Storytelling Artifacts

There’s a phenomenon in the fantasy genre where a person can pick up an object and learn about what the object has “seen”. Sometimes, the person does this through a spell. Other times, the person does it through an inherent psychic ability often referred to as psychometry. You see it in stories where the main character has amnesia; they’re presented with objects and places that had great personal significance to them in the hopes something would trigger. The movie Anastasia has a great scene early on where Anya sneaks into a boarded up building that is really the palace she grew up in. As she wanders through, she touches or picks up various objects, and each one triggers a different memory.

This concept that an object can record and retain memories is completely fictional, but the idea that objects can tell stories about a time, a place, or the people who used it is part of what drives archaeologists and museum curators. Finding remnants of past lives in the form of architecture and objects helps archaeologists and curators construct stories of life within the culture they’re exploring. That said, if you’ve ever been in a museum and refused to walk into a given area because you just knew something dark and foreboding was waiting for you, you’ve experienced a little of this psychometric phenomenon.

We now live in a time where objects can become a player in, or at least assist, creating our stories. A cell phone can record where you go, who you talk to, what you do, what was important to you. Smart objects can learn about who you are and how you behave under certain circumstances to tailor their use and activity to your lifestyle. They craft a story about who you are in a place, in a time, and can in some cases track how you change over time.

Enchanted objects, as smart objects in an Internet of Things setting can be called, can tell us a story. They can be embued with a set of triggers that will reveal bits about a story as you interact with it and with other parts of the story. It opens up a world of storytelling and immersive fiction possibilities. I doubt this will be my last time exploring enchanted objects, and I’m looking forward to seeing how different storytellers incorporate them into their narrative designs.

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Structural Hierarchy

One of the things you’re going to hear me say with some regularity as we move through the month is hierarchy, so I thought we’d start by talking about what that means and why we use it (and why we don’t use it).

A hierarchical structure is a classification system that basically starts with a broad set of terms that becomes more focused with each new layer. We’ve all used it in those outlines we created to write papers for school. But they’re also useful for grouping items. For example, if you wanted to classify the Dresden Files series, you might start with the broad classification “books” (it would be filed with all books), and then drill down to the classification “fiction” (it would be filed with the fiction books, but out of place with nonfiction). From there, you might classify it as “fantasy” (it would be filed with other fantasy novels, but would be a sore thumb in a pile of westerns), and then “urban fantasy” (it would be filed with other urban fantasy novels, but probably not with epic fantasy novels).

If you’re familiar with branched storytelling or interactive fiction, the organization structure is similar. Once you choose a path, you are locked in to only the options available to that path for the duration of this search. (You can always back up the chain if you need to search a different path.) We see that in the Dresden Files example, as we can see what paths are closed off to us because we sorted the series in a specific direction. It limits our focus.

We use a hierarchical structure when we organize information by some trait, including sequential order, where drill downs are the best way to find information within the data or content. We’re actually quite used to this structure, because we use it regularly. Blogs employ this structure through the use of categories and tags to organize content, some blogs going so far as to incorporate subcategories. It works for blogs because the blogger can have a few broad topics (categories) that are then supported by more specific smaller topics readers might want to investigate (tags). Shopping websites also implement this structure to help shoppers narrow in on what they are looking for to better facilitate the shopping process.

While hierarchical structures are fairly forgiving and flexible in their design and implementation, they aren’t suited to every situation. Some data and content just isn’t suited to a drill-down format. For those situations, you’re almost always better off creating broad categories that share a more fluid tag structure. Library card catalog systems used to be a great example of this. A writing project management system for stories told in the same world can also benefit from this. The stories become the broad categories, and then characters, settings, and major events become the tags that can be shared between stories as needed. (Not that this is how I’ve set up New Glory’s story bible or anything. *wink*)

If you’re faced with organizing a collection that can be sorted into groupings that don’t need to be shared between larger groupings, a hierarchical structure might be a good starting point.

A History of Hyperlinked Texts

While watching a recent Idea Channel episode looking at the relationship between technology and television, I started thinking about my early experiments with interactive fiction. Because this is how my brain works some days…

Like so many adventure-loving kids in the eighties, I read my fair share of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books. I loved being able to decide how a story was going to go. After several rounds of dying across several of the more popular CYOA books of the period, I got over it…right up until a G.I. Joe-themed CYOA series was released. They weren’t any better, and I moved on from the genre all together.

When I first started playing with interactive fiction as a writer and curriculum designer, I was looking at a way to build one in LiveJournal, coding in links between the different pieces. But my knowledge of HTML was too limited, and I couldn’t find a way to mask paths through the story that didn’t feel like they were revealing where a player was headed. That was always one of my main complaints with CYOA books as a kid. If a choice suddenly forced me backwards, I knew I wasn’t going to survive the book. And it got me thinking about the similarities between the interactive fiction form and hyperlinked texts.

Well, it turns out that wasn’t the craziest association to make.

HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol, was first established in 1991, but hypertext itself was established in 1965. Hypertext uses a bit of code to allows you to link documents together. We often use it to link web pages together, or as a quick address method when we want to share web pages with other people, although there are also offline uses.

The first CYOA was written in the early 70’s by a computer programmer. He had become fascinated by the unique storytelling approach offered by then-new tabletop RPGs that were coming out. Inspired, he started playing with the idea behind hypertext, creating stories where the different scenes were linked together in such a way that the reader could pick different paths through the story. Each story was self-contained in a book. The storyform was so unusual that he couldn’t find a publisher until Bantam finally agreed to take a chance on him in the late 70’s.

CYOA gave rise to a computer-based storytelling form originally called hypertext fiction for the code it relied on to connect the various scenes of the story. Zork, released in 1980, is generally regarded as the first hypertext fiction. The form continued to grow and find popularity and uses. These days, storytellers call the form interactive fiction, which incorporates not only the linked scenes and choices, but some rather robust puzzles and nonplayer characters (NPCs) to interact with. Game designers and curriculum designers call this form branched storytelling, relying more on linked scenes and iterative paths through a story, allowing you to revisit a scene with different material and results.

So, a piece of code that we take for granted has become a storytelling tool that continues to innovate and serve a variety of purposes and uses. That’s kind of cool.

An Unexpected Hiatus

Sorry about the dead air here. A lot has happened over the last few months, and changes are happening. Changes that are going to affect the blog. I’m not sure yet what the full extent of that will be, but we’ll just play it by ear.

What to know some of what happened? Well…

  • For starters, I finished the planned videos for Dead Bunny Guides, and then the channel was accepted into YouTube EDU. (I’m very excited about that.) I also now offer live math tutoring through Google’s new Helpouts system…so if you or someone you know could use a little math help, my schedule is pretty open at the moment.
  • I also decided to try out online classes. Actually I went a bit overboard. I signed up for four classes, and completed three of them. (It turned out I didn’t have the proper prerequisite knowledge to make sense of the fourth class.)
    • One was a short rip-mix-burn class aimed at teachers. The community was friendly enough. We had to complete three projects: one physical artifact, one digital artifact, and one project that remixed some material. My favorite was the last one because it was the inspiration I needed to finally write my first interactive fiction, a fairy tale remix I’ve had sitting in my notes for several years.
    • Another was a storytelling class that advertised as being an introduction to transmedia and alternate reality games for experienced storytellers. When the class began, it became clear the teaching staff had no real idea what they wanted to teach, whom they wanted to teach, or any real depth of knowledge on the storytelling topics they did choose to cover. For all that, there were some projects I had a really good time working on. I made my first attempt at a location-based story (available on the ARIS server), and I finally found a storytelling use for Pinterest’s new map feature!
    • The last one just wrapped up, and it was probably my favorite. The class focused on presenting different research methodologies that scholar-artists can incorporate into their work. It was interesting. I learned some new methodologies I’m looking forward to trying out over the next year. I also got to bust out another long-neglected story idea and work on it for the class, and learned two very important lessons: 1. I have a very set opinion of a certain trope, and 2. I’m not ready from a technique point-of-view to really write that story the way it deserves to be written. Stretch goal!
  • I’ve also been in a couple of radio dramas (and have heard I’ll be doing at least a couple of shows next year). During a very stressful part of my year, I was in a Halloween show and got to learn a lot about myself as both a person and performer. And then just last week, I was in a Christmas show. The audition was a hoot, and the show is, too.Now if I could just get my audiobooks back on track, I’d be doing well. Heh.
  • I’ve also been doing a little freelance ghostwriting for a game. It’s so nice to be worldbuilding again!

I wish I could claim all of that is what has kept me from blogging, but I do have a full Drafts folder waiting to be polished up and sent out into the world. I’ll be starting an experiment here in January, but there may be one more post before the end of the year. (It’s been a crazy few days.)

And if you’re really lucky, there will be content all year in 2014, including blog posts, the occasional video, and stories in whatever format I can figure out. If I get really quiet again, feel free to poke me.

Questioning Strategies as Game Design?

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with as I try to imagine how I would develop game-inspired educational material is how to incorporate my teaching style into my work. The problem is: I’m a Constructivist with Socratic tendencies.

That first isn’t too big a problem. Sequential story-lessons are easily planned out and created, and mythocentric game design makes a compelling argument for letting story-lessons that don’t rely on each other serve as a “level” that the learner can explore at will before being allowed to move on to the next “level” and building on what they’ve learned in lower “levels”.

The second, however, is a bit more challenging. I tend to direct my students through questions, helping them to make their own connections and to see why they’re doing what they’re doing. When the teacher isn’t present, though, it’s hard to know what sequence of questions to set up to help facilitate that type of learning.

After reading Emily Short’s series on modeling conversation in interactive fiction, I thought I had it somewhat figured out: create a Guide NPC to ask more common or basic questions to guide learner between encounters and to help the learner think through the problem when they’ve made a mistake. The Guide NPC could even go so far as to offer a review if the learner is completely off-topic.

The more I thought about that, the more I felt myself getting turned around because I felt I was making too big an assumption with the basic or common questions. Then, a former student and I gather around a virtual whiteboard to see what was going wrong on a homework assignment, and I found a preliminary answer. As we talked, I found the probing and directing questions I nearly always ask, mainly because she was asking herself those questions with a preface of, “I know you’d ask me…”

The next problem to either resolve or let go is wait time. I use that to help feel out where a student is in understanding what they’re working on, but I can’t exactly give a fictional character that same instinct.

Interactive Fiction as a Teaching Tool

Perhaps that should read “Interactive fiction as a training tool”.  Either way, it would appear that I’ve uncovered a way to turn a writing form that intrigues me into a tool that my teaching self would approve of.

The method really kind of reminds me of the SkillSoft course on behavioral interviewing from a few years ago, but I can easily see how that would work. In fact, I think my interactive piece I was working on last summer (that’s currently gathering dust while I try to knock out Dead Bunny work) actually fits within this because it had varying levels of rightness.

I think if done well, it might also be helpful in teaching children how to interact with each other.

Very interesting. Very flexible artform.

Character-Driven Interactive Fiction

Between work and being sick, I haven’t had much time to devote to studying or thinking about interactive fiction lately. Over the weekend, I gave EverNote a long-needed overhaul. The writing section is the only one complete at the moment, but I made sure to give interactive fiction its own category. So far, it’s only housing the notes on my experiments in writing the pseudo-educational book that got me started down the interactive path. There’s so much work that needs to be done on that one, mainly because I seem to be the queen of two-dimensional characters (or characters who are long-lost personality twins).

When I think of interactive fiction, I realize that I want to drive it entirely by the decisions. Even the storyline is an afterthought. I’m sure we can all agree that this is no way to write. Period. End of statement. So then I started trying to decide how I wanted to approach fixing that particular story. It will probably have to be story-driven, but my next project will hopefully shape up to be much larger.

A larger story should still have a compelling storyline that makes sense all the way through regardless of choices, but I think I want to work on both my character development issues and my growth in interactive fiction by making it a character-driven piece. The choices that come up will be based more on the character the reader has stepped into- their goals, their values. It’s going to be very challenging for me, but I think the end result will be well worth the frustration.

Can (or perhaps should) interactive fiction be driven by a character as opposed to the ever-changing story landscape? That’s going to be a driving force in my second project.

Thoughts on Designing the CYOA

It’s funny. My mom has a choose-you-own-adventure story I wrote as a kid. Whenever you were presented an option in the story line, you were also asked to grab some randomizer and use it to select your path. Literally, you had to roll a die or flip a coin to move forward in the story. My current choose-your-own adventure story involves solving a puzzle to move forward. The correct answer moves you to one path, while the wrong answer moves you to another. I’m also now roughing out a larger game where events decide the path of your story.

It turns out, though, that developing the puzzles and the structure is the easy part of developing a choose-you-own-adventure. The stories has been…stressful…but I think it’s because I’ve been overthinking the situation.

To truly succeed in developing a choose-your-own-adventure story, you really do have to have an open mind and be willing to not drive the story. You have to build to a place where the story could go one of multiple directions, and then write down what would happen if the story went each of those directions.

I think part of the problem with my current puzzle set-up is that the story just moves the characters between the puzzles. There’s no build-up. There’s little solid character development. The characters simply move. As a result, when you move from one scene to either of its following scenes, the story makes almost no sense or feels like it’s running in a circle.

Planning out a choose-your-own-adventure story is almost the ultimate creativity exercise. It allows you to explore “what if”s without fear of failure.

Interactive Fiction

Still pursuing my investigations into educational media, I recently started learning about interactive fiction and visual novel games.

Interactive fiction is, as its name implies, is a story you can interact with. Some of us may remember the choose-your-own-adventure books from our childhood; these are a simple form of interactive fiction. If you play video games, many of the epic story RPGs are also a form of interactive fiction.

If the reader can affect their story in some way, it’s pretty much interactive fiction.

From the writing standpoint, these stories are challenging. Depending on the format, the storyline has to be written in a way that can be read regardless of what order the reader encounters them, or it has to have multiple storylines running.

I’ve already been experimenting with the interactive fiction style through a game I have been working on off and on over the past few months. It’s been a bit challenging trying to play the “what if” game while driving the story toward intended conclusions. It’s really overworking my problem-solving capabilities, and I’m enjoying the challenge.

It’s also triggering all sorts of memories from my childhood. This isn’t the first time I’ve worked through these issues before. I’m just starting to wish I’d kept up the habit.