By Michael Utvich
Audience as Captive
The core of the challenge posed by interactive media is to see the world differently. Writing a short story, novel, film, or teleplay all involve certain mechanics of storytelling. The fundamental story problem or challenge activates the lead character and motivates the audience to pay attention, and the story proceeds through a series of obstacles to an ultimate resolution or climax.
The key to this traditional story approach and the different media flavors used to present it is that the audience is always on the outside looking in. Stage, printed page, or screen creates its own proscenium effect. Each member of the audience internally processes what is happening, but the course of the story is unaffected by what the audience thinks, feels, or does.
Audience as Partner
The media that make up the interactive palette are not new. What is new is the relationship between the various media chunks and the audience. Interactive is just another word for feedback; the most basic assumption about all interactive media is that they inherently include some mechanism for the audience to feedback in the form of electronic controls, option selections, and actual content input.
Interactive media programs by their very nature smash the implicit proscenium that has been in place for hundreds of years. The audience is no longer a captive of the theatre seat or the printed page. The audience now has some level of choice and the potential for dynamic involvement with the content.
The first principle that any interactive writer must assimilate is this critical re-invention of the meaning and practical reality of the audience. The writer's role must now subtly shift from telling stories (or presenting information) to creating experiences.
Experience is both a proactive and reactive aspect of human life. As things happen, we respond to them by taking action which in turn begins another round of response-action. The experiences we have are a summary of a series of response-action cycles.
Experience and Association
How many times have you related an experience to a friend over dinner?
During the conversation, you describe what happened and how you responded, and what happened next and the actions you took. But even as you describe your experience, your dinner companion is instantly relating what you say to his or her own experience, and adding new elements or reactions to your narrative.
Human conversation is one of the most interactive things we do - and it comes to us naturally. Conversation is not logical, topical, or necessarily organized. Instead, it is a series of associations we make. As you relate your experience things you say will trigger memories and related experiences in your dinner companion.
The essential driving force in human conversation is associative thinking. As you speak and present ideas, you will also creatively associate or link to other ideas via metaphor, memory, and various forms of imagination. Associative thinking lets us see the inner patterns in life and to leap beyond logic and topical hierarchies of information.
The Electronic Conversation
Interactive media such as the Web and CD-ROM have now provided the technology for human beings to write and communicate the way we actually think.
Each individual audience member/partner sitting before the computer screen is associating and reacting to your creative work just like your partner at the dinner table. The type of associations they make will be conditioned by their life experience, attitudes, temperament, personality and so forth.
The various interactive tools that you provide as a content developer and writer give your audience different start points and a variety of visual and linguistic triggers to help that individual create a unique experience. Your creative work provides the framework for their reactions and allows them to:
Unlike linear storyforms where the writer creates something for the audience-as-captive to watch, in interactive media the writer creates the tools for the audience-as-partner to use in creating an individual experience.
The Writer's Challenge
Take a moment and observe a conversation - one you are involved in, or, if necessary, one where you can discreetly eavesdrop.
Listen for the ideas presented and how they are shaped by inputs from different people.
Listen for the uses of metaphor and imagery - how ideas and events are presented colorfully and in interesting ways.
Listen for triggers that get people involved in a conversational topic. Most of all, listen for triggers that transition the course of the conversation from one topic to another.
The more you understand the internal logic of simple human conversation, the more you will understand the creative opportunity that interactive media represent. Rather than simply linear stories or information presentations, you, the writer, can create new media forms that let people take advantage of their natural associative reasoning and communication skills.
© Michael Utvich 1996
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