Looking at the architecture of my life on planet Earth thus far, it’s safe to say that stories have provided both foundation and framework for my existence. I’ve always spent a ridiculous amount of time consuming and creating stories. I studied English so I could justify my story obsession with a shiny degree, and I’ve used that degree to get jobs where stories are central to my everyday work.
It will surprise no one, then, that I’ve a been intrigued by interactive story apps since their inception. Ordinary eBooks are all well and good, but interactive stories hold so much more creative potential.
Over the past few years, there’ve been a number of fantastic storytellers developing narratives for interactive story apps. The results are highly entertaining, exceptionally engaging, and in some cases, downright magical.
The interesting thing I’ve found is that these apps, while using novel delivery mechanisms, can teach us a lot about good narrative technique in any storytelling medium, even more traditional ones. Let’s take a look at 5 great examples of this type of app and learn how to apply their core techniques to our own creative work.
Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be: Gamified Narrative
As an English major, I find Shakespeare difficult to improve upon. That said, Tin Man Games’ app, Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be, has done it brilliantly.
The app allows you to “play” through the story as one of three characters: Ophelia, Hamlet, or Hamlet’s father (yep, he’s a ghost). At various points in the story, you’re asked to make choices that alter the pathway of the narrative, which leads to hundreds of different story outcomes.
The writing, while lacking the poetic lyricism of the original Bard’s script, is delightfully snarky and engaging for modern readers. It’s also informative—readers are taught about Hamlet’s longstanding literary origins prior to Shakespeare’s retelling. Additionally, it reimagines key characters, namely Ophelia, giving them more depth and narrative autonomy.
In addition to great character development and storytelling, the app also features artwork from Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant), Anthony Clark (Nedroid), Mike Krahulik (Penny Arcade), Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), Ethan Nicolle (Axe Cop), Andrew Hussie (MS Paint Adventures), Zach Weiner (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) and other modern artists. Their visuals bridge the gap between the play’s Elizabethan roots and today’s modern web comic aesthetic.
Winning Storytelling Technique: Familiar Story with an Unfamiliar Lens
Everyone knows Shakespeare’s version of Hamlet. There’ve been countless adaptations of the original play for film, TV, and literature. To successfully translate the story for a mobile experience, it needed something special beyond just a new format.
The most creative part about the app is that it lets you experience the story through multiple lenses. Readers can stick with tradition and view the story through Hamlet’s eyes, or choose a totally new perspective. This not only provides more gameplay value to the app, but also creates space for expansive creativity within the story.
As writers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of telling narratives from the same (or similar) perspectives all the time. It’s important to give yourself room to play with unfamiliar lenses, and to let your audience do the same in interactive storytelling contexts.
HOOKED: Storytelling through Texting
I never really thought of texting as a legitimate storytelling medium until I stumbled upon Telepathic’s app HOOKED, which shares user-generated stories told entirely through text exchanges. The user chooses a story and then taps to reveal messages one by one.
This type of storytelling shares a lot in common with screenplays. Dialog drives the action and scene-setting. It allows conversation to take center-stage, omitting all of the (often-times laborious) explanatory text authors use to build worlds, contextualize emotions, and layer on detail. For straightforward narratives set in the universe as we know it, texting can be a highly effective format.
Winning Storytelling Technique: Suspense and the Slow Reveal
Slow reveals can be a great way to build audience suspense in thriller and horror narratives. A delayed pan-in on film, or a series of sentences with ellipses in a book, can leave the audience biting their fingernails and sitting on the edge of their seats.
In HOOKED, the text-by-text format of the narrative does the same thing quite elegantly. Since the suspense is part of the story’s delivery mechanism, it feels natural instead of forced. It also eliminates the need for additional delay techniques that can, when overused, start to annoy the reader or viewer.
When crafting suspenseful narratives of your own, think about ways you can use your delivery medium to delay information and sustain tension. Page scrolling, click-to-reveal elements, and page navigation can all drive suspense without requiring clunky writing or design gimmicks.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: Augmented Reality Reading
Not all interactive stories have to be purely digital. Moonbot Studio’s app for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore brings a print storybook to life with augmented reality. Think Harry Potter’s moving portraits, but in real life!
As you hold your phone or tablet above the pages, the artwork comes to life with animated elements that jump off the page. You can also interact with specific on-page elements by tapping or dragging them.
This type of interactive storytelling approach is unique in that the base narrative is completely static. Interactive elements are layered on top of the existing story, bringing it to life in a new and magical way. The static version is still enjoyable without the app, but the AR elements add unique value to the reading experience.
Winning Storytelling Technique: Layered Content
One of the most compelling parts of technology-driven storytelling is the ability to create layered narratives. Children’s book authors have approximated this approach in the past with pop-up books, but two-dimensional content is still relatively restrictive. With digital devices, you can build narratives that have multiple layers of information, context, and development.
Whether you’re telling stories in plain-old web pages or using augmented reality to bring the world around you to life, it’s crucial to consider the different pathways your narrative can take and how different layers will function within the overall structure of the piece. Mapping out a linear story is no longer enough; today, stories need to be mapped in multiple dimensions to provide the most robust and flexible user experience.
Meanwhile: Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Comic
There are a number of comic reading apps currently on the market (Comixology, Comic Rack, etc.), but Jason Shiga’s comic Meanwhile is crafted specifically for mobile interaction. It’s also brilliantly architected and full of dark humor.
Branching narratives are not a new technique, but rarely do you get to see the alternate pathways or the progression of your journey while you’re in the midst of the story. In Meanwhile, you do. The app is designed in a way that’s part decision tree, part traditional comic spread, allowing you to see where you could go and how your path will start to diverge based on your choices.
The app also features a healthy mix of branches that cut off quickly, and those that grow over time to build the story.
Winning Storytelling Technique: One Narrative, Many Arcs
One of my favorite parts about Meanwhile is that the app provides many different decision paths. Instead of just getting one or two narrative arcs, there are a bunch of different stories that a user can experience inside the game.
As you craft your own stories, think about how you can build multiple arcs into the same narrative. You could do this with branching options, or with personalization, serving up a different pathway to a user depending on their profile in your database. Either way, this approach can help you get more bang for your storytelling buck.
Amelia and Terror of the Night: Interactive Pop-up Book
In my research, I found the majority of interactive storytelling apps out there today are designed for children. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun for adults, too! Such is the case with OhNoo Studio’s app, Amelia and Terror of the Night.
This interactive storybook is highly gamified. Almost every page has clickable elements that function like digital pop-ups, revealing hidden characters or elements behind them. Each revealed item gives you stars, which unlock different elements within the story.
In addition to the points you accumulate from finding hidden objects, you can also play mini-games inside the book, such as this frog game:
Winning Storytelling Technique: Gamification
Even if you have a great story to share, encouraging interactions and completions using gamification can help sustain engagement over time. Amelia does a great job of integrating gamified elements such as stars and unlocked content without letting them detract from the main flow of the narrative.
If your story is long, complex, or dry, adding gamified elements can be a great way to keep your audiences’ attention and make it through to the end. Just be careful that these elements don’t completely overrun your narrative—otherwise, you’ll be writing a video game instead of a story.
The Bottom Line
Interactive story apps provide a new creative platform for tale-tellers of all stripes while utilizing best practices that apply to any digital story. Whether you’re eager to experiment with new formats, or simply improve the way you tell stories with more traditional media, these 5 techniques can help you push the boundaries.
Try bringing something new to your audience with an unfamiliar slant. Create suspense using elegant story architecture. Use layered content to add value and provide a multidimensional experience. Weave in many narrative arcs to get more mileage out of one story. And add a dash of gamification to boost engagement.