Digital Storytelling — A Guide

I was looking for something like this everywhere, but couldn’t find one — so decided to put something together myself.  I’d like this to be inclusive, so if I’m missing anything, please feel free to add a comment or email me.

With every new development in technology, the art of storytelling has changed… With the rise of mobile devices – that is, an interactive screen that is just as comfortable with text as it is with any other form of media, we can assume that new forms of storytelling will arise. In fact, at Arcade Sunshine, we’re sort of counting on it. The message is always shaped by the container – one reason why, for example, Emily Dickenson wrote such short, pithy poems was because she wrote them all on such small sheets of paper. But despite some seriously good efforts, we haven’t seen the kind of sea-change that accompanied the advent of the printing press or the written word. But maybe these things take time… I’ve heard that there are entire warehouses full of still-untranslated Assyrian clay tablets because for every Epic of Gilgamesh, there are around 10,000 receipts – and no one want to sit around all day translating receipts. Anyways – what are some of the more adventurous efforts out there, and do any of them show more promise than the hypertext novel?


Text Adventures / Interactive Fiction.

These have been around for a long time, but they may be making some type of comeback with the mobile device – as they’ve always been read rather than played. There’s a pretty active online group dedicated to creating and promoting new games, and I definitely recommend checking it out and playing one or two.

These have a history that goes back to the early 80s – I remember Zork, from when I was a kid and, even more fondly, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I don’t remember finishing either one. I think the audience for these are going to remain pretty small – the problem is that, even when played on a mobile device, they aren’t immersive enough to fall into, the way you would a good book, and they aren’t fun enough to truly play. There’s also a documentary that I’ve been meaning to watch about the golden age of text adventures awesomely called Get Lamp.


Game Books.

Another great throwback to my childhood. Choose Your Own Adventure books, I’d argue, have had a powerful impact on current efforts to experiment with the genre, and mobile devices are perfect for them. Naturally, many of the classics from the 80s have been reissued for the iPad, and are fairly successful. There’ve also been a few attempts to make the format suitable for adults – the fiction book Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar and the non fiction History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist are two of the best examples.

But with both of these attempts, no matter how you begin, you tend to end up returning to a chronological reading – so that you don’t miss any of the story. Maybe with tablets, this won’t be an issue any more, because the machine can keep track of what you’ve read already. Some similar mobile experiments, like the NYPL’s awesome Biblion app suffer from the same issue – they are easy to put down because it’s too easy to lose your place without a clear, chronological progression to the story.


The Mongoliad.

I really want to love this. Neal Stephenson, who has created some great, genre-bending fiction; a communal storytelling atmosphere; optimized for cross-platform and mobile devices; a carefully created business plan… But honestly: I have no idea what this is. I’ve downloaded it, gone to the website, read some of the stories, watched some of the animations – but I’m lost. Now, it just sits on my iPad, occasionally letting me know by virtue of a little red bubble, that somewhere, somehow, something is happening here and that I will probably never understand what that is.

If there are any huge Mongoliad fans out there, or if I’m doing something wrong, let me know. Otherwise: beautiful, strange, fail.


Dating Sims / Visual Novel.

Here’s something that holds some real promise. I heard once that the most populat form of video game in Japan, and by extension some of the best-selling video games in any genre are Japanese dating sims. If you’ve never heard of these, you can check out a few here. For the most part, they’re picture books with music, sometimes spoken dialogue, and the occasional reader-decision. Clearly, the story here is the key – these are meant to be read and experienced more than played.

The subject matter and content of all the ones that I’ve seen, though, are dominated by Manga-type themes… The dating lives and social games of high-school children, angst, and fantasy are all well-represented.

Still, there is clearly an audience for this type of storytelling so maybe it’s just a matter of time before we start to see some fiction and/or non-fiction title made for western audiences.



Kind of a catch-all for genre-crossing storytelling – usually involves multiple platforms working together to tell a single story, often with a real-world component (go here, look for this, dial a number). So far, there have been a few modest successes – but, because it’s so expensive to produce across multiple platforms, corporate sponsorship tends to play an important role in creating really interesting transmedia stories – especially those that involve real-life ‘Alternate Reality Games‘. Because of this, a cool transmedia story can sometimes seem indiscernible from well-designed advertising campaign. Also, because corporations like to use the same people and companies again and again, there are really only a few people who make a living, full-time, as transmedia producers. But there are a lot of people who would like to. And even more who have written PhD theses about it.

Good work if you can get it – but until the costs come down, a tough act for the struggling artist seeking a platform to tell his/her story.


Wikipedia / Collaborative Writing.

Obviously the greatest example of collaborative, non-fiction storytelling is wikipedia. An unmitigated success. Because this is an effort to tell the ‘whole story,’ and because it has enough contributors to create an official story, it may not be duplicable to smaller topics… Although there are, of course, lots of great wikis – wikis for programming codes, wikis for ideologies, and even some fictional world-building wikis – aside from wikipedia itself, and niche-wikis designed for passionate insiders, I don’t know of any that you can really lose a few hours to. But let me know if I’m wrong on this – the wiki format clearly has potential.

I’d also like to see some multimedia wikis – so if there are any good examples out there, let me know.


Highly Narrative Video Games – Like Myst, LA Noire.

Where do you draw the line between playing a video games and listening to / experiencing a story? I don’t know and it’s probably arbitrary. But these examples are on the other side of that line (and I also don’t know much about them other than what I’ve read).


Metaverse / Second Life.

Held so much promise… A new platform for storytelling and user-generated content. I still think there’s something there, but these will probably be remembered as the CD ROM encyclopedia of their day – useful for some people, a harbinger of things to come, but also kinda silly.


Multimedia Books.

Over the past couple years, a few companies like ourselves, 955 Dreams, Push-Pop Press, Gameloft and a couple others have been championing the idea of interactive, multimedia, adult-oriented multimedia books. So far, the best examples have all been non-fiction, but we’re working on a few ideas to expand that as well. There’s a good list of the ten best examples out there over at appadvice, in case you want to check them out. Still young, and the market’s unproven, but showing potential.


Children’s Books

Well here’s where things have just blown wide-open. Multimedia, interactive children’s books are getting better, getting cooler, and threatening to change the entire children’s publishing landscape. But the questions arise: Are these toys or stories? What is the grown-up equivalent to flashy lights and cute sounds? Are these ebooks and apps going to be like pop-up books? Awesome when you’re eight, a little less awesome when you’re eighteen? I look forward to finding out…

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About Arcade Sunshine Media

We are a multimedia production company that transforms plain text into dynamic, interactive multimedia apps for portable devices, such as the iPad. We work with any traditionally printed matter – from brochures to novels and children’s books – and incorporate professional video, interactive graphics and maps, and even games.

4 thoughts on “Digital Storytelling — A Guide

  1. I’m a fourth grade teacher in Montana and after reading your blog above about digital storytelling, I thought I’d go ahead and post a little here. I personally don’t use any digital storytelling media but I know as a classroom teacher, this would have a huge draw for my students. My biggest challenge right now is student access. I teach in a small community, where many kids have some kind of phone and most have access to a computer at home. I’m struggling with how do I get them access into electronic stories at school? We have a cart with 25 laptops that we can use to all access the internet and this is a place where I’ve seen electronic media being used (Tumblebooks, for example). In my perfect classroom, all students would have pads of some type so that they could truly interact with the computer and the stories that are available there. I would want them to involve actual reading as this is still a huge goal but as we get more and more access to media in our schools, I can see that there is a huge place for digital stories. Lastly, I’m also interested in having my students write their own digital stories. Currently we use Power Point and I’m hoping to have them use another type of presentation program this year such as Prezi. This is a far-cry from the story telling that we’re talking about here!

  2. It’s all not ready for prime-time. Actually, every example above, as aptly pointed out, is extremely lame. Although, it is a way for some people to justify the cost of a solution (smart phone, pad) in search of a problem. “Hey, look at this cool app!” No, dude, it’s not cool, and you’re spending way too much money on a device that you really don’t need.

  3. Pingback: Nice Post Mulling on Today’s Digital Storytelling — A Guide | arcadesunshine « Transmedia Camp 101

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