London showcase illustrates tech literature’s virtues and shortcomings
Image credit: British Library
A hands-on exhibition at the British Library explores how digital technologies can transform storytelling, allowing the reader to play a part in determining the direction of narratives. It is an experiment – but an experiment that lays bare the weaknesses of these formats.
Storytelling has always been shaped – although theorists would disagree as to what extent – by the medium it inhabits. The internet gave rise to great experimentation with the creative possibilities that it permitted for storytelling.
Some of these experiments were great successes, growing into popular genres of their own, such as the evolution of multi-user dungeons to today’s MMORGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). Some were thought-provoking, transgressive, but never caught on outside a certain community, like Dennis Cooper’s ‘GIF’ novels. Some retained centralised authorship, while others were collective and anarchic in their creation, such as the universe of the ‘SCP Foundation’, created by a community writing wiki entries for the fictional secret organisation.
Significantly, many of these narratives aim to place the reader within them: “Some of the earliest examples of electronic literature used hypertext as a means to engage the reader within the story,” explains Ian Cooke, head of contemporary British publications and co-curator of the ‘Digital Storytelling’ exhibition, which opened at the British Library in London this week. “These stories would present choices within the text that the reader could follow and that would change how the narrative unfolds.”
An example within the exhibition is ‘c ya laterrrr’ (2017), which takes the reader through loss and grief in the wake of the Manchester Arena Bombing. It was created using Twine, an open-source tool that allows for the ‘shape’ of a narrative to be formed around nodes of text navigated by the reader, meaning they are not constrained to a linear reading. Twine was used in the creation of some of the most famous works of interactive fiction, including ‘Depression Quest’ (2013) and ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ (2018).
According to Cooke, the idea for this exhibition emerged from the curators’ experience of collecting publications that use technology in innovative ways. They realised that “[their] collecting practice needs to keep evolving so that [they] are able to collect and preserve different types of digital publications which are inherently more ephemeral than print”. Once they had decided to go ahead with it, they set out to choose examples of digital storytelling which represented a diversity of media, genres and creators.
There are 11 pieces in the exhibition. For each, the ‘reading’ experience is in some way shaped by the reader themselves. In many, readers simply tap on choices which lead them down different routes in a story. Others are more experimental in how they incorporate devices in storytelling. ‘This is a Picture of Wind’ (2020) uses live weather data; ‘Breathe’ (2018) is a ghost story in which the ghosts learn about the reader through data harvested on their phone; and ‘Zombies, Run!’ (2012) is a running game/audio drama for which physical activity is a critical part of the experience.
As the British Library celebrates its 50th anniversary, the exhibition is an opportunity to reflect on how these technologies have shaped communication since its founding, and how the library will adapt to these unconventional forms.
“We are addressing the challenge of how to collect and preserve innovative digital publications such as these,” Cooke says. “Thinking through the practical requirements of putting an exhibition together helps us in understanding what we’ll need for long-term preservation of these stories.”
‘Digital Storytelling’ is at the British Library until 15 October 2023. Details of opening times and admission charges are at www.bl.uk.
Digital Storytelling at the British Library
This exhibition is an experiment which – perhaps inadvertently – demonstrates the limitations of digital storytelling.
Some exhibits present the reader with a choice of paths through the narrative. Others have more conceptually interesting author-reader relationships which the confines of the exhibition can make hard to appreciate: ‘Zombies, Run’! is not the same unless the reader is running; ‘Wolves in the Walls’ (2020) is a VR game presented here without a VR headset; and ‘Clockwork Watch’ (2012-2017) is a rich, participatory, transmedia storytelling project, the scope of which cannot be captured within the exhibition space.
The most successful as exhibits are those with the most restrained use of technology. ‘This is a Picture of Wind’ is a collection of prose poems inspired by the weather, incorporating both fixed and shifting text. Seed (2017) encourages the reader to lose themselves within a tangled thicket of text, following a girl piecing together her understanding of sexuality and other adult concepts through fragmented experiences during a hazy, timeless summer in the countryside: a perfect use of the medium. It is not coincidental that these have some of the strongest writing on display.
Some are marred by uninspired and unpolished writing which at times verges on embarrassing. Perhaps the novelty of creating an interactive story meant writing was reduced to a secondary concern? Or perhaps this is not indicative of any lack of skill or effort on the author’s part; this kind of storytelling, in demanding great breadth, tends to limit the depth with which the author can explore character, language and theme. There is nothing notably wrong with ‘Windrush Tales’ (2023), for instance, which does what it can within the medium, but, while tapping through, one cannot help but think wistfully of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, ‘Small Island’.
These authors have willingly sacrificed some of their agency to empower the reader. But, in most exhibits, reader input is incorporated in a limited manner which does not give them an especially active role in either interpreting or shaping the texts. We recognise, from decades of reader-response theory, that readers have always been an active agent in interpreting texts, but here, the texts are spread so thin that there is relatively little to interpret; and if the reader is primarily interested in shaping the narrative, they could pick up any video game or RPG.
It was more than a decade ago that Wired published a feature about why hypertext fiction never caught on. There have been repeated efforts since then to disrupt the literary world and topple traditional authorship from its pinnacle – at the moment, with the incorporation of interactive AI-generated characters – none of which have succeeded. It is worthwhile to experiment with digital technologies in storytelling (and many exhibits in ‘Digital Storytelling’ are genuinely creative and successful) but one leaves the exhibition feeling confident that we are not on the brink of any revolution. For now, at least, digital storytelling remains a curiosity.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.