Interactive Story is an Oxymoron


I’m reading The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The book is based on the work of Joseph Campbell, an analysis of the basic elements of myth and story that stretch back for millennia. Fascinating stuff, if not entirely new.

Since I got the book, it’s been released again as a third edition. This bit caught my attention in the introduction to the 2nd edition, from 1998:

Shortly after the first edition of this book came out, a few people (threshold guardians) jumped up to say the technology of the Hero’s Journey is already obsolete, thanks to the advent of the computer and its possibilities of interactivity and nonlinear narrative. According to this batch of critics, the ancient ideas of the Journey are hopelessly mired in the conventions of beginning, middle, and end, of cause and effect, of one event after another. The new wave, they said, would dethrone the old linear storyteller, empowering people to tell their own stories in any sequence they chose, leaping from point to point, weaving stories more like spider webs than linear strings of events.

It’s true that exciting new possibilities are created by computers and the nonlinear thinking they encourage. However, there will always be pleasure in “Tell me a story.” People will always enjoy going into a story trance and allowing themselves to be led through a tale by a masterful story weaver.

I’m not sure if Vogler goes far enough. More than ten years later, the iPad is heralded as a miraculous device that will usher in a whole new type of storytelling. The idea that stories are destined to be reinvented as interactive experiences predates the looming ebook tsunami. Presumably, it was also predicted long before the hyperlink came along. But such thinking fails to understand what a story is at its core. If the basic structure of the story hasn’t changed in a few thousand years, it has nothing to fear from ebooks. New devices will create whole new types of games… but story, nope.

AmphitheaterIf stories were meant to be interactive, the stage would never have been invented. Actors would have just scattered through the crowd and everyone would have become part of the production. Instead, we got the amphitheater that separates the storytellers from the audience. Centuries later, movie theaters are dark for a reason that goes beyond helping us see the film. We want to get lost in the story. Is anything more annoying than someone yacking on their phone next to you at a movie? Nope, because it pulls you out of the story. And those choose your own adventure books that they had when I was a kid were fun, but a novelty. I remember that I had to pick what happened next, but I don’t remember any of the stories.

The power of a good story, in part, is that it does have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There is cause and effect. Life hardly ever works that way. Stories do, and appeal to a need for such order that is almost primal. Once we have to choose what happens next, order evaporates and with it the story. It becomes a game at best, a chore at worst. Instead of laughing at someone else’s mistakes or commiserating with their plight, the reader of an interactive story shares responsibility for its outcome.

Experiencing a story only works when it’s a passive medium, and that’s okay. Interactive story is an oxymoron.

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