Interactive Storytelling Session 2: What is interactivity?

This lesson focuses on interactive media

Interactive media is a form of text and digital storytelling where the medium responds to the user's voice, physical movements, decisions and emotional states. These responses can be in the form of text, images, video, audio, animation and video games.

The term 'Interactive media' is a very inclusive field; an umbrella term that incorporates many various mediums. One of the most important things to remember about it is that the complexity of the interaction is irrelevant. Merely the presence of an interactive element is required for something to be labelled with this term.

While social media and websites do contain some interactive elements, this lesson spotlights mediums specifically designed for user engagement.

Topics to be covered include:

  • Examples of interactive media storytelling
  • Virtual and Augmented Reality Narratives
  • Branching storylines
  • The tools and techniques used to create interactive media
The story of interactive media

During the web's early days, writers embedded hyperlinks in text and images to connect storylines with multiple threads. The idea was to use this new platform as a way to release information whenever a link was clicked.

However, interactivity really begins much earlier than this. Game-books, for example, are interactive novels that function as pseudo-games. These narratives are driven by reader choice as to how the player's character navigates the story. One wrong choice can result in the character's untimely demise.

Game-books were popularised in the 1990s, but prolific authors such as R. A. Montgomery began the trend in the 1970s. Montgomery was a seminal figure in the Choose Your Own Adventure interactive children's book series and some of his stories laid the foundation for the Atari games of the 1980s.

More recently, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series produced arguably the most successful Choose Your Own Adventure game-books ever published. Pages end with a series of choices, forcing the reader to advance the story in their preferred direction. Once the adventure is over, the reader returns to the beginning and selects other choices for the characters. These different choices go on to provide a completely contrasting story.

Keypoint: Game-books are one example of interactive media created through text.

DVDs are interactive (technically)

DVDs are considered interactive simply because they have a menu which allows the user a multiple choice of settings. These range from language and subtitle options, to bonus content such as bloopers and extra scenes. Some DVDs include alternative endings, but this is less common.

DVDs tell their narratives exclusively through visuals and audio and are an example of user engagement within digital media. While user input is limited, as mentioned above, interactivity is not dictated by complexity. Rather, it is dictated by the presence of interactivity itself.

Video Games

Interactive media's most recognisable form is video games that depend entirely on user interaction to function. This dynamic includes many games that prompt a player to make choices in dialogue or action that will alter the story in one way or another. This is referred to as a branching storyline and and it's easy to see its game-book genesis.

Currently, the most popular form of advanced interactive media are games with branching storylines. An example is the series of games developed by Telltale Games. Through an episodic sequence of events, where the player is constantly making choices in a variety of different situations, the game tracks the player's relationships with the other characters and details certain key decisions that determine one of several endings.

This form of branching storytelling is not as interactive as it appears. Although the player is constantly making choices, the difference to the overall narrative is minimal. As such, the game only has a few alternative endings, all of which have many similarities. While the player may feel they are crafting their own story, in reality the game is only selecting one of several predetermined destinations and players are never truly escaping the story confines.

Despite this, the game grants the user a sense of satisfaction from having apparently made a narrative impact.

VR Storytelling

An up-and-coming form of interactive media is Virtual Reality (VR). The difference here to earlier forms of interactivity is that the user is immersed within an experiential narrative.

VR is a storytelling superpower. No other medium has the quite the same potential to create empathy and drive human connection. Because viewers are, for all intents and purposes, living the experience.

With a set of goggles, a phone and an internet connection, VR is accessible to the wider public, but VR storytelling is still in its infancy. This drives writers to think beyond linear and non-linear narratives to design a unique experience because if you can't interact with the virtual world, the illusion quickly fades.

Creating content for VR requires a lot of preparation. It is not as simple as putting pen to paper. Like video games, there is software, hardware and distribution to take into account. Also, a common VR flaw is that it can induce motion sickness - an effective deterrent to user uptake.

Yet the potential for creating something truly unique is exciting. Much like the early internet or the smartphone before the app explosion, VR is waiting for the motivated to launch this medium into a phenomenon.

Writing for the virtual world also requires an understanding of design principles. VR narratives require more than a linear or non-linear storyline. They also need you to imagine a world where everything can be viewed in a 360-degree panorama. And this means you must always be aware of audience orientation. For example, how will you know where to direct a person's attention when action in 360 degrees takes place behind, in front or to the side of the user?

UX Design, also known as user-centred design, helps the writer lay the groundwork for the virtual world. In Session 10 of this course we will take a more comprehensive overview of VR and it's application for storytelling.

What is the most common beginner's mistake with immersive storytelling?

As with any technology, storytellers may feel hesitant to use new mediums. Unfortunately, the longer you wait, the more likely it is that the technology will go mainstream and you will have lost the opportunity to be truly innovative and build an audience.

The narrative will always come first and your role as a storyteller is still the most important part of the process. Technology is there only to add another layer to audience engagement. Building immersive VR experiences can be hard work, but it is also rewarding.

Augmented Reality

An interactive medium with widespread use is Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality puts a lens over your surroundings. You are still interacting with the world around you, with the addition of a virtual layer filtered on top.

One use for AR is games

Using a smartphone camera, users can interact with a game in real time. The recent Pokemon Go craze, where enthusiastic people took detours down side alleys, deserted parks, and busy shopping malls to find virtual creatures with which to do battle, demonstrates the interest in (and current application of) this emerging platform.

Pokemon Go, however, led to problems when people wandered into areas that were unsafe, and, in rare cases, were killed or injured.

Besides games, AR is expected to generate innovative storytelling in news reporting, historical events, art, cultural activities, and education.

For a more comprehensive understanding of how AR is used in business and industry please refer to Session 9 in this course.


Websites are the most common form of interactive media in the world. Websites provide almost anything one could require and display a range of features such as text, audio, videos and even games. It is part of everyday life for people to use a site to shop, pay bills, find information, and to communicate with others.

As online culture suffuses everyday life, websites have become a staple of modern society. They are an endlessly valuable resource, gathering the various aspects of daily life and streamlining the process through a virtual window.

A website is generally composed of web pages, coded in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. In particular, JavaScript is used to create interactive elements such as buttons, sounds, interactive forms, keyboard functions, etc. In the past, this required great programming skill, but with the rise in popularity of the internet, a multitude of programs have been developed to make this process easier.

We shall be exploring this process in Adobe Spark during the master class, to create an interactive story for upload to your own web page, blog or respective social media.

Creating your Interactive Story

Using a program like Adobe Spark, an interactive story is relatively easy to create. In the masterclass, we will explore how to write an engaging narrative with elements including buttons, hyperlinks, video, posts and images. You will need to sign up for an Adobe ID to participate in the masterclass.

Key points to take away from this lesson

  • Interactivity requires user input
  • Interactive media incorporates many various mediums
  • Game books were a text based interactive medium
  • DVDS are considered interactive
  • Video games have branching narratives that make them interactive as they rely on player input to progress the story
  • VR is expected to create empathy and drive human connection through interactive storytelling
  • AR is expected to generate innovative storytelling in news reporting, historical events, art, cultural activities, and education
  • Websites are the most common form of interactive media in the world

What is interactive storytelling? | 5:53 mins

New Challenges in Interactive Storytelling | 1:03 mins

TedTalk | Interactive Storytelling brings the best and most engaging traditions to the digital age | Paulina Greta Stefanovic - Viewed 11 February, 2018

What is the future of VR, AR and other forms of interactivity: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1i8cn54PavfNqRCPIOpe7rOJEqW50u1An/view

What is 4D and photogammery? Volumetric capture: https://www.immersiveshooter.com/2017/04/15/10-storytelling-lessons-pros-orama-immersive-storytelling-film-festival/

The future is in interactive storytelling | http://theconversation.com/the-future-is-in-interactive-storytelling-76772

Social Media, Websites

NPR Guide to Hypothesis Design for Editorial Projects | http://training.npr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/NPR-GuideToHypothesisDrivenDesignForEditorialProjects.pdf

Effectively planning UX Design Projects | https://www.ceros.com/originals/effectively-planning-ux-design-projects/

Immersive storytelling platforms | https://medium.com/columbia-dsl/30-immersive-storytelling-platforms-apps-resources-tools-e428309574be

A selection of 360 videos | https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzuqhhs6NWbgTzMuM09WKDQ/videos


Created with images by Samuel Zeller - "VR" • Kimberleigh Aleksandra - "Piano hammers in close-up" • JeepersMedia - "Goosebumps Board Game" • PublicDomainPictures - "dvd cd disc" • rodrigomullercwb - "super mario mario mario bros" • Adam Birkett - "Industrial room" • Drew Graham - "@Vinnybalbo @Dizzy_d718" • geralt - "finger touch hand" • Simon - "amazon notebook laptop mobile monitor screen online" • Chris Fuller - "untitled image"