Interactivizing Stories

Let's consider an "interactivized" Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is a single story about a single couple in a single context with a single outcome. By itself, the story is meaningless; who cares about a couple of Italian fools who died hundreds of years ago? What makes the story compelling is its generalizable relevance to our lives. I'm not Romeo, but I have been in situations distantly analogous (in one fashion or another) to his. Thus, I may not learn from his precise example, but I derive benefit from a generalization of the forces at work in the original play.

Thus, an interactive Romeo and Juliet would NOT be about Romeo and Juliet; it would be about the collision between love and social obligations. This distinction is crucial to understanding the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of interactive storytelling. If you insist that an interactive Romeo and Juliet must be about "Romeo and Juliet", then you must also insist that it follow the plot of the original play. But if instead you shift your point of view and require that an interactive Romeo and Juliet be about the collision between love and social obligation, then a great many plot developments are possible which remain true to the focus of the work.

Consider the nature of the truth regarding the collision between love and social obligation. Such truth is complex and multi-dimensional; nobody could reduce it all to a single statement. Yet understanding it is vital to our existence as human beings. So how can our wise ones communicate such truths to our younger ones? Storytelling is one way to do so, but a single story offers only a single glimpse at a broader truth. Romeo and Juliet shows us just one facet of this multi-faceted jewel of truth. If we wish to understand the matter, we must have other glimpses from different angles. If in one such glimpse, Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after because they have found one resolution to the conflict between love and social obligation, then what is wrong with that? It would be false to "Romeo and Juliet", but it would be true to the focal point of the work. So what's our point here? Are we here to kill off Romeo and Juliet or to reveal something about love?

Consider an analogy. Suppose I asked a painter to create a portrait of me. This painter is an artist who seeks to capture the essence of my nature in this portrait. He labors long and hard and eventually brings forth a portrait showing me with mouth open and index finger raised in profound expostulation. A true and insightful portrait, some would say. But now suppose that, displeased with this portrait, I engage another painter, who produces a portrait of me as programmer/writer/worker drudge, slaving away at the keyboard while the wonders of nature parade by unnoticed? This too would be a true and insightful portrait, but how do we resolve the conflict between the two portraits? Which is the "correct" portrait?

The difference between an interactive Romeo and Juliet and the original Romeo and Juliet is the same difference as that between Chris Crawford and a portrait of Chris Crawford. Yes, the portrait contains a single truth, powerfully made (Who knows? Perhaps Ms. Mona Lisa was just a dull Italian housewife, nowhere near as intriguing as her portrait.) But ultimately it presents a single truth, where interactivity provides many viewing angles to truth. Some of those viewing angles will not be as dramatic or as powerful as others. We should not dismiss interactivity as inferior because it fails to winnow out the less revealing angles. Interactivity shows all the viewpoints on a truth, strong and weak. Its catholicity of viewpoint is its strength; its undiscriminating nature is its weakness. Let us not condemn it for its weakness without also recognizing its concomitant strength.

A final thought: while in London I gazed upon a portrait of Erasmus by Holbein. I have read many of his works and come to know him well. But I would still like, more than anything else, to simply converse with the man. I doubt that my clumsy Latin would evoke anything half as brilliant as I see in his writings, but oh! what things we would talk about!