I’m frustrated today, guys. I’ve been frustrated for about six years, actually.
This is because we have exactly 7,834,922 brilliant people in this country, and they have yet to build a digital storytelling platform that truly takes advantage of the dynamic nature of the web, especially for web comics. This field should be amazing us right now, but instead we’re still stuck in simple put-the-pictures-on-the-web mode.
[TL;DR version: pics and vids here]
I’m not talking about doing infinite canvas stuff, which is fine but very much a one-trick pony. And I’m not talking about adding little bells and whistles like animation and sound, because all that does is change the format from comics to video.
I’m talking about playing to the strengths of the web: databased information arranged in a specific order based on user-selected parameters. We’ve done this for decades online, but never tried to use it to expand on the depth of our storytelling capabilities.
When broken down into its core elements, any story is really just a number of scenes presented in sequence. In the case of traditional storytelling, the sequence is presented in exactly the order the author wants it to be. Obviously this is the best way (in the author’s eyes) to tell the story, but also there was really no other way to do it in the past. You had to give people a physical book to read, and the pages had to be in a certain order.
In the 1980’s a variation on this concept became popular, with the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series for young readers. Every few pages in those books, the main character had to make a choice about what to do next. But this time the reader was allowed to make the choice for the character.
“To come out of your hiding place and approach the alien ship, turn to page 37.”
“To stay in your hiding place and see what the ship does next, turn to page 52.”
“To run away and alert the police about the ship, turn to page 40.”
Those books were a lot of fun for kids to feel like they had some control over the story, but that was about as far as you could take the idea in printed format.
Today we have the entire web to play with, so we should be developing ways to use it to tell a richer story. Not just the little add-on’s I mentioned above, but actually giving the authors a larger palette and set of tools to work with so they can give us in return a more nuanced and deeply detailed narrative.
There are so many potential ways to improve on the digital storytelling experience with new technology, but let me give you an example of an option I came up with:
Six years ago (six years! – that’s an eternity in web time) I was kicking around this idea of richer narratives, and I came up with the concept of allowing the reader to choose their own perspective throughout the story. I called it the Axis platform, and it’s a play on the CYOA theme, but with a twist: CYOA books almost by definition must be shallow, surface-level stories, because you’re essentially writing 50 high-level versions of a book to keep up with all the possible outcomes. The market was then necessarily limited to easy-to-digest kids’ adventure books, which worked out well.
In my updated concept there is only one story, and it is fully in the author’s control. However, the author has the ability to tell this story from multiple points of view concurrently, using a storyboard layout for all the scenes. All of these are hidden in the database, and only presented to the reader one at a time, in sequence, exactly as comics are read on the web today . . . with one big difference: the reader can, at any time, shift his reading perspective from any of the storylines, characters, or places involved in the narrative. In essence, he can peek behind the scenes and see what’s going on with other characters or in other locations at the same time, or follow a side character out of a scene instead of the main character. This opens up all kinds of new storytelling options.
The author is in complete control here, so the idea is not for the reader to direct the story in any way, but to experience it from multiple points of view in one cohesive, real-life fashion (unlike Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which told the same story from 15 points of conflicting view and made my stomach hurt).
To explain further, here’s a video I made a few years ago when I was considering launching the Axis platform on Kickstarter. I never did end up putting it live and sharing this with the public – it’s always remained an idea in my head and notes in my backpack. So watch the vid, but ignore the last couple minutes about the Kickstarter stuff:
This is really rough and not well designed, but will give you an idea of what the perspective and timeline options could look like in the reader interface:
The back-end control would look like a storyboard where the author can place events from multiple categories onto a timeline. I originally came up with this storyboard layout because I was considering writing a web comic in a Seinfeld-episode style, with multiple characters and multiple stories, all of which intersected each other throughout the narrative. (The story examples you’ll see in this example were FPO (for placement only), and just off the top of my head, using people and places and ideas from where I worked at the time.)
In this document you’ll find a more fleshed-out version of what the platform could deliver, especially some interesting ideas for using advanced search functionality to find hidden secrets in the story.
Just to be clear, this idea is not in development right now. It’s been sitting in my backpack for years as I built philanthropy projects and did consulting/contract work to pay the bills. If this concept sparks your interest and you want to see it get done, let’s talk about what that could look like. At this point I know I’m not going to build it alone on my spare time, so I’m open to any ideas on how to make this (or something like it) happen. Questions/comments welcome below, too.