January 22, 2004

Making, Not Telling

by Andrew Stern · , 3:10 pm

Sorry to possibly set off yet another terminology debate — I’m really tired of them — but does it bother other people as much it bothers me to hear the term “digital storytelling” or worse, the oxymoron “interactive storytelling”?

If you assume a primary pleasure of interactive experiences is agency, as I do, then the suffix “-telling” should be avoided. I’m interested in experiences in which the player is collaborating with the system to help make, to co-create, to have meaningful affect on the story, not be told a story.

I prefer more open terms such as “interactive story“, “interactive drama”, “electronic literature” or “interactive fiction”.

The only way I can understand the use of the term “storytelling” is for an experience in which the player has little or no agency, which is one that holds much less interest for me.

20 Responses to “Making, Not Telling”


  1. nick Says:

    Terms that look quite alike, such as “interactive cinema” and “interactive fiction,” can describe categories very differently. “Interactive fiction” has come to be used mainly for text-based work, although fictions don’t have to have a textual basis, and the term describes a system with a simulated world and parser.

    Works of “interactive cinema” always involve moving images, but can be documentaries delivered in snippets at a time over the Web or can be fictional, immersive experiences installed in museums. So this term seems to be more closely tied to the particular form and expectations of cinema, even though not all interactive cinema is seen in movie theaters.

    I guess my point here is that you can’t learn everything about a two-word term just by looking at its two component words; the history of the two-word term also matters.

    By analogy to “interactive cinema,” when I think of “interactive storytelling” I think of Kevin Brooks’ Agent Stories, a system actually based on the tradition and practice of oral storytelling. However, if other people want to have conferences that use that term in a different way and the definition develops to mean something different – well, okay.

    Specifically, Andrew, why is “-telling” such a problematic suffix for you? From a narratological perspective, it’s just as easy to make a telling interactive as to make a story interactive. But perhaps it’s not wise to emphasize control over the narration when there is still so much to be done regarding control over the story (and story world) itself.

  2. Jeremy Bushnell Says:

    I was thinking this exact same thing over breakfast this morning. “Wait a second — isn’t ‘interactive narrative’ an oxymoron?” (I don’t actually feel certain that it is, but the thought did cross my mind.)

    “Digital storytelling,” on the other hand, doesn’t strike me as an oxymoron, since “digital,” by itself, doesn’t necessarily imply “interactive” or “participatory” (although Janet Murray might disagree with me here).

  3. andrew Says:

    First, to respond to Jeremy: I suppose the reason “digital storytelling” bothers me is, like you suggest, not because it’s a contradiction in terms, but because it suggests an experience low on agency (even though people often use it to describe experiences that supposedly have, or wish had, agency). I should say, not all people care about agency in their digital stories, and that’s fine (not my cup of tea, but that’s me). Therefore I suppose “digital storytelling” should only bug me because it reminds me of a form I don’t care a whole lot for. So I suppose my real beef is with “interactive storytelling”.

    (Jeremy, it’s also possible you feel “interactive narrative” is an oxymoron because of the general conundrum of what it means to be an interactive story? Which is different than my point here about the use of the term “telling”)

    To respond to Nick: it’s true that terms sometimes can’t be expected to fully and accurately describe what they’re referring to — there is history involved, such as with the terms “modern art” or “new media” — but when a well-used term is an oxymoron in and of itself, it bugs me. You suggest, “it’s easy to make a telling interactive” — well, in such a case, I wouldn’t want to call it a “telling” anymore, even if there is a narrator speaking the resulting action of the story to me. If the creation of the story is non-trivially collaborative, even if a narrator is narrating the results to me, I feel the overall experience is best described as a making, not a telling. It’s clearer.

  4. Jason Says:

    I’m not so sure that an interactive experience must negate the ‘telling’ experience. Alternate moments of telling and listening are the basis of dialogue. Based on the post, you seem to positions the participants as either ‘always telling’ or ‘always told’ (monologue rather than dialogue)?

    In other words, is something like ‘collaborative storytelling,’ where several individuals (or agents) contribute various aspects to complete a whole narrative, not interactive? If the user/reader/player (whatever) is one of many people “telling,” wouldn’t that be an assertion of agency rather than a denial?

  5. andrew Says:

    Jason: Hmm, this is interesting. When playing an interactive story, such as a text-based interactive fiction, do some of you consider that you and the system are together “narrating” a story, perhaps to some third party, some other audience who is listening? That is, when you say or do something, in that moment, do you feel you are telling a story, versus just simply making (writing) a story? To me, telling implies there’s some other audience listening at that moment. (At least this use of the word “telling” shifts the player’s role away from receiver, and to creator of the story.)

    But if there is no third party audience, then even though I and the system may be taking turns “telling” each other things, the overall effort as a whole I wouldn’t call a “telling”. We’re writing, we’re making.

    But now I think I understand better why people have used the term “telling”. Telling as in writing, where I the player am one of the tellers, not as someone passively being told something, even though I’m supposed to be interacting too.

    It makes more sense to me now, but I still don’t think it’s a clear use of the term “telling”. When playing an interactive story, there’s no external audience we’re telling this story to…

  6. Jason Says:

    You make a good point about audience Andrew, and I’ll have to think more about that. If your only audience is an agent, or a screen, or no one at all, where’s the satisfaction in telling?

    On one side, there’s the possibility that we actually have agents believable enough that the value of sharing a story with them (with the agent both a ‘teller’ and as audience) might be a valuable experience.

    The other possibility is that such an experience could be recorded and shared later with a “real” audience, a collaborative work between agent(s) and player(s). We see something akin to this, don’t we, in a screenshot story put together from a game of The Sims? Might not be exactly the same thing – certainly the player gets the most agency there – but it might be a start.

    I want to write more, but I have to catch my train ;)

  7. DmGoober Says:

    Unless the game designer does absolutely nothing, isn’t she “telling” the gamer something? For example, if there’s a “game” where the user is placed in a room and the user can do absolutely anything, isn’t the designer still “telling” the gamers some subtle message by placing them in the room in the first place? In other words even if the gamer is free to act, the environment or situation they are placed in still acts as some form of communication between the designer and the gamer. “Telling” if you will.

    Once the designer stops saying anything to the gamer, leaving the gamer free to do whatever, wherever, whenever, than the game ceases to be a game and instead becomes a tool. Games cease to be paintings and instead become paintbrushes.

    Non-interactive art is a one way conversation from the artist to the user. Interactive art is a two way conversation — the gamer speaks, but the art must also speak back. If only the user speaks, than the art is not art at all, but rather simply a tool.

  8. nick Says:

    Andrew, the way I’d distinguish between an interactive telling and an interactive story is like this:

    Forget the computer – let’s just take a situation in which one person is telling a story and another person is listening and interrupting. In both cases, the story is about two brothers going on a quest.

    In the first case, the listener can choose what is narrated – what gets described in detail and what gets glossed over, for instace. When the two brothers get separated, the listener chooses which one the story will focus on as the telling continues. But the events, and the order in which they occur, and what causes what, are all fixed.

    In the second case, the listener does not get to chose how the story is told, but can influence what happens. The brothers face a choice; the listener determines what they will do.

    It would seem reasonable to call the first an interactive telling, the second an interactive story.

    You can have both at the same time, and interactive fiction allows both sorts of control: directives like “verbose” “brief” and “superbrief” control the narration, while commands control what happens in the story itself.

  9. ian Says:

    Words are certainly not empty structures, and we should understand that when we use certain words, we cannot avoid the historical, social, political, and other forces that underlie them. To use a reductio ad absurdum, no one could create an “interactive holocaust” and claim that it’s just about burning leaves in the backyard.

    That said, I am almost certain that we will one day be very, very regretful about insisting on this logic of treating digital media “on their own terms.” Their own terms are fine, and good, don’t get me wrong. But isn’t there, what 10,000 years of human history and cultural production bound up in the idea of “storytelling?” It’s a great egotism of human nature — and a natural one — to think that we occupy a space at the end of history, where we change the world and those changes persist.

    I think “their own terms” could use some company. I was just talking with Jill Walker and Danah Boyd about this same tendency relating to blogs — so it’s not limited to us game folks.

    Most importantly, I think that instead of trying to stabilize these ideas in hypothetical or formalist terms, we need to look at specific works and think about how they do and don’t relate to other phenomena in human history.

    Clearly, this is already going on, I just wanted to make the point again. I’m actually talking about this very thing in a talk tomorrow (1/23) at UCLA. Anyone in LA, email me for info.

  10. andrew Says:

    DmGoober: Your last paragraph hints at the terminology that makes more sense to me — conversation. That is, interactive experiences should strive to be full-fledged conversations between the player(s) and the system. Following this, I wouldn’t think to use the term “telling” for something that is a conversation; telling implies too much one-way-ness. Yes, of course in a conversation there is telling going on, that’s part of it, but the term “telling” isn’t the best one for giving a label for the form as a whole.

    “… the game ceases to be a game and instead becomes a tool.” Yes, there’s a spectrum between an authored, highly-structured experience and an open-ended, tool-like one; I’m interested in finding a good balance between the two. I want the best of both approaches, of both authored experiences and expressive tools. There are others who think this way too — for example Will Wright calls his systems “toys”, which are in a sense tools for play and meaning-making. Also refer back to this post about Chaim Gingold’s work (Chaim is working closely with Will Wright now, by the way).

    Nick, your first example I agree could and should be called interactive storytelling. I notice it is an experience with low agency on the plot level, which as I stated in my original post, is a way the term makes sense to me to use. That’s all well and good, but that particular form probably isn’t what most people think of when they think of what “interactive storytelling” is intended to be, yes? Most people probably think it’s supposed to mean the second example, which is also probably the form most people would want given the choice, since it offers players more agency, and therefore I would argue, more pleasure. So technically there are forms that can be called interactive storytelling, but I’d argue they don’t match the ones in most people’s imagination of it.

    And yes, you could have both interactive telling and story in an experience, but again in that case I think it’s still a misnomer to use term “telling”, for reasons described previously.

    Ah, terminology…

    Ian, I’m afraid I can’t tell if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me there. ;-) Are you saying that rejecting the term “storytelling” is an incorrect, naive thing to do? If so, I’d say I’m not rejecting storytelling itself per se; I’m merely asking that we choose the best variation of the term to be clearer about the processes going on in the form of “interactive story”, not that we reject the centuries of wisdom about how stories work, etc.

    Wish I could be there for your talk.

  11. ian Says:

    Andrew — I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you. I think I’m sort of waxing suspicious. My sense is not that rejecting the term storytelling is naive or incorrect, but rather that it may not be at the heart of the problem. I guess I’m not sure that we’re going to get the kind of subtle clarity on the processes that you want solely via terminology, and we’ll find ourselves in the endless repetition compulsion of terminology neurosis. Which is something I’m worried about.

  12. andrew Says:

    Yes, debating about terminology is often wasted energy, hence my apprehension even making the post in the first place. But actually this time around I’m kind of pleased about some of the issues brought out. For me, it gave me a way to make a more general statement about how I feel some (not necessarily anyone in this discussion) may be misperceiving what this form is, or could be. And as any reader of GTxA knows, I seem to regularly need to grind my Agency Axe.

    I agree that we should instead spend our energy talking about the characteristics of individual works, and not worry so much about perfect labels for them as a group.

  13. Chris Crawford Says:

    I look on the phrase “interactive storytelling” with some satisfaction, as I remember spending years urging people to use this rather than “interactive story”. My take is that “interactive story” is oxymoronic because a story is clearly a data structure, and you can’t interact with data. Storytelling, on the other hand, is a process, and you can interact with a process. If you think in terms of action versus existence, it should be pretty clear that existence cannot be interactive, while action can be interactive (although isn’t necessarily interactive). You can interact with algorithms, but not with numbers. You can interact with a process, but not a state. You can interact with storytelling, but not a story.

    That said, I can see Andrew’s point: storytelling has always and forever been a one-way communications process. Hence the phrase “interactive storytelling” does carry the strong suggestion of a one-way process. Yet we encounter many of the same problems with almost any application of the computer. “Spreadsheet” doesn’t come close to describing Excel. “Word processing” is at least technically accurate, but doesn’t really say anything. “Database manager” is equally unilluminating.

    The solution might be to use some term that is clearly a nonsensical extension of a distantly related term. “email” is an excellent term, as it indicates some relationship to mail but is clearly something very different. Its precursor, “electronic mail” was pretty clumsy and somewhat misleading. So perhaps we should run with something like “estory” or “istory” — unfortunately, those run afoul of my process-versus-data comments. Besides, they seem almost cliched. Anybody for “storytek” or “storox”?

    How about a recourse to Latin: fabulaviva, “living story”. Say it five times, it’s a prosodically nice word. And it’s three syllables less than “interactive storytelling”!

    The basic problem here is that any word or phrase we concoct really must have some reference to “story” in it, because that’s the focal point of our efforts. “bidirectional story”? “ambistory”? or just “bistory”? How about “westory” to emphasize that it takes place between two people? Or just “ustory” as an indication that you make it your own story?

    How about this one: “Shut up with the dumb phrases, Crawford?” Naahh, that’ll never sell!

  14. Chris Crawford Says:

    Oooh! Neostory! Hyperstory! Ultrastory! Megastory! Interstory! Storyopsis! Narratologism! Authorless story! Narratek! Ablefable! Etale! ITale! INarrative! IDrama! Untold tale! Unstory! Multistory! Polystory! Mobius story! storyfory (cockney). gestorygefolgenhopnauer (faux German) a-na-ha-wa-sto-ree-ka-da (faux primitive). Fuckenshittenstory (rap). Tellact storyintering (Bushism) oooonnnnntttuuuuurrrrraaaaaahhhhkhhhhtiffffff sssssssttooooorrrrrreeeeeeeeeeetelllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeennnnnnnngggggg (whale) KLAKTO-STUEK! (Klingon) inorakatee sotoreeteleeno (faux Japanese). “Dead Crawford” (irate readers).

  15. andrew Says:

    Chris’ point about processes is excellent. (For more such useful insights, check out Chris’ extensive library of essays he’s written over the years.)

    How about something like “interactive storymaking”, or “collaborative storymaking?”

  16. tim wright Says:

    Writers in other fields don’t seem to have this problem, do they? No-one bothers using terms such as cinematic storytelling or novelistic storytelling. We just talk about movies (or films, as we say over here) and novels without ramming home the point that there’s storytelling going on in there.

    So if movies get their name because the pictures ‘move’, what could we come up with that’s better than digital storytelling?…. er…. ‘plays’?

    I don’t have a problem with storytelling as a term BTW (if you’re asking). I think a lot of the ‘agency’ in a game is quite often an illusion – by which I mean the player/reader is being carefully manipulated and controlled by the authors of the game. And I can’t see a reason why an interactive experience can’t be ‘narrated’ (although I admit there are very few successful examples to point to).

  17. JJ86 Says:

    I guess the confusion of terminology has something to do with different ideas on content and direction. Works are either based on text, still images, moving images or a combination of all three. The direction can be entirely scripted or user driven.

    For the creator of the work to make a “story”, it should be something he/she wants to direct. So the beginning, middle and end should be written by them. But does a user driven work fall within the traditional definition of a story? Especially when there are structural confines to its limits, the term “story” doesn’t define its elements. The Sims doesn’t play as a story, yet is more than a simualtion. It is more role-playing or play-acting, both of the phrases include the word “play” so maybe “Dynamic Play” might be a more generalized term. After all once a user is involved in these works, it essentially becomes playing.

  18. andrew Says:

    Ideally, the beginning, middle and end is not pre-written. I’m interested in the thinking about how to build systems that are more flexible and generative than that. A system that is not a story with interactivity built into it, instead one that, within bounds, can create a family of story-like experiences. All possible stories that can fall-out of this system are probably very related in genre, theme and even in specific events that can occur, but the beginning, middle and end can vary a lot. We haven’t fully achieved this yet, no one has, but that’s our pursuit.

    This may sound to you what a simulation is; we discuss this relationship between simulation and story in a GDC paper from last March that I often link to, if you’d like to read more about what I mean by all this; scroll down to the “approach and motivation” section.

    Tim, JJ, I like your points about playing; of course we tend to refer to the user as the player. I also like the term “narrative play”. Tim, in past posts I too have wished for a term for interactive story / drama akin to the invented word “movie”.

  19. Donut Age Says:
    Stroy-whatting?
    Andrew Stern at grandtextauto is bothered by the term “digital storytelling” … Andrew claims he doesn’t want to start a terminology debate, but it would seem that he is doing just that. I don’t really mind, since I’ve been in my share of them as well…

  20. Patrick Dugan Says:

    I’m two years late to this debate, but why not simply use the term “Interact” as a noun, as opposed to a verb. You could say “the new Interact by designer so and so was released today, I’m looking foward to playing it.” Or “Mateas and Stern’s Interact sets a new benchmark for social gameplay with a limited but bold open parser interface.” As a noun “Interact” takes the action of interacting, which is essentail to any instance of the medium, and lays it out as an act, as in a dramatic story, which the player goes into. I think this terms implies everything we want, while sounding dignified and being concise.

    Plus, in the credits, instead of saying “Written and Designed by Insert_Name_Here” you can say “An Insert_Name_Here Interaction”

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