Opening Up The Storybox

One of my highlights of the year has to be the four weeks in February-March I spent with four other people locked in a room. Seriously.

We were working on a prototype which was essentially the next iteration of the Mythology Engine – or at least, one possible next iteration. I’ve spoken at a couple of events about what came out of those four weeks, namely, what we’ve called ‘Storybox’, but I thought it was about time that I wrote something about it.

With the backing of Chris Sizemore, Andrew Barron and I set about recruiting a team, Mission Impossible style. Our mission? Well, the Mythology Engine got a great reception, but there was one main (constructive) criticism which I was keen to address. Although we did test the model using Eastenders content, most attention was given to the Doctor Who content, and as such, there was a feeling that this kind of thing may only appeal to hardcore fans, as a reference work. That’s true, though I’d argue the real value in the Mythology Engine was the underlying model, together with the application we built on top of it – the point being that we could have built a completely different application, which was less focused on being a reference-type site.

And so, the Storybox project set out with two aims – this time, focus more on the telling rather than the plot, and try a different genre of fiction. Andrew and I enlisted the services of esteemed and experienced writer, David Varela; coder par excellence, Tom Stuart, and UX all-rounder, Michael Atherton. Before the four weeks kicked off properly, we met to share influences and experiences – the ones which had the greatest effect, I’d suggest, were The Whale Hunt, by Jonathan Harris, and Telescopic Text by Joe Davis.

Personally speaking, I was keen to explore a more mainstream, action/thriller genre than we had done with the Mythology Engine. The influence that I brought to the party was 24. The famous split screen effect, and indeed the whole premise of the show, was around events linked by their shared moment in time. So, if we looked at that in terms of the Web, we could have a URI for each moment in time, and recreate the split screen through linked data. And that’s kind of what we ran with.


A Character's Perspective in Storybox
A Character's Perspective in Storybox

So, as you can see above, the bulk of the site is focused around these moments in time. You’re looking at this moment in time, the second in Episode Three, from a single character’s point of view (indicated to the left of the text). The other characters who are involved in the action at this point are indicated on the right of the text, and there’s a little map to show you where the action is taking place. Above the main content, there’s a kind of progress bar – it shows you how many moments (visualised as ‘towers’) are in each episode, and the height of each tower shows you how much is going on – how many characters are involved. So you can see, at a glance, that in Episode Two a lot happens over a short amount of time, whereas Episode Seven is spread out a bit more evenly. Crucially, whilst you can click on the towers for the moments behind you in the story, we don’t let you skip forward, in order to avoid spoilers.

Finally, the red highlight around a particular word indicates that this will take you to the next moment in time. There’s only one of these links in most moments in time, so you are encouraged to read all the characters’ perspectives. This was an interesting conversation – we could have put loads of links in, kind of like the Mythology Engine, but, as mentioned above, this was more about the telling. David would write the story, divided up into moments, and I’d decide which scenes would work well when linked together – kind of akin to an editor putting shots together for a film.

The Character Map in Storybox
The Character Map in Storybox

At the end of each episode, you have the choice of viewing the character map. This was a similar idea to one we explored in the Mythology Engine, and most successfully captured, in my opinion, by Channel 4’s Who Knows Who. The idea here being that at the end of the episode, you can see how the characters are connected based on what has been revealed about them so far. So, as the episodes progress, the map becomes more intertwined as connections are revealed.

A Character's Profile in Storybox
A Character's Profile in Storybox

Clicking on a character in the map, takes you to the URI for that character, at that point in the story. Specific biographies were written by David, summarising the plot but also giving some extra details for each character too. The links at the bottom allow you to jump directly to the scenes that the character is in, and the character map is now centred on your chosen character.

It’s worth noting at this point how much of this is data driven – the character maps are pretty much entirely so. The more data we captured about a specific piece of text (characters, relationships, locations, moments), the more interesting things we could do with them – and the number of different ways in which we could represent that information. Ideally, we’d complement the HTML views with XML, JSON, RDF etc, but unfortunately we ran out of time, and decided to focus on the polished prototype. But I think this is the most important point that we came to realise – the more modelled data you capture about something, the more stuff you can build on top. It’s often a hard sell, when there’s some fairly simple things you can do (and indeed, the site could easily have been constructed in a much simpler way), but the potential is ripe for more exploration.

The Admin Interface for Storybox
The Admin Interface for Storybox

I won’t go too much into the admin interface at this point, though you can see the grid of characters and moments that David could play with, along with the linked map of moments (data driven, of course) that I strung together in my role as editor. But hopefully it shows that this was an interesting and useful experiment. Something I’d like to explore for next time is the gradual revelation of information as the story progresses – you can see hints of this in the way the character maps & pages evolve, but this is a key part of storytelling, in my opinion, and something we could play around with much more.

Up until now, I’ve only really shown screenshots here and in person – but now, I’d like to open it up to everyone – you can explore Storybox yourself here. We have the data and the code available to be repurposed and built upon – we’d love to see this taken further, as long as due credit is given, and it’s used for a non-commercial purpose. The lovely folks at Cyfle have already had a play, so why not have a go, too? Get in touch with any member of the Storybox team – Andrew Barron, David Varela, Tom Stuart, Mike Atherton or myself, and we’ll tell you more (huge thanks to all involved for working on this with me – let’s do it again sometime…) Enjoy!


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