Digital stories

 

Along with the transfer of traditional art forms and cultural practices into the digital realm, narratives have also gained an important place in the computer-related phenomena. Old stories have been translated and adapted, while new ones have emerged from the uniqueness of each medium. To underline the ways by which narrative is correlated to digital media, Marie-Laure Ryan delimits five essential properties of the latter in Will New Media Produce New Narratives?:

1. "Reactive and interactive nature" (2004, 338) ensures the premises of cooperative storytelling;
2. "Multiple sensory and semiotic channels" (ibid.) indicate the capability of digital media to be fused together;
3. "Networking capabilities" (ibid.) allow people to surpass the spatial inconvenient and connect in virtual environments;
4. "Volatile signs" (ibid.) refer to the ability of digital media to accommodate flexible content that can be changed or improved without losing the original context;
5. "Modularity" (ibid.) or "the fractal structure of new media" (Manovich 2002, 30) indicates how the constituting elements maintain their own characteristics, though giving birth to larger objects.

Further on, Ryan makes an analogy between digital media and the three elements of language grammar: “semantics (the study of meaning5) becomes the study of plot, or story; syntax (the study of the combinatorics of units of a language5) becomes the study of discourse, or narrative techniques; pragmatics (the study of the relationships between the symbols of a language, their meaning, and the users of the language5) becomes the study of the uses of storytelling and of the mode of participation of human agents in the narrative performance” (2004, 354).

 

People are addicted to stories and, for the first time in history, they are creating stories in real-time, by means of hypertext, computer games or interactive applications. The ever-increasingly spread of Internet has democratized the use of narrative in virtual societies. For example, online social networking, has changed modern storytelling by putting each user in the middle of the equation. Any user6 can be the author, the narrator, a character or the critic of a story or, often, all at the same time. However, the concept of narrativity in online social networking is undermined on one hand by the mechanisms of the hosting application, and on the other by the lack of interest in narrativity: a user who uploads recent pictures taken on a trip doesn’t usually augment them with short stories (sometimes only simple comments about the places or persons from the pictures).

 

The narrative design of computer games stimulates the human urge for solving problems and the predisposition for competition. In a game, stories are generated while playing and the player becomes part of the story. Most computer games already have a story (a script) and the user is left with a few predetermined paths to choose from. The stories are not personalized and cannot differ so much from user to user, but their experiences do. Moreover, virtual-, augmented- and alternate-reality games, as well as the new methods of human-computer interaction (through sensors or multi-touch technology), have brought a whole new dimension to narrative. The users become less conscious of the border delimiting the real world from the virtual one and become more involved in the story.

 

As a combination between games and online social networking, the online virtual world created by Linden Lab and released in 2003 – “Second Life” – allows users to create their own stories. By choosing avatars, they are able to interact with other users and simulate real life or create an imaginary one. Due to the continuous work of improvement, programmers can modify or bring new properties to this world. All the ingredients for creating a narrative are present, but the story is left open-ended.

 

Interactive art (i.e. interactive installations) is not further away from computer games. Sensors grab data from real world, translate it into numbers and send it to the computer for processing. Then, with the help of algorithms written by the artist, the data takes a new physical or virtual form and is given back to the user as feedback to its actions. Interactive art installations, together with games and cinema are breaking free from the 2D screen and they explore new dimensions in order to blend with reality.

 


6 Because the human agent in computing can either be a reader, a viewer, a listener or a character, the term user was adopted, which combines and replaces the previous ones.

 

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