The problem with speculating upon how to develop a story in the computer medium, or elsewhere, by merely observing and theorising upon previous creations, is that what will work well cannot be known until creators are fully within the act of creation. In the doing, whole new possibilities can become apparent which have not been thought about before.
I chose to create a work based upon The Odyssey. This proved useful in several ways. First, The Odyssey is a familiar work. Most people have had some sort of contact with the story of Odysseus. In this way the audience's awareness of what I have done that is unique to the computer medium could be heightened, demonstrating the utility of my approach.
Also, I have determined that the most effective way to tell a computer-mediated story is to use what I have called the Odysseyan climax structure. This is where a story has multiple points of climax, often of roughly similar impact. The Odysseyan climax structure is in contradistinction to an Iliadic climax structure whereby the whole story builds up to a single defining climax. Using The Odyssey helps to demonstrate that other structures have been successfully used since the dawn of written literature, and that they are particularly apt for this new medium.
Finally, the story lent itself well to the application of the story shapes, especially since the plot has a dual thrust between the story of Odysseus and the story of Telemakhos.
With these points working in my favour I hope to establish the value of my theories in computer-mediated storytelling. In this section I will make explicit the relationships between my creative development theory for computer-mediated storytelling and the project that was used to both demonstrate and refine it.
My mother has always been fond of Greek myths, so I was read many of the stories of The Odyssey as a child. Wanting to imagine myself in the leading roles of these and other stories, in my mind I frequently switched character genders. So my most immediate theme became what would it be like to be a female Odysseus in the mythic world of the Odyssey. This meant I needed to think through the genders of all the characters.
The deities were a simple matter because within The Odyssey these characters are not very gender bound, and frequently take on either gender. So I chose to make them "non-gender specific" and used non-gender specific pronouns when referring to them. This opened up the use of the interactive story shape in order to explain these pronouns. The only place non-gender specific deities proved problematic was the story of Eris and the golden apple of discord.
The argument that broke out amongst the deities had to do with feminine beauty. However, the message tied to the apple that started the fight is usually translated as "For The Fairest". Fair can be defined in more than one way in English, so I took advantage of this ambiguity. However, Hera, Aphrodite and Athena do use what might be called "feminine wiles" in order to win the title of "The Fairest". This ends up gender typing these characters. I also had to think about how Demodokos would tell this story. Whether or not my deity characters are genderless, he might tell the story from a more gendered perspective. Nevertheless, with using the non-gender specific pronoun any gendered behaviour ended up feeling like play-acting, which I found interesting in its own right.
So another developing theme became how we experience gender. Nevertheless, I did not want Odysseus, She to be overwhelmed by a simple "shoe on the other foot" style story. Therefore, I left most characters the same gender, as in the original story, with the exception of Odysseus' own family.
Penelope became the husband, Penelopos. Odysseus' child had to be female, otherwise the situation with the suitors would not make sense. This provided a nice opportunity for another use of story shapes. Odysseus and her daughter, Telemakhe, could become counterpoints to one another forming multi-pathing strands. Odysseus could represent a woman who has "masculinised" herself in order to attain high position within a male-dominated, hierarchical society, and Telemakhe could represent a more integrated younger generation that does not need to take on roles to attain empowerment; all behaviours are available to all genders. Another theme became: what is it to be an empowered woman.
Readers of Odysseus, She will note that I provide few if any physical details of my characters. Rather, they are defined by what they think, feel and do. This is a conscious choice. The approach is an extension of my desire to not only place myself in the position of the protagonist, but to open the door for others to do the same. Characters then become available to readers who may be young, old, fat, thin, caucasian, african, asian or whatever. I enjoy and encourage others to read in a highly interactive way, whether or not the story is told on a computer. So my theme about being an empowered woman was somewhat extended to become: what is it to be an empowered human being.
Using the non-gender specific pronoun more extensively might enhance this theme, though this pronoun feels too unfamiliar as a literary device at this time. In the future an application may be developed for digital storytelling which would give the audience the multi-pathing opportunity of selecting the protagonist's gender from the outset.
A theme I found in the original Odyssey, which particularly interested me, was that of the nature of family and couple relationships. Many different types of close relationships are presented throughout the story, serving as models for comparison and contrast. Each relationship is portrayed as successful or unsuccessful depending upon the morés of Homer's time. I re-explored these relationships from a more modern set of morés to suggest new and interesting insights into how things are today and how they might be between people. None of us are empowered alone. Therefore additional themes from this perspective became: what is it that we should value in a relationship and what makes a relationship successful? These blend together with the previous themes when the story demonstrates that the most vital relationships are those between empowered equals.
The original outline I made for creating Odysseus, She contained both more and less than what is presented here. I went through the original story and broke the story down into an outline of the major events. I then thought quite hard about how these events fit in with one another chronologically and thematically, and how I could best represent the story using a computer.
The results were that I organised the story not so much to be a repeatable reading experience with unique readings each time, but rather to emulate Odysseus and Telemakhe's experiences and to offer the audience an opportunity to enhance their experience.
Each character begins by following a unique path which eventually merges; the braided multi-pathing story shape. Along the way the audience can learn about non-gender specific pronouns as I have used them in relationship to the deities, find a recipe for baklava, see a few graphic works representing the events, etc., the enhanced path story shape. At the party on Phaiakia I use the sequential sets shape to emulate how someone might wander from experience to experience at that event, as whim might take them. When Odysseus and Telemakhe finally do meet, for one frame I emphasize the joining of their perspectives in an overtly multi-pathing construction.
Finally, I dislike the ending to the original story of The Odyssey. Good and bad alike Odysseus slaughters the suitors and his servants because they abused the laws of hospitality. Since I was already rewriting the work, I was in a position to give The Odyssey a more satisfying ending according to a more contemporary outlook. However, rather than completely elimimating the original ending, I decided to let the audience choose from a variety of endings. In this way Odysseus, She ends in the tree-branching shape. I fully expect people to go back to the decision points and try all of the choices, but that first choice says something about the person making it on Odysseus' behalf and they must wear the consequences in some small way like Odysseus does.
So unlike other pieces of hyperfiction which set out to present a jigsaw of events that the audience must assemble for themselves into their own system of meaning, Odysseus, She is more about increasing the audience's involvement, perhaps making the experience feel more real.
When I began my investigations into computer-mediated storytelling, I wanted to create a comprehensible story and not a potentially confusing mass of narrative fragments. Putting together a novel length project to demonstrate how this was possible certainly proved a challenge, and brought to fore the importance of unifying narrative devices.
For Odysseus, She I was able to draw upon potent plot devices from the original Odyssey to bring the story together. Odysseus has a strong desire to get home. The audience finds out how strong with the string of obstacles Odysseus faces and yet still continues her journey. At various points she could have just stopped, saying "enough", and lived happily ever after. However, her dedication to her husband and child drive her on and helps enlist the interest of the audience to see that she makes it.
Telemakhe faces the threat of unruly suitors who wish to force her into a marriage of convenience, so that they can rule Ithaka. She believes that reconnecting with her mother will give her the strength she needs to live freely. Hers is not as dramatic a journey. Her need to know about her mother is more about her need to know about herself. The narrative hooks of "will she be able to marry for love" and "will she find her mother" do go some way toward holding her story together, but I ended up feeling that my own curiosity about what personal discoveries I would lead her to at each step was the more tenuous, but more interesting unifying force to her story.
My desire was also to make this fantastical ancient Greece sufficiently interesting in its humour and strangeness, that simply the desire to be immersed in the experience of it would also hold an audience's interest.
From my experience of creating Odysseus, She I feel I have developed a sophisticated, broad and flexible methodology for computer-mediated storytelling. I am keen to continue creating stories within this medium including more graphics, sound and programming elements.
Copyright 1999 Katherine Phelps