Interactive documentary filmmaker Suvi Andrea Helminen spoke to the creators of two interactive storytelling tools: how did they originate and will they inspire or reduce creativity in interactive storytelling?
An increasing offer of interactive storytelling tools is making the production of interactive documentaries accessible to everyone. These tools can be compared to video editing programs: clips can be inserted into interactive timelines or rule-based structures, then text, music scores or additional interactive features can be added.
Korsakow is one o of the tools that have been around the longest. It has been used for works such as Planet Galata: A Bridge in Istanbul (2010). Korsakow started as the creative vision of Florian Thalhofer and later evolved into a tool.
“I was studying at the University of the Arts in Berlin. In 2000, after a couple of years experimenting with interactive narration, I was making a film called The Korsakow Syndrome, a non-linear interactive film on alcohol. I had no experience in linear storytelling, and I tried to make an interactive story work. There were no tools around so I basically wrote software which used the logic of a computer to make a narration. In retrospect it was like mounting the horse backwards, as we say in German: “Ich habe das Pferd von hinten aufgezäumt. Had I known about the principles of linear storytelling beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have done it that way. Nevertheless, it worked. Thirteen years later it is still around.”
As with Korsakow, the origin of the tool ASAPS started with one person’s need for it. Creator Hartmut Koenitz was working with video installations and became interested in creating interactive works. Later, as a PhD student at Georgia Tech, Koenitz formed a research group and began developing a tool. ASAPS is not specifically developed for video, but for interactive storytelling in a broader sense. It was recently used for the documentary game Occupy Istanbul (2014).
“I am just like everybody in interactive narrative: we all have our own tools,” Koenitz starts jokingly, because it has been like this for years. Until now most of the significant interactive documentaries have been programmed from scratch, fulfilling an author’s specific vision for a single project. Koenitz continues:
It was like mounting the horse backwards
“I really wanted to make something that would be easy to use, and that I could teach. I believe in a small iterative approach, so the tool is constantly undergoing changes. There was one term where I taught ASAPS and pushed out fourteen new versions, because there were so many suggestions from my students.”
Korsakow was developed further in a university context as well.
“In 2000, one of my professors wanted to start a new class on interactive narration and we thought about what kind of tool we could use. That was the beginning of Korsakow. We stripped it down, and made it accessible for other people. With Korsakow, you build stories from different recipes unlike in traditional storytelling. You have minimal pieces of narration that we call ‘Smallest Narrative Units’. Then you create rules on how these units come together. The result is a narration that changes every time you look at it.”
Koenitz similarly built ASAPS to allow possibilities for creating changing and dynamic story structures.
“To me interactive narrative, fiction or non-fiction, should not be about making existing story structures interactive. I really want to avoid the Frytagian arc. I don’t want to have a notion of climax, because I believe we have the opportunity to go beyond that. In interactive media we can explore different types of structures. Interactive narrative is about what comes out of participation and procedurality.”
Interactive narrative is about what comes out of participation and procedurality
Despite the possibility to create dynamic story structures, Thalhofer believes that the film industry in general will confine itself to linear forms in the foreseeable future.
“I think there is just one reason [for maintaining linear forms]: because we are used to it. We made linear films in the past because of the technical reason that, originally, film was stored on a reel. You had this strip of film, and I think that is the reason why film is linear. Drawing from linear storytelling traditions just didn’t make sense when creating a structure for interactive works. Why on earth would you structure data that is on a computer hard drive in a linear way?”
Maybe it is not because we are used to the linear forms, but simply because they serve another purpose: passive entertainment – a reflective space in which the audience can absorb a story without having to interact with it. In our nature, do we have an innate bias towards processing the world around us in a linear way? According to Thalhofer, we don’t.
“No! Look at brain scans. The brain does not work linearly. I think it is harmful to us when we try to organize our lives in a linear way. Our lives and our perceptions of the world are not linear.”
In changeable story structures the outcome of each individual viewer’s experience can be vastly different, and the outcome unpredictable. Directors don’t have the same amount of control over the message that is conveyed as they do in linear works. Koenitz says that directors have to be willing to accept a reduced and somewhat different role.
“It may be a challenge, especially for people who are already well versed in documentary filmmaking. The editing decision is no longer yours alone. You have a co-editor: the user. …In interactive media, the author becomes a story-world builder in a sense and offers potential paths. And that is an altogether different approach. Some authors are more concerned with the integrity of their artistic visions and that cannot always be preserved in interactive changing media, but if you want to embrace this media you clearly cannot be the kind of director you are used to being.”
More and more directors are, however, experimenting with interactivity in various ways. Despite the growing interests, Thalhofer does not experience an increased openness towards new ideas.
“The film industry doesn’t want radical change. These are very boring times. People need to digest all the culture that has come from the past. We are in a time of remixing and reshuffling stuff. It is not a time of revolutionary new ideas.”
Thalhofer is worried about the current development in the interactive documentary field because many of the successful interactive works stick to a semi-linear narrative structure.
“Most producers look back on the successful models of the past to develop content for the new mediumAnd this also shapes how authors, as well as audiences, learn or don’t learn new ways of thinking about story. There are authors who are interested in tools that allow new ways of storytelling, but they are still striving for this very traditional story arc. The author is pre-thinking the thoughts that the viewer should have. Now you have the possibility to make great, amazing new stuff that has never been seen before. Instead it seems like computers are being used to reproduce stuff as it was in the past with a little added interactivity.”
Until now the interactive documentary landscape has been free of conventions, a space of experimentation. The emergence of more and more tools is a double-edged sword. They could push the field forward as it becomes increasingly accessible for everyone to produce interactive works, but potentially also limit it to certain forms of creative expression, dictated by what the tools afford. The question is how the tools will influence interactive production in the future. Maybe tools will take over because of the lower production cost. Or maybe they will merely be used for prototyping. Koenitz thinks it is an under-researched area. He draws parallels to trends in video games.
“I definitely think there is an influence of tools on production. Right now in the game world there are a ton of Unity games, because that’s the most popular tool right now. Similarly in the late 1990s everybody was using Macromedia Director to create multimedia works.”
Some interactive storytelling tools have a recognizable aesthetic, while others are more open to customisation. Many of the emerging tools vanish as fast as they appear. The questions are which of them will triumph, and which will become the most desired? Only the future will tell. Most of the tools have limited free versions that can be downloaded and tested. Korsakow can be downloaded here: http://korsakow.org/. To try ASAPS, write an email through this homepage: http://advancedstories.net/, and receive a download link for a beta version. Apart from Korsakow and ASAPS, there are also tools like Klynt http://www.klynt.net/, which was developed by the team behind the interactive documentary Journey to the End of Coal (2008). There is also Zeega, http://zeega.com/, which was used for several of the Localore projects (2012-13).For map-based projects, a good option is Mapbox, https://www.mapbox.com/. For interactive timelines there is Tiki-Toki, www.tiki-toki.com. To gather photos and audio material for a crowd-sourced documentary, a possible platform is Vojo, http://vojo.co/, which was used for Sandy Storyline (2013). These are just a few examples. Try them all and may the strongest tools prevail!