Housekeeping and Homer: or, A Different Sort of Interactive Narrative

I’ve been meaning to use this blog as a place to write occasional reviews of IF pieces which have made an impression on me, but just about everything I’ve engaged with this month has been from IF Comp. So if you’re interested in my reviews, check this space on the 15th, when I can post them publicly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been considering the concept of interactive storytelling outside of what we (as the IF community) think of when we talk about interactive fiction/narrative. Yesterday, the Almeida Theatre staged an all-day reading of the Odyssey in a handful of locations throughout London, mapping Odysseus’ journey home onto the contemporary cityscape. It was a follow-up performance to their Iliad in August, which I was fortunate enough to see in person; for the Odyssey, I watched as much of the livestream as I could. But bearing witness to the performances–being part of the performances–both in-person and digitally, struck me then as crucial, and still continues to feel that way.

Whoever ran the Almeida’s Twitter account during the performances deserves both a raise and a promotion: modern, clever synopses sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek hashtags filled the official Twitter, which for the Iliad reading was displayed in real-time on a screen to the left of the reader’s podium. And a vast majority of us watching in person had our phones out and were livetweeting along. The effect was brilliant: the global community watching on the livestream and the crowd in the lobby of the British Museum created a collective experience dependent not on location but on witnessing, on participation. Livetweeting the Iliad and Odyssey felt, and still feels, like the intuitive modern response to the inherent social, communal nature of Homer’s poetry.

We don’t belong to a culture in which we gather to drink wine and hear recited verse; there was no krater next to the actors reading their lines yesterday or in August. In fact, there was a grueling quality present in the Iliad that wasn’t there in my experience of the Odyssey; spending 15 hours (off and on) standing in the lobby of the British Museum and then at the bar of the Almeida felt like a marathon. But Homer’s poems were social experiences, designed for engagement and real-time reaction, and hashtags now have the potential to curate a collective conversation.

Those of us tweeting along with the Almeida’s account and official hashtags weren’t controlling the narrative’s direction; no one expects to change the outcome of two of the oldest poems in Western culture. But we were creating our own simultaneous narrative of the particular experience, preserved in 140-character bursts. The performances and the livetweeting thereof are not what I think of when I think of “interactive fiction”, obviously. But it does remind me that the idea of what it means to participate in a narrative is complex.

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