Friday, March 23, 2012

Bear 71: The National Film Board of Canada's Interactive Narrative

How do you get people to care about the diminishing natural habitat of wildlife in Banff National Park and surrounding area? Telling an emotional story from the point of view of a resident bear helps, but The National Film Board of Canada takes it one step further.  They produced Bear 71 as an interactive documentary formally lasting 20 minutes but with the ability to explore as long as you wish.


I found this interactive narrative through author and game designer Lorraine Hopping Egan.  This is what she had to say about it:
The National Film Board of Canada keeps pushing those storytelling boundaries.

I just took an interesting and emotional stroll through Bear 71, an interactive digital story told from the point of view of a real bear who was tracked through Canadian forests for eight years. The clever part is that you, a human with a number, become one of many tracked species as you navigate across a digital landscape, encountering other animals, while the bear tells its story. Animals are shown in short, grainy videos—taken by covert, motion-triggered cameras.

In terms of technology, the approach is again simple (I've noted before that I think we need creative breakthroughs right now more than technological ones).  The main story line was narrated by a bear named Bear 71 for its tracking number.  You can start and stop the main narrative with controls at the bottom of the screen.  At the same time, you can explore a map of Banff National Park, as seen in the image above (behind the images of the bears).  When you click on the markers of various animals recorded in the park, you see short videos captured of them with motion cameras and the like.  The trail of Bear 71 as it fits with the main narration is also visible as big black dots.

Personally, I really liked the main story being told.  The ending succeeded in making me feel sad and had me reflecting on the effect of humans on wildlife habitats (especially when they said something about humans being able to create smart phone apps but not being able to remember to close the lid on a bear-proof garbage can).  When full-screen videos popped up during the story, they were interesting and timely.

At the same time, I am not sure how much the interactive part of the documentary actually added.  Don't get me wrong - it was well done, and had a certain cool factor, but more than once I was actually distracted by it.  I was paying too much attention to clicking the animals around me and chasing after Bear 71 to fully listen to the main narration.  I was also distracted by the fact that the video shown for Bear 71 was always the same even as her marker moved through the park.  I honestly think I missed a lot because of these things.

I also didn't clue into the idea of being not just a tracker, but also a trackee.  Lorraine described it like this:
As I recall, you are an avatar "human 17142" or something and can encounter other humans who are in the game (MMO-style) and they can follow you and you can follow them and click on their tag for more info.

I mostly went out of my way to avoid them so that I could concentrate on the story and my own exploration, but I also wondered if my actions were being recorded, perhaps anonymously or tied to my IP, which would make me a "tracked animal" in a sense.
This is really fascinating.  I had my webcam on, but I did not see any other humans on the map when I played.  I think if I had noticed this notion of being tracked, the interactive side would have had more impact for me as clever procedural rhetoric.

Overall, I like the direction the NFB has taken with this project and hope that they can keep pushing the creative boundaries of interactive storytelling using tools we already have available.

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