The making of Our World War One interactive guide

Friday 15 August 2014, 09:15

Will Storer Will Storer Senior Product Manager

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Hello, I’m Will Storer, Senior Product Manager at the BBC Future Media Games team. I was the product lead for the Our World War interactive episode and my team managed the design and build of the interactive piece with the indie studio Mi Ltd.

What is it?

The BBC iWonder team asked us to develop an interactive experience for tablet and desktop users to complement the three part TV series Our World War, running on BBC3. This interactive episode was commissioned and produced by BBC Learning, and my team and I worked with the Producers delivering the live action narrative to create an innovative, compelling and educational experience, exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling and TV.

our world war one 1.jpg

TV you can touch

Very early on, we settled on a couple of outcomes that were very important to the development of the piece. Firstly we asked ourselves how you could realise the vision of “TV you can touch”. We also asked whether ethical and moral dilemmas – faced by well drawn characters in a typical drama – could be written so that participating in their story arcs could deliver a deeper reflection on the journey they take.

One big challenge was how to introduce an interactive choice mechanic that resonated with both the narrative and the editorial tone. We were inspired by work done in literature from our youth, “Choose Your Own Adventure” – and stories told in this way, but one of the biggest inspirations was “The Walking Dead” game, developed by Telltale Games. This interactive story introduced some innovative moments of reflection, choice and forced decision, making the story more involving and compelling - and this was something we immediately built into own our own aims and objectives.

The producers and academic advisors provided a number of historical records and soldier accounts of the period, identifying situations soldiers would have been placed in demanding difficult choices. With historical events, a key setting and a series of difficult choices, we developed a story interaction model that would allow us to take the participant through the decisions and to be immersed in the story.

We crafted this immersion by breaking down the story arc and choice moments into flow charts to establish how the piece might work. Based on these flows and story dissections we put together “Tempo” charts to explore how a specific speed of user interaction might map across onto the pace and tone of the story at any given moment. Is it more compelling if during a tense, pacy point in the story, the user needs to decide quicker? Is that approach more immersive? In the end we ended up with a balanced set of interaction times relevant to the narrative and the decision at hand.

flow charts.jpg Flow charts

Designing & Building the Experience

In “Agile” software terms you typically have a set of themes and larger descriptions of outcomes you are working toward. Then you break them down and work on them to produce slices of complete software you can just deliver. TV is much more a “waterfall” delivery – and for this we needed to be well scoped before starting out. Because as you approach completion for the software you have to maintain stability, it also means you can’t edit right up to transmission: video is stable and known and has one output device. In software one “quick change” to something like a scoring system could break the whole thing.

Creating a scoring system for such an experience was an especially interesting challenge. We decided early on to be light-touch in terms of any user interface over the video elements to avoid distracting the audience’s attention from the main narrative. The interface had to be subtle, we didn’t want overt game style scoring elements.

scoring system.jpg The scoring system

With a subtle interface agreed as a design constraint, we next looked at the idea of “Tone”. How could we create a way of tracking your progress through the experience that both informed the player of their progress and indicated their level of performance? This is an established concept in games, but in this context, straightforward game scoring didn’t feel appropriate. The sensitivity of the subject matter combined with the desire to achieve learning outcomes along the journey meant that we needed to treat this aspect with great respect.

We eventually settled on an approach that reflects the impact of your interactive decisions against two key factors relevant to the situation, Tactics and Morale. Each decision the player makes in the narrative sets a score for each of the above two factors. Historically and academically verified, the Tactics and Morale points you accrue as a player are stored up per act and reflected back during the interim “Hub” screens at the end of each act. The interesting discovery here is that militarily correct tactical decisions don’t always create positive morale in the team, so scores whilst accurate, are somewhat unexpected depending on the scenario, an outcome which we thought reflected well on the hellish situations depicted within the story itself.

Where next?

What we are hopeful for is that this new approach to putting the audience at the centre of a TV narrative is well received. We want to experiment with content and learn from the audience and future content makers on how this should evolve. There is a generation for whom “interactive” is just another tool for expression, another way to tell a story and I hope that we are making space for their content to have a home by experimenting this way.

Who made this?

This was a collaborative production between several teams at the BBC, and from the indie sector Darkside and Motion Imaging. Full credits are available from within the interactive episode.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Will Storer is Senior Product Manager, BBC Future Media

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