Digital Stories

Boundary Functions by Scott Snibbe installed a...

Boundary Functions by Scott Snibbe installed at Tokyo Intercommunications Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Online storytelling is a strange thing. There are all these elements, that in isolation, seem traditional and recognisable, but combine into something totally new. Interactivity isn’t always a prime focus, and sometimes a simple web series works well if it has an interesting element. Often the interactivity feels like an afterthought, or somewhat distracting, but is always engaging on at least some level, purely because of the ingenuity involved.

I should mention that stories such as these work best with no expectations, so feel free to experience them before reading my thoughts, or anyone else’s.

 

Bear 71

by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes

I don’t recall ever being moved by a wildlife documentary in this way. The opening could very well be such a gimmick. A subtly melancholic, yearning and astute narrator establishes themselves as the bear we see being tranquillised and tagged by rangers. For some reason it works, perhaps because this isn’t a traditional use of media, and everything seems mildly refreshing. In any case, the writing and voice acting are pitch perfect, literally. Her nostalgic soliloquy carries so much emotion, so subtly. There’s a quite rationality to it. She often revisits the line about not doing ‘what comes naturally’, driving home the idea that the wild is now controlled and regulated to the point where it is no longer wild, not in the same way. It feels like a modern, environmentalist version of American Beauty, ironically set in Canada.

While I found the narration and video segments incredibly moving, the main map page which attempts to be the interactive hub of the experience felt a little sparse. Initially, it seemed like a wall of overwhelming data including videos and photos, but I quickly realised that most of the markings were simply representing typography, and the range of content wasn’t huge. I did enjoy seeing other animals scurry around the screen, and trying to click on them to view their footage was entertaining. However, while these elements were interesting, as the piece continued, I stopped caring as much, and felt compelled to follow the bear and hear her story. Perhaps that is the point of the piece, to simply change your view of the landscape the bear finds itself in. It is a modern, controlled place. ‘The Grid’ is what she calls it. The use of users’ webcams add to the surveillance themes, but also seems like a bit of a novelty. People can also easily deny access, so you don’t have to have your information used by the site, but it is a great way of representing the nature of tagging and surveying wildlife. You would hate it. So would they.

Overall, an interesting piece, and certainly deserving of the acclaim it has received. It is polished, has a great soundtrack, and is superbly produced. In the end though, the most emotional and poignant moments are those that are focused and ultimately, traditional. The video and narration are the heart of the story, and the interactive map feels slightly underwhelming in comparison, despite being an ingenious metaphor for the wild’s integration into human society. I actually think the interactivity reduces immersion, but does focus your thought on the issue. Your mind never wanders, but rather rests on another detail of the enormous map. This is significantly different from traditional media and is certainly an element that genuinely suits some stories.

 

It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes

by Stella Forster and Peter Yacono

Before getting into the work, I should note one important aspect of online storytelling. Loading times. It took a peculiarly long time for the Vimeo uploads in this piece to load, and it reminded me of some of the limitations digital storytelling has. It can be unstable, and inconsistent, and its complexity can be its undoing, especially as time passes, links break, and content is lost in a constantly changing web.

It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes feels like one story, but the flexibility the web offers means the three stories which make up the whole are separated. It feels like a series, and a blog, and a website too. The teaser introduces the characters, and the site allows you to explore their specific stories in the order you choose. The videos are extremely well produced, and the integration of the characters’ social media profiles definitely adds slightly more depth to the characters. That said, despite online storytelling being relatively young compared to other narrative forms, giving a character a Facebook page or Twitter feed is starting to feel clichéd. Channel 4 used the strategy as a nice accompaniment for Misfits, but even there, it was a novelty, or an extra, and didn’t add all that much. Here, I think it is used more effectively, but in the age of memes and short attention spans, it already feels slightly dated. I felt more about the characters as a result of their fantastic animal costumes, which only emphasise their well thought out personalities, rather than feeling a strong connection through their social media links.

Again, the heart of this story is the characters themselves. They are believable, and I thought the dialogue suited the piece very well, despite seeming slightly contrived at first. I’m not sure that their stories benefitted from being produced in this way. One video with all three stories would work very well. That said, separating and extending the characters through social media doesn’t take much away does add an interesting layer to it. It is certainly more structured and coherent than Bear 71, and that simplicity works in its favour, making it accessible and familiar. I stopped being aware of the idea of digital storytelling and could simply enjoy the stories without random overlays and extended essays linked to different parts of the video. In that sense, I think the level of interactivity needed has been gauged very well, and allows the story to shine.

 

Fairy Tales

by Kevin Brooks

Brook’s work was one of six digital stories during Penguin’s We Tell Stories event. This piece was particularly interesting in its take on the choose-your-own-adventure genre. The story itself is ironically traditional, being a stereotypical fairytale. This only highlights the interactive elements in the piece. Despite being a reader, you have the power to decide which direction the story goes in. After choosing names for the protagonist and antagonist, you make choices such as the type of animal that will help you, to the characteristics the heroine meets. Finally – and SPOILER ALERT – you are asked to choose the type of ending, covering a basic emotional spectrum of happy and sad.

Unfortunately, the story is so stereotypical that it fails to be very engaging. I understand this might be to emphasise its contemporary, interactive structure, but not caring about the characters ultimately leads to not caring about your decisions. It turns into a mildly psychopathic exercise in attempting to create the most ridiculous story, preferably ending horribly for the characters (now I can say I truly understand Tim Burton’s sentiment about the appropriateness of characters singing and being murdered at the same time in Sweeney Todd, expressed during his masterclass with Margaret Pomeranz in Melbourne).

Interactivity is just a shell, like the paper of a book, as Bear 71, and certainly Fairy Tales make clear. If you get swept away in the gimmick, and lose the emotional core and quality of the writing, you end up with an underwhelming emptiness.

While Bear 71 is an incredibly well produced piece, I found many of the interactive elements distracting, and continue to feel similarly about other digital stories. They all use traditional mediums like photography, moving image and print, and then try to add a layer of interactivity. I believe that to be genuinely successful, interactivity must be integral. Video games are the obvious example, and their popularity is down to the truly different experience they offer; immersion, not distraction, or extension.

 

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