The Digital Campfire: An Ontology of Interactive Digital Storytelling

The Digital Campfire: An Ontology of Interactive Digital Storytelling

Jouni Smed, Tomi “bgt” Suovuo, Natasha Trygg, Petter Skult, Harri Hakonen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5715-9.ch007
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Interactive digital storytelling (IDS) allows a human user to become an active part in a story and to affect how the story unfolds. To understand IDS systems, we need to consider the partakers present in them as well as their roles and interconnections. In this chapter, the authors discern four partaking entities—interactor, author, developer, and storyworld—and describe both their affiliated sub-entities as well as their relationship to one another. Based on both reviewing relevant literature and analyzing existing IDS systems, the ontology presented here provides a cohesive view into the current state of both theoretical and practical research.
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Counting from Brenda Laurel’s (1986) doctoral dissertation three decades of research have gradually deepened the understanding of the partakers and their interconnections in interactive digital storytelling (IDS). The advances have been brought forward by both theoretical work – such as Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre (1991) and Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) or the doctoral theses by Michael Mateas (2002), Mark Riedl (2004), Sandy Louchart (2007) and Ernest Adams (2013) – and pioneering IDS systems such as Façade (Mateas & Stern, 2005), Interactive Drama Engine (Szilas et al., 2007) and ASAPS (Koenitz & Chu, 2012). Nevertheless, despite these developments IDS still lacks a clear ontology and a common terminology (Koenitz, 2014).

The traditional division has recognized the roles of an author, characters and interactor (commonly used terms are also ‘user’ or ‘player’). In this triad, the author is usually seen as the “creative force” defining the mechanics and content of the IDS system, and both the interactor and the characters then co-create each individual story instance within the IDS system’s limits. However, this perspective focuses on the flow of the story, cloaking the crafting aspect of the story elements. Behind – or rather mixed with – the author is the developer of the IDS system who is responsible for the design of the software running the system, whereas the author is responsible for the content of the system. The developer and author together (which we jointly refer as ‘providers’) generate a semi-autonomous storyworld, the fourth partaker, where the interactor enters to experience the story instance. This is not unlike, for instance, Roman Jakobson’s (1960, p. 353) notion of the functions of (verbal) communication, in which he emphasises the triad of addresser, message and addressee (i.e., sender, message and receiver) around which all communication is built.

The role of the character – albeit vital for the experience of an IDS system – is a part of a storyworld, which also includes props, scenes and events. One could argue that props are inanimate objects, which can be used in the storyworld, and events cause changes launched by fulfilling some criteria. Characters combine these two properties: they are both objects and agents of change. Scenes are the surroundings which the props and characters inhabit and where the events and characters can affect.

To summarize the ontology of IDS systems has four distinct partakers (see Figure 1):

  • Interactor,

  • Author,

  • Developer, and

  • Storyworld.

In this chapter, we will go one-by-one through each partaker and the sub-entities connected to them, describing issues related to them and their connections to one another. It is the aim of this chapter to give a clear understanding of the roles, rights and responsibilities of everyone involved in the IDS activity. As in more traditional movie industry, the movie as an entity can be dissected into the target audience reaction, producer’s decisions, director’s choices, and actors’ performances, etc., we present an equivalent top layer for similar dissection for IDSs

Figure 1.

The ontology of IDS systems discerning the partaker roles of interactor, author, developer, and storyworld, and their corresponding sub-elements


Key Terms in this Chapter

Narrative Paradox: The conflict between the interactor’s freedom of choice (or agency) and the author’s control over the storyworld. In extremes this means that if the author has a total control, the interactor has no agency, or if the author has no control, the storyworld is just a simulation.

Developer: Responsible for creating the tools and underlying mechanisms of an IDS systems. The tools are used by the author to create the content of the storyworld. The developer and author together are called the providers.

Storyworld: A virtual world created by the providers (the author and the developer), populated by characters, props, scenes, and events, where the interactor can experience a story.

Agency: The interactor’s possibilities to make meaningful decisions in the storyworld and to see their outcomes.

Representation: Digital content (items, characters, environments, and other story elements) that provides IDS setting. The storyworld is generated by this content and serves the user with all necessary information for understanding the given surrounding, characters, quests, and other factors that shape the story progression.

Character: A computer-controlled entity inhabiting the storyworld usually represented by an avatar. Characters interact with one another and with the interactor, which affects the story being generated.

Author: Responsible for creating the content of the storyworld using the tools and mechanisms provided by the developer. In contrast to traditional storytelling, the author has no direct control over the generated story.

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