A digital perspective I'm approaching the twelve month mark here…
There are people in the industry who have the ability to change your entire perception of concepts or crystallise a notion that you’ve always felt but never been able to articulate. And Oscar Nicholson (or @returnon on Twitter) is just one of those people.
And once again, he’s done it again – here’s Oscar’s take on story telling.
Like me – he’s a self-confessed slashie: he’s a video slash director slash story slash a bunch of other things. He’s someone you’d love to have in every idea session – he is a big picture thinker because he understand the intricate details to the Nth degree. So I can’t really sum him up at all!
Not to condescend to animals, but what distinguishes us homo sapiens from the rest of you vertebrate riff-raff is creativity and empathy. While you dilated your cloaca or increased the musculature of your prehensile tail, we evolved our hairy asses right out of the trees and learned to express ourselves. Our larynx descended, a language of grunts developed into speech and we started to exchange our experiences verbally as stories. No doubt this had an impetus in survival, a means of communicating incidents as warning others can understand through their capacity for empathy. At some point, creative Cro-Magnon found that embellishing a story helped to emphasize danger. “Minimize your odour to avoid attracting predators” is not nearly as enthralling as “A sabre-toothed orangutan can smell the beaver lard you condition your hair with from across a tundra”.
The captivating power of embellishment evolved stories from fact based anecdotes to fiction. Given free reign of expression, storytellers could entertain and enlighten their audiences. Tapping into our unique capacity for empathy, we told tales that empowered us to vicariously experience the lives of people we’d never met or who never existed. Tales of tragedy, heroism and hilarity that entertained and inspired us, spoke of the human condition and helped make sense of our place in the world. Tales became legends, became myths, became religion.
Storytelling became a vocation. As a purely verbal medium, storytelling allowed the teller a degree of authorship over each telling. Folk tales were fluid and perpetually evolving, audiences could ask questions and the teller could diverge from the main story to expound on minor characters and side plots. The Grimm Fairy Tales were originally passed between generations verbally by storytellers with license to adapt the telling to the times. Once the brothers Grimm recorded them in print in the early 19th century, the folk tales lost their fluid adaptability.
Modern storytelling was dominated in the 20th century by motion pictures, where storytelling has been immutable and linear in keeping with linear broadcast mediums such as cinema, television, cable and video. For all its interpretive nuance, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” is a story told linearly, with a classic three-act structure that would have done Sophocles proud 2500 years ago. Despite a relatively definitive conclusion, its left to audiences of “2001” to ponder the fate of the human race after Dave Bowman’s ultimate evolution, transcending the corporeal to become a being of pure energy. So its not exactly a passive experience, but the audience engagement in conventional motion pictures is limited to personal interpretation.
Now that non-linear communication is mainstream, we can tell stories whose narratives metastasize into infinite directions. Michael Joyce wrote “Afternoon, A Story” (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/pmaf/hypertext/aft/index.html) in 1987, the first software based literature that allowed readers to make decisions on behalf of the protagonist via hypertext, much like Choose Your Own Adventure books did years prior. Videogames like the Fallout series similarly allow gamers to decide the fate of their avatar, but in a more dynamic and action-packed way than via hyperlinks, which lack the requisite gore to interest young audiences. These are examples of branching narratives.
While branching narratives are fairly commonplace in many storytelling mediums, their potential is relatively untapped in motion pictures. Until DVDs rocked our living rooms in the mid-90’s, no motion picture medium supported immediate audience interaction and even then, the logistics and production costs made branching narratives too big a risk for anyone to seriously undertake. Now YouTube enables hyperlinked annotations within the video, making branching narrative video series possible. But that’s only one small hurdle to making branching narratives work.
Last year Optus commissioned a branching narrative YouTube series produced by MCN (http://www.mcn.com.au) called “Dutch’s Destiny”, which followed the exploits of an upstart MC toiling in a call centre. Audiences could choose the girl he pursues and how to tackle career opportunities.
Though its yet to happen, branching narratives can potentially enhance repeat audiences. Once one narrative strand is completed, the captive audience will want to see how other narrative branches affect the protagonist’s story. The innovation of “Dutch’s Destiny” cannot make up for its lacking execution. Even if it were a linear narrative, the protagonist is ill-defined and difficult to empathize with, in a less than compelling and unoriginal story. Its a classic case of the coulds and the shoulds; just because they could do a branching narrative, should they? Its just a gimmick if the audience cannot identify with the protagonist and an empty exercise if the audience cannot empathize with the decision being made at narrative branches. The entire “Dutch’s Destiny” series was only viewed 6000 times despite widespread promotion. What’s most telling is that viewer numbers steeply decrease as the series progresses.
Yet I still have enormous faith in the future potential of branching narrative series, particularly with IPTV looming on the horizon. Aside from the aforementioned prerequisites applicable to any story, there needs to be a reason for the branching narrative; a “should” if you will. To me, branching narratives argue for free will against the determinism of conventional linear narratives. No matter how many times you watch “2001”, Dave Bowman always decides to shut HAL9000 down, behaviour a determinist would argue is dictated by who he is, his past, his training and his fate. But if “2001” were told as a branching narrative, we could see what might happen if Dave had the free will to alternatively reason with HAL and try to coax the effeminate AI out of its rational insanity. The capacity to further explore who we are as people and tap into our capacity for empathy is fundamentally why branching narratives are so tantalizing an evolution in storytelling.