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Database | Narrative | Archive

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

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Interface and Sequencing

One quick look at the database documentaries found on the web reveals that so much of this practice is about interface design: its rules, interaction, and navigation principles. As I moved from principal production to the interface design of Dayton Express, the operative question gradually changed from what to how. In other words, I became less concerned about what the audience gets to see (or in what order) and more interested in how they get to experience it. In short, the complex negotiation of lived–physical space precipitated the use of virtual space as an alternative domain for political discourse. In this way the fluidity of digital space and its lack of clearly defined borders allows the embedded media objects (audio, video, text, stills) to be transformed into vignettes, becoming a patchwork of ideas that can be arranged freely and put into myriad contexts. What then constitutes a database documentary, in my opinion, are varying forms of dialectical (hyper) text brought together to emphasize contradictions or suggest solutions. The generated space of the story becomes the conduit for multiple narratives. As we traverse that space, the narrative unfolds, pauses, retracts, etc. 

In Dayton Express, the use of trains as a metaphor called for a format that would reflect and sometimes mimic the structural characteristics of a railway system. Much like the linking of train cars and interconnecting travel routes, the project uses interactive buttons and hyperlinks to organize knowledge and create virtual paths that connect individuals, places, and ideas. It experiments with this concept in the second section of Dayton Express, entitled “Random Access History.” Fragmented and unsystematic, this section invites the audience to browse the assembled history database through a random, game-like “hunt” for content. 

However, it is important to note that one does not necessarily forgo linear sequencing, and that the temporal organization of material as intended by the author is possible. It is, of course, nearly impossible to control what and how much the audience gets to see, but the interface can be designed to institute passageways that act as prerequisites for accessing different parts of the project. An example of using such restrictions as a narrative device can be found in the 2007 web documentary Thanatorama by Ana Maria de Jésus. The viewer sees the introduction video first, before being confronted with navigation choices and reaching other sections of the project. The opening video grabs the viewer: “You died this morning” and “Do you want to see what happens next?” It adjusts the point of view and turns the unassuming visitor into the (dead) protagonist of the story. 

Dayton Express employs some navigation restrictions too, but the interface remains largely modular. Through the use of six sequentially numbered sections users can explore in both linear and non‐linear fashion. The idea is to have the audience browse the numbered sections, going from 1 to 6, as if they were progressing through chapters of a book. At number 6 they reach the end, which includes project credits and acknowledgments. This sequence, however, is merely suggested, not imposed. The audience is invited to browse the project in any other way they find meaningful or interesting. Ideally, there should be enough room for the public to apply their own methodology of interaction and knowledge gathering.

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