Dr. Lyle Skains is a researcher and practitioner in the field of digital and interactive fiction. She writes and creates interactive stories and then writes up her research. How did it go? How is creativity and process affected? How do audiences react? And — she uses OmniOutliner to organize this research.
We met Lyle via Twitter, when she posted some screenshots of her use of OmniOutliner: here’s a Twitter thread with some of them. She keeps notes, projects, and bibliographies in OmniOutliner.
Annette Fuller, Support Human at the Omni Group and fiction writer, joins this episode as co-host. This episode runs a bit longer than most because both Annette and your host were absolutely enthralled by Lyle and the subject matter.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
- University of Bangor in Wales
- Manchester Metropolitan University
- Digital fiction
- The Stanley Parable
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Game
- Tom Wolfe
- Noelle Stevenson
- William S. Burroughs
- Language Is a Virus from Outer Space song
- Nine Inch Nails
- Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
- Game of Thrones
- New Mexico
Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music.
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Brent Simmons: I'm your host, Brent Simmons. On the line with me today is Dr. Lyle Skains. Did I pronounce your last name correctly?
Lyle Skains: That is correct. It's absolutely phonetic.
Brent Simmons: All right. Well, say hello, Lyle.
Lyle Skains: Hello, Lyle.
Brent Simmons: My co-host today is Annette Fuller. Say hello, Annette.
Annette Fuller: Hello, Annette.
Brent Simmons: Dr. Lyle, what work do you do?
Lyle Skains: I am what I like to call a practitioner-researcher in digital writing and multimodal creativity, which is a lot of words to say that the university pays me to do really cool stuff, creating stories and digital media and interactive spaces. Then I write up some research on how it went, how it changes the process of writing, how it affects creativity, how it affects how I think about story, about how audiences interact with these kinds of stories, and what we can do with them.
Brent Simmons: Oh, that's cool.
Lyle Skains: That's a lot of words for what I do, but I guess that's my forte.
Brent Simmons: Uh-huh (affirmative). All right, and you're at the University of Bangor in Wales?
Lyle Skains: Not anymore. I have just transferred universities. As of January, I am at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Brent Simmons: I assume that's in Manchester.
Lyle Skains: So a slight shift. Yeah, it is in Manchester. I still live in North Wales though.
Brent Simmons: Oh, okay. So that was a lot of words. Can you tell me a little bit more about what these different storytelling modes are like, these different experiences? Very curious.
Lyle Skains: Well, my PhD work, which is a few years ago now, I was looking at different types of digital fiction. This is a term that most people don't really know, digital fiction. When I say digital fiction, a lot of people go, "Oh, you mean like eBooks," and that's not really it. It's more stories that require a digital device to interact with, so I would class walking sims, like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Stanley Parable, things like that, as digital fiction. They're stories, and you've got to interact with them to go through. We have these kinds of stories, all the way from hypertext stories from the old school days of text adventure games.
Brent Simmons: Oh, yeah.
Lyle Skains: If you think about Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, all of those were the early precursor to both video games and to digital fiction. In fact, they are... That type of story is still one of the most prominent stories in digital fiction. We now call it interactive fiction or text adventure games, but they are still incredibly popular, just not as commercial as they used to be back in the '70s and '80s.
Brent Simmons: My mom bought me a copy of Zork the day it came out.
Lyle Skains: That's awesome.
Brent Simmons: I loved that game so much.
Lyle Skains: One of my favorite stories from my PhD was that my supervisor... I was working in my office, and I'm sure I was researching or reading something. My supervisor called down, and she said, "I have to give a lecture on Zork in two hours time, and I can't get past the troll, or I can't get past the grue." She said, "I need you. Will you go and get past the grue, and tell me how you did it, so that I can give this lecture?" I went, "Yes, I will absolutely drop everything that I'm doing right now and go and play Zork, to tell you how to get past the grue."
Annette Fuller: That's a pretty good job if you get to do that at work.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, it's not too shabby. I mean, it's not all fun and games, unfortunately, but a lot of it is.
Brent Simmons: What are you learning? What is the effect on audiences and on creativity?
Lyle Skains: In terms of creativity, the creation space of digital fiction and games and these interactive, immersive experiences like, because there's lots of in-person stuff now, as well, locative experiences, is that unlike when you're writing a prose text, where you have ... If you're writing longhand, you've got a pen and paper, or you might have a word processor, you're writing in Microsoft Word, you've got one space in which you're writing and creating this story, usually. You can just sit down at it and go. With digital spaces, you've got multiple spaces, so you may be writing in HTML, you might be writing some prose.
Lyle Skains: You might be working with video. You might be working with animated GIFs. You might be doing all these different sorts of things, and so you've got all these different tools that you're split between, and so it fragments the way that you think about story. We get to where we have a lot of different ... What we in narratology studies call unnatural narrative, where the story fragments. You no longer have one perspective. You no longer have one protagonist or one character that you're following, because you're composing in these different spaces, and so the story takes shape in lots of different ways.
Lyle Skains: That's one of the most intriguing things, to me, because it says that it's going to change our stories. It's going to change what we're used to experiencing. If you think about a book or a movie, they've been... The way that they are, you go through them one way, whereas with digital text, games, and digital fiction, I could have a completely different experience from you, and we're going through the same thing. It's changing how we think about story, and changing what it means to be an audience member, when each story is unique to each audience member, and each time they play through it.
Lyle Skains: It's interesting to me. Even though it's a huge area and lots of, billions of, dollars being spent in the industry, that it comes down to the individual and how they think about things and how it affects the way they think.
Brent Simmons: That's interesting. I wonder, in today's modern life, our attention is more fragmented, and it seems like we're concentrating on different small pieces of... I hate the overarching word content, but different small pieces of content, here, there, and everywhere else. We all have very different experiences every day. How does this experience fit in with our modern life?
Lyle Skains: I think it's interesting. There are parallels in terms of say, the gig economy and living in different spaces and being different people in different spaces. We fall into this fallacy of thinking that just because it's digital, it's new, or it's introducing new things. When as humans, what we actually like to do with new things, is then convert them back to familiar ways of doing things. So we have all this amazing new technology and what do we do? We sit around and we binge watch Netflix. I mean, we literally just sit and watch a story for hours and hours and hours. So, there's a lot of fear mongering.
Lyle Skains: There was fear mongering in the '90s about the death of the book, or whatever it is that the digital media ... Video killed the radio star, whatever it is, and so we always have a fear of the new and have nostalgia for the old and interestingly, we just keep finding ways to reinvent the old stuff. Since the Industrial Revolution, we've had a very fragmented attention and we've always had this dialogue about, "Oh, modern living, it's killing the way we think. Our kids aren't thinking well anymore, or their attention is fragmented." We're not great with attention to begin with.
Brent Simmons: Sure, yeah.
Lyle Skains: We spot patterns, we like patterns, but it's part of being biologically human, that your attention can go different places. So I think there's a little bit of, "Yeah, it's new, and it will change some things." But I think we will keep pushing back to what we understand.
Brent Simmons: I can imagine a long, long time ago, the first people to do cave paintings. Somebody complained that, "Hey, we have an oral tradition here. No images, please. You're going to ruin the youth."
Lyle Skains: Exactly. I have no doubt that some old curmudgeon was there, yelling at the kids with their finger paints.
Brent Simmons: Could have been me.
Annette Fuller: It's a long standing narrative that certain forms of storytelling that we have are dying out. The novel has been dying since almost as soon as it was introduced. There's always this new essay, a new think piece on how the novel is dying, and it's still here.
Lyle Skains: Absolutely.
Brent Simmons: You could write a book about the history of essays about the novel dying.
Annette Fuller: I think some people have. Yeah.
Lyle Skains: Probably… Somebody did! Oh, somebody very prominent did very recently here in the UK. I want to say Tom Wolfe. And basically I just wanted to print out the Guardian article where he wrote it and then just throw it back at his head because I was like, "Come on."
Annette Fuller: So in some ways, is this new mode of storytelling and digital stories, is that hearkening back to serialized fiction where writers were paid by the word, and they could see what impact their previous section had had on their audience and come at it with a new angle, the next section they were about to introduce?
Lyle Skains: Yeah, they're elements of that. I love the notion of being paid for any of this. So far, most of it is experimental. It gets traded around, mostly academics and or indie game developers looking to do something a little bit different. But yeah, I think there's a notion of that instant feedback, and to get a feel for where it might go, and that it's a bit fragmented. It depends on the medium in which you're working, I think. Some of the projects I've done, I've set up the coding so that I can track what gets clicked, where my audience goes, what narrative they want to follow, and that gives me information about what they're more likely to do.
Lyle Skains: And actually we've done a study with one of my pieces, where we actually sat in a room with people and asked, "What link are you about to click? Why are you going to click it?" And then once they had clicked it, we asked them, "Did it lead where you thought it was going to go? How do you think about it now?" And it was really interesting to us, because whereas a lot of people working in these areas, they want to be very poetic with it, and play with aesthetics and have links that don't tell you where they're going to go, and they don't seem to have any meaning, but they have meaning for the author, or there's some poetic pattern that most readers can't pick up on.
Lyle Skains: And what we found is that readers read for the plot. They're very rarely going to click on those random links. They want to find out what's happening in the story, even if they have all these choices and all these things that they can do, they really just want story. I think that hearkens back to the serial storytelling where, it was just, "Give me more story. Yes, I like that bit of story. No, I don't like that bit." I think that the clicks on links help us do that a little bit.
Annette Fuller: So if there's like a cliffhanger, can you see that they click the link faster to move forward faster?
Lyle Skains: Yeah, you can. I mean, depending on how you set it up. And web comics, Homestuck, and things like that have done amazing things on that in that, the story doesn't get told until the audience votes on the next bit of it. So if anybody hasn't read Homestuck, go and see ... I don't think it's still a continuing narrative. I can't remember. It's been a few years since I saw it. But web comics are really great at this. I don't know if you know the web comic, which is now a hard copy comic, Nimona, which was Noelle Stevenson, you may know her from Lumberjanes and other graphic texts. She did Nimona as her art school dissertation. And she did it online.
Lyle Skains: The brilliant thing about it was that online, it had comments, and everyone could comment on it. Similar to the Homestuck, everybody could comment and vote on which way it was going to go. They would contribute fan texts and songs and art, and all of this on as a comment on the actual text on the Tumblr-like platform. When Harper Collins published it, she had to take it down. Not only was the online text gone, which was fine, because Harper Collins reproduced that, but all of the user interaction and comments and fan art was gone, because of that copyright era that we're still in.
Annette Fuller: Oh no.
Lyle Skains: But yeah, there's so much different digital fiction that it's really hard to say that one type does one thing, or digital fiction does this because basically, if it has a narrative and it involves digitality in some way or another, it falls under digital fiction.
Brent Simmons: What sparked your interest in digital fiction, as opposed to novels, short stories, more traditional forms?
Lyle Skains: I am a prose writer, from the time I was a kid, and I think that when… So, the reason that I'm in the UK and no longer in California, is that my partner got a job out here and I was languishing and bored with the writing gig that I had, it was a technical writing gig. When I looked at the university where he'd gotten a job, they had a creative writing PhD program, which at the time, there weren't any in the States. It intrigued me to be able to do some sort of research aspect. Actually, the university had two different programs. One was a very traditional creative writing sort of thing. Write a novel, write some reflection on what you did to write the novel, and that's research.
Lyle Skains: That didn't intrigue me much. I'd done my MFA. I'd done that sort of thing. It wasn't that it interesting. But the other department was an interdisciplinary department with media and game studies and film and journalism and digital media and all this stuff. It really intrigued me, where narrative might be going in these different media that I hadn't considered. Particularly games, as the reader was so involved. That's where I started, and then the supervisor that I chose introduced me to digital fiction and I was absolutely hooked.
Brent Simmons: Suddenly, I'm thinking of Laurie Anderson. Do you remember Laurie Anderson?
Lyle Skains: Give me a context because right now I'm picturing a very blonde actress.
Brent Simmons: Okay. She was a musician, and she did ... Hard to describe. Very multimedia, William S. Burroughs-inspired kind of concerts. She did a song, “Language Is a Virus (From Outer Space)”.
Lyle Skains: Oh cool.
Brent Simmons: “O Superman,” some other stuff.
Lyle Skains: I'm terrible with music.
Brent Simmons: Oh, okay.
Annette Fuller: I'm the same, it must be writer thing.
Lyle Skains: Maybe
Annette Fuller: No, that's not true. I know a lot of writers who are good at music.
Brent Simmons: Yeah, anyway, not that I'm going anywhere with that. She just popped into my head, as an early person pushing multimedia into music.
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: Anyway.
Lyle Skains: A little bit like Nine Inch Nails was one of the first to do streaming music.
Brent Simmons: Oh, sure. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: So how do you use OmniOutliner in all this work? I imagine a lot of it is used for your research bibliographies?
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: Notes, that kind of thing?
Lyle Skains: Yeah, so contrary to the perception of both creative writers and artists and aquarians, which I am one. I am exceedingly anal retentive, and I must plan everything that I do. I really, really like hierarchical organization. Yeah, I use it for my research notes, I've used it extensively for the creative project that I'm working on now, which involves seven different stories across seven different timelines.
Annette Fuller: Wow.
Lyle Skains: It's been really helpful to me there to be able to pop back and forth and to be able to see, "Oh, okay, yeah. This is what's happening on that timeline." But I love being able to outline either a creative text or outline a research paper, or book, or idea, or conference paper and have them all in one place, and have every research resource that I have ever taken notes on, all in one file, and I can move through it. It's my massive bibliography. I can tag things and be able to search my bibliography for keywords and know that I've done some of this research already, and I can draw on that for new things. It's endlessly useful to me, and I also use it in teaching.
Lyle Skains: I don't use PowerPoint. I export my lecture notes to HTML, and I lecture from that.
Brent Simmons: Oh, cool.
Lyle Skains: I use it across lots of different things.
Brent Simmons: I love that combination of hierarchy and searchability.
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: I use OmniOutliner a ton. I used it for years even before joining Omni, so yeah. It's great for that.
Lyle Skains: Drink the Kool-Aid.
Brent Simmons: Yeah. Before I even ever thought of working here. Yeah. I love that you do your lectures from HTML, instead of PowerPoint or Keynote or something like that.
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: I think that's awesome.
Annette Fuller: I think your students probably appreciate the hierarchical pattern to the lecture notes as well, because it's so much easier to take notes when you can see the structure that you are taking those notes on, you know how much longer is this particular section of the lecture going to go on. So do I do a page or half a page? And being able to convey that with just the hierarchy of your lecture notes is pretty cool.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, absolutely. It's handy because, I already think in that outline, and so the fact that I can make those notes, and I can keep hidden notes from whatever text I've read, I don't necessarily have to give all of that to the students, the fact that I can just pick what I'm going to export, because I give them my lecture. I also post them once I've done the lecture, I put them on the virtual learning environment. They've got this nice HTML thing as opposed to PowerPoint that they can copy and paste. I can include links, images, all these sorts of things, because I teach multimedia, the fact that I can combine all of that stuff is really handy. Yeah.
Annette Fuller: That's awesome. So do you use the note field for tasks to hide your own notes and then when you export, you just don't include the note field?
Lyle Skains: I tend to not use the note field as much, and I think this is probably an artifact of the fact that I used to use a different software that didn't have that function. When that software went defunct, and I moved to OmniOutliner, I wasn't quite sure how to use it. But basically, I use the drop down arrows as I may need to, to be able to stick stuff in or take stuff out.
Brent Simmons: So as I was reading your blog, and ... Now we're jumping back away from OmniOutliner, because I think we covered that quite well.
Lyle Skains: There are videos on YouTube. I think that's how you all came across me to begin with, was you saw screenshots of me replying to somebody else on Twitter about how I use it.
Brent Simmons: Yeah, absolutely. And I'll link to that in the show notes as well. On your blog ... Let's see, I'll just read this quote, you write, "My creative work is pedestrian. I'm good with that; I do it deliberately. I'm not a poet, lyricist, or artist. I like stories. I like stories where the writing and the form don't get in the way. I know — why write digital fiction, then?" I found that quote super interesting. Because you might think that if somebody is innovating and pushing a form forward, they're doing it on all fronts. But you're deliberately trying to make stories that people relate to, that inner need to find out, "Oh, what's going to happen next?" Is totally a part of it.
Brent Simmons: I just think that's amazing, and wonder if you might talk yet even more about that.
Lyle Skains: You've picked my favorite topic. Well first of all, I'm a strange person to have gone through creative writing programs, because most creative writing programs don't allow you to do anything but literary fiction. I fought against that in my undergrad. I fought against that in my MFA. I had to sneak genre fiction in, because ... And I had to sneak interesting forms in my MFA. You were meant to write a novel for your final project, and yet in none of your workshops were you allowed to work on that novel.
Annette Fuller: Oh no.
Lyle Skains: Yeah. I worked full time, and I was doing my MFA part time. I was like, "This is insane." So I got sneaky and wrote my novel as a series of interconnected short stories, so each chapter stood alone as a short story that I would write in my classes and my workshops.
Brent Simmons: Uh-huh (affirmative). That's great.
Lyle Skains: Then I put them together in the end. I've been in situations where there are different departments or different instructors, and one will say, "Yeah, okay, science fiction is fine." Or, "No, you can't do fantasy because I don't understand fantasy." And there's this classist and very gendered discussion about genre fiction and about commercial fiction, and about Hollywood movies versus art movies, and these sorts of things. And wouldn't you know it, humans we like ... as I said, we like to impose the same ideas on new things. There are two factions for digital fiction and one comes from a very academic slash avant garde realm. Which is that it's all experimental.
Lyle Skains: We shouldn't care if people like it or want to buy it. We're doing it for art's sake. I came in and went, "Yeah, but if I want to do this as a writer, how do I make a living?" I want something that my mom can read, and understand, and look at, and talk to people about. To me something doesn't really become part of culture until you pull it down and make it so that people can enjoy it and traverse it and share it. We revere Shakespeare, but good god, Shakespeare wrote for the people in the ha'penny seats. It was bawdy and ribald and messy, and sex and all that stuff was happening, and murder, and that was Shakespeare.
Lyle Skains: We forget about that when we turn it into an art form, or an academic subject, or something like that. What I do is I like to take these bits of digitality, and just make the story new enough that it's interesting and it's fresh and it's novel, but not so much that you look at it and go, "I have no idea what's going on here. So I give up." I think it's interesting, if you… Did you all experience, I guess, Netflix's Black Mirror episode, "Bandersnatch"? The interactive episode?
Annette Fuller: No, I haven't yet.
Brent Simmons: Mark is nodding yes. Annette and I haven't experienced it. What did you think Mark?
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Mark Boszko: I really enjoyed it. I thought it was cool that when you got to a certain point where the story was not going to continue in the choices you had made, it rewound you to the last point where you could make a decision that was actually useful, and would get you closer to the ending that you might have wanted.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, so to me that is the quintessential… So all of us who research these things and are eyeballs deep in these things all the time, we all went, "Well, that's nothing new. They didn't really do anything interesting there." It was actually a running joke at a lot of the academic conferences that I went to, and I'm sitting there going, "Yeah, for us, that's nothing new." In fact, it wasn't even set in a modern time. It was set in the '80s, the days of the text adventure games. It was somebody writing a text adventure game. It was very much a choose your own adventure type thing. So it wasn't very innovative technologically or narratively, but it was a playable TV show that most people haven't experienced.
Lyle Skains: There are interactive movies, but they're sold more as games. They're not sold on Netflix and things like that. You're going to buy it on Steam or something like that. So most people haven't experienced that. And so what they did was they took something in a package that was completely familiar to everybody. So everybody knows Netflix, everybody can stream, everybody knows how to work their remote — hopefully, maybe not my mom, sorry mom — and they just added one new thing, which is that, you can choose your way through this text. Nothing about the story was novel or a bombshell.
Lyle Skains: Nothing else, it was just you can stream, you can choose the way this text goes. It was a huge hit. Lots of people saw it, lots of people talked about it, it had all the articles in The Guardian and all of this, but not because it was avant garde, because it was a story that just tweaked things just enough, that you wanted to play with them. I will say it's not the only one that Netflix does, mostly Netflix does these things with kids television.
Brent Simmons: Oh, really?
Lyle Skains: Yeah, they do a lot of interactive kids shows, or at least more than they do with adults, because kids don't have that resistance, and the modern generation expects that they're going to interact with their texts. I mean, if you've ever seen a kid walk up to a old TV and start tapping around on the screen, because they expect it to work that way, it's the same thing.
Brent Simmons: That's fascinating. Yeah. So kids are going to grow up with this as an expectation for the rest of their lives.
Lyle Skains: Absolutely.
Brent Simmons: On this story about Netflix doing this reminds me. It's a story. It's been repeated over and over. Like, the Macintosh computer came out in 1984, and none of the ideas were invented for the Macintosh. They grabbed them from other sources. But it's the first one to get in front of millions and millions of people.
Lyle Skains: Yep.
Brent Simmons: Yeah, it makes all the difference.
Lyle Skains: Charles Darwin wasn't the first guy to come up with the theory of evolution. He just said it in a way that people would understand, and he had the right timing.
Brent Simmons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: A lot of innovation in history is that way. It's not necessarily were you the first to something, but was it the right time? Was it the right space? Was it the right environment for people to accept it and go with it?
Annette Fuller: Did you have the right platform? Were you not a woman in the wrong time, discovering the thing and then your male colleagues take credit for it?
Lyle Skains: Oh, absolutely.
Brent Simmons: Wait, this is the first I'm hearing. Has this been a problem?
Lyle Skains: Oh, yeah.
Annette Fuller: So this is really interesting to me, the interaction between creator and the audience. And I wonder if you could talk about the potential introduction of anxiety in the part of an audience member. When you are doing a choose your own adventure, I'm always worrying like, "Am I making the right choice?" So how does that play in? Is the storyteller, is it incumbent upon them to consider that and decide where they want to heighten that tension for the reader, or choose whether the reader gets to go back or not, to choose something else? Is this a permanent choice for them? How does that play into the storytelling aspect?
Lyle Skains: That's a really interesting question. It's one of the key research questions that we keep exploring in this field over and over and over. So we talk about this continuum of engagement and immersion. Just to pull them apart a little bit, when we're trying to make a differentiation here, we talk about engagement as that level of attention that you're paying to something when you're actively playing a game, figuring out a puzzle, solving a problem, right? If you're reading a mystery, you can read, you know how to turn pages, et cetera. But you're trying to figure out who done it. That's more engagement than immersion.
Lyle Skains: Which is, immersion is this notion that the story is so good and so compelling or the experience is so good and so compelling, that the actual mechanism by which it's delivered falls away. You're at Pemberley with Darcy and Lizzie Bennet. To the point you don't see the sun go down and that you're now reading in the dark or that you're in a movie theater and the exit light is too bright, whatever it is, or that people are eating popcorn around you. We talk about games as having this high engagement level, but not terribly immersive. You're always aware that you're clicking A, B, A, B, or what ... I don't know.
Lyle Skains: The last time I played a console game was the Nintendo NES. You have this thing with digital fiction and interactive stories, where we know that that engagement of knowing that there are multiple paths, does create that anxiety. Have I picked one? And it pulls them out of the immersion? Right?
Annette Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: If you become aware of the environment that the narrative is being delivered on, you're not immersed in the story anymore. So that is definitely something that is a consideration. I think it goes back to comparing digital fiction to more ... I hate to say passive media, but it's easy to understand passive media like films, or plays, or novels, as something that ... It doesn't change according to ... It's the same book, whether you read it yesterday or tomorrow or 20 years from now. Now, that's not accounting for the cognitive changes in you, as you have different experiences, et cetera. But it's the same text.
Lyle Skains: And you know it's always going to be the same. The mechanism doesn't call itself to you. Anxiety is always there. And it's something that we as authors think about a lot, and it has a lot to do with audiences' familiarity with interfaces. Right now, all the digital interfaces, in digital fiction at least, are fairly novel. When we introduce undergraduate classes to hypertext fiction, they want it to read like a prose story, and the fact that it doesn't means they have a poor reaction to it. So I introduce these types of stories to my students in year one. By the time they're third years — which in UK undergraduate programs, they're only three years long.
Lyle Skains: By the time you get to third years, they're starting to come to me and give me these texts and go, "This is really cool. Look at this. Could you use this somehow?" So the novelty is off putting in some cases, because of the expectations you have going in. Because you expect it to be like prose, or you expect it to be like film, and it isn't, then you're dissatisfied. Whereas once you're used to it, once you're an experienced reader, you're like, "Yeah, fine, I know that I can come back to these links, or that's just part of it. Or it's never going to end, it's only going to end when I decide it ends." Whatever it is. You're like, "Yeah, cool, whatever." It doesn't bother you anymore.
Lyle Skains: So it's a familiarity thing. And because digital fiction doesn't have one set form, and it keeps trying to do new things, we're going to have that for a while. And we may always have that with new stuff. But I think as we become more familiar with it, that anxiety will fade away a bit.
Annette Fuller: That's fascinating.
Brent Simmons: Well, and kids growing up with it, perhaps will have less.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, it'll be fascinating to see. I mean, it's been interesting. I've been teaching this stuff for 12 years now, and when I first started teaching it, all the conversations were about, "But it's not a book, but I love books, but it's not as much fun. I don't like it." And now they're like, "Oh, yeah." So many students now will just come to me and say, "Oh, it's more like fan fiction." Where I can participate. I can choose the stories I want to read. I can say, "I don't like that fan fiction writer's take. I'm going to go with this one." I think that there are different areas where we're starting to see it happen already, where people feel like they should have ownership and agency in the text that they experience.
Annette Fuller: Yeah, I love that. It seems like immersion is the goal for any type of storyteller, digital or, as you said, passive media. The immersion aspect allows ... I think that may be that one element that increases empathy in people, and even teaches them about themselves. So when we experience story, we're practicing empathy, practicing walking in somebody else's shoes, but then there's also that element of what would I do in this situation? The character makes this choice in a passive media, and maybe I wouldn't make that choice.
Annette Fuller: But in digital stories, you get to decide for yourself sometimes whether you would do something or not, and that would teach you about yourself, which means that stories are this developing media for ... I don't know, teaching people to self analyze and discover who they are. That is so cool.
Lyle Skains: It's really interesting you say that, because that was actually a secondary finding in that research project that we did on the reading digital fiction project, where we asked people which link they were going to click, and why they were clicking it, and how they felt about the link afterward. I wrote the story for that study, and it came from one of my short stories, and it worked really well in a digital medium. But it was told in second person and a little bit like this precedes the book and TV show You.
Annette Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: But it was a little bit like that, in that the short story was in first person perspective, and the hypertext was in second person perspective, which is more the norm for games and digital fiction. And the protagonist is not a sympathetic character. It was really interesting to us to analyze the way that the readers talked about their choices. If it was a choice that they didn't have a problem with morally, they would say, "I. I chose this. I chose to go investigate." Or, "I chose to click on this." Or, "I chose to see what was happening." If it was a choice where they were starting to feel like it was a moral choice they wouldn't have made themselves, they would say "the character," or "he" or "she." "I'm going to make him do this" or "I'm going to punish him." And it was really fascinating to see how even linguistically they distanced themselves from that character that they didn't want to empathize with, or reflect in their own way of speaking.
Annette Fuller: That is so cool. I saw You and it's really interesting how that show plays with sympathizing with the quote-unquote villain and trying to blur those lines between knowing what we would do and what we wouldn't and yeah, it's really fascinating.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, I think You is a fantastic case study for narratology because it wasn't too long ago when the idea of an entire novel in second person perspective was just crazy. No one would have told you to do it, much less with an unsympathetic character like that. Clearly people found sympathy with him.
Annette Fuller: Yeah.
Lyle Skains: Which is disturbing.
Annette Fuller: Well, and it's getting more popular, I think. Are there at least more excellent examples of it in novels? I think N. K. Jemisin has a novel that's in second person, and it works really, really well. But you have to be a pretty accomplished writer to do it. You have to know enough of the conventions to get out of your own way and let the story tell itself, so that you're not breaking that, as Brent reminded me before the show, the willing suspension of disbelief, because as soon as the reader or the experiencer starts thinking about how something is being told, then they're not immersed in the story anymore, as you were saying, Lyle.
Lyle Skains: Absolutely and second person perspective is one of the most difficult, narratively, to deal with, because it's so intimate. And yet interestingly, it is the standard, it is the most common convention in games. If you go back to text adventure games, they're almost all second person perspective. So that thing where, when we use it in games, we want the player to put themselves in that role. That's the entire reason we use the "you" perspective. In the novel, we've gone of this evolution of the novel, as it's supposed to be mimetic. Originally it was supposed to be something that, you couldn't even write in present tense because how would someone write in present tense and still be in the scene, that sort of thing ... That was considered very unnatural.
Lyle Skains: Now we're seeing present tense all over the place and second person emerging this way. We're borrowing from different media and different familiarities, and being able to do some cool stuff in our existing or old or traditional media, or analog media, because we're getting audiences that know different ways of seeing things.
Annette Fuller: Technology is probably helping a lot with all of this. When you have digital storytelling, you are able to blur those lines between different mediums. So it's not that novels are siloed, and film is siloed. And we can combine all of these things. And that, I think, just opens up this brand new toolbox for storytellers. It's not necessarily about how you're telling the story, and you have to tell it using specific conventions, it's what story do I want to tell and how do I best get that across?
Lyle Skains: Absolutely. One of the things I came across and one of the things I found for my PhD work, was the more you immerse yourself as a creator in different media, the more that you will find yourself able to parse out what story belongs in what medium. And I struggled initially in my PhD, because I did creative practice for part of it. And my idea was that I would write a novella. And then I would adapt that to digital fiction. And it worked great for the first chapter, and it fell on its face for the second chapter.
Annette Fuller: Oh, no.
Lyle Skains: Because the second chapter's character and situation was very digital. I tried to write it out all in prose, and I hated it. It was awful. I had to let it sit for four months, it was the worst.
Annette Fuller: Yeah.
Lyle Skains: Then when I said "fine, I will try something digital with it," it just came out like a house on fire. I went, "Oh, well, so this was never really meant to be a prose piece. This was meant to be a digital piece." Part of what I teach is finding the right medium for a story. Just as we find the right voice, we find the right tense and tone, we need to find the right medium now because, we can. It's not as expensive as it used to be to write in different media. So, we might as well use the one that best suits the story.
Brent Simmons: What are some of the characteristics that might make something more appropriate for digital versus prose?
Lyle Skains: Interesting. So I'm going to go to the creative project that I'm working on now. It helps that it was envisioned to be this way. But what I'm experimenting now is putting hypertext stories in eBooks that you can read on eReaders. You don't just read a novel on the eReader, you have links within it that go to different places within the novel. This is what I was talking about with "Bandersnatch," which is just a little bit of innovation in a familiar environment. The bonus to this is that unlike most digital fiction, eBooks already have a path to market, we expect to pay for them.
Brent Simmons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Annette Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brent Simmons: Yeah.
Lyle Skains: So that's another element of my research, is publishing. So, the premise behind the story is the same woman, but with seven different alternate histories. So I took seven points in the history of the 20th century and said, "Okay, what if that didn't happen? How would it change the world, and thus how would it change the character?" So there are seven different storylines, seven different worlds, and they're all set across parallel time. So it's all set in the present, and across the same time span. So you've basically got a stacked narrative, where you've got character 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and they're all stacked on top of each other. If you don't like the first character, you can choose to pop into another character's story, and go "You know what, I'm really sick of this."
Lyle Skains: This came from how much I disliked Game of Thrones.
Brent Simmons: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: Because there's so many characters, I couldn't tell all the old white guys apart. All I really wanted was Denarius and ... I can't remember everybody's name, Aria, and the character that Peter Dinklage played. And then I could do without the rest of them. I was like, "I don't care about the rest of it." And I wanted to be able to choose. To say, "Great, you can have the rest of the old white guy war stuff. And I just want these characters' story." It's a very simple thing to do with digital fiction, it's not very complex. It's just choose your own path through the story. But I wanted to be able to do it in a way that isn't your basic choose your own adventure thing where it's character based, rather than plot based.
Lyle Skains: The story I was talking about my PhD that didn't work when I tried it in prose, was because that character communicates through Twitter and blog and social media. When I tried to write it out as prose, nothing functioned. When I said, "Fine, I will write her Twitter feed." It was great because absolutely how that character was envisioned. So there are lots of things. You can have something where I see a lot of my students like to play with the idea of choice. That you can choose one way or the other and because as creative writers, we tend to go, "Okay, well, I'm writing a prose piece, the story can only work out one way."
Lyle Skains: And they don't consider all the other options. Whereas you sit them in front of a tool like Twine, which is really great for storytelling and thinking non-linearly, they can suddenly think of lots of different ways their story can go, and lots of different alternatives. That's the kind of thing that lends itself to digital media, which is, there's more than one opportunity, there's more than one path, there's more than one way to skin the cat as it were. And the digital media just allow you to play it out that way.
Annette Fuller: That's so great. And I think it behooves us to break some of the narrative traditions because for so long, the popular stories or the commercial stories were dominated by whoever was in power at the time. If we can break away from those modes of storytelling in some ways, maybe that will encourage more diverse voices too. Publishing has this big problem right now, there's not enough diverse voices. Most of the people who work in publishing are of a specific demographic. The more we can branch out and say, "There's not just one path to telling a story. There's not just one path to success," maybe that can give people more opportunities to break into something like digital storytelling where everyone has access to some form of that, like you can ... Well, not everybody, but you can get on the internet and hopefully share your story that way.
Lyle Skains: Absolutely. We've already seen it in Twine. So I don't know if you know the history of Twine as a platform. Twine is this online tool, specifically created to create digital fiction, to create hypertext fiction or text adventure games. It goes either way. And it's free, it's open source, it's online. Chris Klimas created it in 2009. And put it out on the internet, people had a little bit of fun with it. And it kind of languished, and he almost stopped developing it. Then an indie game developer named Anna Anthropy, discovered it and did some really cool things with it, and convinced other people who were fed up with AAA games, which is a little bit like publishing in that it's a very limited demographic, but it's far more male dominant.
Lyle Skains: Y'know, cishet male. And obviously after Gamergate, we know that it's got problems. And Anna Anthropy promoted it for indie game developers. And after 2012 you just see this surge of LGBTQ, just marginalized voices, religious minorities, people of color, writers of color, people who couldn't find their voice in other arenas, could write very personal stories in Twine, and put them out there and share them with one another. It became this tool for marginalized voices and it was brilliant, and there are still amazing stories to be had there. But I think that that definitely illustrates just what you were talking about, which is the opportunity for these voices that we haven't had before, to be heard.
Annette Fuller: And hopefully paid for it, eventually.
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Annette Fuller: That's the goal, right?
Brent Simmons: Yeah.
Lyle Skains: That's the thing, that I run a small press called Wonderbox Publishing and I've actually just pulled the trigger on building a platform for self publishing and selling digital fiction. So hopefully, there will be something emerging within the next few months.
Brent Simmons: Oh, that's great news. Very cool.
Annette Fuller: Yeah. As a storyteller, thank you for doing this work.
Lyle Skains: I'm trying. Hopefully, I hang on to my job so that I can pay for the website. Nothing's ever free. But it's something that I've wanted to do and been talking about doing for a really long time. So yeah.
Brent Simmons: We like to end these shows, when we can, by talking about cats and dogs. I think you've got a few of them, I noticed, on your blog.
Lyle Skains: You said you wanted to end the show or are we going to talk now for another three or four hours about cats and dogs?
Brent Simmons: So, usually we shoot for a half an hour. I don't mind if it ... We've gone for almost an hour now. So I'm thinking about wrapping up, unless… I could take a nap while you guys continue.
Annette Fuller: I can talk about cats and dogs for hours. Let's do it.
Lyle Skains: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: Yeah. I saw a picture you had posted of a very lovely dark charcoal gray tabby with some coppery bits. Is that Moose?
Lyle Skains: That's Moose. Yep.
Brent Simmons: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: He is my constant companion. We adopted him summer last year. We have two girl cats, Thelma and Esme. And they are mighty huntresses and they are tiny. Thelma, we were convinced that she was a kitten when we got her, and she absolutely was not. She's just that tiny. And Moose is the opposite. So we chose his name after Sam Winchester on Supernatural. He is Moose and quite often Moosifer.
Brent Simmons: Moosifer. Yeah.
Lyle Skains: And I live in the UK so, I grew up in New Mexico, which you would never have an outdoor cat, unless it was a feral or barn cat or something, because coyotes would eat it. In the UK there's really nothing that predates on cats. So they're all outdoors cats. I've had to get used to, but Moose is indoor cat by choice. We do have a pet door and he absolutely will not use it. He says he lives inside, and it is warm, and there's food there, and why would he ever go out there?
Brent Simmons: What a good kitty.
Lyle Skains: He's wonderful.
Annette Fuller: My cat's the same. We've got a big XL dog door for my dog, and the cat just won't use it. Which is great for me because I want an indoor only cat.
Lyle Skains: Yeah, I know. I was thinking. We adopted Moose because I lost one on the road, and I thought, "Oh, maybe I should get a special needs cat like a blind cat or something where they need to stay inside." And Moose just, by choice, stays where it's safe.
Brent Simmons: Do you have dogs too, thought I saw something about dogs?
Lyle Skains: Yeah. Two dogs. My oldest is 16. We brought her to Wales with us from the states. So she's a New Mexico dog by birth, and she does not think that the rain and the cold are all that great. On our rare sunshiny days you will find her out sunning herself, outside in the sun, or in the winter in front of the fire. Then we have Newt whose full name is Newton Tiberius Falcor, which is what happens when two geeks name things, and can't agree on one name. He's a dog that we adopted from a rescue that got him from Spain. So they're all farm critters now because we have a small farm in North Wales and they have a good time running around.
Brent Simmons: Oh, that's great. Oh what fun to be on a farm with a bunch of animals.
Lyle Skains: It's heaven. It's absolute paradise.
Brent Simmons: Yeah, I believe it. Yeah. When it's not too awful to go outside.
Lyle Skains: Well, yeah, that.
Brent Simmons: Well, we're here in Seattle, so we know exactly what that is like.
Lyle Skains: Yep, very similar weather.
Annette Fuller: That's my favorite kind of weather. It's all I ever want. I don't need sunlight.
Lyle Skains: Me too. I like it. I like it gray and mild and sometimes dark.
Annette Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: Yep.
Annette Fuller: Sets a good mood.
Lyle Skains: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It does.
Brent Simmons: You can't see me but I'm crying right now. I do like a little more sun, but I'll be all right.
Lyle Skains: Well, my partner's from the tropics. So he struggles a little bit in the winter here. But he misses the sun. So you have an ally.
Brent Simmons: But if Wales is anything like Seattle, the springs and summers make up for it. It's like the most beautiful place in the world.
Lyle Skains: Yeah. The one week where we have summer is pretty glorious.
Brent Simmons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lyle Skains: It never really gets above 75 degrees here.
Brent Simmons: In Seattle, it starts reliably July 5th, and lasts for a week.
Annette Fuller: They're getting longer since I moved up here. I think I've brought the California curse with me or something. Because the summers have been longer and very sunny. I think the weather there the temperature has gotten up to like California levels sometimes, we'll be in the high 90s. And I'm like, "Why am I here? Do I need to move farther north?"
Brent Simmons: I'm fine with it.
Annette Fuller: Yeah.
Brent Simmons: I feel the dampness on the inside of my bones. So I need a few 90 degree days to bake out.
Lyle Skains: I hope that doesn't happen here. They don't have air conditioning here. So I'm really hoping temperatures don't get that high here.
Brent Simmons: Oh, right.
Annette Fuller: Yeah, a lot of places in Seattle don't have air conditioning either. None of the rental houses I've stayed in have had it.
Brent Simmons: All right, well. Thanks, Lyle. How can people find you on the web?
Lyle Skains: Absolutely. My website is lyleskains.com. I have a weird name. So I'm imminently Google-able.
Brent Simmons: Easy to find. Cool. And of course that will be in the show notes and people can just click on it even.
Lyle Skains: Fab.
Brent Simmons: I'd also like to thank Annette for being an awesome co-host for this show. Thanks so much, Annette.
Annette Fuller: Thanks for having me again. This is really fun.
Brent Simmons: I'd also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.
Mark Boszko: Hello, Mark.
Brent Simmons: And especially I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music.
SFX: [MUSIC PLAYS]