Interactivity by Peter Breit

When thinking about interactivity within storytelling, there are two spaces that we often default to: interactive fiction, a primarily digital experience, but sometimes existing inside a theater, wherein the actors thrust audience members into their performance; and games, which we can then bisect into primarily analog, or primarily digital. These systems are nonfunctional without input from an audience, but so are any other storytelling medium. On a most basic level,  a book requires the reader to turn a page, film to hit play, and for displays, merely to look at them. Oftentimes, we discuss these interactions as both fundamental and unimportant.  However, through clever use of these actions, we can force the audience into an entirely different headspace when interacting with the storytelling device.

Before addressing any particular ideas of what we, as authors, can do to work interactivity into our creations, we should define the basics of interaction. Firstly, the audience almost always has the choice to exit. Short of barring the doors to the theater, or strapping the audience in their seats, the audience always has final say over whether or not they will look at our story. And enclosed within that choice is the sub-choice of how much attention they are willing to give our work. This choice is eternal, the audience can always, at any point can choose to ignore, stop ignoring, focus more, focus less. Oftentimes, we can force our audience to focus more with tools that certain mediums have that others do not, such as loud sounds, bright visuals, enticing ideas and so forth. But, none of these options is a catch all, and we cannot rely on them to “force” our audience in deeper. What tunes in one audience member will tune out another. Some we can use more than others, depending on our knowledge of our audience responds to. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate humility of the storyteller. It is ours only to present our ideas, and theirs to take what they will from it.

With this in mind, we should briefly touch upon comfort. It is difficult to get an audience member to do what they do not want to do. Easier, perhaps, to get them to examine something that makes them uncomfortable, but getting them to reach out and interact with the same idea-objects they will freely examine. As such, this complicates what we do, as creators. If one is perhaps working on a subject that one knows will make certain parts of your membership uncomfortable, and one wants them to interact with them in a meaningful way, it may perhaps behoove the creator to plan the interaction to keep the audience member comfortable, while engaging with an idea that does not, or perhaps vice versa.

Interactivity, analyzed within the contexts it is most commonly used heavily within, has the immediate effect of adding further connection between the audience and the narrator. When playing a game like Super Mario Brothers, and the player fails a challenge, resulting in the death of the character, the response when asked what just happened is not “Mario died”, it is “I died”. This is a crucial feature of interactivity. The more interactive your story is, the more it puts the audience in the perspective of the element of the story they are in control of. This merging of perspectives leads to a sense of control of the narrative from the interactor, and leads us to several interesting ideas.

The first of these ideas is in taking back this control, bringing the audience’s interactions back down to the most minimal possible, pushing them back from the first person (I making this happen), to the third (I am watching this happen). This recontextualizes the audience’s interaction with your story, if the element they were previously in control of is now acting opposite to how they wanted it to, it can get the audience to ask questions of themselves they might not otherwise interact with. As well, it is important to see if this relinquishment of control is abrupt or smooth, each of which subverting audience expectations in their own unique ways.

As well, through limiting the audience’s possible interactions, the storyteller can guide audiences to particular mental states that may be otherwise unreachable without interaction. Take for example a story in which the main character rips off the lock on a young person’s diary, and explores their inner feelings and thoughts, finding things that the owner of the diary certainly doesn’t want shared. Now, adjust the example so that the diary is a physical object that the audience can hold in their hands, feel the weight of, and are asked to pry the lock open themselves, discover these inner thoughts on their own. There is no way to otherwise progress through the story, so the option is this: invade the privacy of a character, or be done with the narrative. The feelings evoked by these two scenes are distant from one another. In the third person example, the audience may be intrigued, angry at the character for breaching another’s trust, or perhaps delighted, if they did not like the personality of the diary owner. For the first person example, players may feel an equal sense of intrigue, but they may also feel guilt or shame, a need for secrecy, embarrassment, or perhaps most interesting of all, anger towards the storyteller. Anger because of the decision they were “forced” to make, anger for being made to feel a certain way that they would rather not feel, or anger for betraying the trust they put on the storyteller. It is otherwise difficult to bring the audience into a direct awareness that the creator is a piece of the story just as much as the audience is, and to feel them as more than just an intellectual presence.

Our use of interactivity is an exchange. In exchange for giving more control to our audience in their experience of the story, we give them a deeper insight into said story, letting the audience feel more connected to it, take a more active role within its unfolding. If a storyteller wants to tell a cohesive, tight story, but maintain interactivity, they must tread a careful line. With too much interaction, the storyteller runs the risk of pinning too much of the tension onto the audience following the narrative in a timely fashion, and the story falls apart as soon as the interactor treads off the story’s path. This is at it’s most perceivable in video games, where a story’s pace can fall apart if a player decides to explore a particular space for much longer than the game would otherwise ask them to.

Maintaining a high level of interactivity could suggest a nonlinear telling of a story, where no matter how the audience interacts with the story-object, they are progressing through the narrative, via gaining information, or perhaps just sensory pleasure. “Rewarding” the audience for this exploration is a common principle of video game design, which will almost certainly be the touchstone to work from for other varieties of interactive media. Designers are often as much storytellers as the writers of the projects they work on, constructing the systems in which the player interacts with the story. As an author, perhaps without a team to work with, it is perhaps a daunting task to try and both tell an interesting story within what may be an entirely new context, and designing the interaction in a way that is both conducive to helping the story achieve its aim, and involving the audience more deeply into the story. There are other invaluable questions to be answered, such as the feedback the audience receives when they make a choice. Is there an immediate reward? A tactile activity, such as opening an envelope, cracking open a plastic capsule, breaking a pane of glass?

Tactility of choices is something to be aware of. If making a certain interactive choice makes the story-object respond in a way that is pleasing, we can subconsciously affect the way our audience makes decisions. Through this kind of control, we can then, through limiting the audience’s options, force them into actions that they may find displeasing, but again, this must be weighed against an audience’s comfort level. To design certain interactions to feel pleasant or unpleasant is to bias your audience, sometimes subtly, towards a particular outcome. We must also remain aware that no matter what we do, certain things will always feel pleasing or displeasing to certain audience members, and is something to keep in mind when designing interactivity with divergent choices.


Excerpt from New York by Porter Nelson