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The Eyeball: Choose Your Own Adventure

According to computer scientist Michael Young, interactive entertainment isas old as the human species. "When our prehistoric ancestors gathered aroundcampfires and listened to a story about someone killing a wildebeest earlierthat day," he says, "you can bet the others were jumping up, wanting to telltheir own tales."

Given this ancient predilection for the interactive, it¹s strange that somuch streaming content today remains staunchly linear ‹ old stories, sentdown new pipes. In the case of many Web shows, interactivity is stilllimited to voting thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the end. Sites are oftenguilty of using stories to sell technology, instead of harnessing technologyto tell stories.

But a new interactive medium is evolving. A handful of cutting-edge contentcreators, artists and computer scientists are starting to think hard aboutthe distinctive qualities of streaming media as a format for writers anddirectors ‹ about the art of interactivity.

Rebecca Scott is creative director of Vancouver-based broadbandentertainment company, Trapeze.com, whose board of creative advisersincludes ExistenZ director, David Cronenberg. While devising the Trapezecomedy show, Special Delivery ‹ an interactive greeting card ‹ it occurredto the creators that a critical factor in comedy is timing, so they designedthe interactive elements of the show in a way that took this into account:Users cannot click away from the show before they hear the punch line.

Scott believes that the artists attracted to creating interactive storiesare different from those drawn to linear forms. "Film directors andnovelists want the audience to experience their vision in a particular way,"she says, "whereas interactive story-tellers are more like installationartists, creating something which can be experienced in multiple ways."

A collection of work by installation artists can now be seen online in anexhibition presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (www.sfmoma.org). Theexhibition, 010101: Art in Technological Times, launched at the beginning ofthe year, is set to run as a gallery exhibit from March 3 to July 8.

One of the works, Feed, created by artist Mark Napier, invites users to typein a URL and see what happens when a Web page is redisplayed while ignoringits HTML tags, shredding the page into a surreal collage of randominformation. Other works such as Auriea Harvey¹s and Michael Samyn¹sEden.Garden 1.0, play similar games with the navigational conventions of thewired world, perhaps implying that our maelstrom of cell phones and Websites is no less dizzying than these artistic experiments.

Scott says that the main consideration for interactive producers is theperspective of the user. "What you¹re doing when you make a storyinteractive is casting the audience in a role," says Scott. Possible rolesare "voyeur," exemplified by the webcam surveillance show Big Brother, and"God," exemplified by video games such as The Sims, where the user controlsand decides the fate of the characters.

In SafeHouseLive, a current Trapeze production, the user is cast in the roleof "director." Drawing upon audience familiarity with the conventions oftelevision editing, the show invites viewers to cut between four differentcamera perspectives in a story about six DJs trapped in a house, pursued bya "rave killer." As the action unfolds on the main screen, viewers monitorevents in other parts of the house through video thumbnails. The productionwas shot in real-time with four DV cameras and is streamed using QuickTimeand Flash.

But the Holy Grail for interactive storytellers is to cast the user as acharacter ‹ as an integral part of the story, with actions that have directconsequences for how the story unfolds. Achieving this, however, meansdesigning every single story permutation in even the flimsiest narrative ‹ atask that is nearly impossible. Imagine a simple story in which the herofaces a series of six decisions, each of which has two potential outcomes.The total number of narrative pathways in this simple scenario is 2 to thepower of 6, or 64. That¹s a lot of writing. A real story, involving severalcharacters and multiple outcomes, would soon mushroom to trillions ofnarrative branches.

The traditional solution for game designers, from early text adventures suchas Atari¹s Zork to 3D worlds such as Tomb Raider, is to restrict the playerto a smaller, more manageable set of pathways through the story, creating anillusion of interactivity without the computational migraine.

But a richer form of interactivity ‹ and, perhaps, the Holy Grail ofuser-as-character ‹ may soon be possible as a result of new research inartificial intelligence (AI). Michael Young, assistant professor of computerscience at the North Carolina State University, is the creator of a new"story-telling engine" called Mimesis. The software gets around the problemof needing to work out all the permutations of a story in advance bygenerating each step of the narrative dynamically, in response touser-interaction, one step at a time.

Based on the AI innovations that allow NASA deep space probes and mobilerobots in car factories to respond "intelligently" to their environments,Mimesis considers a user¹s action and generates a narrative pathwayconsistent with the overall arc of the story. It doesn¹t need to create allthe story permutations, only those immediately relevant to the user¹s actionand situation. The software, which supports the online role-playing gameUnreal Tournament, will be available to researchers in September and as opensource code in spring 2002. Researchers at the University of SouthernCalifornia are using similar AI tools to develop interactive educationalsoftware for the U.S. Army.

But even if AI enables the creation of stories with a much deeper level ofinteractivity, it seems unlikely that a fully interactive story, giving theuser complete freedom of action, would be something anybody would actuallywant. One of the most basic elements of narrative is inevitability: Oedipuskills his father whether we like it or not, and the fact we cannot changethis outcome is what gives the story its emotional power. "If everyonewanted to make up their own story, why would they buy so many novels andcinema tickets?" asks British critic, Steven Poole, in Trigger Happy:Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, published in the United Stateslast September. "We like stories in general because they¹re notinteractive."

Scott agrees: "Interactivity is just one part of the creative palette," shesays. "Working in multimedia entertainment, we can use streaming video, oranimation, or text, and now we have this new element of interactivity. Butit¹s only one part of the picture." Equally, the goal of Michael Young¹sresearch is to increase the control of the user without diminishing thepower of the story. "If a design removes all control from the user," hewrites in a research paper, "the system is reduced to conventional narrativeforms such as literature and film. If a design provides the user withcomplete control, the narrative coherence of a user¹s interaction is limitedby her own knowledge and abilities."

However this balance is struck, the interactive medium could emerge as aform that attracts not just entrepreneurs and engineers, but a whole rangeof creative practitioners, from writers and painters to sculptors anddirectors. It could evolve its own aesthetics ‹ a "language" governing userexpectations about the way the medium works ‹ just as film audiencesunderstand cinematic conventions such as the flashback. And artists mayeventually use interactivity just as deftly as cinematographers uselighting, or novelists use suspense. Maybe someone will even create aninteractive wildebeest-hunting show.

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