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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Entry Points

A user chooses when and where to exit a database narrative; where a user enters, as with most narratives, is usually through a designed portal. Certain types of networked, distributed or transmedia narratives do have multiple entry points, where an encounter with a narrative segment leads to a maze of other segments. But the opening interface to a database is a staged entry and may offer a broad, restricted or randomly generated set of files and paths. Entry points can establish narrative frames, metaphors for navigation , genre motifs, present views of data sets, describe elements of plot, character, setting or theme – or withhold any and all of these. However the interface is designed, the entry point prepares the user for interaction and most importantly the desire for interaction.

In Jonathan Harris’ interactive photo essay The Whale Hunt, the entry point is a grid of small indecipherable images. The user will come to understand that the grid is an interactive timeline, but unlike most timelines, this one hides its navigation purpose. At the macro-level we see patterns of color. Curiosity and attention peaks by a slow reveal of data at the micro level, the photo slideshow of the hunt. This slow reveal of the interface makes The Whale Hunt an interesting model for fictional databases that must work to sustain narrative interest through a modular, nonlinear presentation. Integrating various levels of micro and macro views of information, the user quickly understands how to navigate at leisure. The depth, scale and structure of the database and the level of control over the navigation is communicated intuitively and effortlessly. As interface design, the entry point does not communicate narrative so much as invite the user to explore details in order to uncover narrative. As a non-fiction form about a single event, The Whale Hunt does not need to map plot elements. Unity is given in the action, the participants and the setting of the hunt and all of these can be further filtered and explored at stunning levels of granularity.

Peter Greenaway’s database-like film, The Falls, opens with a narrative explanation and visual representation of its segmented structure. The first few minutes of the film sets up a narrative mystery. While seeming to take extreme efforts at filtering subjectivity, "the commission" also withholds crucial information. The "violent unknown event," by remaining unknown, acts as the Hitchcockian McGuffin, a plot element that will do much to sustain (and strain) narrative interest and focused attention throughout the 182-minute film. To uncover the mystery of V.U.E, the viewer must pay attention to an abundance of visual and verbal evidence from a very long, digressive and contingent documentary about the victims. Despite the attempts to categorize and order events into controlled narrative systems, a human trait the film mocks, the documentary erupts in a comic excess of linguistic and cinematic styles – a kind of semiotic chaos similar to the violence of the event itself. Cohesion, the thin thread that runs through all these episodes is set up at the narrative's entry point.

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