Author Kate Pullinger on making the leap to interactive storytelling
"Multimedia" is a buzz word which you don't hear often any more, but in the mid to late nineties, it symbolized everything that computer technology was going to bring us. Text, images, audio, video and interaction, all combined, would usher in a new era of media that combined all of the finest achievements of other mediums over the years, with computer technology as the glue which bound it all together.
The word "multimedia" didn't go away because this dream died; on the contrary, it went away because the dream became ubiquitous reality. However, while multimedia systems like Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and their ilk have become the standard reference and entertainment tools of an entire generation, in one area we appear to be lagging behind. Videogames, one of the most technologically advanced expressions of multimedia, may be a powerful and lucrative industry, but in terms of actual storytelling - that most basic form of human expression - there's a strong feeling that the medium lags a long way behind literature or film.
As an author, Kate Pullinger is, first and foremost, a storyteller. However, Pullinger has made the leap from the printed page into the interactive medium; at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival next week, she'll debut the latest chapter in her bold experiment in interactive storytelling, Inanimate Alice, a project which combines the traditional arts of characterisation and narrative with the full multimedia trappings expected from an interactive work.
"I come at this as a writer," Pullinger explains. "I'd been using computers as glorified typewriters for a number of years, with e-mail and a bit of internet use. Then I was asked to teach creative writing online, and that lead to a year-long research project looking at new forms of narrative on the internet."
"My first experiences of writing that used computers and the internet were hypertext narratives like Michael Joyce's 'Afternoon'. I quickly realised I wasn't much interested in the business of clicking through blocks of text on the screen and that I'd like to create work that was much more multimedia. And that I would need to find collaborators in order to work in this field," she continues.
In making the decision to cross over into this field, Pullinger is one of a very small number of creative people in "traditional" media who have done so - a fact which seems surprising, in a sense. Surely creatives would be excited by the prospect of a wholly new type of canvas on which to work - or does the challenge of interactive storytelling intimidate those used to the more direct, linear forms of traditional media?
"I don't know about intimidated," Pullinger responds. "I think people just don't know about it, and it's as simple as that. When I talk about my digital fiction most people I come across - students, readers, book industry people - just look at me blankly. Most people haven't heard of interactive media outside the realm of what is already well established."
That, in itself, is a problem which will only be solved as storytelling in interactive mediums - including videogames - improves and becomes more widely recognised, and Pullinger is perhaps uniquely placed to comment on the challenges involved in that particular evolution.
Interactives, ultimately, are a non-linear medium - by their very nature, they invite users to participate, rather than just observing events. For an author schooled in traditional literature, this could seem to be the most difficult aspect of interactive fiction - but according to Pullinger, the key challenge with an interactive work is no different to the key challenge of any other storytelling medium.
"I think readers are active participants when it comes to reading novels," she argues, "but that's a different argument. Basically, the story has to really hook people in, or they will just click 'exit' instead of moving on to the next page or section."
"The three episodes of Alice all begin by getting into the action of the story quite quickly, before taking a step back and filling in a bit of back-story. Hopefully, this will keep viewers interested. Essentially, the key challenge is the same with any type of fiction or drama - how to keep your reader/viewer hooked."
One other point about writing for interactive mediums which Pullinger already referenced is the need for collaboration. While the traditional novel is seen as a labour of love by an individual, there is no such approach to interactive fiction - a meeting of storytelling, technology and gameplay which can only be accomplished by a talented team.
"Inanimate Alice is highly collaborative," Pullinger confirms. "With my first large-scale interactive electronic fiction, 'The Breathing Wall', I had realised that what I needed to write was more like a script than a story, a script that my collaborators could also annotate and comment on. Once I'd figured this out, writing for this medium became much easier. Like with film, it's all about structure, and keeping the text itself to a minimum."
Looking to the future - and looking around the industry as it stands now - Pullinger is optimistic for the future of interactive storytelling, despite the common belief that few games at present are offering a great deal in terms of emotive or well-developed storytelling. (Of course, that's not a unanimous viewpoint by any means; another session at EIEF next week will see EDGE editor Margaret Robertson presenting the games which make her cry, which certainly suggests an emotional edge - or a terribly bad experience with the Army Men series, perhaps.)
At present, Pullinger believes that the focus lies too heavily on the technological aspects of games; "it is true that across the board people have been more interested in technology, gizmos, gadgets, and software than ways of using these things to tell compelling stories," she says. "But this is changing now - it has to."
"I do think it will become an art form equal to [literature and film]," she concludes, "but I think we need lots of good writers and artists with good, compelling, stories to tell in ways that exploit the potential of the new technologies. I think as future generations become more and more e-literate, this will happen naturally."
Kate Pullinger is an author and creator of the interactive fiction work Inanimate Alice. She will present the latest chapter of that work next week at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival. Interview by Rob Fahey.