Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment (Carolyn Handler Miller)

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 2.59.40 PM.pngDigital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. This book has gone through several editions, the most recent the third edition from 2014. Miller is interested in works that are digitally delivered, interactive, non-linear, narrative, with distinct characters, participatory and navigable. Each of her chapters ends with some idea-generating exercises to help you brainstorm about the topics she’s just raised.

Unlike many of the books I’ve been surveying recently, this one is not specifically focused on games or the game industry; instead, it’s looking from a storyteller’s perspective at how to deliver experiences for which the page of a book is not necessarily sufficient. That in itself gives it a rather different flavor: many games writing books are quick to identify the ways in which their game genres are constraining or limiting, or present “challenges”. By contrast, Digital Storytelling is about what interactivity can add to the writer’s toolkit. (I feel this very much myself, and feel the absence of these options when I’m working in a more linear medium.)

At the same time, the book is directed at readers who might be writers in linear media but have barely considered interactivity before, and therefore need to be taught canon and craft entirely from scratch. It also anticipates a different set of prejudices and concerns: the chapter on video games spends half a page on the concept of AI and considerably more space on issues like video game addictiveness and whether violence in games is a serious problem.

The early chapters position digital storytelling in a tradition with campfire interactive stories of prehistoric people (almost inevitably invoked); with ritual reenactments and rites of passage in various religions and cultures; board games, roleplaying, and interactive theater. There’s a brief history of digital storytelling that includes both games and online journalism, and an account of “convergence” — ways in which different media and devices have blended together to offer composite platforms.

An initial chapter on interactivity explains the value of interaction and immersion from first principles and anecdotes: here again, the book is clearly pitched at someone other than an avid game player, and possibly someone who has not previously explored interactivity at all. Elsewhere, she introduces concepts such as “non-player character”, “variable” and “branching narrative” from scratch — all very useful if you’re coming from completely outside the field, but probably less so for readers of this blog.

Despite their sometimes introductory nature, though, these discussions are deeply researched — and I am not just saying this because she includes a screenshot from Galatea. Her examples and references pull from a wide variety of academics and practitioners on games and new media: Janet Murray and Marie-Laure Ryan, Leigh Alexander and Clara Fernandez-Vara, but also other writers, thinkers, game and toy designers, CEOs of transmedia companies who are much less familiar to me.

These encyclopedic descriptions of what’s been done in a particular area often hit examples that might not be covered in the Received Canon of any particular community — for instance, the games she references aren’t always at all the same ones that might be mentioned in a game industry writing manual. Miller digs deeply into commercial, educational, and informative applications of digital storytelling, as well, exposing some areas I hadn’t encountered. For instance, before this book, I was unaware that Chipotle’s Mexican Grill had commissioned an advergame called The Scarecrow which talks up their commitment to ethically sourced meats. The game, says Miller, “charmingly depicts [Chipotle’s] mission”. I am probably a bit more fast-food-skeptical, myself, but sure.

Alongside video games, Miller covers apps, children’s interactive ebooks, stories told via YouTube videos, ARGs, robots and smart toys, electronic kiosks and virtual presence devices, interactive television and cinema (though the interactive TV space is moving fast enough at the moment that 2014 coverage is behind on significant developments), and what she calls “immersive environments” (which includes VR, but also mixed reality, AR, and theme park rides among others).

In places, Miller also offers some craft guidance about how to get started on a new digital storytelling project. But here, I felt, the breadth of her coverage becomes a liability rather than a strength. The advice often is quite broad, in an attempt to apply to all of these wildly different types of technology, modes of production, and commercial circumstances, and so one winds up with advice like “don’t make your product too complicated… don’t make it too simple.” In other cases, she offers some specific examples, such as sample flowcharts of interaction, which are fine in themselves but don’t provide nearly enough information to become actually skilled in applying that technique.

So overall: if what you want is an armchair traveler’s guidebook to parts of the interactive media space you might not already know well — especially if you want to look beyond video games — this will almost certainly teach you about some new projects you’ve never heard of before. But it’s not really trying to level up game writing skills, especially not for people who are already practitioners, so if that’s what you’re seeking, other resources are more likely to help.

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