Storium: First Impressions

Marc Yves:

A couple of months ago, someone I follow on Twitter shared a link to the upcoming collaborative writing site Storium. It sounded fascinating, and reminded me of collaborative fiction projects I was heavily involved in from junior high through high school. So I signed up for an invite, and lo and behold I got in to the alpha test about a week ago. What do I think, and how does it compare to those collabs that were so near and dear to my adolescent heart (and which today I remain nostalgic about)?

Folks, this thing is really cool.

Storium, per commentary on its blog, is intended to provide a structure for online collaborative writing built from the ground up for the purpose, as opposed to the shoehorning of such endeavors into message boards and forums meant more for topic discussions. Its features speak directly to those needs:

  • Email notifications of activity, and the ability to nudge people whose input you’re waiting for.
  • Story/Chapter/Scene/Move structure for posts.
  • Creative prompts to help overcome blank-page paralysis, such as setting (“World”) templates, character archetypes, and “cards” that represent locations and goals in a scene.
  • A “karma” system that encourages players to write failures and setbacks for their characters before claiming big successes.

You can read up on the aforelinked blog to get more details on those! I’ve been using the site since I got that invite, and now have one story underway with a second in warmup. I’d like to take some time to examine the differences between Storium and collaborative writing projects I’ve embarked on in the past, and what I think of those differences.

Linearity. In a game of Storium, you write one scene after another, one Chapter after another, until the story comes to a conclusion. This is in marked contrast to the collaborations of my past, which tended to be sprawling affairs with lots of subplots going on in parallel. You probably could use Storium to accomplish such a setup, by creating several stories, but it’d be a clear case of shoehorning; the design would fight you at each step.

Individual scale. Similar to the above, in Storium each player gets exactly one character. The assumption, not built-in but implied by structure and advised in help text, is that those characters will be in the same scenes together most of the time. In my old forum collabs, people could make up as many characters as they fancied, sometimes to the point where the archive of character descriptions was littered with people who never got written into a story at all.

Those two pieces together represent the biggest paradigm shift from the collaborative stories I remember, and it’s taken me a bit of reorientation to get it. But I see what problems it solves, and I appreciate that. The linearity prevents chronology from ever becoming a headache. In multi-thread forum stories, you might have a series of posts describing a single hour of time, and another that jumps ahead by days or weeks between paragraphs. If the events of one become relevant to the other, how do you reconcile them? It got confusing. And while huge casts of characters can be impressive, people did tend to have one or two they focused on and really developed; the others were supporting cast. There are times I think I’ll chafe against the one-character-per-player restriction, and it does cut off certain types of stories (we’re all but assured that a player’s character won’t die before the final scene, for instance), but overall it’s different, not worse. I think it’ll help promote fewer, more three-dimensional characters, which has some value over an ensemble of bit parts.

The smaller scale has an additional, more subtle benefit: accountability. In a collaboration involving dozens of authors, it’s all but impossible to get everyone to contribute regularly. People wander away, and their stories die off. Even for regular contributors, dilution of responsibility kicks in. With only four or five people overall involved in a story, it’s easier to set and enforce a pace, and to keep track of outages that might delay an individual writer’s contribution. The invite-only nature of stories shores up the matter, too: an author wandered in from the Internet at large has no particular reason to feel responsible for the story’s success. But if you’re one of four people expressly asked to join an intimate group, there’s a feeling of obligation and motivation to see it through.

Fancy creative prompts. The collaborations I’d done before were all text all the time, maybe with a picture gallery on the side. With story cards, Karma, and inline images, a Storium tale looks vibrant, made for the Internet. The cues they provide are subtle, and players don’t always understand them at first, but they do help give direction when people aren’t sure what to do next. Blank-page paralysis plus the daunting scale of those other collaborations made it difficult for people to get started. Storium doesn’t suffer from those problems, at least not as much!

All together, I think a Storium game is more likely to be sustained to a conclusion than other styles of collaboration, and that greatly appeals to me. There’s something sad about a sprawling collaborative world sitting abandoned, its characters in eternal stasis, their hopes and fears unresolved. But I’m just starting, so we’ll see if that holds true!

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