Ramblings on Nonlinear Storytelling in Film

A new film looks to do for movies what hypertext fiction tried to do for print in the 1990s. The film, “The Onyx Project,” tells the story of a special operations mission in Afghanistan, typical military fare. What makes the film interesting is that the viewer is presented with clickable options at the end of each scene that determine the direction the film takes. In some cases, a link is highlighted to encourage viewers to go in a certain direction, and there is also a shuffle feature that randomly selects the next scene.

The film is available on DVD today and stars Oscar-winner David Strathairn. The disc contains almost five hours of footage, guaranteeing that–at least for a few run-throughs–each viewing experience will be unique.

This reminds me of Michael Joyce’s afternoon, which followed the same basic idea in “print”–for lack of a better term. What difference does nonlinear reading make when it is transformed into the visual world? What do we gain by it, or lose by it?

We gain a sense of control over the film, but at this time I do not think it is more than a novelty. Nonlinear storytelling in movies will not catch on any more than it has in print. This is chiefly because movies are social events. Watching a movie alone is a rare thing. This technology places the viewer in front of a computer screen rather than on a couch with friends. And while watching “The Onyx Project” as a group might provoke some interesting discussions over where the viewing should go, for the most part I see it as a solitary activity.

Does hypertext (hypermedia) gain something in this visual genre? It is certainly an extension of the visual focus that Bolter writes about in Writing Space, and I think he would see it as a natural extension of where the World Wide Web is headed: towards multimedia exhibitions. It is interesting that the filmmakers chose to use text links rather than thumbnail images of the following scenes. I think that could produce more intense debate within the reader over where the story should go. The entire film is an odd mixture of different media.

There is a privileged order to the film, hence the highlighted links, but the user has the choice in the end. The viewing can either follow the favored path or blaze new trails. In that way it is transitional. It gives the viewer the opportunity to treat this film like any old movie or take it to another level by using its hypertextual features. If we are aiming at a move into the hypertextual realm, then this is certainly the way to do it–a picture perfect representation of Bolter’s remediation. It recombines elements of old media and merges them with new media.

None of this hangs together or makes sense, I’m sure. I’ll likely revisit it in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Ramblings on Nonlinear Storytelling in Film

  1. Your description of The Onyx Project is confidently written, but it’s obvious that you haven’t actually seen the film. Allow me to correct some of your false assumptions about the way The Onyx Project works. First, you say that at the end of every scene, there are clickable options presented to the user in the form of “text links”, so that the user can decide where to go next – and you say that these options are so limited that there will only be enough material for the user to go through the story in a different way “a few times” before it becomes repetitive. This makes The Onyx Project sound like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, that always starts in the same place, and only makes sense in about three different narrative trajectories, and quickly becomes boring. In fact, The Onyx Project, by means of the new NAV technology, presents to the user a complete WORLD of possibilities, that would take hundreds and hundreds of viewings to fully explore. As the user watches one scene (and you can begin anywhere in the world), other scenes – represented by images / stills) light up in a panel underneath – you can jump from scene to scene at any time – forwards, backwards, or from one zone of the world to another, completely non-related one. Slowly but surely a picture of the world emerges, different every time, but an accumulation of understanding. You say that watching The Onyx Project would most likely be a solitary activity, but I see no reason why the experience of navigating this piece, and future pieces made using NAV technology, could not be enjoyed by groups. This is not just a rehash of choose-your-own-adventure hypertext non-linear storytelling – it’s a fully browsable, spheric, surfable story-world. I would recommend watching the film yourself before trying to critically analyze it.

  2. It is true that I haven’t seen the film. I was only responding to the New York Times article, which had minimal details already. I can attribute errors in my summary to that.

    I am not sure what you mean by calling NAV a “spheric” world, other than the sense that a viewer can follow a cyclical path through it, sometimes rehashing previously viewed scenes and seeing them in a new light. I would like to read more on what you have to say about its “spheric” nature.

    Yes, it is possible that a computer hypermedia project like this could be viewed socially, but at this time it’s not practical. Perhaps in the future, as you say, pieces can be more social. Right now the price of technology that makes an image on a computer big enough to enjoy in groups is still too expensive, plus the majority of users are still connected to their PCs with wires. Projectors, cinema displays, and larger equipment are just not common enough yet, and it is fairly uncomfortable to gather around the monitor in most people’s homes. Hence I say that this kind of project will remain a novelty, but I’ll add this proviso: until technology changes (as it always does).

    I resent the line at the end of your comment (dealing with a “critical” analysis), and I mean that with as little offense as possible–chiefly because the comments you make on the film could have come from the film’s Web site and not from a viewing. I do intend to get a copy of the film in the future, and I look forward to watching it then.

    The choose-your-own-adventure metaphor is apt for this project and all hypermedia projects. It conveys that at some level, there is a privileged path through the hypermedia document because the links are established by the designer/author. If the user/reader were able to create his or her own links dynamically, then it would be less like a choose-your-own-adventure. That would approach the kind of hypertext that Nelson, Landow and Bolter believed possible.

    That all said, thanks for reading, commenting, and furthering the conversation. Like I said in my post, this bears further discussion and a deeper look. I’ll probably revisit it later, and I hope you’ll read then too.

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