storytelling, now and in the long ago

When I was a young artist and writer, I used to make “video games” to occupy my brother and sister on long car trips.

Inspired by Sierra and other PC games that I was playing in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Final Fantasy, King’s Quest, Space Quest, Colonel’s Bequest—I would draw rooms and scenes on dozens of folded pieces of paper. Stephie and Danny would then get to view them, one scene at a time, and say that they wanted to open a drawer, or talk to a character. I would consult another piece of paper, which contained my character scripts and treasure/artifact locations. If I was in an especially creative mood, I would have created paper-doll like character “puppets” that could move through the environments, or I would cut slits in the paper so I could then lift a flap, opening doors or treasure chests pop-up-book-style.

Basically, it was a mashup of D&D and comics and Choose Your Own Adventure novels: 3D, physical, interactive, highly narrative adventures.

There was a time in the mid/late 1990s, when I was first getting into HTML, when the idea of “the hypertext novel” was on the ascent. A college buddy of mine was writing one, and it reminded me of nothing more than the text-only monster-and-maze games I’d played ten years earlier.

I majored in Creative Writing in college (because my mom argued that Studio Art was impractical, and visual art has always been a storytelling tool for me), and wrote my senior thesis in two parts: a long academic paper on contemporary reinvisionings of myth, fairy tales, and biblical stories; and a poetry cycle in which I created my own updates of those cultural narratives.

Then, my mind was blown by House of Leaves.

When the time came to start my master’s degree thesis project in CompSci, I knew I wanted to build something both narrative and visual. Looking for something to spark an idea, I dug into a favorite essay: Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Benjamin lived in the first part of the 20th century. His ideas were undergoing a huge resurgence in academic circles in the tail end of the last decade. His theories about the impact of mass-media on narrative and visual art during the rise of photography, film, radio, sound recording and amplification are uncannily relevant to our own broadcast media. He also wrote about storytelling and history, championing the concept of non-linear narrative.

I decided to make him the subject of my thesis: I would use his writings on cultural criticism, technology, and narrative to tell the story of the last three days of his life.

The outcome was http://portbou1940.com. It convinced Harvard to give me a postgraduate degree in Digital Media Art and Instructional Design. I wrote the content, drew all of the original art by hand, and coded all of the interactions and animations in HTML5 and CSS3. When I began to formulate the structure, there was NO browser support for CSS3 transitions, but I was determined to use no Flash. It was a crash-course in graceful degradation for a while, but by the time I launched Chrome fully supported the code, and Firefox and Safari were about half there. I was testing in five browsers to ensure that even IE users could consume the whole narrative, even if they missed out on the “surprise and delight” of interactivity.

About three-quarters of the way through the build process, the Bay Area company Madefire came across my radar. And suddenly, the type of visual narrative creation I’d been obsessed with since I was a kid was in sight. I realized that the kind and caliber of work I’d been doing on my thesis wasn’t just a side project or a hobby, but could be a real job. If I just got out of Boston.

I moved to San Francisco because I want to tell stories through art, and to make art that tells stories.

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