Interaction and Narrative: A First Rule

We’ve been looking at the blossoming relationship between narrative and interaction for some time now, but have precious little to show for it. But things are slowly becoming clearer and I think we’re finally in a position to declare our first hard and fast rule.

That rule is this: Interaction must go with the flow of the narrative, rather than against it.

Or in other words, interaction works at the key points and beats of a story in a way that is more important and powerful than interactions between them. There is a reason for this. It is about working with the flow of the user’s attention. It’s a bit abstract, but stick with it.

A lot is made of how a TV audience is in a mentally passive mode, letting the show wash over them, while gamers are in an active mental mode, sitting forward and engaged. Well, neither of these models really apply to interactive narratives, and it is big mistake to assume that they do. The more useful starting model is still that of reading books or especially comic books, where the reader is in control of the speed of story, and able to flick back and forward at will – which is distinctly different than watching a film and being powerless in front of it – but they are still being controlled, manipulated and pulled along by the writer’s narrative.

Now – with that mental state in mind – you have to keep track of where the narrative is focusing the user’s attention, and interactivity must go with this flow rather than block it. If your protagonist has just been told that a witch has kidnapped the princess (for example), the flow is to find the witch and rescue the princess. If they are then presented with an interactive activity about tidying up the room they are in, that breaks the narrative flow. That doesn’t work. But if they had also been told that they needed a golden apple to defeat the witch, and were then presented with an interactive activity about finding that apple in the room, then that goes with the narrative flow. That works.

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There’s a good example of making interactivity work in The Gift from Persian Cat (you may recall I interviewed this book app’s creator back in January). The protaganist in The Gift is a small boy who finds a baby that is washed up on the beach from the sea. The baby is asleep so the boy goes on a quest to discover how to wake her, by asking advice from a series of groteque monsters. It’s nice little story, assuming of course that you don’t think, “shit, the baby’s dead” at the start, in which case it becomes increasingly unbearable as each attempt to wake the baby fails. If you don’t think that, however, it is lovely. (Only adults would think that, of course, so here’s a nice – and sadly rare – example of a children’s story written to appeal to children, rather than to appeal to parents.)

Anyway – at the climax of the story the boy succeeds in waking the baby. At this point the artwork goes into a point-of-view shot of the baby, seen from the boy’s perspective – syncing the reader’s focus completely with the reader-identification-character of the boy, in other words. The reader then has to reach out and touch the baby in order for her to wake up. This simple interaction is perfectly synched to the key beat of the narrative, making it far more effective and rewarding than other, far more technically complicated interactive activities. It leaves the reader completely absorbed in this, the key moment of the story, which in turn makes the story a success.

And that’s the sort of effect you can only achieve with the merging of narrative and interactivity. True, it’s not an effect that is achieved by most applications of interactivity to narative, which is why it is worth declaring our first golden rule. But it is the sort of effect that makes developing this new media worthwhile.

Interview with Jos Carlyle, Creative Director of Persian Cat Press

Jos Carlyle is the Creative Director of Persian Cat Press, whose first interactive children’s book The Gift will be arriving in the iTunes store in the very near future.  It looks like this:

I’ve been keeping half an eye on this project for a while, ever since I saw Persian Cat making comments on Twitter about merging interactivity and narrative on Twitter that struck me as pretty astute. I also like the way they have been reviewing and promoting other companies book apps. So I was delighted to get a chance to ask Jos a few questions as she came to the end of the development process to see how she set about creating in this new medium.

What is The Gift about?
The Gift tells the tale of a baby girl who washes ashore at the feet of a boy, and the wise creatures that the boy takes her to in order to work out what it is that she needs.

It’s about how, as parents, we work hard to build a world of protection and stimulation around our children; but that, first and foremost, our children need our love and affection in order to ensure they get the best out of that world.

Did it start life as an existing story which you then made interactive, or was it written specifically to be an interactive story?
The Gift was written specifically for interactive touch screen technology. It was written as a script, with directions for the illustrations and interactions as an integral component throughout.

The interactions I wrote into two categories: those essential to the story’s full realisation, for example you have to touch the rainbow to make it rain so that the baby has water; and those which are non-essential but which help add character to the world in which the story is set.

It’s been very interesting for me to watch people experiencing The Gift on screen for the first time, and to see them following the words of the story almost as if they are instructions as to which touch points they should be looking for. I feel that’s a direct result of The Gift having been written specifically as an interactive story.

Did you have any rules or insights into melding narrative and interactivity? Was the interactivity there to emphasis, punctuate, pace or for exposition, for example?
I’ve been writing stories for a while, including picture books and graphic novels. With these kinds of stories, alongside the actual text, you also have to think about which parts of the story will be told by the illustrations, and how to then convey that to the illustrator so that in the end the story is told completely via the two mediums.

I think this gave me a hugely useful insight into writing interactively. Being already used to working out how to split a story’s telling into words and pictures, it was quite a natural progression to split it further into interactions, movements and sound.

It took me around a year to work out how to write an interactive script before we started work on The Gift – and it’s a skill I’m still honing. I wouldn’t like Persian Cat Press to stand or fall by my writing alone, however, so we’re actively seeking and developing interactive writers all the time.

Are writing skills enough to creatively lead a production like this? Is knowledge of motion graphics/javascript/HTML5 etc important?
I think to creatively lead a high-level iStory production, you really just need to have the kind of mind that can see the overall picture.

Your core individual skill might be anything (writing, operations or design, for example), but ultimately you’re going to need all of those skills and more to realise the project, and that means you’re going to need a team.

So as the lead, you wouldn’t necessarily have to be the writer, you’d just have to be able to understand the writer’s vision and then see an overall picture of how it might be achieved.

What was the budget?
We were lucky with The Gift in being able to call upon the skills of a number of very talented and enthusiastic technical and creative people, locally from the north-west and beyond.

They shared our vision of a beautifully immersive, integrally interactive picture book app, and consequently were prepared to work with us on a cost basis, allowing us to create a high quality product at a very competitive price.

The combined cost of the services we bought in from outside suppliers for The Gift (illustration, narration, score and so on) was just over £30,000 – although that figure doesn’t include overheads such as permanent staff costs.

That we’ve produced an app of the quality of The Gift for such a relatively low price speaks volumes about the skills of our creative and technical network, the focus and commitment of the in-house team, and the strength of the story itself.

The Gift is arriving in the App Store a year after the first draft of the script was finished. What aspect of the production was the most time consuming?
We always knew that the script for The Gift would evolve and change as our knowledge and understanding of the sector and technology grew and matured. In all there were 16 drafts of the script, each one approached with the same attitude as we approached all other aspects of the production – careful, methodical, painstaking and adaptable.

An interactive script has to talk to a lot of people, and probably the most time consuming part of The Gift’s production was the planning and coordination of the several teams and individuals who worked on different aspects of the project simultaneously, many of which were dependent on several other elements of the production being ready in time.

Quality control also. This took up an enormous amount of time. When you’re producing a picture-book app for the age group The Gift is designed for, getting the fine detail right is crucially important. Parents who are prepared to pay for quality expect the very best – and we don’t aim to disappoint.

What are your thoughts on price points?
It’s clear that quality book apps tend to be underpriced when compared to their physical counterparts – especially given the resources involved in the creation of a detailed immersive environment such as The Gift – but we believe the quality of our product will stand us in good stead in the months to come.

We’ve thought long and hard about the price to put on The Gift and believe that we’ve managed to hit the right note with our opening price. We’re offering great value for money, with a beautiful and absorbing interactive experience unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

If there was one lesson that you learnt during production that you wish you’d known at the start, what would that be?
The lesson of stages and phasing.

When you’re commissioning high-level original artwork, typography, music and such, you can’t always wait until those elements are complete before you begin to build the framework into which they are to sit. But neither can you deliver bit-parts to your development team and expect the title’s vision to remain true.

The answer is clear stages and phasing. We thought we had a fairly good idea of all the stages there would be in producing a high-level app like The Gift – but there were still more than we anticipated. That lack of knowledge at the start of The Gift cost us time at the end. We have certainly achieved the vision, but its delivery is a little later than planned.

It’s a learning process, however. As a result of making The Gift we’ve worked hard to build stages and phasing processes into the production of our second picture book Owls Don’t Growl, and so far that seems to be working well.

The Gift will be in available in the iTunes store ‘next week’ (no news on pricing yet).