Posts filed under ‘Interactive stories’

When and why of business storytelling

After my last post I was trying to think of what would go in a project toolkit, and while I still think that’s something I want to explore further, I decided to take a step back and look at when and why someone might want to tell stories in a project/business context.

(Of course there is always “because I’ve been told to put together a story about this”, but that’s not an overly helpful reason).

To get a point across

This could be any point you want to get across clearly with it’s associated context.  A bulletpoint list can get a point across but doesn’t have the framework of a story that really helps the listener really take it on board.
Different types of stories could be applicable for clients, stakeholders, higher ups and to the people who may want to know more about this project in a few year’s time.

To be entertaining/to make people pay attention

What does a story have over a report?  It should be much less dry and soporific, which is great for marketing and anyone who wouldn’t normally be involved in the project (eg a temp giving sickness cover who needs to get caught up quickly).
Also I think telling the story of where you’ve come from and where you’re going could be great for team cohesion.  One of the best project managers I’ve worked with was very good at telling the story of where we were headed in project meetings so that by the end of the meeting everyone felt charged up to work on getting there.  It wasn’t only the vision of the end point, but he very clearly (if with a broad brush) how we were going to get there, by telling it almost as if it had already happened.

To engage stakeholders

I think this deserves a separate category because there are so many potential ways to engage with stakeholders via stories.  Getting them to tell you their story helps them feel heard, and reflecting it back to them through a scenario or use case helps them to feel their input is being taken seriously as well as being a useful tool for helping stakeholders who don’t normally work together to understand each other.
In previous posts I’ve talked about using Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes and I think that could be a novel way of keeping track of each stakeholder’s journey in the project (how on board they are etc).  I’ve also spoken about interactive stories (either interactive novels or text adventures) which I would love to use in conjunction with stakeholders stories of their own work to help each group understand the other.
Even LARP could have a place in stakeholder engagement, though I don’t know anyone who enjoys roleplaying at work 😛  Getting stakeholders to engage with something different from their normal point of view – either another team, how things will be at the end of the project or some other point of view you want to get across.

This makes me think that any guidance is going to have to cover an awful lot.  And yes, now that you mention it, I am starting to feel out of my depth.

April 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm 1 comment

Detracting from storytelling and Guitar Hero

Extra details detract

I read two very interesting blog posts over Christmas (well more than that, but I’m going to mention two here) related to storytelling.  The first was on the Quest site (Thoughts on Interactive Storytelling and the Hobbit).  The Hobbit part really interested me.  If you’re not interested in reading the post, the writer talks about how the Hobbit has been produced in ultramegasuper spec (admire my technical filmmaking knowledge!), which is just fine and dandy except for the fact that it actually detracts from the film.  There’s no need for it – it doesn’t add anything to the story or the characters.  In fact this new form takes enough extra brain power to process the ultramegasuper realism that actually we have less left for the story.

A classic phrase any writer will probably be familiar with is “murder your darlings” (I’m not sure where it is from – feel free to let me know in the comments if you know).  It signifies the process writers (and presumably other artists/creators) have to go through to get to what the essence of the story is. You often need to cut a lot before every single word of your story has a purpose.  It’s why I fail to understand sometimes how “We need to talk about Kevin”  is so critically acclaimed – it’s a real “why use one word when three will do” kind of book.

Back to the point – anything that doesn’t guide your reader through the purpose of your story detracts from it.  So how does that relate to interactive stories where you have multiple routes through?  I would argue that each route should still have a purpose, but I have been finding it tricky to decide what to cut and what to keep in.  I could easily provide an avenue for every single decision in the story, but not only would that make the story cumbersome to go through, I think, like the fancy filming, using too much brain power on unnecesary bits that will ultimately have to lead to dead ends could easily detract from the point of the story as a whole.

Pictures are another related issue.  If pictures are abstract (there just for something to be looking at) rather than illustrative will they detract from the story?  I would argue probably yes.  But would the gamebook format look bare without them?  Probably also yes.  The easy answer would be to make sure all of the pictures are illustrative so that they add meaning and understanding to the story, but the scenario I’m working on at the moment is talking about potential future processes and systems…I will need to do much more thinking about it before I can come up with pictures that can illustrate that…

A Musical Analogy

The second was on the inklewriter site (A Musical Analogy) was linked to the idea of how to structure an interactive story.  Inkle has been exploring some quite adventurous means of storytelling.  One of their projects “First draft of the revolution” where you get to re-write the character’s personal correspondence to each other to change the outcome of the story.  I had a go and I can see why they’ve had some comments that it feels quite constrictive – it doesn’t feel like you can change things very much.

The Musical Analogy blog post likens interactive storytelling to Guitar Hero to explain this.  Guitar Hero doesn’t give you limitless possibility to create fantastic music, you play along with the songs it has.  Similarly interactive stories aren’t providing the reader a way of creating fantastic new stories, just a way to play along.  I think where the problem comes is managing the expectations of the reader.  In First Draft it feels like you should have total free reign so when it pushes you down certain paths you can get irked.  Whereas the majority of the adventure games I’ve played have only got one ending and yet you don’t feel like you’re been shoved in that direction all the time.  You’re following and picking up the pieces of the narrative so even if you do things in a slightly different order or in a slightly different way from another player you still feel like you’re a part of the story.

In that way it’s kind of a matter of perspective.  Is your reader a part of your story or are they the narrator?  If they are a part of it they follow a character, see their options and direct them, and as  the storyteller you can tell them what their options are and guide them down the route of the story without making it look like you’re forcing one route.  If they are the narrator then they feel like they should have control over everything, so when they can’t do what they want it jars them out of the emersion.  I guess in theory this could restrict your reader to one point of view, but as long it is clear when you switch POV and that the reader switches completely to become that POV I think it could still be done.  Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is a good example of a point and click adventure with multiple POVs that works well.  Each time you switch your motivations, abilities and options completely change so you’re completely invested in that character until the next switch.

Definitely going to have to be clear in the scenarios what point of view I’m in at any one time and not be too generic.

January 15, 2013 at 4:27 pm Leave a comment

Bradford Scenarios – First steps

I’ve mentioned before that I’m planning to tackle some scenarios we are writing for University of Bradford as an interactive gamebook.  To explain a bit further: these scenarios are being written as part of an extended portion of the University of Bradford Course Data Project – part of the Course Data Programme funded by JISC which involves the implementation of XCRI-CAP in the University.  In case you don’t want to go to all those links, in its simplest form the project is about applying the UK standard for course marketing information in the University so that it can be more easily shared (which, after all, is kind of what you want to do with marketing information) particularly for “hard to find” courses which includes just about everything that is just bog-standard undergraduate courses goign through UCAS.  Projects in the programme are encouraged to review their processes and systems around course marketing information as part of it and approve where possible/necesary.

The University of Bradford project has taken the opportunity to go a step further and look in depth at a possible overall of all their courses information systems and processes, not just marketing.  Anyone familiar with Universities will know that this is something of a large task, but it’s just the kind of meaty project that APS Ltd like.  A chance to really get into the nitty gritty of processes, talking to people from across the university (anyone who touches courses information at any point) and pulling it all together into something coherent.  And I have to say that Bradford have been a joy to work with.

We have provided a formal statement of requirements and process diagrams, but for those not from a systems or information management background they can be quite abstract and difficult to tell what might change and how those changes would affect individuals’ day to day work.  And so we are writing scenarios to go with them which take a fictional character (in this case Dr Smith) and follow her as she works her way through the processes we are recommending using the proposed new electronic systems with its recommended functionality.

What’s handy about tackling these scenarios as digital stories on the blog is that they shouldn’t be influenced by political or commercially sensitive factors.  We are not recommending any particular software: only what the system must be able to do.  Similarly the scenarios don’t go into any processes that currently go on in Bradford, just processes that may happen in some form (like this or modified) at some point in the future as yet completely undetermined.

Currently our scenarios only describe Dr Smith doing everything correctly: illustrative, in one way, but limited.  I’m hopeful that using an interactive format will not only mean that we can show it from many more angles, but also be more engaging that just a read through.

So far in my gamebook Dr Smith can’t even start entering data for Phase 1 approval and this has taken 10 gambook pages and about half a day of fiddling with it.  The new Bradford processes we are recommending do have a phase before phase one, but it wasn’t nearly as long or as fiddly to write in the prose scenario, taking a few minutes rather than hours.

Page in the game

Page in the game

Settign up the gamebook is straight forward

Settign up the gamebook is straight forward

Writing a page

Writing a page 

Current issues:

  • Cutting the text down to manageable chunks for the gamebook pages

The gamebook pages seem to work well if they are fairly brief and stick to exact things that happen and the choices that are involved.  This means editing fairly heavily which so far has stripped out much of the extra explanation we had worked into the scenario.  Also I think that working from an existing document means that I may be cutting too heavily to make it look right, rather than read right to someone who had never seen the original version.  I’ve read through it so many times, my brain is filling in any possible blanks I’ve made by trying to fit it into this format.

  • Finding and editing appropriate pictures

I am not an artist.  Nor am I a particularly visual person – I like words, it’s why I like writing.  Since this is mostly just a proof of concept exercise I’m trying not to spend too long on looking for appropriate pictures, but even then I find it’s taking me longer than I expected.  Interestingly it is also the pictures which I now find myself tip-toeing around, rather than the political ramifications of the text.  Will images from the Bradford Schools make it look like those Schools endorse this?  Will the wrong choice of pictures make it look amateurish and distract people from what is actually being said?

  • Explosion of size when adding in multiple options

The more options there are the more pages need to be created and pictures found and there are potentially hundreds of choices and outcomes to consider.  It’s a balance to get enough choices for the story to feel interactive, but not so many that it takes forever and a day to put it all together.  Of course some options will result in the same dead ends, so won’t need new pages written wholesale, but the links still need to be created.

January 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

Interactive storytelling

Wikivic on my first post about digital storytelling gave me some great links to all types of interactive stories.  I mentioned these briefly in my previous post, but I thought I would go over them in a little more detail.

Choose your own adventure

Available through an online tool called inklewriter, you can create your own story where at intervals the reader can select which path they want to take.  The stories created on their sitecan be downloaded to ebook formats, and there is an Apple app, but otherwise they seem to only be available online.  From a cursory glance the writer interface looks a little clunky and unstructured.  Sections are created automatically and can only be renamed or removed. You can jump around between sections a little, but the contents lists out the section without any kind of tree structure to show what goes when.  There doesn’t appear to be any way to add pictures, but it has a good looking interface and reading the story only a paragraph or two at the time makes it easily digestible on the screen.

One of the advantages of this is that you can also get the reader to select the point of view they want to read from and write different branches from those points of view.  The first thing that came to mind for me when this was pointed out to me was senior management engagement.  If you can get senior management to navigate through the thought processes and issues that people on the ground face it could be a fantastic tool for communication.

Text-based adventure game

Quest has a relatively simple tools for making text based adventure games.  Having grown up with Wikivic constantly playing the things (and me constantly failing to do anything every time I tried to play) I find them hard to describe.  They’re a type of puzzle game in a way, in which you have a number of objects, rooms and verbs and go around, looking in all the rooms, and verbing the objects you find. Often talking and verbing objects with characters you find there as well.  They are heavily story based: there generally isn’t any fighting and your character can’t level up, but the stories often require you to do odd things such as trying to pet a unicorn to make it angry so that it will knock you into a tree, from which you can get to the next area.

Text-based adventures come from a time when few people had computers so many people aren’t familiar with the type of gameplay, and while the basic mechanic is in theory relatively simple I find them quite frustrating as there is very little guidance on what it is possible to do.  The interface is quite dull and difficult to get your head round if you don’t have a map of where you’re exploring and I can just imagine how off putting it would be for people to be told they have to learn a new system just to work through a story.  You also only play as a single character which narrows the options somewhat.

Gamebook

Quest has another form of text based game which they don’t advertise as much on the site (the help wiki even doesn’t seem to cover it much): the gamebook.  This is very like the choose your own adventure style like inkelwriter: a simple paragraph of text is followed by links which will take you to other sections of the story.  The gamebook also has the option for a pictures, sound and video for each paragraph, but the real advantage from my point of view is how you write them.  The Quest software can be downloaded and so you can create them offline, but also has more options, a more straightforward interface and clearer structuring.  This may be a personal preference thing, and arguably the final result doesn’t look as slick as inklewriter.  Still, I think I prefer to read the gamebook style and prefer to create with it.

Finished gamebooks can be uploaded to the Quest site for access anywhere, and unlike inkelwriter, it can be marked as unlisted so that only people you give the link to can see it.

January 2, 2013 at 10:13 am 3 comments


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