Narratives that unfold before our eyes are powerfully moving, but sometimes we’re moved to go a step further – to interact with the medium of a story’s creation, generating the narrative as we go. The impulse to take part in the construction of a story has spurred everything from 19th century war games to today’s World of Warcraft communities, from interactive television game shows to the cutting edge interactive documentaries online today.

Kriegsspiel (War Games)

The Prussian Army made use of tactical war games to educate their officers and prepare them for strategic thinking on the battlefield.

Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz created the first piece of hardware for war gaming: a wooden table top on which pieces were laid and game play carried out. A set of drawers underneath stored the game pieces, including modular landscape tiles of rivers, mountains, and plains that could reconstitute the battleground of each scenario, figures to move across the playing field, and dice to determine the action.

Many of the rules and features of Reiswitz’s Kriegsspiel remain foundations of fantasy war games and RPGs today: the visualization of the battleground as game world, inclusion of a neutral third-party player who interpreted the outcome of each turn (Reiswitz called this player the “confidant,” but we know him as the game master or Dungeon Master of modern games), and rules that restricted player communications to enhance the realism of the experience by encouraging role playing, not just strategic thinking.

Reiswitz’s table-top game became a mainstay of officer training in the Prussian army. As their victories and successful military campaigns mounted, several other European countries adopted the war gaming method to instruct their officer class in military strategy. But it wasn’t only in military practice that Reiswitz’s creation took hold. The excitement of enacting a live battle scenario in which opponents’ skills pitted them against one another and against the chance outcomes possible in play pushed the game into popular use, introducing the concept of interactive tactical gaming that continues to be popular today.


Film Explicateurs

The first silent films were far from silent – film screenings in the early 1900s included not just music and sound effects but a “lecturer” who interpreted the on-screen action to the audience, responding to the crowd and drawing them into the experience of the film.

The practice of ‘film lecturing’ connected early silent cinema to the music hall performance culture of the day. Many film lecturers were stage performers who adapted their skills to merge with the new moving image entertainments, bringing the silent screen to life with colorful commentary, props, performance, and creative interpretations of scenes and intertitles. Louis Hartlooper, pictured, was one of the most prominent Dutch lecturers, or "explicators."

Film lecturers served many functions, shaped by the requirements and responses of a particular audience. They added a local spin on international content, spoke character lines and described the mood of the scene, and even commented on the actions of people in the crowd. Audiences often responded to these colorful characters with shouts, flowers and gifts, all exchanged as a part of the show.

The phenomenon flourished around the world in the early days of film, from the lecturers of the UK and US, to the explicateur in the Netherlands, and the thriving Benshi tradition in Japan. As the film industry pushed for greater standardization throughout the 1910s, however, the role of film lecturer was slowly edged out. While this practice continued on a minor scale, particularly in ethnic cinemas, the lecturer of the first decade of film is now only a figure from history – but one who reminds us of the long-standing impulse to not just view but interact with the medium before us.



Computers were forever re-imagined as more than serious workplace tools with SpaceWar!, the first computer game.

Every popular computer game owes a debt to SpaceWar!, the first computerized game and the project that popularized computer use for entertainment. The two-player game pitted human opponents against each other in the form of two on-screen spaceships, who maneuvered to blow one another up and avoid the deadly gravitational pull of the star at the center of the screen.

The game was played on a DEC PDP-1 computer, with a cathode-ray tube display and two individual controllers. Its creators, three researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, implemented SpaceWar! on an MIT PDP-1. Soon the game was being installed at other computer research centers, where eager computer scientists added new features and changed parts of the interface. It was also ported to other popular platforms accessible to an even wider audience. SpaceWar! ultimately became a smash hit of the 1960s, and opened the door to decades of computer game development and play.


Jackdaw Publications

Hailed as a “revolutionary” series by educators, Jackdaw publications turned school children into documentary storytellers by putting archival materials directly into their hands.

In the early 1960s, British author and journalist John Langdon-Davies concocted a new model for teaching history to children with the creation of the Jackdaw series. Each “Jackdaw,” as they became known, was a folder full of archival material facsimiles relating to a particular historical time and place. Rather than reading a textbook that laid the story out for them, children could reconstruct a historical narrative by examining primary source documents, broadsides, advertisements, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials that brought history to life.

Jackdaw No. 1, “The Battle of Trafalgar,” was published in 1963 in London, and Langdon-Davies’ first series ran through 1965. While the publishers have changed, Jackdaws are still in print, and remain a popular tool in classrooms across the United Kingdom, United States and Canada.



Zork was one of the first interactive fiction games, eschewing graphics and instead creating a game world entirely from written descriptions, prompts, and commands.

Zork was one of the first interactive fiction computer games. Players venture into “the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground,” with the aim of amassing treasures and escaping the underground world unscathed.

Players could interact with the game on sophisticated linguistic levels, inputting full sentences rather than single keywords. The richness of the world, which featured strange creatures, fictional corporations, and a host of other details, led Zork to become a game trilogy and later a long series of games that also began to incorporate graphics. These games occupied various parts of the much-loved Zork universe, and were in production as late as 1997, which saw the release of spin-off Zork Grand Inquisitor, a fully graphical representation of the original concepts of the Zork text-based game.



By reimagining the concept of hypertext to fit video content, Glorianna Davenport’s The Elastic Charles allowed users to shape the story of Boston’s Charles River by organizing clips and creating links.

In 1988, filmmaker Glorianna Davenport was running her Workshop in Elastic Movie Time for students at the MIT Media Lab. Out of the group’s collaboration was born The Elastic Charles, an interactive video experience of Boston’s Charles River.

Viewers could add text and graphics to video content, or edit and add additional video. These interactive tools were developed by one of Davenport’s graduate students. Building off the standard of hypertext, they sought to create a form of “hypermedia” in which visual aspects of a story could be linked in a system ripe for exploration by the viewer.


One might argue that without interaction, art is simply artifact. Only in interaction with the reader, viewer, listener or player does a poem, film or game create experience and meaning.

The use of the term ‘interactive’ in our contemporary era has twist. The user doesn’t simply activate a static text; rather, in interacting, the user co-creates the text, making choices that define their experience.

Games are often credited with creating this extra dimension to the meaning of interaction. A special category, games offer rule sets and environments for interaction. Only by taking actions in accordance with those rules will a user create a text. Although the rules are constant, game players’ actions and ensuing reactions are anything but, yielding a wide array of experiences. Interactive documentaries have inherited much from this tradition.

Interactivity stands as a counterpart to participation. The two concepts cover much the same ground, requiring action on the part of the user and responsiveness on the part of the system. Both result in dynamic and individualized encounters … and each requires the other. The difference? Interactivity leans in a ‘readerly’ direction, and generally pertains to the encounter between the user and the textual world; participation leans in a ‘producerly’ direction, and often refers to gathering the building blocks for that world.


What started as a high school science fair project changed the face of the internet by giving computer users everywhere an easy to use software animation tool.

Flash as we know it today was born out of a computer drawing program created as a high school science fair project. Jonathan Gay’s project was so impressive it launched his software development career. In 1993, he founded FutureWave Software and created SmartSketch, a more highly developed version of his original drawing program.

FutureWave began receiving user feedback suggesting they turn their illustrator into an animation tool, but at the time the only delivery mechanism for animation was VHS or CD-Rom. It wasn’t until 1995 that they realized that the newly created World Wide Web was the ideal platform for smooth animation and interactive graphics.

With the 1996 release of FutureSplash Animator, FutureWave made animation accessible to amateurs and professionals alike, as long as they had access to a computer.The hit software was acquired by Macromedia and renamed “Flash.”


Enemy Within

Viewers explore the stories of soldiers and civilians of the Chechnyan conflict by moving through an unfolding labyrinth of photos, videos, audio and text in “Enemy Within,” one of the first interactive web documentaries.

Bjarke Myrthu’s interactive web documentary Enemy Within was on the forefront of demonstrating the power of web native documentary narratives. Viewers don’t just view, but choose, explore, and discover ever-expanding details of the experiences of Chechens and Russians who have been living through years of bloody conflict.

Classic mechanics of web navigation like roll-over, click-through, and multiple page organization take on a new meaning as drivers of an emotionally riveting world of stories captured in archival photo and video, interviews, and title cards – all standards of traditional documentary practice.

Myrthu said of his project, “…we were really pushing the possibilities of the medium and inventing new things. And we had almost no restraints or boundaries – if we could think something up we tried it out in this project.” The experimental project has become a standard example of success in migrating movies to the web, and remains a model for today’s interactive documentary creators.



The afterlife comes to life in this interactive documentary that lets viewers take their own tour through the practices and rituals surrounding death and dying.

“You died this morning. Are you interested in what comes next?”

On this morbid premise, viewers are invited to enter an interactive French web documentary. Playing the role of the dead protagonist, they explore the rituals of the modern funeral world, ruled by both religion and marketing.

Guided by personal beliefs and curiosity, viewers will stumble upon both trivial and universal stories about coffin factories, funeral employees and time travel.


Korsakow Software

What started as a tool for a graduate diploma project became software aimed at changing the way artists make films by giving everyone a platform for interactive story creation.

In 2000, filmmaker Florian Thalhofer was creating an interactive film – “The Korsakow Syndrome” – to complete his graduate diploma. Along with capturing the film’s content on camera, he began writing a software platform that would let him achieve his vision of an exploratory, interactive world constructed from filmic elements. The result, along with a graduate degree, was Korsakow, software that took on a life beyond the graduate project when Thalhofer realized he could give other artists the tool to create their own interactive projects.

Since 2008, Thalhofer and a team of developers have completely re-written the Korsakow code to give filmmakers a robust new project development environment. Their website states, “More than a software Korsakow is a way of thinking.” Their new approach to interactive storytelling has spawned several films from international artists, and is the platform Thalhofer has used for all of his filmmaking projects to date.


Journey to the End of Coal

An educational webdocumentary that lets viewers investigate the world of Chinese coal miners who risk their lives in state-owned and private coal plants. 300 photographs and many hours of video and sound were used to create a striking immersive environment.

Shanxi, China is known for its alarming pollution problems and corruption scandals, but it is also one of the most dangerous coal mining regions in the world today. Half a million minors face these deplorable and sometimes deadly conditions, often resigned to the fact they have no choice but to risk their life if they want to make a decent living.

Journey to the End of Coal lets viewers explore the world of these mining communities. Beginning in Datong, a few hours West of Beijing, viewers can travel through the entire region and visit its major coal mines, from the “best” state-owned complex to the worst private ones.

In and around the coal mines are scattered first-hand video accounts from the mingong, the rural migrants traveling their country looking for work. Viewers can traverse their own path through this interactive space at their own speed, exploring, discovering details, “meeting” characters at their home, at the Church, on the road, or at work and hearing the stories they tell there.

Ultimately, visitors might discover China’s forbidden mines and interview the survivors of mining accidents.



“Life in spite of everything” is the motto of Gaza/Sderot.

The online documentary project Gaza/Sderot reports on the day-to-day experiences of men, women and children on both sides of the Palestinian- Israeli border, in Gaza (Palestine) and Sderot (Israel). Over the course of two months, the Gaza/Sderot team posted short films online daily. These short films-- following six characters from Gaza and six from Sderot-- reveal that Palestinians and Israelis keep working, loving, and dreaming, even under difficult living conditions and the threat of air attacks. Gaza/Sderot’s theme-- life in spite of everything-- emerged from these short films.

Gaza/Sderot’s viewers also have interactive and non-linear access to extra content on the ARTE France site, which featured videos, blogs, and links related to the characters.

Gaza/Sderot is an original project broadcast by, the official site of ARTE, the French-German cultural television station, in coproduction with an Israeli team – Alma Films/Trabelsi Productions in cooperation with The Sapir College in Sderot, a Palestinian team – Ramattan Studios, a French documentary production company – Bo Travail and an interactive production company



Collapsus is a hybrid documentary game addressing the impending energy crisis through animation, live action, documentary and fiction in a dynamic, choice-based narrative.

A glimpse into the near future, Collapsus is an examination of the impending energy crisis from the perspective of 10 young global citizens who become entangled in a web of intrigue and conspiracy theories. Subjects such as the booming Chinese economy and global warming reappear in indirect and sometimes humorous ways. The hybrid narrative makes intensive use of multimedia techniques, with realistic news reports breaking off for interactive game play, and the imagery shifting from documentary to fiction to animation.

This animation is made using the striking rotoscope technique, in which real film is traced and enhanced. Director Tommy Pallotta developed this process when producing the two feature films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The narrative unfolds on the central screen, but two other screens are also in view, to the left and right. The left-hand screen displays a world map – with more and more locations lighting up as the film progresses – and introduces the 10 main characters. The right-hand screen shows the interface of a news website that regularly updates with information relating to the storyline – to which characters then respond with video blogs and comments. In this way, each element in this panoptic environment supports and intensifies the central narrative of the film.


A cinematic story machine tells you who you are, based on the material possessions you hold dear.

A fortune teller predicts the future based on the lines on people’s hands. The hand conjures up the story, as it were. The cinematic story machine Barcode, a collaboration between Arte and the National Film Board of Canada, works in a similar way.

Insert a word and a one-minute-long film pops out. The word should describe an object that you hold dear, because “objects are like mirrors.” That is the intention behind the 100 short films in the database: to have our possessions look at us for a change, and show us who we are in the process. Type in “google” and you end up on a market for second-hand wares, where a salesman tries to pawn off his erotic videos and Jackie Chan films: you are a stuffy collector. Scan the barcode on your iPad and attractive people will softly whisper “singular, plural, female, male”: a walking encyclopedia. Desperados, the Mexican beer, and Starbucks give the same result: a tough guy sitting on a skyscraper swings his lasso, to which a can is attached: the independent drinker. The associations are funny, surprising, mind-blowing, or simply absurd. They all make us think of our personal belongings in a new way, and with that also the image we thought we had of ourselves.


In Situ

In Situ is a search for creative, artistic ways to intervene in public space, presented both linearly and non-linearly.

Apart from the northernmost parts of Scandinavia, the European continent is completely thought through, drawn in, pre-cooked, planned out, arranged. Very little room for nature, and a lot for cultivation: residential apartments, office buildings, highways, hangouts, public pieces of art. And it’s only getting worse, because like the rest of the world, Europe is still urbanizing at a quick pace.

In the Arte production In Situ, city planners, architects, philosophers and artists look for creative and artistic ways to intervene in public space. An architect with Noyo Voyages is constantly working on improving the traffic circulation at a Parisian business park. An educational philosopher analyzes the tensions between the architectural heritage and the urban future of modern-day Berlin. But we also see the German street artist Johan Lorbeer, who can hang onto buildings with only his thumb to the wall. The whispered poems of Les Souffleurs encourage street workers to dream of faraway palm beaches. And theremin player Pamelia Thurstin lets her sweet, weeping tones float through the city.

In Situ can be watched linearly as a 90-minute documentary, but the chapters are also accessible individually through various themes and a map of Europe. Through these routes you can also find materials uploaded by other users, because the audience contributes in devising original, artistic interventions in our highly urbanized surroundings as well.

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