Audience-prompted storytelling

There’s a new form of storytelling that has started to become popular in the last few years.  It seems to have been popularized with MS Paint Adventures; I don’t know if Andrew Hussie was the first person to try it, or not.  There are a great many of them popping up on the “MSPA Forum Adventures” forum.

The basic idea is that one person starts writing the story (or writing and drawing, as most often these stories can be described as comics).  After one or two panels, the author solicits ideas from the audience.  After suggestions are provided, the author picks however many he or she likes, then draws another set of panels.  Repeat.

I believe these stories are meant to emulate computer games.  That’s why they’re so often written in second person, as in “You open the door”; e.g. “What Do You Do?“.

MS Paint Adventures is not a game. Except that it is a game, absolutely.

Greg Costikyan

Of course, there are also obvious parallels to various forms of role-playing (cf. Parsely).

What are the characteristics of this “thing”?

By providing suggestions, the readers have a sense of being more involved in the story.  The process of suggesting courses of action naturally leads to an engaged community of readers.  Some choices generate enough suggestions to be put to a vote by the readers.  (Ruby Quest notably did this several times.)  Obviously, this form of storytelling is well suited to online forums; readers can discuss and have input on the story even if they only check the forum once a day.  (It depends on the speed of the story, of course.)

Another thing to note is that the readers don’t need to do much work to interact with the story.  This allows for even casual readers to participate, even if they don’t actually affect the story.  (See also 42 Entertainment’s inverted pyramid player model.)

In this form of storytelling, the author can pick and choose whichever suggestions he or she desires to take.  The characters in the story can even reject suggestions judged to be absurd.  (“That would be a stupid idea!”)  Cynical readers will say that the author is “forcing” certain actions into the story (or “railroading”, a term that I suspect is from roleplaying game fandom).  I think this is actually an intriguing criticism, because it comes from the viewpoint that interactivity is expected.  In other words, because the net-native nature of the story allows readers to influence the plot, they should be able to.

As for myself, I think the balance between “order” and “chaos” has to be worked out with each individual author and audience; in fact, with each individual story.  However, I will say that the potential of net-native literature has, at this point, barely been tapped.  If you want to create something entirely new, you’ll need to let the audience influence the story.

What do we call this “thing”?

People on the MSPA Forum call them “Forum Adventures”, which is fine for their community, but I don’t think it would work as a true umbrella term.  (After all, there are other possible game and roleplaying forms that could occur on a forum.)

1d4chan calls them “Quests”, because so many started popping up that they had to call them something.  (Enough to warrant an entirely new forum!)  However, I don’t think this term is descriptive enough.  (What doesn’t “quest” mean at this point?)

I’ve come up with a number of possible terms:

  • Improvisational storytelling—This art form does appear to have a lot in common with improv comedy.
  • Many-to-one storytelling—Descriptive, but academic.
  • Many-to-one roleplaying—”Roleplaying” seems more in line with Parsely than this particular narrative form.  But this does make me curious as to what many-to-one roleplaying would really be like.  (I suspect there have been one or two games that tried it, but I can’t recall at the moment.)
  • Crowd-sourced storytelling—Actually, this sounds like it might be something different.  It seems to imply that there is no one author/moderator.  Once again, it makes me wonder what “crowd-sourced storytelling” would really be like.
  • Audience-prompted storytelling—This is my favorite of the terms (as you can probably tell from the title of this entry).  I think this term well captures the idea of the author creating stuff prompted by the audience.

Where can we take this in the future?

Most of the current audience-prompted stories take the forum of webcomics, with a few completely text-based ones.  There’s the whole universe of graphic design to draw on (acrylics? pencil sketches on notepaper?), but let’s go farther.  It’s easy to imagine other media forms involved, like video.  (Anyone else get a shiver imagining Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris with a video camera and a web forum?)

This can lead us to think of audience-prompted storytelling as a process:

  1. Author provides content.
  2. Audience discusses content.
  3. Audience provides suggestions.
  4. Author considers suggestions for inspiration of new content.
  5. Repeat.

This definition is broad enough that many existing works fit into it.  In theory, a massively multiplayer game that pushes sets of new content has probably let player comments influence the creation of that content.  Legend of the Five Rings and its “deep, evolving story” are a better example.

While many experiences could fit into this mold, I think the real strength of this particular narrative form is h0w easy it is to participate.  Anyone can sign up to a forum and plop an idea down in the correct thread…and they might have a powerful influence on the story.  And even if they don’t, they may spark a discussion about their idea.

That’s the kind of thing that just might make people feel welcome in a new community…

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