ICIDS 2017 – Once and Future Storytelling

In November I attended the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS’17) on the fantastic island of Madeira. Escaping the British November climate is attraction enough, but the conference was also a great chance to conclude my tour of different interactive narrative communities (the first two being Hypertext and MIX earlier in the year). Valentina Nisi was a great host and the conference was a blast, from the varied talks to the great art exhibition.

I was presenting the work we have done on the StoryPlaces Writer’s toolkit – a concise set of guidance for locative literature authors drawn from all of our experiences on the StoryPlaces project. Writing down our observations in this way not only gave us a good set of guidance to give to authors on our third deployment (in Crystal Palace) but also helped us to reflect on how the specific advice reflected a deeper need to make sure that the topography of the landscape and the story structures are aligned – particularly with linear stories. There is a good summary on the StoryPlaces website if the paper format doesn’t suit.

My PhD student Callum also presented his work on multi-participant narratives, which is a fascinating topic. Essentially Callum is exploring how several people can experience their own version of an intertwining narrative, where they may have agency not only over their own experience, but that of others. When we began his work we realised that we did not really have a good definition of what these multi-participant narratives were, or a sense of the different forms they could take. So Callum’s paper is a systematic analysis of multiplayer configurations in games, drawing out a number of key characteristics, and then reimagining these in a narrative context. For example, he shows that multiplayer games differ in how much awareness they give players of who has interacted with them, or feedback that they give players to understand the consequences of their actions. Even these two characteristics give at least four different types of multiplayer configuration (if player 1 affects player 2, is player 2 aware or not of the interaction, and does player 1 get feedback or not about the consequences of their actions), all of which could translate to interesting multi-player narrative scenarios. Callum is currently extending the StoryPlaces engine to deal with multi-participant stories, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where his work goes.

At the beginning of the conference I co-ran a workshop on Authoring alongside Charlie Hargood, Alex Mitchell and Ulrike Spiering. Alex and Ulrike have run this before, but this year was the first time we ran the event as a sister workshop to the longstanding Narrative and Hypertext workshop that Charlie and I co-run at ACM Hypertext. It was a busy event, with some great presentations. I particularly liked Hartmut Koenitz provocative questions on authoring tools –  why do we have so many, how can we describe them, and what consequences do tools have for the resulting stories? Even though my gut reaction is that we can answer these fairly easily in reverse – once we understand the poetics of different forms, we can start to standardise their representation, and we have many tools because we have many different forms. It’s a very interesting question as to what point we understand things well enough to standardise, although I’m pretty certain if we concentrate on a particular form (for example, locative literature or chat-bot storytelling) then that point will come sooner.

I presented the StoryPlaces Authoring Tool at the workshop – which takes the patterns we identified in our Hypertext paper last year and embeds two of them (unlocking and phasing) as high level structures in the tool. The idea is to make these common structures easier to create, and thus not only help writers, but encourage them to use the structures in their work (to create less-linear and more interactive experiences). In many ways StoryPlaces is trying to take the exact reverse approach to Hartmut’s questions that I outlined above, and our authoring tool is one step towards identifying these common structures to allow some sort of standardisation in the future.

Mark Bernstein, Hypertext elder (sorry, Mark), also made the trip to ICIDS and presented a fascinating paper at the workshop on the moral aspects of interactive storytelling and the subsequent obligations on the author. Mark raises some really interesting issues around agency and the complicity of the reader in the consequences of the story – it reminds me somewhat of the themes in Spec Ops The Line, which confronts the player with their own consumption of war and death as entertainment, a game which (in)famously you can only win by not playing. Mark was at pains to show that he was not taking a puritan stance – and I certainly believe his intention – but nevertheless the core of his arguments are the same as those that are used to support the criticism of violent action films or pornography. It is certainly a thought provoking piece that has made me think much more about the moral difference between passive and interactive fiction.

Extra Credits on Spec Ops The Line – as normal, EC do it the best

In the main conference sessions I particularly enjoyed Ulrike’s work on AR storytelling around the Saalburg Roman Fort, it was a lovely example of locative storytelling with an effective use of AR. I also enjoyed Hannah Wood’s award winning paper on Dynamic Syuzhets, one of the best arguments I have seen for exploring agency in games other than at the Fabula level – and what dramatic potential that has for authors. Hannah also recommended to me a great podcast, ScriptLock (hosted by Max and Nick Folkman) – discussions with writers and developers about narrative in video games, that I have been working my way through ever since. In return I pointed her at the Extra Credits guys, both excellent resources for this kind of work.

I’ve come across James Ryan and his work unearthing the earliest storytelling machines before, and his Twitter feed is a treasure trove of interesting discoveries, so it was a pleasure to hear his presentation about going down the rabbit hole and discovering some of the very earliest digital systems to work with storytelling and narrative – as far back as 1962, with promise of even earlier work. The Hypertext community draws a lot from its extended history, with much resting on Vannevar Bush and his amazing 1945 vision of what computing machines could become in ‘As We May Think’, so its exciting to see this community also begin to properly explore its pioneers and try to recognise their contribution.

Some photos. Mainly presentations and whales. Did I forget to mention the whales?

Overall I really enjoyed ICIDS, its a different type of conference than Hypertext (with more playful and experimental work presented), but I was surprised by how much the communities already overlapped. I get the feeling that there is far less cross-over with MIX and ELO, although there were ICIDS people who had attended those too. That might not be surprising given that Hypertext and ICIDS, while interdisciplinary, are really rooted in computer science and information systems – whereas MIX and ELO are primarily humanities events. I still haven’t gotten myself to ELO yet, not to mention FDG or DIGRA – maybe that can be next year’s task!

ICIDS is also reaching something of a milestone, and the steering group are looking for ways to create a more firm foundation for the future. The suggestion is that a new Association for Research into Digital Interactive Narratives (ARDIN) could be an umbrella organisation to underwrite ICIDS and expand the activities of the community in other ways. In a similar way to how SIGs sit behind ACM conferences (for examples, I am Vice-Chair of SIGWEB which sponsors ACM Hypertext and a handful of other events).  This seems like a necessary plan, although it would be a shame not to take the opportunity to bring some of these events and people together.

More than anything though, I think I have seen this year how healthy the area of interactive digital narratives and literature is, with wide interest from academics and industry across multiple events, countries and disciplines. I’ve met some great people, and seen quite how far the tendrils spread behind my own particular area of interest.

Its been a lot of fun, and reaffirmed to me what an brilliant area of research this is to be involved in.