Interactive Storytelling

 Oct 13, 2014   Digital Essays, iDMAa Conference Journal 2014, Peer-reviewed   No Comments

From Documentary Filmmaker to Interactive Storyteller: What Filmmakers Can Learn From Other Narrative Forms

Kari Barber, Assistant Professor, University of Nevada, Reno 


The number of interactive documentaries has exploded in the past decade. This trend has been enabled by technology and the audience’s expectation to play a more active role in the author-to-audience relationship. Although still in its infancy, interactive documentaries are poised to become a significant storytelling format in the years to come based on the numbers of major funders, distributors, filmmakers and researchers who are getting involved. Documentary filmmakers have positioned themselves as forerunners in this new arena.  However, while even the names emerging for this form (interactive documentaries, i-docs, web-docs, transmedia docs, cross-platform docs) inextricably link the form with documentary, filmmakers may find that, in terms of narrative structure, interactive documentaries bear little resemblance to the linear narratives to which they are accustomed. If documentary filmmakers cannot fall back on the storytelling strategies they know, what other models might be useful in thinking about this new form?

Tell Us Your Story page

In this paper I will suggest that answers may lie outside the realm of film. Three modes that I will suggest can be applied to thinking about narrative in interactive documentary are: video games, theme parks, and Japanese anime. While all of these will not prove useful in every interactive documentary, I hope that these suggestions may prove to be inspirational jumping off points for thinking differently about narrative.

Defining Interactive Documentary

While even the definition of traditional documentary is still hotly debated among filmmakers, the definition of interactive web documentary is even less clear.

Arnau Gifreu, Professor of Communication Studies at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the Universitat de Vic in Spain, and also a Research Affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Documentary Lab, has written extensively on attempts to define interactive documentary.  For Gifreu, interactive documentary is a fusion of audiovisual and interaction enabled by digital media with the dual purpose of informing and entertaining.[1]

Its strength, Gifreu writes, lies in its ability to provide “added values to the global experience of the audience, so that it is more varied, complete and immersive.

What this looks like in practice can vary greatly.

_Docubase, a web site launched in 2013 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Documentary Lab, aggregates and provides analysis of this emerging form. On their  “About” page, they too reveal that we are far from a standard definition:

‘Unruly’ best describes the amazing documentaries that we’ve gathered together in _docubase. True, all share an interest in innovation, in tapping the potentials of digital technologies to tell their stories. But the similarity stops there. Interactive, collaborative, location-based, community-created, parts of larger trans-media experiences … the projects gathered here defy easy categorization.[2]

The two definitions have some commonalities. Both assert interactive documentaries are a digital form. Both neglect to clearly define the term “interactive” (though the _docubase definition adds the possibly synonymous terms “collaborative” and “community created”).  Their differences are more interesting, however. Gifreu claims the works are audiovisual, while _docubase makes no such assertion (though granting the works can be parts of large transmedia works). _Docubase mentions “stories,” while Gifreu writes that interactive documentaries entertain and inform. On this last point it may seem that they are again in agreement, but, as we will see, there are many ways to entertain and inform that do not involve telling a story.

Relying on Gifreu’s research and the variances proposed by _docubase, for the purpose of this paper I will use the term interactive documentary to refer to attempts to tell a truthful narrative on the web using audiovisual elements in which the audience is allowed some form of control over how the narrative unfolds and/or how they interact with it.

This definition, of course, raises the question of what exactly a narrative is.

Thinking Beyond Linear Story Structure

The traditional story structure used by documentary filmmakers, and filmmakers in general, works like this: A character, or collection of characters, is faced with a problem or the need to obtain something. In order to overcome this problem or gain what they need, they must face certain challenges – which increase in complexity or difficulty. The thing they have to want must be important, and the challenges must be formidable enough to keep the audience engaged. Finally the character(s) must take agency. The story reaches a climax with the most difficult challenge of all. Either they succeed or they do not. In the end the story is resolved in some way. This is typically organized in a three-act structure. While there are variations to this, the narrative always has the same goal; get the audience from point A to point B (start to finish). It is the author (filmmaker) who controls how this is achieved. Even in non-traditional narrative, what audiences experience is a predetermined linear path that is created by the author.

For interactive documentaries, however, a simple linear approach may face problems – users may enter at any point and in a variety of ways. Linear stories also do little to take advantage of the interactive capacities of the web. Web users are accustomed to and are often expecting to play a more active role with media. They are sitting, forefinger on the track pad or thumbs on the screen, ready to interact. If not given this opportunity they may swipe to another experience that will do a better job of involving them. The interactive documentary maker cannot plan to meet the audience at point A and take them to point B, rather they must meet them wherever they are and offer them an experience that is informative and entertaining.  For these reasons, when considering a documentary project that is primarily for the web, it may be wise to consider replacing, or de-emphasizing, linear narrative in favor of versions of narrative that place experience and interaction above defined linear structure.

Rethinking Narrative

Video Games

If linear storytelling is not well-adapted to interactive documentary, then video games may prove a useful model for thinking about narratives in which linear story is secondary to experience. In some cases a defined linear story may not be present at all.

Communications researcher Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California writes, “Games may be an abstract, expressive, and experiential form, closer to music or modern dance than to cinema. Some ballets (The Nutcracker for example) tell stories, but storytelling isn’t an intrinsic or defining feature of dance.”[3]

To transpose Jenkin’s insight regarding video games to interactive documentaries may be liberating for documentarians, potentially freeing them from the limitations of beginning-middle-and-end storytelling. But, it also forces us to answer the question—what is intrinsic to this new form? If not story telling, then what? It may be that we should replace story with the related, but more expansive, concept narrative.

Games researcher Kemp Lyons of Cornerstone University has adapted definitions from film scholars Kristen Bordwell and David Thompson as well as Jerome Bruner to help differentiate narrative from story as they pertain to interactive media.  Lyons defines narrative as  “A series of meaningful experiences,” while story he sees as “The narrative structure of plot, character, pacing, theme, etc. created by an author or designer.”[4] In games, Lyons explains, it is more important to a player not that I “save the world” but rather “how Isaved the world”. The emphasis is on the individual’s actions and choices that were made. Whether you saved the world or not is secondary to the experience that you had. Narrative, then, as defined by Lyons as “a series of meaningful experiences” is present, while story may or may not be. In Lyon’s definition narrative is not dependent on story being present.

Researcher and game designer Eric Zimmerman offers The Sims as an example of a popular video game that operated largely in the realm of experiential narrative instead of a linear story. “Instead of presenting a pre-scripted narrative like most digital ‘interactive narratives,’” Zimmerman writes, “The Sims functions as a kind of story machine, generating unexpected narrative events out of complex and playful simulation.”[5]

If interactive documentaries are not to rely on stories for their narratives, where then might the narratives come from? Two possibilities are spatial-based and character-based narratives.

In the game world, Jenkins writes, narratives are often spatial, meaning they are about how the character experiences and interacts with the game environment. For example, games may depend on designing worlds and sculpting spaces rather than telling stories. Level design is often more important than character or plot.[6]

If we apply these ideas from video games to interactive documentaries then perhaps story as we know it – taking a character from point A to point B – may not be the best narrative structure. Maybe, we need not be thinking about story at all, but rather how authors can engage audiences experientially through interactions with an online space in a way that is as Zimmerman puts it, “complex and playful.”

Theme Parks

Another model that relies on spatial narratives is theme parks. Jenkins refers to the style of narrative used by theme parksas “environmental storytelling.”[7] Through careful aesthetic design of the surroundings and by relying on background knowledge embedded in the audience’s subconscious (for example, Disney parks rely heavily on the audience’s familiarity with its films and characters) park designers build an experience that both is immersive and personal.

While background knowledge of the stories and characters in the theme park’s narrative often come from linear stories, park designers find ways to build upon, rather than retell, these stories. Don Carson, a former designer for the theme park wing of the Walt Disney Company, explains how this works:, “Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe.”[8]

Each audience member’s experience is unique and blanks are purposely left in the “story” to give each person the space and opportunity to create a narrative pieced together from their own memory.

Carson also explains that theme parks achieve this through careful and thoughtful design of the environment.[9] Carson gives the example of a story about pirates:, “Every texture you use, every sound you lay, every turn in the road should reinforce the concept of ‘pirates’!”

Through design and allusions to past narratives, theme parks aim to create a world manufactured out of the audience’s subconscious. The audience’s experience of that world is the narrative. Events at the park do not need to be experienced chronologically and they need not even be logical. Immersive experience built on subconscious understanding and knowledge trumps logic.

Interactive documentaries can learn from theme park design in several ways. First, interactive documentaries should avoid retelling stories, but rather seek ways to build off of the stories already in the audience’s subconscious. This doesn’t have to be done in a logical storytelling way. When it comes to engagement, appealing to an audience’s emotions trumps the need for geographical, chronological or any other sense of logical story order. Second, design itself, as a narrative element,  should be planned carefully and accordingly, always with an eye towards tapping into the audience’s subconscious and building an immersive experience.

Another way theme parks immerse audiences in the world or narrative of the park is through experiential storytelling.

Ian Kay, author of the blog Pure Imagineering, writes that theme parks appeal to us because they use the second-person point of view, meaning you are the protagonist. Kay writes, “Usually, stories happen to someone else. First- and third-person protagonists serve as our window into the world–but while we sympathize with them, it’s rare that we’re personally invested.”[10] By employing the second-person point of view, audiences are highly invested in their experiences at a theme parks, Kays  writes.

Interactive documentaries can also take advantage of second-person, experiential storytelling to build engagement and make their interactions personal. This can be accomplished by the point of view used in the text, graphical, and/or audio/video elements.

Japanese Anime

While video games and theme parks both rely on forms of spatial narrative, Japanese anime takes a different approach.

Like anime, many interactive documentaries are transmedia projects, meaning that the narrative may be experienced in various forms and thus needs to be able to travel across media. In the case of anime, the narrative travels with the characters; Researcher Ian Condry writes, “…it is seldom narrative coherence – the story – that provides the link across media. Rather, it is the characters.”[11]

Condry did field research in anime studios in 2006. His goal was to figure out what gives anime value. Why is it so popular? He expected to find that the answer lies in the story lines, but instead he found that the story was just one of many tools used to design new anime projects, and often not the most important. Condry writes: “More central than the story itself in organizing the collaborative production of anime was a different set of concerns, specifically, the design of characters, the establishment of dramatic premises that link the characters, and the properties that define the world in which the characters interact.”[12] Condry even found that establishing the characters, premises, and world-settings often came before creating a story.[13]

Anime shows how narratives embedded in character can be more mobile and can move more seamlessly between media. Condry writes, “Part of the value of widely popular anime series arises precisely from the flexibility in adapting characters and premises across a wide range of media platforms.”[14] For interactive documentary makers this may mean thinking of character, circumstances, and world first, and then letting the stories flow from there.


Video games, theme parks, and Japanese anime are just a few examples of narrative modes that may offer insight into how interactive documentaries can use non-linear narratives to encourage interactivity with their audience. As documentarians navigate this new terrain, they may find spatial narrative and character development to potentially be more effective in engaging their online audience than linear stories. Likewise, the ability to put the individual user into the role of the central character in the narrative can help change the position of the audience from passive consumer to protagonist, thus deepening the audience’s level of engagement. While the change from traditional documentary to interactive documentary is a significant adjustment for documentary filmmakers in terms of thinking about narrative, if filmmakers are able to tap into the narrative strengths of the web, interactive documentary may prove a powerful tool in what is the goal of many documentarians – motivating an audience to action.


[1] Arnau Gifreu, “The Interactive Documentary. Definition Proposal and Characterization of the New Emerging Genre”, McLuhan Galaxy Conference: Understanding Media, Today, Conference Proceedings (2011): 379.

[2] “About_docubase,” MIT Open Documentary Lab.

[3] Henry Jenkins, “Game Design As Narrative Architecture,”

[4] Kemp Lyons, “The Princess is in Another Castle: What New Media Can Take Away From Video Games,” (presentation University Film & Video Association Annual Conference, Orange, CA, July 31-August 3, 2013).

[5] Eric Zimmerman, “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline,” in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004), 163.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Don Carson, “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry,” Gamautra,  March 1, 2000.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ian Kay, “Experiential and Presentational Stories,” Pure Imagineering (published September 17, 2013.

[11] Ibid., 143.

[12] Ian Condry, “Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan,” Theory, Culture and Society, 26, no. 2-3 (2009): 141.

[13] Ibid, 141.

[14] Ibid, 160.


“About_docubase.” MIT Open Documentary Lab. Accessed December 26, 2013.

Carson, Don. “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned From the Theme Park Industry.” Published March 1, 2000. Accessed January 28, 2014.

Condry, Ian. “Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan.” Theory, Culture and Society. 2009. 26: 139-163.

Dionysus, Atalanti. “Documentary Producing and Interactive Platforms: Opportunities, Evolving Processes an the Changing Craft.” Master’s thesis, Australian Film, Television and Radio  School, 2012.

Gifreu, Arnau. “The Interactive Documentary. Definition Proposal and Basic Features of the New Emerging Genre.” McLuhan Galaxy Conference: Understanding Media, Today. Conference Proceedings (2011). Accessed December 26, 2013.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture.” Accessed January 2, 2013.

Kay, Ian. “Experiential and Presentational Stories.” Pure Imagineering. Published September 17, 2013. Accessed January 2, 2014. stories.html

Lyons, Kemp. “The Princess is in Another Castle: What New Media Can Learn From Video Games.” University Film & Video Association Annual Conference, Orange, CA, July 31-August 3, 2013.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game. Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, 154-164. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004.