Interactive Narratives – A Movement with an Unclear Future

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The Unknown Future of a Mass Art Movement


Richard Adams speaks to Hazel Grian about the notion of Interactive Narratives and Alternate Reality Games.

I was visiting the Watershed, in Bristol, recently and I took the chance to talk to Hazel Grian about the issues surrounding Interactive Narratives.

Hazel is, and has been for years, a pioneer pushing the boundaries. She has created interactive and more traditional stories for TV, Film, Theatre, Radio and more. I have decided to share a transcript of our talk, as condensed notes here. The full podcast can also be found at the bottom of this article.

 

Richard Adams: Tell us a bit about the sorts of projects you’ve worked on.

Hazel Grian: I have worked on a range of things…

I was a performer and graphic designer, I wanted to be a film director and I started creating short films for which I won awards. Then I expanded into theatre and radio as well as film; primarily chasing an audience.

Gradually, in the noughties, I ended up making an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with HP at their labs in Bristol. Since then I have worked with pioneering online drama Kate Modern, the Star Trek ARG for the JJ Abrams movie and I have been a creative director at Aardman Digital. I am now an associate lecturer at UWE.

RA: How have you seen this space develop?

HZ: Over the past ten years I have seen the same people doing the same things and the established media not taking much notice, in fact less notice. Interestingly, I have seen Advertisers and NGO’s do more in this space as they have gone to where the audiences are online, making use of the potential of the medium. In fact, this has not just been online, this has happened in the real world such as theatre.

The money tends to have been in these fields rather than traditional media such as TV. Interestingly, I think ten years ago the attempts were much more complex. Yet, in recent years storytellers have made their ideas much simpler and often they have crossed back from interactive media, to real world, to convey the story.

Many of those earlier companies are now operating by producing minimum viable state products, really stripped back. In part, this is because of the near ubiquity of mobile devices that have, perhaps ironically, resurfaced the book form as being important. Tablets etc. are really good for books.

RA: What are its biggest issues as a sector?

HG: I don’t think there is a sector as such and there are a fewer conferences and so on. I think that some of the techniques have been absorbed into other fields. Even ARGs are no longer a buzzword and have died a death. It’s not defunct but the principles have been absorbed by other practices.

I think that people are ‘just doing it’ as and when they can, the tech is less of a barrier and it’s just happening through apps like YouTube etc. In many ways the ARG experiments have, to some extent, provided a cultural framework for them to operate in alignment with democratic tech and distribution. The opportunity that is now there though has never been greater for storytellers, there is just less money.

RA: What are the main issues storytellers now face?

HG: It’s cheaper to make things now but the business model is still fucked, to be honest. You can get loyalty and big audiences but it’s hard. I think if you start from scratch with no brand. Factual storytelling might be the best way to get into it. Fiction is more of a leap for audiences and loyalty, or solidarity, as I prefer to call it, is easier to build when audiences can grab hold of something.

I think podcasting has much more life in it than most media. The open format and length allow for much more variety of story modes in that it can be meandering or short and sharp; realistic conversation in other words.

RA: How are we tackling contextual storytelling through mobile channels in the present day?

HG: People are now used to making queries and pulling information, wherever they are, and they expect instant replies. That kind of experience has not been tapped and I think that the notion of information that is open and contextual is going to be a big thing.

Much data visualisation is actually story telling. The money has come from advertising but I think that people are now too aware and do not want adverts. They want information and “stories” about what they are doing. I think that this leads nicely to the Internet of Things which is where the big explosion of interactive storytelling will happen.

There are layers to this. Augmented reality has the potential to have both attitude and personality. Like any product designs, smart objects should have just the right amount of personality and there is great potential for storytelling in this.

There is also virtual reality, which is now exploding again where you have both space and time that you can design. I have found some really exciting applications of VR in journalism; to place us in the situation that is being reported on. This has real potential for ultra-powerful storytelling. I think that the fictional route in VR and gaming has been dominant so far but it has served a narrow audience. A real word approach has many many more exciting social applications and we will see an explosion of this.

The biggest thing for me has been the democratisation of who gets to tell the stories. Obviously there is a very long way to go in terms of gender parity, race parity etc. yet many women got into ARGs for example because there was no business model to fight against like we have seen in Hollywood recently with the Oscar nominations controversy. There were no men stopping them. Women as one example have been able to find our audiences via these channels like ARGs, using open media platforms and free to play models. The more available the tech, the easier it gets for women outside the mainstream media to get their voices heard and their stories told. I think the world will be a better place for this.

 

Podcast: Richard F Adams Interviews Hazel Grian

 

 

Industry Experts article written by:

Richard Adams

Richard Adams

Consultant and Program Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Big Data and Creativity

A digital veteran, starting in the early 90’s as a computer artist, Richard has made numerous interactive things across all channels. He founded a Digital Arts Dept, held a Visiting Professorship and worked with Marc Lewis to open the School of Communication Arts. Creative Director, Product Development Head and more, at BBC, BSkyB, Aviva and Microsoft (Xbox). Currently at the RSC, he is also Senior Fellow at University of Lincoln.

Image Credits: Top: pixabay.com (Creative Commons); Lower: startupstockphotos.com (Creative Commons).

Author: Amelia Glean

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