Is Interactivity Inimical to Storytelling?

What, precisely, have we learned from the many failed attempts at interactive storytelling? What is the precise nature of these failures? I would argue that all past efforts in this direction have not been "interactive storytelling", but rather "interactivized stories" or "storyized games". At a structural level, they are not story*telling*, they are stories. The difference here is profound: it is the difference between the process of storytelling and the end result of storytelling, a story. Storytelling is not the same thing as stories: storytelling is an activity, a process, while stories are collections of facts, data. You can't interact with data -- you can only interact with processes. Our current efforts at interactivizing stories are as pathetically ignorant as the efforts of Dr. Frankenstein, who saw life as a collection of body parts rather than an interaction of biochemical systems. If only we can stitch together the body parts, he thought, then we can create life. But body parts are not life -- they are but the reified manifestations of living processes. Dr. Frankenstein might have kept on, adding more and better body parts, using higher voltages, better stitching techniques, but he was doomed to failure, because his approach to too reified, too thing-oriented and not process-oriented. In the same way, we pursue interactive storytelling by adding more graphics, more animation, more puzzles -- more things -- to our efforts, but we are just as doomed to failure.

The solution is to shift our thinking from the things of stories to the processes of storytelling. Indeed, the life-sciences people have shown the way. Frankenstein was fictitious, but in fact the life-sciences people have been making steady progress towards his goal by concentrating their attentions on the processes of life rather than the things of life. Molecular biology, the study of the basic chemical processes of life, is making great strides toward the creation of artificial life. We now toy with living systems, not by stitching body parts together and zapping them with high voltage, but by manipulating the DNA that controls organisms.

In much the same way, we lilaners must shift our thinking from the gross parts of stories to the deep abstractions of storytelling. The people who focus their attentions on such details as cinematic technique in interactive storytelling are rather like designers of robots who worry about what the face should look like when the damn thing can't even crawl on all fours.

This abstract approach gives us ready answers to several of the commonly cited objections to interactive storytelling. If you think of an interactive story as a collection of story-parts, then the objection that the user must play along with the story-parts is compelling. But if you think of interactive storytelling as a process of responding to the user's interests, then behavior that is viewed as perverse in the old model is now seen as informative. "You don't like Juliet? How about someone more like Cindy Crawford? Or Mother Theresa?" If the user is absolutely determined not to play along with anything, then we can't cram entertainment down his throat. What's the problem with this? It's what he *wants*!

In like fashion, the complaint that interactivity works against the immersive experience is really an artifact of the faux-interactive approach we've been using. We whipsaw our users when we present them with an interactivized story, for the interactive aspect of our creation demands activist behavior, but the story aspect demands passive behavior. The basic conflict emerges because the artist insists on taking the audience down a predetermined path (as is the case with conventional stories), while at the same time demanding the audience's active involvement in the course of the experience. The solution is for the author to relinquish control of the path to the audience. I realize that this prospect frightens many artists; how can you make your artistic point is you have no control? The trick lies in the difference between "no control" and "control of the path": artists now narrow-mindedly assume that loss of control of the path means loss of all control. Such is not the case.

Consider, for example, the political power wielded by the President of the United States. It is certainly greater than the political power wielded by any dictator or tyrant in history, yet the President has no direct control over anybody's path. He can't tell you what to eat for dinner, what clothing to wear, what job to work. Yet his power to influence tax policy, foreign trade, and a hundred other areas of life gives him vast power to influence your life. In a more primitive polity, the leadership exercised more direct control over a population that was too dumb to take care of itself, but our notions of politics presume a sophisticated population that makes decisions for itself under the broad guidance (loose control) of the politicians. We have long since discarded the old notions that the population is divided into competent aristocrats and incompetent plebians.

Yet in the field of the arts we still cling to such archaic notions. We presume a black-and-white distinction between artists and non-artists. This artificial distinction then vests total control in the hands of the artists, and none in the hands of the plebians. I would ask, are the plebians so stupid, so dense, so utterly lacking in artistic sensibility, that we cannot afford them some measure of artistic control? The fact that some people are more artistically advanced than others does not argue for total control on their part, only control at a higher level of indirection.

I would like to play the role for the arts that Jefferson played for politics. Trust the people. Trade control over a small pie for influence over a larger pie.