Recently I was on a plane back from La Conf in Paris. It was a long, miserable flight, and for the most part I didn’t talk to the woman next to me until we were in our final descent into Montreal. I wish I’d talked with her sooner, though, as it turns out she’s in the movie-making business. I always love to hear what other storytellers are up to, and so I engaged her in conversation. When I told her about about the interactive stories I make, she responded without prompting that, “Interactive will never kill movies.
“Whenever people talk about ‘interactive media,’ they act like it’s going to kill cinema.” I had never thought about this, having not made such claims myself. I do think interactive stories are more successful than media that is consumed passively—and by “passively” I mean something you can enjoy without having to take a physical action, something that you can let happen to or around you and enjoy through thought. To me, that the games industry is larger than Hollywood and music put together is a testament to the human need to have a hand in our own experiences.
But I also think she has a point. Black and white didn’t disappear with technicolor. It just became a niche type of film. Flash didn’t disappear with HTML5 and iOS. Legacy systems and animations like My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic ensure that Adobe will keep making Flash for years, although perhaps for decreasing returns. When a “superior” life form evolves, it often doesn’t wipe out every iteration of what came before. Through competition, those other forms of life are limited to the islands and other sheltered niches where they can continue getting along.
I was looking at the impulse buys in our local market and noticed all these tiny, hand-cranked music boxes. I’d seen them at every tourist trap in Paris. Gently cranking one to the tune of “La Vie en Rose,” I wondered, “Why do people do this? It’s a song. Why not just sell a device that plays an MP3 when you squeeze it?” The only difference I could see was that the music box lets you play the music at your own speed, with your own hand. There’s something deeply gratifying about watching the cylinder turn and plink out the melody. It got me thinking about graphic novels.
We read graphic novels at our own pace. You can start on the couch, take it with you into the bathroom, and finish it in the tub. This is something digital technology has a problem with. Recently at WWDC, Apple championed improvements made to continuing an experience across devices—writing an email on your iPhone, then finishing it on your computer, for instance. This something digital interaction struggles with compared to the analog world. But it is catching up.
What’s great about playing a video game over watching an action movie is that instead of the director and writer unfolding the story in front of you and showing you only what they choose, a video game challenges you to unfold the story yourself and think on your feet (or on your couch, as it were). The human brain is designed to do this. It loves it. Even the “laziest” big box clerk comes to life when a copy of Dead Space or Guitar Hero is on their console. The whole gamification movement is planted in the idea that if life/work/your million dollar app idea were more like a game, people would engage with it deeper.
My fellow passenger argued that films do leave plenty of work for the human mind to do—things to digest in every scene, complicated plots meant to stimulate those frontal lobes. But isn’t that like saying because a song has lyrics, people should be as content to think about those at a concert as they would actually singing them at karaoke?
As I turned the little crank around in circles in my hand, I could only think about the interactive stories I’m working on. Are they truly better than if I just made a video of story and put it on Youtube? Would a handcranked video accomplish the same level of delight? Would the talks I give at conferences, the ones I work tirelessly to deliver perfectly every time, be better if I just filmed them once and played that for attendees? Or is there something about the here and now-ness of going through these steps ourselves, each time, every time, being able to slow the song to a stop, to take the graphic novel into the bath, that makes it more rewarding, more enjoyable, than sitting still and letting someone else do all the work?