Modular Storytelling

Vincent from Final Fantasy VII. (Source: Wikipedia. Copyright by Square-Enix.)

Anyone with half an eye on the publishing industry can see that people are afraid. Will books cease to exist? Will our canon of literature go digital and never look back? Will e-publishing become the standard? Some of these questions are absurd and pointless. Books are not under threat; business models are under threat. However, technology does bring up the potential for new modes of storytelling. Enter: modular or interactive storytelling.

I first encountered modular storytelling as it was referenced in passing by comic writer Grant Morrison. I did some digging. Modular storytelling developed from analysis of narrative as it applies to video games. Since I love the Final Fantasy series, I’ll start there. The Final Fantasy series is renowned for great plots and compelling characters. However, being video games, these stories have an aspect of interactivity to them. There is a linear plot, but some installments in the series (VI, VII) have optional characters. These characters don’t advance the main plot, but they may add background information; they may add insight. To me, this is the real threat to books: interactive stories.

It is difficult to tell a story with paper and ink while making it interactive. Some forays have been done with the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and its imitators). Video games are probably the best model for what one can do with modular storytelling. A player’s actions can dictate the path (good or evil in Fables, light or dark side in Knights of the Old Republic) or unlock information that explains certain details (Vincent in Final Fantasy VIII). What I find fascinating is the idea of a book, or more specifically, text as interactive. Would it be possible to write a prose story that is fully interactive?

The main difficulty with such a prospect is time. A single writer would have to account for every possible path the story could take (or at the very least, chose pivot points for the story). The amount of writing necessary would be immense. Perhaps it would be best done with a team of writers with a lead writer, much like a television show or video game. The story would definitely need a director, someone to make sure all the pieces are together and accounted for. Due to the complexity, it may be some time before we see this attempted in a way that is compelling and paradigm-shifting.

While we may not see it in prose for some time, modular storytelling is finding its way into film. Thanks to Daniel Knauf (creator of HBO’s Carnivale), modular storytelling has debuted on the web in a big way. Tomorrow I will give my initial thoughts on Haunted.

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