Recently I went to i-Docs, a symposium on interactive documentary run by UWE’s digital cultures research centre.

What is interactive documentary?

Interactive documentary covers a variety of approaches which seek alternatives to conventional journalism, often using new technologies. The underlying philosophy is that the form of a documentary is not neutral - your choice of format limits the types of stories you can tell. In this case, experimenting with different forms will allow you to convey ideas that wouldn’t have been possible before.

What does it mean for us?

Science communicators are often accused of dumbing down their content, or else of being needlessly obscure. Science communication is hard to get right. You are trying to explain complex ideas in a way anyone can understand, but without over-simplifying.

Could part of the problem be that traditional formats are not well suited to this kind of information? If so, it would make sense to explore the alternatives.

Main themes from i-Docs

These are a few of the ideas that I found particularly interesting.


“Critical choices in a strange environment”

In Thursday’s keynote, New York studio iNKStories presented their upcoming work 1979 Revolution. It’s an example of what they’ve called a verite game, using video game mechanics to communicate a documentary story - in this case, the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The keynote discussed the importance of agency; allowing the player to make meaningful choices means they will begin to understand the game’s world, simply by seeing the consequences of their actions. This doesn’t work if the consequences are minor or cosmetic, only if they truly affect your options throughout the rest of the game. Because of this, the game has a strongly branching narrative.

The studio also added a review screen to the end of every chapter, reminding the player of the decisions they had taken and giving some statistics on how popular their choices had been with other players.

Read more about branching narratives

Non-linear storytelling

“Most problems that can be solved with linear causal thinking, have been solved by now” - @phivk

In its extreme form, a linear narrative is a straightforward chain of cause and effect. For example

  1. Jack climbs a beanstalk =>
  2. he steals from the giant =>
  3. the giant chases Jack down the beanstalk =>
  4. Jack chops down the beanstalk =>
  5. happily ever after

This kind of narrative is familiar and easy to understand. Of course, in the real world it’s rarely so easy to tease out the chain of cause and effect. Most events come about due to a complex interacting network of partial causes. Imagine a journalist writing about a riot - depending on who you speak to, you will get a different idea of the timing and scale, and whether such a thing even occurred.

Instead of trying to fit events into a pattern of linear cause and effect, non-linear storytelling aims to recognise and embrace these complexities.

Read more about linear storytelling

Web topology

“Creative interaction forms new associations”

“Relationality - non-linearity - interconnection”

One example of a non-linear narrative was discussed by Jessica Scarpati in her talk Islands of Impressions. She outlined a textual analysis of the interactive documentary 17000 Islands, which concerns the Indonesian museum park Taman Mini.

Taman Mini was built by the Suharto regime in the 1970s to represent the idea of a diverse country living in harmony under a national ideology—regardless of the opposite reality. In 1998, the corrupt regime was overturned, but the park remains open and popular. While the majority of people see it simply as an amusement park, to some it represents a painful manifestation of past militarist and conformist propaganda.

Instead of the film clips being shown in a traditional documentary format, they are displayed in an interactive web page. Originally the clips were arranged on a map of Indonesia, but if you visit the site now you’ll see that most of them are greyed out. This is because of an extra interactive element:

You, the audience, are invited to build new islands by stealing clips for your own film… As you steal our clips, the original film will be destroyed and the archipelago will gradually disintegrate, making way for a new living map.

The design emphasises the different possible relations between the clips, and invites the user to explore these by creating their own narratives.

Read more about creating nonlinear narratives with web topology


“Witness or protagonist?”

Traditionally, virtual reality experiences have not given the user much freedom to explore. You can look in any direction, but you are still rooted to the spot. To some extent this is being addressed using motion tracking in systems like the Vive, but physical restrictions will make it hard to use this to explore anything but very small environments.

One of the demos, called Assent, used an interesting approach I hadn’t come across before. Focusing on certain (marked) points for a couple of seconds makes you do a kind of zoom/fly maneuver towards that point. It sounds odd, but feels strangely intuitive.

The trailer for Assent didn’t really focus on this, but here is a video of another VR called Land’s End which seems to use the same technique.

Ownership of a space

“Characters and stories - you just don’t care!”

“You only care about the space, it’s your space.”

Francesca Panetta described her experience researching VR techniques for the project 6x9. She had shown a VR documentary to a number of people at an arts festival, and surveyed them afterwards to see what they remembered. The answer was, far less than expected. They hadn’t taken in much of the content, and quoted things that hadn’t been in the documentary. Generally, it didn’t seem like they paid much attention to the narrative. All that seemed to interest them was the space itself and their own presence in it.

Since the medium is still very new, this could just be a temporary thing; maybe people are just distracted by the novelty. On the other hand, it could be something inherent to virtual reality. If it’s true that characters and narratives don’t come through in a VR experience, developers will need to find new ways of speaking to the users.


“the flexibility to explore and make inferences about impossible worlds”

This wasn’t actually mentioned at i-Docs, I just wanted an excuse to link to this interesting article, Toward an exploratory medium for mathematics.