Thursday, July 22, 2004

Digital Fiction and Renovating the DEN

Intimacies is, in the words of its developers, a -- for a good mouthy workout -- digital epistolary novel, or DEN, for an equally ugly but briefer name. Though you might not be familiar with the term, you're probably aware of the epistolary novel form: they're novels consisting of, most commonly, a correspondence of letters between characters, though which we see the story's narrative unfold. They can also consist of such things as diary entries and newpaper clippings -- see Wikipedia if you want more details.

Intimacies presents a story though a series of e-mails, web pages, and instant messages that the reader can view though a program that is meant to simulate the interfaces of our e-mail, web and instant messaging clients.

That story involves an mis-sent e-mail that leads to growing on-line relationship, and eventually to an in-person meeting with some serious consequences. The story takes place over five weeks and you get to see the e-mails between the two protagonists, as well as some e-mails between them and their co-workers, family, friends and a few other characters the story introduces (plus some related web-pages, and one or two instant messaging conversations). While its nothing exceptional, I found it a quite enjoyable read. And since there's less text than you'd find in a typical novel, its also a fairly quick read. You can download a copy for free at the website.

What interests me more than the story is the potential of the medium. I did feel that it worked better as a program than it would have been as a bunch of e-mails printed on paper. The semi-realistic interface did seem to add something. Having an inbox there in front of you and clicking on e-mails to read them seemed to help it feel more real.

What I want to consider is how we can take this further, to make it more immersive. That consideration can start with the way Intimacies was implemented. Aside from some problems in execution that will no doubt be fixed up in future versions of the software, there were some problems that detracted from the immersion.

Though the software presents a simulation of an e-mail client, in some ways it's actually quite unlike a real e-mail client. There isn't an e-mail client for each character, showing the e-mails they've received, but only a single e-mail client, whose inbox contains all of the e-mails, regardless of who they've been sent to. So while the inbox interface does give you a sense of using an e-mail program, and while it gives you a sense of the chronology of the e-mails, since you're seeing e-mails that in reality would be distributed across different e-mail clients on differnet people's computers at different physical locations, since you're seeing them all in the one place, it feels a little weird.

Thus, an obvious change would be to better represent the different characters and the e-mails they receive, by having a separate client for each character. This would introduce some other issues, such as how the proper chronology of e-mails could be presented to the reader, but I'll address that in a moment. Because all the e-mails were lumped together in the original program, it was often difficult distinguish between some of the minor characters. For example, two of the characters are the guy's workmates, and I just couldn't remember which was which. If each character had their own e-mail client, and especially if they each looked different -- different fonts, differnet arrangement, etc -- then this wouldn't be such an issue.

The story takes place over the course of five weeks. The current interface includes five buttons across the top of the window, one for each of the weeks, and below this is a second row of seven buttons, one for each day of the week. So if the reader clicks the Week One button and then clicks the Monday button, the inbox will display all of the e-mails for that day. As soon as you click that button all of those e-mails are there. Giving the user control to move between weeks and days does, I think, help enhance the level of reader-immersion. I think, however, that this temporal immersion could be increased.

The user could be given finer control over the time, along with a greater sense of its progression and the points at which occurrences such as the sending of e-mails happen. I would suggest a little console separate from the e-mail clients, showing the date on something like a desk calendar and the time on an analogue clockface. The console would also contain a button to move time forward to the next occurrence. When the user clicks on this button, the hands would move around to when the next e-mail is sent. If the next e-mail is on the next day, the desk calendar page would flip over. The reader would get a sense of how much time is passing between e-mails. The idea would be that over the course of a day, you might see something like the following: a flurry of e-mail exchanges in the morning, then a long wait for a certain reply for a few hours, which then finally comes late in the afternoon.

Once the time has been moved forwards to the next occurrence, the person's e-mail client that's received the e-mail would be displayed and the console could display that person's name. This Next Occurrence button would make sure the reader sees the e-mails in the correct chronological order.

If occurrences that the user could navigate between included both the sending of e-mails and the receiving of e-mails, then you could exploit this to do things such as the following. You could have a situation where one character has been waiting for a while for a reply to their e-mail and thinks the second character has just ignored their e-mail. Whereas, the second character sent a reply a while back but the network has been slow and it hasn't gone through. So after waiting for a while, the first character sends an angry e-mail to the second character. It'd be like in the digital equivalent of those wacky scenes in movies where each character misunderstands what's going on with the other (I'm not explaining myself very well, but I can't think of a concrete example) -- oh, wait, maybe that's not such a good idea, I find those plot elements really friggin annoying :-). But, as they say, execution is everything, and I'm sure they can be done well, whatever the medium.

The two main feature additions -- having separate e-mail clients for each character and a way to move forwards to the next occurrence -- could be executed in a number of ways, and the details I've given above are meant just to give an idea of how it could be done. There could be different tabs to access each character's e-mail client, for example.

There's also a number of small details to consider, such what to do if the user could jump to a particular person's e-mail client when they are not receiving an e-mail. Perhaps the client could be slighly greyed out, to indicate that perhaps they're receiving e-mails from other people or they're writing e-mails, but that these details, since they aren't of relevance to the story, aren't shown. Also, to make the e-mail clients seem more realistic, you could populate their inboxes with other e-mail unrelated to the story but slighly grey them out and don't let the reader open them from the inbox (because of course there's no real e-mails behind them). I haven't systematically considered all such possibilities, but there doesn't seem like there would be an problematic ones that couldn't be dealt with.

It occurred to me that another way to immerse the reader would be to let them see character's drafting e-mails. That is, to see the e-mail client and the words appear as the character types them, seeing the mouse cursor move, etc. There are of course various ways this could be done. Perhaps it would be too tedious to see this for all the e-mails, but at least sometimes it could give you interesting insights into the characters to see which parts of their replies they draft in a breeze, which things they're saying they have trouble finding the words for, and what they write but then decide to change in their drafting. It's something that seems difficult to convey with static media, and I think you could do some interesting stuff with this. Personally, I would find it interesting to be able to see how people go about writing things. That's a perspective you just don't get much of a chance to have, and from it perhaps you could learn something interesting about people.


  1. > It occurred to me that another way to immerse the
    > reader would be to let them see character's drafting
    > e-mails.

    Unless there is an additional audio stream (to convey what the character is thinking) I don't think this would add as much as you might like.

    The only example i can sight is the "hack the matrix" game. It forces you to watch each and every character be typed onto the screen, well beyond the point where it feels "interactive" or "real". The end result text was rarely worth waiting for.

    Plus imagining passing time isn't that difficult - I do it every time I read a book or see a movie.

  2. Hey Michael,

    Fiar comments. Here's my thoughts. I would be surprised if there wasn't anyway to make it interesting enough. You could, for example, edit the clip of the drafting, to show only the interesting parts (just as is done in films). And yes, it would probably more interesting to show a touch-typist drafting an e-mail than a two-figer typist :-). Regarding your other comment, I wasn't trying to say that imagining passing time is difficult, but that perhaps things could be done to increase the sense of time progressing, to make it seem more real. When I was reading that Intimacies digital epistolary novel, having to click on the buttons to go to the next day did seem to help me get into the novel's timeframe. It was a subtle thing, but it made a difference to my experience of it.