Her Story: interactive fiction is not dead

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I’ve tried for so long. Since its publishing, I’ve tried to resist buying Her Story for stupid reasons I won’t explain, but every now and then it came back to me. Now it seems it was time: the other night I bought and finished this videogame. This story. This experience. Whatever you call it.

What’s Her Story?

Sometimes it’s defined as a video game story, sometimes as a crime fiction game with non-linear storytelling, sometimes as a FMV game. Long story short, Her Story is a videogame by Sam Barlow (writer and designer of Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) and it’s pretty simple, yet astonishing. You have the chance to browse an old police database through keywords you choose, trying to found out what happened to a missing man while listening to his wife interviewed by the police back in 1994.

I warn you. If you decide to buy and play this game, you will be stuck even when you’re done playing. Here I’ll try to analyze Her Story both as a game and a narrative with almost no spoilers.

Story or Game?

In our digital era, immersed as we are between collective intelligence and convergent media, it doesn’t make too sense to state whether Her Story is a story or game. It is both. It is an interactive storytelling based on 80s/90s models, but also a video game (and, by the way, the two things do not exclude each other). Here, you can read Adrian Chmielarz arguing that Her Story is actually a video game.

Plus, it is maybe one of the best example of digital narrative in our time. Stop with all the transmedia bla bla. 

You start with an interface: an old computer with an open window and some files and icons on the desktop.

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If you open Readme.txt and REALLY_Readme!!!.txt, you’ll get the basic instructions and the context to start the game. You can open also the Rubbish Bin (and find a sort of Reversi game) and the DB icon, which gives you access to the main interface of the game: the L.OG.I.C. database.

There is already a query, MURDER, and its results: the first videos of Hannah you get the chance to view. Then? It’s up to you. Enter any keywords you think it could lead you to understand the scenario and go on. Watch all the story unfold.

Until the end.

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The game is not that long, it took me about 2/3 hours to complete, but it remains accessible even after the credits scene. And trust me, you will stay in the game, trying to unlock all the clips you did not unlock the first time and trying to figure out all your questions remained open. Because there will be a lot of open questions. A lot.

This brings us to the next big aspect of the game: the community.

Theories & Reconstructions: when the players have some ownership of a story

There’s two phases to playing Her Story. The first is sitting in front of the game’s virtual computer. The second is sitting in front of your real computer, going and finding some forum on which people are discussing all of the details and arguing over theories, to see what you missed or to at least confirm your suspicions, searching for more and more scraps of information that others might have left behind. In short, you end up doing exactly what you did when you played Her Story, but now the game’s gone.
http://www.wired.com/2015/07/her-story-live-action-videogame-obsessed/ — Chris Kohler

As said before, we live in an era of media convergence and collective intelligence. According to Pierre Lévy, who coined the term:

[Collective intelligence] is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. — Wikipedia

That is exactly what happens with Her Story.

Consumers become hunters and gatherers moving back across the various narratives trying to stitch together a coherent picture from the dispersed information. — See more at: http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Back from Star Wars, Matrix, Harry Potter, Lost and endlessly on, one thing is always successful when you need to emotionally engage people (viewers, users, players: VUP, as Stephen E. Dinehart once said) and it is agency.

Whether the creator has planned to give some role to the user or not, the user will get some agency in the moment he/she decides to enroll within the experience in a grade that can vary depending on the user.

In a certain way, even when you have a closed and defined product — a book, a movie — an open ending or new layers you give to the plot can bring the users to future speculations. It’s been 20 years now that Fight Club first came out as a novel and 17 in the movie theatres, and there are still people speculating about Tyler Durden. In Pan’s Labyrinth, you ask yourself “Was everything in the girl’s imagination?”, “Was she really the princess of fairies?”. Both versions are valid. In the end of Inception, you ask yourself whether the spinning top stopped or not. Yes, and no. Does it really matter? And there are tons of other examples, you can find yours.

It’s one way and the other: it’s the agency that the creator gives to us and the agency we take. We need it as human beings reading, viewing and experiencing stories: we fill in the blanks. It is due both to the game aspect (collaboration with others — all together we try to find out the results — and competition with ourselves — we have the urge to solve the enigma) and the narrative aspect (the need we have for linearity and coherence, for cause/effects).

The imagination does the majority of the heavy lifting when you’re enjoying a story and I think it’s cool to give some ownership of that story to the player, let it live on in their heads. That’s certainly how a lot of my favorite stories work.
Sam Barlow — http://www.appunwrapper.com/2015/07/10/help-interrogate-sam-barlow-about-her-story/

This is how Sam Barlow answers to AppUnwrapper last July.

When the brain steps in to fill in the blanks, our imagination do the trick. We complete the picture with our experiences and our peculiar point of view (nonetheless with our cognitive bias as well).

We know that stories create our memory and, consequently, model our identity. Thanks to the stories, that act in the very deep of our brains, we know how to live, to interact. Basically, we have evolved thanks to stories.

But let’s get back to Her Story. One strong point of this game is that it plays with us, it provoke us. We have a beautiful picture with missing pieces and we crave to understand what are those pieces.

The main question is… I mean, if you played the game, you already know it. Again, Adrian Chmielarz has his version of the story, including a suggestive parallelism with the case of Evelyn Lancaster.

Here, to satify our linearity needs, you can check out all the video clips in chronological order: http://www.appunwrapper.com/2015/06/30/her-story-walkthrough-all-video-clips-in-order/ (thanks to AppUnwrapper).

Game Aspect: 5 at times

You get access to the video clips resulting from your query, but even if the result gives you 10 occurrences, you can view just the first 5 clips.

This way everything is more challenging. If you want to access the last hidden clips, you have to find new keywords.

It’s dopamine acting in our brain: we write a word, we get a result, we get a shot of dopamine. We want to do more. This time we don’t get any results (it would be too easy, then) but the next time, again, a result.

Multiple experiments showed — here’s one with monkeys — that we get a stronger dopamine hit when a reward for our actions is of “reward or nothing” type, rather than of “always some kind of reward” type. http://www.theastronauts.com/2015/08/what-her-story-tells-us-about-the-current-state-of-video-games/

Recurrent themes

There are some recurrent themes in the story. The döppelganger, the mirror, the reflection, the fairy tales.

Adrian Chmielarz, again!, points out an interesting parallelism of the famous fairy tale.

Eventually, everything here is about the story. I am talking about a primordial form of storytelling. You can call it myth or fairy tale.

Do you want to hear the story? It’s a real life fairy tale.

About the distinction between myth and fairy tale, you can read this article that, starting from Tolkien and Campbell, tries to sum up what we’re saying here.

[…] I spent the large majority of the development time working on the story and the layers that it contains, so it’s super, super gratifying to see people react in this way and seeing the players take the game as seriously as I did when I made it! — Sam Barlow

In conclusion, Her Story is a great video game and an entertaining, collective storytelling experience that confirms the power of stories in video games and that the current of the interactive fiction is definitely not over.

[…] You have nothing. And all these stories we’ve been telling each other… Just that. Stories. — Eve in her last interview. Her Story


Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things by Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things by Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab

SherlockPOSTERAbbiamo sempre l’impressione che l’innovazione stia avvenendo altrove, nel mondo. A volte invece avviene proprio qui e ora: in rete e nel mondo reale, in Italia e in Nigeria, in Argentina e negli Stati Uniti. È ciò che stiamo riuscendo a fare grazie al MOOC (massive online/offline collaborationSherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things, esperimento globale del Digital Storytelling Lab della Columbia University.

Le nuove tecnologie possono modificare la narrazione? Come possono interagire degli smart objects nel dipanarsi di una storia immersiva? Come possono collaborare e lavorare in team a uno stesso progetto centinaia di persone sparse in tutto il mondo?

La mentalità che sottende questo progetto è, ovviamente, la collaborazione tipica degli hackathon: creare uno spazio di lavoro e di condivisione eterogeneo per conoscersi, confrontarsi, crescere.

L’evento centrale di questo progetto si svolgerà il 24 e il 25 ottobre prossimi, al Lincoln Center, durante il New York Film Festival. Un crimine avrà luogo e un gruppo di Sherlock Holmes sarà incaricato di risolverlo.

The goal of Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things is to build a massive connected crime scene consisting of smart storytelling objects. This fall teams will create, design, build and test prototypes that will be plugged into a number of crime scene locations around the world.

Le parole chiave sono storytelling, in quanto nella scena del crimine sarà fondamentale l’elemento narrativo; game design, in quanto i processi interattivi e di gioco saranno centrali nell’esperienza finale; e maker culture, perché andrà creato un oggetto enhanced che aiuterà a risolvere il caso.

Questo format-prototipo della Columbia, rilasciato sotto Creative Commons, vuole di fatto indagare la possibilità di collaborazione globale e asincrona. È previsto un paper a fine lavori che raccoglierà la documentazione di tutto il lavoro del MOOC, ma anche degli eventuali singoli meetup locali.

I partecipanti del MOOC possono fare tesoro di alcuni utili materiali informativi: per lo più video, ma anche presentazioni, paper e podcast. Questo materiale segue tre tracce principali (Story, Play, Design) e la metodologia di progettazione (empatizzare, definire, ideare, prototipare, testare) è quella del laboratorio Learn Do Share.

Dal momento che il prototipo della Columbia nasce in prima battuta come evento locale, i partecipanti del MOOC sono invitati a organizzare a loro volta meetup nelle proprie città. Dal Digital Storytelling Lab le indicazioni sono abbastanza precise: coinvolgere i luoghi deputati alla ricerca e all’innovazione, come le università, i laboratori o i FabLab.

Anche Roma ha risposto alla chiamata. Grazie al Fab Roma Makers saremo in grado di ospitare storyteller, game designer, interaction designer, attori, performer e chiunque abbia voglia di re-immaginare con noi il mondo di Sherlock Holmes.

Sei della zona di Roma e vuoi partecipare? Ci divertiremo! Rispondi al nostro RSVP sulla pagina ufficiale del Meetup e vieni a trovarci a Roma Makers mercoledì 23 settembre alle ore 19.30.

P.s.: Dai uno sguardo allo stream su Instagram o su Twitter, cercando l’hashtag #sherlockiot.

[ENG] TEDxTransmedia – An interview to Rhianna Pratchett

[ENG] TEDxTransmedia – An interview to Rhianna Pratchett

1) Videogames sell more than books today. In your opinion, what videogames storytelling could give to books? And what to transmedia storytelling?

I think it’s actually the other way around and what books could give to videogames and it’s actually in the role of the author. In books, the author gets complete control over the story, over the characters, over the storyworld, but the writer in games is right down the other end of the spectrum: they get no control over everything.

So actually, looking at books and understanding the importance, it’s obvious the importance of an author for a book but it’s not as easy to see the importance of an author for a game. And it’s actually treating writers more like authors of books, for videogames as well, which I think will probably help. So it’s actually kind of the other way round – it’s treating games narrative with the seriousness and the respect that book narrative gets.

2) We observe always more frequently the birth of books integrated with the gaming experience. Do you think that is merely a marketing requirement or a need of the video game medium, unable to tell properly a story because of the way it is structured?

I think it’s interesting you talk about the birth of books and the birth of videogames because I worked on a radio documentary about the birth of the novel in England and how when the novel came out there was this old outcry that women were going to be reading novels all day and not getting any housework done and then there was all this fan fiction that came out around the earliest novels and people would write stories of what the characters did next, and they would put pictures on fans, and they would make up gravestones for characters that had died in the books and they would kind of get obsessional about them. And everyone thought that the novel would lead to the rack and ruin of society, which is kind of how videogames get treated. They get treated as a sort of «it’s going to lead to the moral decline of our youth» in the same way that they said that about video nasties, or rock music, or the waltz. So videogames, like novels, have been scapegoated, and we’re still trying to work our way through that, and still trying to tell the wider world that videogames are about more than just violence, and they can be very powerful storytelling vehicles. And I think actually videogames can have their own brand of transmedia, too. I worked on the Overlord games and certainly with Overlord 2, Overlord: Dark Legends (which is on the Wii), and Overlord Minions (which is on the DS), I was working on all of them at the same time and they took place in the same world as the first Overlord game but in different parts. They had a common lore that was the same and you could play in the Minions game you could play as the minions, and then you could play in Overlord 2 and play as a big overlord and then Overlord Wii and play as the son, and you could sort of play different parts of the story at different time periods, which I think was particularly interesting. So, kind of that – the way that games do it themselves – I think can probably help transmedia, and often games can be a great place to start a transmedia project from: build the game and then see if it can work in other media as well. For example I’ve always thought that there are games that could make a great TV series or a movie or something like that. But I think it’s important to have a strong core product at the centre and then build that out, and video games are so good at creating a storyworld – and you can create such a big storyworld in a videogame that I think they’re perfect fodder for transmedia.

Photo by Matteo Piselli, www.ibridodigitale.com

[ENG – ITA] TEDxTransmedia – An interview to Alison Norrington

[ENG – ITA] TEDxTransmedia – An interview to Alison Norrington

«Transmedia» è una buzzword e sembra che qualsiasi cosa resa transmediale possa diventare virale in un attimo. Ma la narrazione dov’è finita? Quando hai creato Sophie, per il tuo Staying Single, è stato più per il bene della narrazione o per marketing?

È stato sicuramente per il bene della narrazione, perché Sophie era il mio personaggio principale. Non avevo realmente una strategia quando ho iniziato quel progetto. Ho solo provato a far vivere Sophie in quante più piattaforme potessi. Alla fine del progetto, ho trovato due forum che i lettori avevano creato per conto loro per parlare della storia. Ho capito che ero troppo autoritaria.

Sophie era decisamente il cuore della storia. Ogni tipo di marketing che è venuto dal personaggio, è venuto in modo virale e organico. Che per me è la cosa migliore.

A proposito di tecniche di scrittura, cambia qualcosa tra un romanzo tradizionale e uno transmediale? Ci sono dei consigli che vorresti dare ai giovani autori?

Cambia molto. I miei primi romanzi erano libri tradizionali. Non avevo bisogno di ascoltare cosa i lettori pensassero, non avevo bisogno di considerare troppo la mia storia. Scrivere qualcosa di transmediale significa che devi conoscere molto di più del tuo mondo e dei tuoi personaggi. È quello che chiamiamo iperdiegesi: ciò che mostriamo nel creare una storia è solo la punta dell’iceberg. C’è molto al di sotto che non mostriamo. J.K. Rowling l’ha fatto con Harry Potter.

Per uno scrittore il mio consiglio sarebbe quello di prendersi il giusto tempo per capire il mondo, capire i personaggi e avere un forte tema centrale per la storia. Anche perché senza un forte nucleo, nel viaggiare attraverso le piattaforme, la storia tende a indebolirsi.

Sappiamo che dobbiamo avere una grande storia per fare un buon progetto transmediale. Quali sono qualità di una buona storia per un buon progetto transmediale?

Non tutto è adatto a essere reso transmediale. Se hai una storia che pensi debba essere sviluppata in più di un libro, per poter creare un mondo più grande, se vuoi narrare la storia da differenti prospettive, puoi aggiungere un libro dalla prospettiva di un altro personaggio, una intera web series che dà la stessa storia da un’altra prospettiva, ma qualcosa che funziona già come un solo film, un solo libro, non deve essere necessariamente reso transmediale. Occorrono buoni personaggi, un buon conflitto e un buon tema centrale.


Transmedia is a buzzword now, and it seems that making something transmedia could be a great way to go viral. When you created Sophie for your Staying Single, was it more for the sake of fiction or for marketing?

It was definitely for the sake of fiction, and because she was my central character. I didn’t really have a strategy when I did that project. That was part of my master’s degree and I just tried to let Sophie live as many platforms as she could. There were a lot of platforms I chose that were just completely dead, nobody visited. There are others where I’d created forums where I wanted people to speak to Sophie and they were dead despite me going in in different voices and trying to get people to talk. Near the end of the project, I found two forums that the readers had set up on their own where they were talking about the story. So I learned that I was a little too bossy: that I was trying to tell them where to talk. So Sophie was definitely the heart of the story. Any marketing that came from her character, came quite virally, quite organically. Which for me was the perfect scenario.

Speaking of writing technique, does it change something between a traditional fiction and a transmedia one? Are there any advices would you give to young authors?

It does change a lot. My first three novels was straight books and I didn’t need to listen what the readers thought about them. I didn’t need to consider so much about my story. Writing something with a transmedia heartbeat to it means that you need to know a lot more about your storyworld and your characters. And there is something called hyperdiegesis which means when you create a story-world, and all you show is the very tip of the iceberg, and there’s low down beneath that you don’t show. And JK Rowling did that with Harry Potter. She said that there’s a lot of the world that she created that she still hasn’t shown. So my tip would be take the time to understand your world, understand your characters and to have a very strong core theme to your story. Because as it travels across platforms, it does become weaker if you don’t have that core theme.

We are aware that we must have a great story behind in order to make a good transmedia project. What are the qualities of a great story for a good transmedia project?

The quality of a great story for a transmedia project. Not everything is suited to go transmedia and I don’t think that everything should try to be applied. But if you’ve got a story where you feel you can build it out to more than one book, or where you can build the world to be wider than just one little snap-shot of the character’s life… if you feel you can tell the story from different perspectives, so you may have a book from one character’s perspective, a whole web series that gives the same story from another character’s perspective… but some things are just meant to be one movie, one book and not to try to apply transmedia technique, to everything. But good conflict, good core theme, and the premise that you can build a world are things that I would look for.

Our life is a transmedia experience, said someone. But are there any stories that can’t be translated? And what are the elements that a story must have to be “transmedia”?

It’s a good point. Funnily people say to me “I write documentary, I write non-fiction. How can I apply transmedia to that?” And I say, “You know, there are museums that actually are using transmedia techniques to bring their artifacts to life… and sometimes non-fiction and documentary the facts are already there. You can Wikipedia or Google the historical story behind something or some place. So I think that, to say what I said before, to know that you have a strong story, a good core theme, but that you can build it out beyond one thing. It can be built to a wider world. Lots of opportunities for immersion, lots of opportunities for extraction – where people can jump in and swim around in the story for a bit, and also where people can take parts of the story and pull it out, and they can actually own parts of the story.

Photos by Matteo Piselli, www.ibridodigitale.com

Ottobre: eventi transmediali

Ottobre: eventi transmediali

Ottobre sembra un mese particolarmente promettente per gli eventi legati al transmedia storytelling, al cross-mediale e, in generale, ai nuovi media.

Settembre si è concluso in grande con il TEDxTransmedia, al Maxxi di Roma. L’evento è stato ricco e stimolante. Gli addetti ai lavori nei campi dell’editoria si sono però trovati spiazzati: di transmediale non si è parlato granché. Si è parlato delle sue potenzialità come change maker. Presto, comunque, pubblicherò un breve resoconto corredato da un paio di interviste. Per una review completa, invito a visitare il sito ufficiale dell’evento.

Sabato scorso, il TEDx ha visto un altro brillante esempio italiano: il TEDxBologna, il cui tema è stato Passione e creatività.

Gli eventi a venire sono, ahimè, tutti all’estero.

Questa settimana Londra ospiterà dal 16 al 19 ottobre il Power to the Pixel mentre a Los Angeles, dal 17 al 19, si terrà lo Storyworld Conference, che annovera relatori quali Jeff Gomez, Alison Norrington (che ho avuto il piacere di intervistare) e Lance Weiler.

Sempre a Londra, dal 26 al 27 ottobre, si terrà il London Transmedia Fest e il 6 novembre (ok, non è più ottobre) a Gand, ci saranno i DIY Days Ghent, che sembrano decisamente promettenti. In più sono gratis! I DIY Days Ghent sono un evento dei Creative Media Days che raccoglie eventi, tra cui il TEDxBrussels, tra Ghent e Brussels, tra il 6 e il 15 novembre..

Questi eventi sono casi isolati, per un’élite di addetti ai lavori o reali momenti di confronto? E tu, parteciperai a qualcuno di questi eventi?

The Seed: davvero transmediale?

The Seed: davvero transmediale?

The Seed è un interessante progetto di Goat & Monkey: è una caccia al tesoro combinata con eventi e perfomance, che affonda le radici nella storia inglese.

Helen, che lavora presso una fantomatica Millennium Seed Bank, è alla ricerca di un seme disperso da un secolo (ma sarà ancora in grado di generare una pianta?). Seguendo la pagina, non si assiste solo allo svelamento gradualmente della storia, ma si è chiamati in prima persona ad aiutare l’eroina nella ricerca.

Gli indizi, però, non si trovano solo su Facebook e la ricerca non è portata avanti solo da Helen. Nei Great Garden of Sussex, infatti, si svolgono periodicamente delle perfomance che hanno il fine di svelare ulteriormente la storia, fornendo nuovi indizi e presentando nuovi personaggi.

La narrazione si basa sulle vicende dei leggendari cercatori di semi di questo orto botanico che, in epoca vittoriana, giravano in lungo e in largo per rifornire i giardini di piante rare.

L’idea è buona: partire da una storia reale aiuta a contestualizzare meglio la fiction e senza dubbio è di grande aiuto per la pubblicizzazione del luogo. Peccato che il primo svantaggio si ritrovi nel non poter partecipare agli eventi. I contenuti condivisi durante le perfomance sono fondamentali per la caccia al tesoro? E se no, è realmente transmediale uno storytelling non pervasivo?

Riporto ciò che Robert Pratten, CEO di Transmedia Storyteller Ltd., quando parla dei sette principi delle future dimensioni narrative e che io mi sento di abbracciare come principi fondamentali per un buon progetto.

Pervasive – Available on any device, anywhere and at any time. Blurs real world and fictional world.

Assistere a un evento fisico (non telematico), può aiutare il giocatore a confondere realtà e finzione, ma il contenuto è disponibile ovunque e in ogni tempo? No. In questo caso, il compromesso consiste nell’accettare che il target principe sia un giocatore del Sussex. Perché allora non confinarlo a un gioco locale e renderlo mondiale? Non so voi, ma, se in futuro mi troverò nel Sussex, dopo questa esperienza, un salto ai giardini lo farò sicuramente.