5Haitis was created as part of my MSc in Creative Technologies. Its an interactive digital narrative. It won the bournemouth international digital story telling competition in 2012.
It can be viewed here – https://justthisguy.co.uk/wp-content/archive/5Haitis/flash/output/5Haitis.html
Here’s some presentation slides that I did for it…
Here’s a commentary on it…
I had read numerous newspaper and Time magazine articles about Haiti a year on from the earthquake. The initial idea was to show the perspectives of four different people living in Haiti around the time of the earthquake, each relating their own story simultaneously. This was in part influenced by research into hyper and deep attention. The NIPPON narrative (Chang) presented information so quickly it had to be absorbed rather than read in detail. In a similar way, I thought that having the four people present their stories simultaneously would stimulate hyper attention and would also allow users to potentially experience the narrative multiple times.
In addition, the concept of serious games (Miller, 2008) was intriguing. Serious games highlight real issues but are presented as games rather than narratives. An example is ‘Darfur is Dying’ where the player takes on the role of a refugee living in Darfur. Their tasks include fetching water from a distant well whilst avoiding patrols of militia. It was the intention to present a serious issue based on reality but in way that would draw users into a narrative at the same time as giving them control over certain elements. Another inspiration came from watching the animated film ‘Waltz with Bashir,’ which portrays the Lebanon war. The themes and graphic style of the film were very distinctive and made a deep impression.
It soon became clear, however, that creating four different believable characters and related dialogue was too much to accomplish in the time limit, so the number was reduced to three. I was also trying to think of ways to make the narrative interactive. The ideas included making draggable character windows, developing a single image behind all characters and having areas in that scene that each character could talk about or interact with. Two scenes in the narrative (pre and post quake) facilitated each character developing an ‘arc’ (Miller, 2008).
Due to my background in web development, I have a logical and prescriptive approach to development. Therefore, I took the same approach when it came to the development of the narrative. All the characters were designed in detail along with their back histories, personalities and relationships with the other characters. The characters were created by researching Haitian culture, language, typical relationships (e.g. mother and daughter), etiquette etc.
By first storyboarding the narrative on paper, this allowed me to conceptualise the story as a whole and easily make modifications (see source images/storyBoard.jpg) or develop ideas quickly without having to rely on detailed digital graphics. After that, a number of technical hurdles were overcome, at which point I could concentrate fully on the narrative itself.
For creating realistic characters, Miller (2008) suggested giving the characters realistic flaws, creating complete back histories and using exaggeration rather than subtlety. It was noted that in digital media, the traditional methods of expressing emotion such as speech and body language are limited. If the narrative were too subtle, its meaning could be lost. Therefore, the narrative, the characters and the scene are all portrayed in an exaggerated way. In addition, since the character windows could only accommodate relatively small phrases, using short, simple sentences was necessary and effective.
The structure of the piece was loosely based on the string of pearls model (Miller, 2008) where each part of the story is self-contained and can be explored at different levels before continuing on to the next part.
When writing the narrative, my first thoughts were that it was potentially very depressing. It is a serious narrative but it was pointed out by Kate that humour can still be incorporated. I therefore decided to give the aid worker ‘Omar’ a little more humour, which provided a good contrast to the positive ‘Guerda’ and the negative but determined ‘Bronte.’
When writing the narrative I found it helpful to have all the relevant character details to hand, allowing me to attempt to think like the person whose perspective I was writing from. This also helped me to avoid contradictions and inconsistencies in the story. It was highlighted that initially the character dialogues seemed too formal. Ways to overcome this included cutting the sentences to bare essentials, omitting details that would not be included in a normal conversation and reading the dialogues aloud with another person.
James (2009) notes that characters need to sound real but real people do not speak in complete, formal sentences. In conversation, one person generally takes the lead and the other follows. In addition, finding words that suit the character’s personality and using dialogue where characters interrupt each other were useful techniques. While writing, I also tried to think about the emotions of the characters, as this would influence how they would act and speak.
Development of ideas
It was pointed out that the limiting factor of time before the quake is not present post-quake. This could detract from the story, since post-quake, users could potentially read all the narrative, whereas pre-quake, they cannot. It was suggested that the selected pre-quake character form the basis of all post-quake narrative. In this way, users would have an incentive to replay the narrative multiple times. Time, however, proved too limited to permit implementation of this idea.
Another suggestion was to have instructions on the page explaining what to do. In a number of user tests, the users simply watched what was happening until post-quake, instead of trying to interact with the scene. A balance had to be achieved between not saying enough and giving away too much, thus spoiling the exploratory nature of the piece.
Sound and graphics
It was suggested that actual native Haitian music would set the scene more appropriately. The piece ‘Wongolo’ was used pre-quake to provide a contrast with the post-quake scene and music. A number of sources were consulted to find appropriate music and sounds, all released under the creative commons license or used by permission of the original artist.
To develop the graphics, multiple versions of each element were required to show the scene and characters in a pre and post-quake state. The main image was created by compositing multiple photos of a typical Haitian scene together. These photos were then used as a guide to paint the scene. It was split into near, middle and far distance to facilitate the parallax scrolling effect.
Reworking and bug fixes in the application were approached in a methodical, logical manor, tracing the root of the problem and analysing the paths through the programme. From a narrative point of view, re-working was done by reading and re-reading the narratives aloud to see how natural they sounded. If there were any lines that did not fit with the character, they would either be re-written or removed. Issues with the logic of the story and functionality were identified and resolved by carrying out user testing on a variety of different people, with different levels of computing ability.
A number of different versions were developed, with refinements or cuts made to the narratives. In the first draft, the narratives were too long and were of different lengths. Therefore, certain lines were either cut or trimmed if they did not develop the story.
Apart from the problems of developing realistic characters and believable dialogue, other problems included lack of time to add all the features that were initially conceived. Character animations, scene animations and individual character music were not added to the final programme.
The following feedback was given and comments noted below –
- The users with relatively low computer literacy did not notice the hot spots or character dialogues in the pre-quake scene. It was only after the quake that they began to experiment. Therefore, the hot spot areas were made more obvious, they glowed for longer and had more explanation in the introduction text.
- A number of users noted that the pre-quake time is insufficient to fully explore the scene. Therefore, a time limit of three minutes was suggested as opposed to two. This would enable users to read an entire back history as well as one or two hotspots or character dialogues.
- A number of technical points were raised such as giving the user the ability to restart the narrative again. This was accomplished through the use of the ‘view again’ button.
- With regards to the narrative, it was suggested that longer pauses between thoughts would help the text flow more naturally. Longer pauses would help to either add impact to a statement or allow for a change in thought, thus making the narrative more natural.
- Most users felt that they could understand the story and sympathise with the characters. They also understood the role reversal that took place between Omar and Bronte.
Since all major elements of the project were implemented, in this regard, it could be seen as a success. User feedback shows that the narrative was understandable, well structured and innovative and that the characters seemed believable. If time had permitted, by including character specific music as well as scene and character animations, the narrative could have been further enhanced.
Throughout the process, I have learnt that I work best in a methodical, planned and organised way. The ability to combine technical and creative ways of working is certainly an advantage when it comes to digital media and storytelling both in terms of creative development and getting the project finished on time.
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