Interactive Storytelling: How to Tell a Story When the User is in Control

A story is strongest when it’s told in the right way. A master storyteller knows exactly how and when to reveal the different elements that make up the perfect story, holding the audience in the palm of his hand. But a story in the hands of a master storyteller is not an interactive story. On the Internet, storytelling can’t happen in the same way as it can in fixed media, like films or books. Because you can’t predict the order in which users will view your web pages, you need to adapt your approach to the interactive character of the medium.

A possible solutions for this problem comes from the world of gaming. Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, has written extensively on media and popular culture. In an article entitled “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” the professor explains how games are able to tell stories.

Evocative Spaces

The first major strategy in the arsenal of game architects is the creation of what Jenkins calls evocative spaces. An evocative space allows users to enter into a richly populated virtual space; it’s the creation of an immersive environment.

Websites are also a type of virtual space. You can navigate through the space, and you even have a sitemap at your disposal if you have trouble finding your way around. You can start creating an evocative space on your website by populating it with elements that users are already familiar with, for example, by using images they have already seen you use in other media, images they associated with your brand.

Enacting Stories

In games, players can enact or watch narrative events. Many games have an overarching narrative, while also allowing the player to take part in micronarratives along the way.

Website visitors like to take part as well. While your overarching narrative is the brand story that you want to tell, your micronarrative is created by interaction with users. Users like it when they become part of the story, and a straightforward way of satisfying that desire is by offering games. A simple “play and win-” type of game works is great, but it would be even better if you could design a game that includes storytelling elements.

Embedded Narratives

An embedded narrative is a narrative that is worked into the fabric of the narrative space. Like clues scattered around a room, players pick up pieces of narrative while working their way through the space. Jenkins uses the example of Carson’s narrative device called “following Saknussem.” In Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” the protagonists follow into the footsteps of Saknussem, a sixteenth century Icelandic explorer, finding new clues and objects along the way that help them, and the reader, to figure out what happened to him.

Adapt this strategy for websites, by dividing your story into separate components and distributing those components over several web pages. Doing this will engage the user to reconstruct the story out of the components, while visiting many pages on your website. This strategy means you do away with the “about us” page, where previously the whole story is revealed in one go.

Emergent Narratives

An emergent narrative is a narrative that is created by the interaction of the player, of which The Sims is probably the best-known example. The game architects have provided all the tools, and players use them to create their own story.

For websites, this means letting your audience use your product or service and asking them to share their experience on social media. A major example that comes to mind is the Fiesta Movement, where Ford paid the gas and insurance of a hundred new Ford Fiesta drivers in exchange for their feedback, which they shared on YouTube and the website.

The point to take home is that the Internet is not a fixed medium like television or print, so stories need to be told in an interactive way. A look at the way stories are told in games reveals a number of narrative strategies that can also be employed on brand websites. At the same time, it opens the door to using gamification, another buzzword in marketing, to further enhance interaction on websites. After all, storytelling could be seen as just one part of a successful gamification strategy.

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