Three Decades of Digital Stories

If there is one thing that defines the progress of humanity, it is the capacities in which we have found new ways to tell stories. Since the beginning of oral tradition, we have passed down tales and reinvented storytelling. Now, in our evolving landscape of media and technology, there is an increase not only in reading as a hobby, but the format and ways that stories are being told. 

As times have changed, the term “digital story” now leans away from its traditional definition. What once entailed a story about the presence of digital phenomena, a digital story now is often viewed as a story told through or by online means. Platforms such as Twitter and Substack as well as comic platforms like WebToon and Tapas, have been hosting digital stories for years. Authors like Teju Cole use Twitter to publish short stories through short form tweets, which they call “Twitterature”. Other digital stories rely on interactive cyber elements, such as Siri or Artificial Intelligence, to tell narratives while some storytellers use their own online presence to create videos or websites that allow for people to take part in the course of the plot.

In an age defined by cellphones and social media, we are now seeing more and more books, poems, and other fictive works focusing on aspects of the digital. Sometimes this manifests through themes, an author may explore online cultures or technological advancements, or–in some cases–authors have began to utilize digital platforms to tell stories, and, of course, this is nothing new, but there has been an increase in recent years–especially after the initial COVID-19 lockdown in 2020–of people looking for and writing easier to access stories online.

These easy-to-access stories act as a creative outlet and give a widespread push for social engagement. In modern times, many people have access to the internet, and, compared to the prices of a traditionally published paperback book, the internet provides a more cost-friendly alternative and the vast expanse of digital stories means that it is easy to find content you will enjoy and can engage with.

In my readings and interactions with digital stories, I have chosen four to review, each of which highlight a different important aspect of digital storytelling and how we can relate it to fiction as a whole.

Adam Cadre’s Photopia

In 1998, Adam Cadre released “Photopia”, a text-based adventure game that has received critical acclaim, which has allowed it to rise above its original status as a video game and, in many ways, it is now seen as a high-grade work on interactive literature. 

Photopia is a type of interactive fiction where the audience–who I will be calling the ‘actor’, for they occupy more roles than a mere reader–can use commands to perform actions within the context of a setting. The story begins with the actor as an intoxicated individual in the back of a car. This initial story line is less important. Its main job is to propel the actor forward into the more interactive settings of the story.

I spent around an hour trying different commands and combinations of actions to see what would unfold, and what stories I could alter and interact with.

Photopia is a mix between a choose-your-own-adventure story and a story-based video game, but at times, I did find the video game elements to be more prominent and somewhat frustrating when it is unclear what command the actor needs to use to advance the story, and I often found myself going in circles attempting to find what I missed. 

Despite my initial frustration, I found Photopia to be wholly entertaining and an inventive type of storytelling. The utilization of a website to form a free flowing story like this is not unheard of. It’s an interesting way to blur the lines between traditional fiction and other mediums. When comparing this to other fictive works, it stands out because of its involvement. 

By allowing the audience to engage personally with the story, creators are inventing an environment where you are no longer witnessing a story unfold, but are a formative part of the story. People always lament about not being fully immersed in a story, but interactive forms of fiction like this are–in some ways–the future of certain forms of storytelling, but they are not as widespread or well known as other types of fiction–an unfortunate downfall of the genre. 

Photopia–in my opinion–blurs the genre lines perfectly, creating a detailed piece of art that has been beautifully rendered with the help of player interaction.

Teju Cole’s Short Stories about Drones

**This review contains spoilers for Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Is composed of seven one-sentence short stories that place an emphasis on the surveillance state and utilization of drones. What took me by surprise was the way that the main characters of the first six short stories are all characters from famous books. Okonkwo’s “torso was found, not his head”, an interesting contrast to the protagonist in the original Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart  who hangs himself at the novel’s close. Other notable characters include Buck Mulligan from Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Invisible Man–Whether of the H.G Wells or Ralph Ellison sort remains unknown. It is the last short story, where the main character is referred to only as Mother, where the illusion dissipates, and the reader is left wondering if this is another fictional individual, or a person the author knows in real life. 

Not only do these short form fiction stories paint a vivid picture, but the twists at the end–most often related to death or destruction– reveal the harsh realities about drones. 

The format itself is also a unique presentation. The author Teju Cole creates “Twitter Fiction” wherein the series of stories are tweeted out individually, and come together to form a whole story on his twitter page. Not only is twitter known for having strict character counts for tweets, but it remains one of the most popular social media platforms. The utilization of such a format to tell a story like this is not unheard of to this reviewer, but reading the stories did open my eyes to the types of stories that can be told digitally. There is also–I think–importance that this installment of Teju’s “twitter fiction” is told online. It provides a contrast to the current technological state of the world. The stories are about the harsh realities of developing technologies and how drones have created an environment of paranoia surrounding the increased danger caused by the surveillance state. By reading these stories on Twitter, a platform known for the connecting of others–which is believed to be one of the great connecting factors of technology, the reader is exposed simultaneously to the juxtaposition of technological advancements. 

Reader Comments for The New York Times’ “Homestyle Spaghetti Carbonara” Recipe

Todd Levin’s genre play “Reader Comments for The New York Times’ “Homestyle Spaghetti Carbonara” Recipe” takes the form of a parodic comments section of a recipe blog. 

Recipe Bloggers have become a source of internet humor, with quips being made surrounding the stories that bloggers tell before reaching the recipe that they are trying to share. However, this digital story takes the format of a recipe blog and displays the modern insanity–for lack of a better word–that occurs in online comment sections where–more often than not–content is not regulated. 

The comments begin fairly normal, but as one reads, these comments begin devolving. With advertising for NFT’s and individuals debating about an entirely different recipe entirely.

The issues I have with the text are minimal, and those that I do have are related more to the writing of certain comments. One comment is written as an individual who has gone out of their way to ask for a vegan option. The author then proceeds to critique this lifestyle as the commenter says “Is there a vegan option? As a vegan (I’m vegan)”. The overabundant use of the word vegan along with the condescending format of the comment is clearly meant to satirize commenters, however, without knowing how the author feels about alternative lifestyle choices (such as vegans) it can come across as ill intentioned towards these groups. In some ways, I only hold any critique for the formats of some of these comments due to, what I would call, the ‘millennialisms’ of the text. The comments still hold relevance for parodying certain internet aspects, however, to an audience who is Generation Z, the comments seem particularly dated to online cultures and humors that simply are not as relevant anymore. 

This is not a critique of the author themself, since I still believe that the text establishes and does it’s job well, but, online etiquette and humor is an ever evolving thing that changes so rapidly it can be difficult to keep up, and in making a satire about the internet, it needs to be read closer to the time in which it was written, since what is popular one week fades into oblivion the next. 

This all to say, that the enjoyment I felt while reading the text was still palpable, and I find that digital stories such as this are relevant to critiquing internet culture and analyzing the evolution of our interaction with the digital world, I simply found myself wanting more from the author and the points that they were attempting to make.

The Weaver of Worlds: A ChatGPT Story

With an increased interest now on the developments of AI, coupled with the current strike of the WGA, many conversations have arisen surrounding AI programs and their abilities to tell stories. Simone Garzia, interested by AI’s storytelling capabilities, seeked to allow ChatGPT–a well known AI program–to write a story to see if it is comparable to traditionally written stories. 

The story, “The Old Man, the Doll, and the Forest”, follows a young girl as she travels into a dark forest and meets an Old Man who is not all that he seems. Simone praises the stories “well-developed” characters, “vivid” setting, and themes. 

I suppose that while ChatGPT is able to produce a coherent story, this does not equate it with art or literature written out by an individual. Since ChatGPT utilizes knowledge taken from the internet, the story’s structure is simple, reminiscent of a traditional fairytale. If this were a children’s story, it might be popular, but even then, the plot points seem to coalesce into a plot so cliche, that it’s difficult not to laugh. 

The old man–in one sentence–is revealed to be the devil, and Luna, our young protagonist, fulfills the age-old “chosen one” trope towards the story’s conclusion, where it is revealed that the young heroine has powers of her own. Of course, these powers are left unexplained, since the story shortly ends after this revelation. The audience is left wanting. Hoping that Luna will use these suddenly found magical powers to defeat the devil and all will end happily ever after. Right? Yet, this ending never comes. Once again, I recognize the limits of ChatGPT, but, if we as humans and artists are supposed to place our faith in the storytelling capabilities of AI, I would at least hope for a fully rounded story arc. 

The other problem I faced when reading this story was ChatGPT’s tendencies to tell and not show. If you have taken any form of writing class, then you know that one of the most preached rules is “Show, don’t tell”–Meaning to write descriptions that display emotions without blandly saying how a character is feeling. Well, this is one thing that ChatGPT has not been able to learn. Along with the simple sentence structure and often repetitive clauses, I–personally– find it difficult to enjoy reading “The Old Man, the Doll, and the Forest”. Of course, this is not to say that nobody will enjoy stories such as this, since I am merely offering my own opinion, but in the new age of digital stories, where AI programs have began to take the place of traditional artists, it is very difficult to read a story like this and find any semblance of please within it. Especially given the story caveats and simplistic structure, ChatGPT may be capable of producing entertaining stories, but they are not filled with themes or quite as thought provoking as Simone Garzia–who published the original–would lead the audience to believe, and I think that many other forms of digital storytelling provide a more stimulating conversation and fulfilling reading experience. 

Conclusion

In reading digital stories such as these, it is easy to revel in the leaps and bounds that technology has come in recent years. I find it difficult to extrapolate about the future of digital storytelling, seeing as how–currently–there are many political and cultural shifts occurring both in writing and in storytelling. As I mentioned earlier with the WGA strike along with the privacy and copyright breach hearings surrounding the presence of AI in artistic spaces. I would like to say that digital storytelling will remain an evolving platform that will allow writers and artists to share their work easily and with the masses, but this is optimistic due to current events.

No matter the social or cultural impact, I can, however, say that I think there will be a shift in storytelling and traditionally published literature. Providing an even sharper focus on the after effects of the technological omnipresence that exists in our everyday lives and how these forms of technology have exponentially evolved since the early 90s, I–specifically–can already see how online culture is beginning to define literature. Novels like Nash Jenkin’s Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos, and Esther Yi’s Y/N are both novels submerged with themes of online culture in the late 90s and modern 2000s respectively, and I look forward to witnessing authors involve themselves with the after effects of a chronically online culture, as well as finding new, creative ways to tell stories across the internet.

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