finally, a middle path, which is the one followed by most writers of interactive narratives. The author limits both the viewer and the story: the viewer to a finite set of choices, and the story to a finite set of outcomes. As we shall see, there are many ways that this can be done, but in all cases the limits are stringent.

Interactive stories being written today range from hypertext novels to text adventures to interactive multimedia titles. Any and all media are up for grabs; for the computer every medium is just another bit stream anyway. But for all these stories in all these media, the range of underlying narrative structures is rather condensed. A small number of interactive models, i.e., mechanisms for limiting the viewer’s choices and the story’s outcomes, account for most of the interactive stories published to date. Many more such models are possible, however, meaning that a vast world of creative opportunities has yet to be exploited. In fact, it has yet to be even charted.

If Columbus had not been equipped with a map that underestimated the diameter of the earth by half, he may never have set sail in a westerly direction. Whether the earth would have been better or worse is a question I will leave for others, but most explorers prefer to start a journey with as good a map as possible. The following links lead to a rough map of interactive storytelling, with the boundaries demarcated and the charted territory plotted out. And for the vast spaces yet to be explored, a few possibilities penciled in.

Conclusion

Interactive storytellers have gotten a lot of mileage from a small set of models. But many interactive stories will remain untold until new models come into being. Perhaps some of the models described above will do the job; perhaps not. The discussion is worthwhile even if the only result is to show that new models are possible; this is all it takes to drive the process of creative exploration forward. In any event, we shall soon see for ourselves the new breed of interactive story, whatever it looks like; the explorers are already out to sea, and they will not return with empty holds.

Copyright © 1995 by Michael St. Hippolyte. All rights reserved.

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