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The Idea Next Arrow

Interactive storytelling, on my part, has been a continuous idea, exploration and development. My ideation started in the late 90s. I was very busy as a website designer/developer. I had stopped at a Meijer store in Waterford, Michigan to get a couple bags of groceries, put them and my two daughters in my Ford Ranger. Feeling rushed, I was going to just leave the shopping cart there in the parking lot next to my truck—like people do. That Jiminy Cricket voice deep inside urged me, "Put the shopping cart where it belongs," while a little devil on my left shoulder tells me, "What's the big deal? It's just a shopping cart in a parking lot. Everybody does it." A little angel on my right shoulder encouraging me to just do the right thing. "Put the cart where it belongs." "You are a busy, busy man." "Just put the cart where it belongs." Fine. I will put the cart where it belongs.

I pushed the cart back near to the store entrance. As soon as I let go of it I hear, pop, pop, pop. The pops sounded like a car backfiring, but as I scan the parking lot from direction of the sound I saw no cars driving. None even further out on the road. But then I spot a police officer midway in the parking lot, a few isles to my right, gun draw, heading toward my aisle. I scan down my aisle and see a young man shooting a rifle. My immediate instinct was to get my kids out of there. I didn't know what was happening? A car jack. A gang fight. Whatever, get the kids out of there. And that is what I did.

What I later found out on the nightly news was this guy had lured the police to that spot with a false accident report. When I saw him firing the rifle, he was shooting the head off of a police officer. Then he put the gun to himself.

Had I not listened to the "little angel on my shoulder" I would have been driving right by that incident as it happened, because that would have been the direction I would have left. Would he have shot me or my daughters? Unlikely, as his intent was the police. BUT! But, how would seeing a cop getting his head blown off have effected 8- and 6-year old little girls. Or effected me? That insignificant, little sin would have had major consequences!

This incident and its possible repercussions played on my mind heavily for the next couple weeks. One seemingly insignificant decision can change your life. That is life... the decisions you make, combined of course with random events. When you think about it, that is what really makes life interesting though. How boring would life be to know the outcomes of all your decisions. Storytelling. Hm-m-m, storytelling could maybe be more interesting too with unpredictability. The more I thought about interactive storytelling, the more the idea excited me. But I was a designer, not a writer. I could try to find a writer who might track with this idea... or, I could learn to write. But where to learn? Interactive storytelling wasn't even a thing.

I researched the colleges in the region to see if anything did exist—Wayne State University. College for Creative Studies. Oakland University. Michigan State. Eastern Michigan University. University of Michigan. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor had a screenwiting study in their Film & Video program. Sounds like the ticket, because whatever form this might emerge—website, CD-ROM, or eBook—it would be on a screen. I first took some 70 credits of preliminary classes at the community college for cost-sake and location, then got accepted into U-M for the fun stuff. As I was schooling, DVDs hit the scene and my interactive storytelling focus widened to include—interactive movies!

Screenplay sample

Interactive storytelling can take form in many media: CDs, gaming, websites, ebooks, performance, but the most compelling to me is interactive movies. What interactive movies are, or can be right now, is a movie like any other and more. It's engaging, but no more intrusive than an instinctive click of a button. How many times in a movie have you yelled, "Don't open that door!" or, "Do you really want to listen to him?" Interactive movies allow the viewer such interaction. However, like in life, seemingly insignificant decisions can have unforeseen consequences.

Such interactive storytelling thinking carries over to other modes of communication as well. Combined with psychology and human interaction knowledge, websites can be finely designed to lead viewers where they need to go—whether they know where that is or not—and in unique, original ways. Likewise for instructional uses, whether full-mode training, or just getting through a task.

Some of my interactive storytelling developments have included, first, an interactive, Web-based, fairy tale; then screenplays and flows for interactive movies; and interactive storytelling, artistically built in to a virtual art exhibit.

The Design and Development Next Arrow

Hansel & Gretel Interactive

Hansel & Gretel Interactive was my first foray into interactive storytelling and injecting "what if" into the storyline and branching it.

Codename: Frac

Frac is a story of right and wrong decisions, showing how seemingly insignificant decisions can affect your life.

Frac was a natural progresson in interactive storytelling from Hansel and Gretel Interactive, using a simple branching structure.


Undertermined is an interactive study of how the choices of a single, young individual could effect the destiny of a family, a community, a society, a civilization. Classic determinism vs. free will debate underscores the story. Different diversions in the storyline show differing points of view.

Undetermined is a natural development and adaption of the earlier interactive story Frac. This a first draft version. A unique detail of this storywriting is an androgynous reference to all the characters—no he/she reference whatsoever—key twist in the storyline. The attached screenplay is but the single, default storyline path. However it illustrates how to craft an interactive screenplay.

Seven Swans

Seven Swans: The Existentialist's Canvas is the story of a young, aspiring artist discovering what it truly is to be an "artist." The story has seven main diversions, each providing a different back story. Multiple views of this interactive movie adds different threads to a richer and deeper tapestry of a story.

Seven Swans was both a project in my first screenwriting class, and an important development in interactive movie screenwriting. Below are links showing views of the step outline for this interactive story, as well as the diversions and mutiple paths. One of the most important developments from this project is showing how literally the same exact scenes in literally the same exact timeline can have fully different meanings by the information that proceeds it. Seven Swans is likely the first interactive movie screenplay ever copyrighted. This a first draft version.

Detroit Rock N Fashion

Detroit Rock N' Fashion: A Virtual Art Exhibit is a dynamic, multimedia presentation of over 150 works of art by eight artists who are also involved in Detroit rock and/or Detroit fashion. Fourteen songs from eight Detroit bands these artists are directly involved with drive this 25-minute presentation. Over 300 photos from 40 photographers punctuate these interactive stories. Detroit Rock N' Fashion is designed to be viewed passively projected on a gallery wall or big screen HDTV; or interactively on a computer or co-host gallery website as a special exhibit; and or configured with actual physical art.

Detroit Rock N' Fashion: A Virtual Art Exhibit was first launched at UDetroit Cafe, a media cafe in downtown Detroit on one of their live Web TV shows in August of 2011. A physical Detroit Rock N' Fashion art exhibit was in place at the Cafe for over a year. A couple live Web TV showsóChizzy CAM and Detroit Rock N' Fashion: A Live Web TV Show have since been spawned at UDetroit Cafe from this initial endeavor, as well as various forms in art shows in Metro Detroit.

I conceived, designed, and built Detroit Rock N' Fashion to get some buzz for The Gallery of the Arts. This entailed developing relationships with artists, musicians, bands, photographers and a large portion of Detroit's music community to make DRNF happen.


Originally, plans were to further develop interactive movies, follow up on Hollywood leads made at the University of Michigan, and spend some time in Los Angeles. However, two kids in college while simultaneously my wife becoming pregnant again kind of changed those original plans. Nonetheless, the screenwriting knowledge learned and the skills gained have given my interactive and user designer skills a very unique edge. From a storytelling point of view, one could revisit the same story, take different paths which might be the same story, just from a different POV—which in itself would color the story differently. For example, say, you are visiting a client in another town. It's lunch time. You ask Sally how the food is at Aunt Em's Homecooking Kitchen? "Great! Fantastic! Best food in town." You go into Aunt Em's with the glowing review and with a positive user experience right out of the box. Even if the food was average, you are likely to find it favorable. It would have to be bad to tarnish the initial expectation. On the flip side if you first asked Charlie about Aunt Em's, and Charlie says, "Sh-h-sh. Garbage. Bland food. The waitresses are rude..." Chances are you are walking in to Aunt Em's already expecting the worse, if you even go in. Same principle in interactive storytelling. You could have virtually the same scenes, same storyline as other flows, but what preceeds, the POV of the person you are following and experiencing an event through definitely paints different hues. Likewise in most any interactive experience whether a movie, a website or an application.

Also if revisiting a story from different paths or different perspectives, one sees a greater picture of the whole. Just like if you meet someone, you get a slice of that person's character, a slice of their life. Meet them again, another slice. You know them a little better. Meet a friend of theirs and get some backstory. Become friends and you begin to see the full, rich tapestry of this person and their life. Likewise with interactive storytelling. And, likewise with commercial interactive products. Such products can be designed with predictive analysis to reveal parts of complex applications as needed—not all the features and complexity thrown at a new user all at once.

Though I never made it to Hollywood to pitch interactive movie scripts, this development has been beneficial in numerous ways. The psychology behind moviemaking carries over to interactive user experiences of all kinds, as well as with predictive analysis. Personas are based on such psychology. Personas are fantastic and essential to planning flows and functionality, but understanding the psychology of your personas help to design systems that lead them to where they need to go whether they know what/where that is or not. Different personas can be given different context and assets to suit their particular tastes and needs. Likewise for training systems.

To conclude, interactive storytelling principles have many potential forms, uses, and benefits even in data-driven systems. Interactive storytelling in and of itself will evolve into sophisticated movie experiences, intriguing ebook stories, in gaming, immersive virtual reality experiences, and emmersive augmented reality environments.