Digital Locative Storytelling

October 24, 2007 at 2:45 pm (Arts, Books, Comics, Computers, Movies, Travel, Writing)

I’ve been thinking rather a lot about geotagging lately, not only because my new job is with a project to map cultural heritage data, such as archaeological sites and antiquities collections, onto Google Earth. In fact, it really starts with my recent trip to Spain (which maybe I’ll blog about one of these days, if I can ever get over my perfectionist streak), namely, the possibility of geotagging my photos to construct a locative narrative. For those of you who don’t know, “geotagging” is the act of adding longitude and latitude data to a photograph (or any digital object, really), which enables it to then be plotted on a map. And “locative” is a great linguistic term referring to units which mark a noun as a place at which something happens, and which I’ve borrowed to also describe any narrative in which geographic location is an important component (not just that the actors in the narrative travel, but that the viewer of the narrative travels, as well). I have two main questions. The first is, “Why?” and the second is “How?”

Well, as for the why, that’s easy enough. I think it’s cool. Rather than just showing people a book of photos, I could pass them a KML file and they could watch an illustrated fly-through of a trip. Or, if I was blogging live as some sort of travel writer (a common fantasy of mine), readers could follow my progress in real-time. And then, I start thinking about entirely new ways of constructing a narrative, that is, having a fictional story where the “reader” navigates through the text, or images, or videos, or whatever, by navigating through the digital world, much the way that you have to in various video games. “Why, Mario, to save the princess, you have to get to Bowser’s castle. If you search hard enough, you’ll find a secret back door, too!” I know from experience that the ability to explore can be very interesting in and of itself, and combined with easter eggs to reward the curious, can be addictive. Which leads me straight into…

The how. That is, how do I create these narratives? A standard narrative, say, a movie or a book, forces you down a certain path. That is, you proceed from word to word, frame to frame, chapter to chapter, reel to reel, and and have no real say in the matter. If you skip to the end, you miss information in the middle that is essential to understanding the narrative (well, if it’s a good narrative, anyway). Now, there are ways around that: Choose Your Own Adventure books, for example, beloved of my youth, give you the option of which “way” to go in the narrative, and in so doing, open up some possibilities while closing others. Could you build a geotagged “CYOA” adventure, where you choose a destination and, in so doing, open up one possible set of conclusions while closing off others? Can you imagine the potential for romance authors? “Does Veronica choose the strapping Biff and his farm in Ohio, or swarthy Julio and his seaside condo?”

What about a non-textual, or partially-textual narrative? Ever since I discovered “Comic Life” on my Mac, I’ve been plotting out various photographic novels I could make. What about creating a narrative from Geotagged photos and video clips, as well as text? But then, how do you direct the user through it? Do you tell them where to go next? Do you turn it into a video that forces them to a particular location, thereby defeating the purpose of exploration? Or can you (and here’s the big question, I think) create a local narrative which is complete and self-sufficient, but also fits into a larger narrative? Almost like a series of short stories that, through their progression, also illustrate a larger narrative?

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve come up with a few models that I’d love to try, or see others experiment with. First, the common theme in literature of searching for someone. So, character A is searching for character B, and travels around, following leads. So, each “chapter” of that story is geolocated, and either the text will hint to you where to go next, or the pictures, whether photographic or drawn, will actually lead you, one by one, down the sidewalk, through the mall, and to the alley where character A is meeting with a contact. But further, perhaps character A will take side trips, or will refer to them in the text in some fashion. These trips are not essential to the main narrative, but if you search for them, you will find them illustrated on the map, too. So, that’s your first easter egg. Secondly, if you start searching for character B, based on what character A knows about him/her, you can actually find HIS narrative, and follow that in real time, as well. Or, perhaps the hero is trying to outwit the bad guy, who has a secret mountain lair in Tibet. Well, if some intrepid “reader” searches through Tibet, he or she will eventually find a locative entry or two there that reveal what the villain is thinking or doing. Easter eggs.

This latter idea opens up a different kind of locative narrative for me. I don’t know how many of my two readers have ever read William Gibson, but he does this thing in most of his novels where he actually has three main characters, and their stories will have nothing (apparently) to do with each other in the beginning, but will gradually come together until, by the end of the book, we’re actually seeing the same scenes through three different eyes. So, what about a story where you have multiple, geolocated narratives? Say, an espionage thriller where one of the characters is an American student in Paris, one is a Russian spy in Poland, and one is an Italian journalist, starting in Italy. Instead of knowing in advance that there are all of these characters, it would start like an ARG: You’d find out about ONE character, and you’d follow their adventures over time and space (since it would be updated in real-time, as well), and you’d only find out about the other characters when you cross paths with them, and then you’d have to trace their path back to its beginning and explore THAT one from the beginning to understand what’s happening with them. In fact, people in different areas can be told about different characters, and two friends can be talking to each other about the great story that they’re reading, not realizing that they’re each reading THE SAME STORY, but just different pieces of the narrative. You could even have each narrative path written by a different author! Wouldn’t that be a trip? As long as everyone agreed on some major plot points at the beginning, you could have a lot of fun with that. If you’ve read “The Historian,” imagine how that would have been different if, instead of having all of the different narratives rolled up into one, you started as the girl in Amsterdam and then gradually “unlocked” the other characters’ stories, and as those characters met other individuals who had received one of the books, you’d unlock their story, as well.

You could even have the stories told in different media: One in images, one in words, one in videos. For example, the journalist’s story would be a series of short video interviews, nightly news reports, from various newsworthy locations, showing the public’s quest to understand the events that are happening. The student could be in text, as she delves into her own part of the mystery. And the Russian spy who, in good Gibsonian fashion, is a nameless mystery entity throughout the narrative, would be told entirely in pictures, even without speech bubbles, to emphasize his nameless, mysterious qualities. All text describing him and his words would have to come from the student’s text story during the times that she is with him, or perhaps from the film where the interviewer wants to interview a man off the street about the recent assassination, and accidentally picks him out of the crowd, putting him on the spot?

Well, it would require quite a bit of organization, I’ll tell you that right now. Perhaps better to start small, say, within a university campus or a town. And preferably after I’ve written my dissertation, otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it. But I’d welcome thoughts about this idea. I’m also going to think more about non-fictional applications, say, geotagged vacations to Spain, which is what got me onto this idea in the first place…

Edit: I can think of a few very interesting characters whose lives can be experienced rather more directly through locative storytelling:

  1. An amnesiac, or my character who switches identities between the twin brothers every time he sleeps: This character does not known were he is going to wake up, so at the end of any particular “chapter,” there is no clear direction about where the reader ought to go next. The reader is as in the dark as the narrator is, in that regard. Of course, I’ll have to create some way of identifying the next location, but it should require some searching on the reader’s part.
  2. A character such as a robot who is turned off at various points in the story. His story would fade out of existence at that point, only to start up again at a completely different location when he is reactivated. In fact, if the reader is expected to follow his actions via where he crosses the main narrative, then there could be whole “easter egg” stories involving him that NEVER cross the main narrative, that are only referred to or that are never referred to at all. The same could apply to a character who dies in an ambulance on the way to the hospital: his pictures fade out as he goes down the street, and then reappear an hour later in the hospital, when he is brought back to life by the doctors. Or someone falls unconscious.
  3. A character agrees in one chapter to meet a person at another location at a particular time. If the reader jumps ahead to that location at that time, he finds either nothing, or a brief entry that shows the person waiting for the character, who never shows up. And that is the END of that narrative path. This should be a cue for the reader to search back along the path that the character had to take to make his appointment, where they will eventually find a car accident, or a kidnapping, or an encounter with an old friend, whatever it was that prevented the character from keeping his appointment.
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4 Comments

  1. Planning the course: Hybrid ecology of narratives « Taming the spaces said,

    […] Some interesting ideas: – not linear narratives with start and end but branched stories with many ends – searching for someone, while also making side trips – narrative as a quest game https://johnitc.wordpress.com/2007/10/24/digital-locative-storytelling/ […]

  2. kaipata said,

    Is your dissertation about geolocated narratives?

  3. Anatole Pierre Fuksas said,

    Interesting!

    You may be interested in checking those:

    http://imke.tlu.ee/mediawiki/index.php?title=Hybrid_ecologies

    http://www.slideshare.net/anatolepierrefuksas/narrative-encoding-of-activity-patterns-in-new-media

    http://ecologyofthenovel.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/embodiment-of-stories-in-hybrid-environments/

  4. Kai Pata said,

    Well, we are working on some big ideas in relation to what Anatole referred to.

    But back to your question:
    The description of your project as described on your blog
    http://tihane.wordpress.com/2008/04/06/planning-the-course-hybrid-ecology-of-narratives/
    and the links that I’ve found, are absolutely fascinating. I have one question: In your proposed course on the Hybrid Ecology of Narratives, how do you plan to develop your initial story? Will you be using a pre-existing story set in Talinn, or will you be writing your own? Or will it be a combination of both?

    We discussed several kind of stories:
    – social, pre-existing story with many perspectives (for example there was a big confrontation in Tallinn between Estonian and Russian communities when one monument was removed). Such stories are already in Youtube, blogs, Flickr, and all we can do is for our narrative we can retell it by locatively tagging part of the story.
    Hopefully people pick up and gfollow some artifacts and start building their own perspective of that story.
    – well known story with locative hints (unfortunately not so many stories work well) and we need to develop a lot of content
    – a film as a trigger to locative story
    – a criminal story
    – avoiding something what might happen kind of story
    – emotional story (like a love story) that is easily personally embodied
    – maybe some legends of Tallinn will also work
    – or near past history (like getting independence 15 years ago)

    We also discussed that the story needs to cover a narrow area.

    We will see what kind of stories we will pick.

    In a way we want that the story starts branching.Another is, we wish the story is like an activity potential, clue to do something in the place (eg. like the avodining story or emotional story).

    We hope to keep in touch with you!

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