Storytelling and interactive design

Cro-Magnon artists painting woolly mammoths in Font-de-Gaume, AMNH. 1920. Charles R. Knight (Public domain)

In ancient times before the advent of the written word, stories were dragged across regions and carried through time in the leaky bag of the oral storytelling tradition. This father-to-son, elder-to-youth data archiving system was surprisingly efficient at preserving the core message of the story – it propagated cultural standards and life lessons. Subject to the limitations and interpretations of the people who learned, and later taught them, the details of the stories changed and adapted, gaining new fresh context and being reinfused with relevance with each telling. The stories stayed new over time, constantly changing.

Told around campfires and in village squares, the telling of the stories weren’t exactly a quiet dialog, either (more of the opposite in fact). The storytelling tradition engaged and included the audience in each telling, depended on it in some cases, to move the story forward. The effectiveness of the telling was in part dependent by the audience placing themselves into the story and the ability of the teller to rope in the audience. When Oedipus realizes his mother’s identity, the audience – themselves participants in the story – feel his shock and dismay. These narratives were collective, orally transmitted… ‘viral’ and ‘interactive.’

The development of the printing press changed this – now stories were fixed in time and context, and each reader received the same unchanged narrative regardless of her distance from the author. Books replaced living, breathing storytellers as vessels of the story, and solo reading replaced community-based interactive storytelling.

Are you… interactive?

Words are supposed to make concepts tangible, but for me the word “interactive” is the least useful, most frustrating word I have to deal with. Interactivity is a broad concept that’s often reduced to a discussion of tools and capabilities… “Do we use flash(RIP) and HTML5 and xml and soap and ajax and jquery and angular js?” Interactions can be more than

Interactive storytelling is about transforming the narrative to include the audience in the telling, allowing them to tell you how the story ends, if they think you (your company, your brand, your product) should be the hero or the villain, and how they see themselves in relation to it. Interactive storytelling uses any and all the tools available – viral tools, search strategy, ARGs, mobile apps, UI/UA, data-driven experience – to empower your fans to exchange the book for the campfire.

June 4, 2008. Updated Sept 18, 2017.