Myth and Mimesis - Interactive Storytelling as a New Narrative Model

Workshop Theory

The term 'Interactive Storytelling' implies two understandings: First as a more technical based term, as guideline for the hypermedia design and storyboard of interaction on a multi media platform. Another meaning that is interesting for research is hidden in the combination of these two words: 'interactive' sums up the collection of new and recent media developments, though the word 'storytelling' is very classical, even antique in the field of narration.

Within this comparison the new terms coming up can be placed and recognized as a new challenging field of media design and dramaturgy.

The following rather summarizing concept gives an introduction into some of the fundamental necessities of narration and storytelling from a classical (cinematic) point of view and at the same time draws a line to the questions of a change into new subcategorizes. In the new media forms I want to refer to, the actual "telling" of a story is falling apart, but it is far more complicated then let's say just the break down of the linear story into nonlinear structures. Such a kind of one to one comparison is simple and actually quite dangerous, as the film itself is a very complex medium looking back on a whole history of genres and theory of narration, participation and involvement. I even think that the beginning of the film and the need and challenge to develop a dramatic structure, also from the silent film to the sound, is the most appropriate way of looking at the changes. New media are just about to start with this in a different disposition. What we do have by now is a similar theoretical discourse and practical attempt of restructuring sound and images as media environments and therefore as new narrative frames in a virtual story space. So in the new experiments and their alternative ways of expression and identification with a story, there is definitely no direct transfer of narrative rules, but a specialization on particular narrative elements, a rather estetical "déjà vue" that appears single in different forms. Sometimes even the disappearance of a familiar narrative element leads to a possible new genre of interactive story models. The contour to classify and shape this is the interactive access, the cutting edge of getting an influence on a story. The cinematic circuit model is now replaced by different new prototypes of communicating and receiving a content. The narrative itself is either mirrored, transformed or limited by the technical platform. The distinction is caused by closed or open system, by the Interface and as a consequence by the creative interactive potential and role of the viewer.

My momentary research in structuring this criterion is based on the following guidelines and practical examples, which are also chosen to exemplify an acceleration in interactive narrative models:

1. The flow of content versus the subjective scenario

Storytelling and film first of all refers to presenting a fixed structural outline as a fictional setup of an incident through the storyteller. Different expressive elements are brought into a storyboard and arranged in the montage, to establish visual causal links reveal the story.

In a film we have a very strong vice versa effect between several levels of expression, as there is time and space, language and image, gestures and movements, which have to be set up in a fine network to understand what's going on in the story. Incidents and form then are in direct contact with each other, because one single element can only get a function within the common inner structure of the whole work itself.

So storytelling in the film means to create an esthetical cosmos, the viewer is invited to contemplate. To postulate this, the story is also limited and structured by a beginning and an end. They are of central importance to the character of the work as the basic narrative model is mainly aiming to create a fictional and closed room. The story runs towards an end that sometimes can well be foreseen even at the beginning. Even more so stories that are not directed towards a solution often put the viewer in distress and they might not be considered emotionally successful as a story. Think of a classical Hollywood Movie for instance. In the exposition the drama is set up and the viewer is made familiar with the situation, the characters and the conflict. The story flow is altered by turning points, moments of retard, climax, flashbacks etc. all this to increase suspense, all this must be visible and logical to the viewer to help the story succeed. The solution of the conflict is realized in the show down, as a happy end or a catastrophe.

The basic construction relies on the principle of succession. Action and dramaturgy form a chain of abstracts, which shows central moments of the incident and they become at the same time central for the viewer. They are the so called essence, which compresses the main aspects of action, emotion and speed in the story.

The first step in finding out more about interactive narratives leads to the CD-ROM and Hypermedia, because it is somehow the most neighboring new medium to the traditional form. This has to do very much with the closed system of these platforms. I'm as you can imagine not referring here to the CD-ROM as a whole new development, which would then include also edutaining or infotaining search tools. I focus more on examples that implement a strong narrative, fantasy or artistic content. A fictional story is modulated to be a navigating all over structuring metaphor of access. So Laurie Anderson for example, to stay with established works, invites in a Puppet motel and its different rooms to discover, the Residents Freak-Show chooses a circus to wander around, in the game Myst one can travel between several time zones, islands, settling places and landscapes. They all have in common that they still represent the model of question and answer, in other words they introduce a mysterium and then motivate to find out the hidden structure behind. Everything visualized and symbolized in the highly "closed" reference to buildings, rooms, arenas, islands. But the principle of succession in time and space is replaced by the principle of eventuality and coincidence. Within the main subject - the hotel and it's bizarre rooms, the islands of myst and it's secret and personal destinies - a nonlinear flow of different actions and discovery spaces is grouped around associative links, icons and buttons. The story itself comes close to a mise en scene following the viewer's interest. He or she can go deeper into an aspect, but he or she can also refuse to it and choose a totally different way. What was called the pre-prepared essence before, now turns into a subjective choice as a montage effect, spread out in parallel dramaturgy strings. At the same time a CD-ROM modifies "anti-chronological" film forms, which bank on the episodic scheme of collecting and colliding incidents instead of a rounded system of question and answer. Yet the hyper story space is also prefixed and can't prevent from either recapitulate the narrative network, finding the solution or solving the game. Which means bringing it to an end.

The interactive discussion seems to be rapidly exhausted at that point, but the CD-ROM can have more on offer , when it comes down to direct estetical means of involvement in the several layers. So the actual interface is on the one hand the well known and not very creative keyboard, but the inner structure can integrate virtual interfaces, which can be far more interesting. Entering rooms, opening draws, getting objects to function, being addressed by virtual figures, change of perspectives all those items represent self controlled turning points and climax effects in the story. The more complex and multi perspective they are, the more curiosity arouses and the more tension is activated in the self construct of the story. This varies from work to work, as I said earlier on the CD-ROM is more an information tool and the market rules the aesthetics. In an ideal case dealing with a story can then go over controlling it but inventing it new and the function of the user is not only the one of the dramatist and editor, but also the one of the detective and investigator with analytic, logical and psychological skills.

2. time and space versus expanded cinema as a timeless room

a) Storytelling and film implicate filling a limited duration of time with action on a screen - the time of telling a story. Within this there is shown a linear flow of information and dramatic content - the time the story is referring to The story is moving onwards, directed towards the future on the axis of time. In this time span, emotion and tension, fun or horror is accelerated and the affection and release is placed at the end.

The fictional space model in the story consists out of different locations, rooms or sets, in which the drama unfolds.

The presentation and participation space, the cinema and its architecture, underline this circuit effect. It opens a physical and psychological interval in which the viewer has the function of a distanced witness, looking at the screen like through a spy hole into another world of private conflicts. The means of involvement in this fixed position are metaphorical and underlined by visual effects like camera perspectives, as Bela Balazc for instance noted in an essay on the art philosophy of the film in 1938: "The film destroyed the principle of the distance and separated closeness of the artwork. The moving camera takes my eye, and therefore my consciousness, straight into the picture, straight into the playroom of the action. I don't see anything from the outside. I see everything in the way the acting personas have to see it. I'm surrounded by the figures of the film and therefore networked in its action. I go with them, I drive with them, I'm falling with them - though physically I stay on the same place."

Video documentation Jeffrey Shaw and others

Interactive installations that offer through the interface a direct influence on the screen, visualize in a very drastic way, what Balacz described as narrative means of immersion. We experience the media space now as a simulated step into the former distant screen, the former room of action is now offered as a set to be explored through physical action. The viewer turns into a supervisor of his or her own modulating function in a media environment. The interface to allow this can be a very familiar one like a bike or a chair. Objects we use everyday, are put into a different context to signify

the change between the virtual and the real, the personal and the simulated space. The interface is quite transparent then and breaks down emotional restrictions of dealing with high technology. The confusion of the senses entering the screen is therefore reinforced, which leads to another model in interactive narrative changes: The immersive effect sets the affection as a starting point, because the viewer enters the space and has to orientate up front. Tension is now related to the personal awareness and discovery of the space, the unfamiliar virtual being explored with the familiar interface as a simple, yet personally loaded tool. So the linear time span of watching the story is opposed to the personal time it takes to experience the media space. The time of telling a story and the time the story talks about is melting in the real time event. They even fade away and don't exist anymore as a structuring reference. The former presentation screen is now far more an architectural territory, corresponding to an open narrative room as an expanded cinema that the viewer is able to reformat by moving, running or driving around.

3. Film and Virtual Character - Mimicking versus Behaving

Most films respect the (Aristotelian) model of mimetic narration: The presentation of a dramatic action is understood as a copy or imitation (mimesis), in which the author talks through the figures, the actors. The fictional action is represented by these personas, being either a character as an individual being or a type, as the representative of a certain social group for instance. They are put into a constellation, in which their actions and characteristic attributes are arranged in oppositions to show the different dimensions of the conflict and story. Protagonists, Antagonists, main and sub characters lead to a personification of story contents and further of representative social behaviors.

Most importantly they are all the authors' creatures.

The viewer is taking in this the role of a voyeur, witness or emotional judge. He or she is immersing in the story by emotional means of identification as there is sympathy or antipathy with the film characters or parallels to the viewers subjective reality.

Up to now I was talking about closed systems that offer the reinvention of a content and storyboard or the sensorial discovery of a framed narrative room. Immersion is reflected in an interactive metaphorical gate from the real to the virtual scenery.

The next step is formed by the open network offering the viewer a direct interaction with each other in a virtual coexistence. First good examples are the text based narrative surroundings in the internet, the so called Multi User Dungeons or Moos. The participants create their own textual fantasy world, in which they build rooms to hide, meet, talk and discuss with each other, describing the space in all imaginary details, decorating and personifying themselves with avatars, chosen identities, beasties and other kinds of virtual representation.

In a second example the users meet in a televirtual space, their live video images are keyed together from remote places to establish a virtual space and they have to deal with each other spontaneously in the same field of action.

Videoexamples Hole in Space and Telematic Performances

Similar to the earlier quoted version of the expanded cinema, where the familiar object made the virtual more transparent, the people in here are even overwhelmed by rediscovering themselves in a total analogy to their idea of a real space. But the fuzzy border between them and the screen now has actually disappeared and the space of communication turns into a virtual stage. Even more so the stage seems to be cut out of their life and transported in a non definable location. The telematic interface throws the people into the same experience space and their confusion and motivation to handle that is unfolding the narrative. The whole scenery reminds an improvised theatre, but now the conflict potential is a very subjective one: The viewers have to reorient and redefine their customary behavior in this virtual set, on a sudden it doesn't seem to be normal anymore. The interface is very provocative and functions as social game rule and motor of communication, in which the participants develop their own sequences. Instead of presenting a role or a figure, they present themselves, which means for the interactive narrative construct, that they have to invent and direct actively their own episodic story in the media environment. In the second example the analogy to early silent movies and its exaggerated gestures and mimics is very obvious and the viewers instinctively adopt this role. So the actor as a type is replaced by the viewers character and personal facets to fill the media space with content. The more the viewer develops pantomimic and creative skills and ideas, the more he or she motivates their partners, the more the story can develop as an episodic play of cause and effect. Considering the installations as a whole after a show, it would also be possible to group the sequences and fix characters as types and figure similar to the film structure: So we find the bossy one, the shy one or the crazy one, we can trace back the sequence of the loving couple, of the grandmother finding the lost daughter, of the dinner party which ended up in distress and argument. The former mimesis and model of representative fictional type then dissolve through this shift of real and virtual identities. We have now an empty room as a narrative prototype and it is not until the viewer enters the context that the dynamics of the story can unfold.

4. the story, the medium and the message

Film principally can be considered as a mimetic and demonstrative analogy to social reality. Metaphor and meaning is communicated through the closed and inner complex form. The semiotic process establishes links between it's inner sign and the phenonemas in reality. In a film one level shows the story itself and its narrative and esthetically transformation. A second level is the individual reading, which means that through an interpretation of the incidents and story a higher cultural context is questioned, to find out the comparative function and intention of the media product. Narrative elements, montage and film characters are the channels through which the author talks and communicates his or her ideas about the world and its changes.

As there is no closed narrative complex in the interactive framework, the author is more a provider of an idea and information then a storyteller. The relationship between author and viewer is quite a special one because the role of the viewer changed from passive consume to active hands-on experience. An interactive media work is just a technical frame without the viewer's activity. As a consequence the author is somehow under pressure to create a challenging and encompassing interface as a motivation tool to awake the own creation by sharing it with others. It is no more observed but controlled and experienced actively. The artwork is open and experimental, the story seems to be hard to find and is depending on the users creativity and interest. For the moment Interactivity and virtuality through personal discovery most of all form a critical or optimistic analogy to the cultural changes with new technologies as a general standpoint. As a kind of common semiotic pattern they question a higher social and artistic context of the communication society. Innovative inspirations in different contexts are the main metaphor. Within the visionary essence the narrative one still has to be precised and improved.

So finally the media research complex of "story" has to be redefined under these conditions. In the classical film discussion "story" stands for the most advanced and detailed description of the drama. In the interactive discussion it is necessary to concentrate on the highest level of narrative reduction, the "theme" - as the basic question and conflict in the work, as the main philosophical problem. Then we are also very close to the idea as a narrative fragment. Or, to speak with Aristotes, to the "Mythos", - as "a timeless story, which mirrors the central circumstances in human lives".