In preparation for the upcoming second edition of The New Storytellers conference, we talked with Sam Barlow who enlightened us about the role of storytelling in the video game industry, and how to foster intimacy between the public and the stories.
Since the dawn of his career Sam Barlow has always embraced a storyteller’s point of view on the video game creation. It is with that in mind that he released Aisle in 1999, his first independently-developed title that will pave the way for a brilliant and innovative career. His mastering of the narrative experience has also led him to independently release in 2015 Her Story, a critically acclaimed interactive movie which has been awarded best narrative at the 2015 Game Awards. Having joined in March 2016 the interactive-video media and tech firm Interlude (now Eko), he currently leads as Executive Creative Director the creation of personalized interactive video stories with high emotional impact. Prior to that, he worked at Climax Studios, contributing to acclaimed titles as the Silent Hill instalment Shattered Memories.
From oral tradition to virtual reality, the notion of storytelling has greatly evolved in recent decades. How could we define storytelling in 2016? What new forms does it take?
The core of storytelling never changes, but the form adapts and makes use of technology. Right now we are in a time where the volume and the availability of information are so high that stories must evolve in order to compete for our attention and to hold it. We are demanding that our stories contain so much more richness and to give us interfaces that allow us to better absorb it all – whether binge-watching streaming shows on our phones, having stories that play out in real time like Night School's mobile Mr. Robot, or re-inventing the shape of a story as a database as I did with Her Story.
Is this redefinition of the narrative experience limited to the digital world?
No. All forms are competing within this information overload. So the problem is the same for all media – we see theatre become more interactive, more immersive and special; the way in which music is created and released and toured is ever changing. It is interesting to see how the ability of digital to create intimacy has pushed traditional media to move backwards in some ways to revisit traditional, more authentic ways of telling their stories – in the same way we have seen a return of more artisanal food production to better compete with the microwave meal.
Do the artistic forms based on interactive narration, such as immersive theater, magic and improvisation, could be considered as storytelling?
In some cases. I find it useful to stick with the classic definition of a story. A story is the telling of a series of events that happen to a character; and these events and this character are not arbitrary – there is meaning contained in the arrangement! It is important that there is a frame to the story, some distance from the raw emotion — because the magic of story comes from experiencing the emotions of this story whilst also being able to see the ideas of the story. That is the magic that story enables – simultaneously thinking and feeling. Yes, there are other wonderful pieces of entertainment that uses pieces of plot or scenarios to create atmosphere and add impact to their spectacle, but they might not necessarily constitute 'a story well told.'
What could learn the pioneers in immersive storytelling in the digital world of the narrators of the physical world, and vice versa?
Everyone is working with the same raw materials – the imagination of their audience. And oftentimes you find that we are using the same tricks, the same artful maneuvers to put what we want in the audience's minds. I think in looking at other storytellers' work, especially in different media, you can often get a good idea of how far you can push an audience, what you can expect of them – that you can actually ask a lot. Something I have been able to do by pointing to examples from video games is show just how much work you can expect your audience to put in; how much they can order and sort and process disparate information. You can take the experience of a niche audience in a specific medium and try to expand it out to a more general audience, rework it for your own.
How new forms of narrative, such as interactivity, three-dimensionality and immersive storytelling, for example, change the public's role in regard to the stories?
The story still happens inside their head, whether they are in VR, in a warehouse surrounded by actors, or reading a book in bed at home. So the easy answer is to say, 'not much'. But I think there are interesting distinctions that happen based on how social these experiences are. I think we are seeing a return to storytelling experiences that are more social, where you get to use the group imagination to power your story. That can create interest effects as a story is changed in the telling by different contexts.
Have public expectations in terms of storytelling evolved? In 2016, what does the public expect from communicators?
They want more and more. We have an audience that is so story literate, has seen and heard so many stories – thousands of times more stories than say your average 20th century human. So the sophistication of the audience is hugely increased. Compare the average cop show in the 50s to what you have on screen now. The layering, the complexity, the psychological depth, the density of information and performance we expect from our stories is much, much greater. The newfound ability to broadcast to a niche means the public expects more and more specific things, stories that speak to very specific desires or interests. They crave a more intimate and deeper hit of story, they want stories that validate their specific tastes!
How does the rise of new technologies and the digital transformation impact the video game business?
The move to digital has been a big game changer. It has helped creators find and play to more specific audiences. The effort and cost to reach players is much reduced and so we are not as limited by marketing, not as constrained to specific genres and franchises. There is been an additional boost from the explosion of mobile devices and smart tech – everyone is using devices and a variety of new, more intuitive interfaces — so they have less obstacles between them and the world of video games. Mobile has pushed tactile, touch and voice based interfaces to the forefront, cutting through years of accumulated practice in the use of video game controllers. This has and should enable far more human experiences and encourage creators to rethink their work outside of traditional templates. We are at a point where the lines are now blurring between 'game experiences' and 'interactive experiences' and 'experiences' full stop. Creators like myself who have worked on the borders of either world are crossing freely and finding new audiences to delight.
As a video game director, how have you adapted to this new technological reality? Where do you stand on that trend?
The changes have been transformational for me. As a traditional video game designer I was always hungry to push outside of the classic genres and expectations and find new audiences – but was constrained because our audience was limited to those who had bought expensive video game hardware and spent years accustoming themselves to its use. The explosion in access to mobile devices and desktop/laptop computing in general, coupled with the ability for me to make and distribute my own project allowed me to create something as personal and different as Her Story and then find a huge audience for it. New technology allows us to revisit genres and classic stories and reinvent them for a new generation. Now I can take my interactive tricks from the video game space and step into the spaces previously owned by TV and movies. We have millions and millions of people streaming stories across their devices and I want to be the one to sit down beside them and show them how much more magical the experience becomes if those devices acknowledge their touch... what happens when we make those stories as interactive as everything else in their digital lives?
By Isabelle Benoit
The New Storytellers II is a conference day curated by Phi and Future of StoryTelling on the theme Real and Virtual Worlds: Blurring the Boundaries.
To help make Montreal a vibrant city and to contribute to its appeal as a cultural epicentre that attracts acclaimed talents and avant-garde thinkers, the William Gray hotel presents a series of articles about The New Storytellers II conference's groundbreaking speakers.