Non-fiction games structure: a successful formula for the interactive documentary

Interactive documentary storytelling covers all possible ways of telling a non-fiction story, which enable the recipient to gain experience not only from the perception and interpretation of the media message, but also from the physical real-time interaction between this message and the recipient. Various digital media are based on a documentary story: interactive cinema and interactive television, computer games and virtual environments, interactive installations and locative media, etc. There also exist plenty of cross-media projects, created on the basis of documentary films, which involve several digital media at a time. Their creators are driven by the desire to record the events and phenomena of the real word, using special features of digital medium.


Figure 1. Americas Army (2002)

Figure 2. Collapsus (2010)

Concerning to video games, this market is one of the few segments that increases relentlessly despite the general crisis.  Mixing documentary (non-fiction) and game (fiction) seems a strategy that many interactive documentary producers are considering, because the fact of reality combined with a structure that includes the users and put themselves at the heart of the action, creates a much more hyper and immersed scenario for the interactive documentary and its participants. This can be seen in the example that started a new stage in the genre: One Millionth Tower (NFB/Highrise, 2011).

Figure 3. One Millionth Tower (2011)

On November 2011, the National Film Board of Canada and director Katerina Cizek launched a new breed of film with the documentary One Millionth Tower. What makes it so groundbreaking is that it’s not a film in the traditional sense but an experience created entirely with HTML5, WebGL and other open source JavaScript libraries, all co-ordinated using a new open-source technology by Mozilla called Popcorn. One Millionth Tower seamlessly blends video with Flickr photos, Google Street View and real-time weather data from Yahoo, and allows viewers to navigate the story in a 3-D environment. The film is part of the NFB and Cizek’s Highrise project. Last year the project’s inaugural web/film Out My Window won an international digital Emmy, a Webby and other awards for its unique way of depicting the lives of people living in highrise apartment buildings in 13 different cities around the world.




Figure 4, 5, 6 and 7. One Millionth Tower (2011)

The interactive language applied to the documentary genre incorporates new strategies and formulas for the immersion, through interactive documentary projects allowing non-fiction may become as attractive as fiction. Thus, the genre of interactive documentary not only begins to equate themselve and coexist with powerful forms of interactive fiction as the short film, feature film or video game, but to incorporate and/or absorb them, as this genus is based on a hybrid production where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction almost do not exist.


Figure 8. JFK Reloaded (2004)

 We can see clear examples of this in the interactive documentariesAmericas Army (2002), Collapsus (2010), JFK Reloaded (2004), Pax Warrior (2006), Prison Valley (2010), Rider Spoke (2007), and Walking the Edit (2011), just to mention some representative today’s examples. To this regard, Almeida and Alvelos (2011) point out:

“So, the plastic nature of this approach allows exploring some aspects that cinematic montage has been traditionally ignoring for a long time. In a way this approach [Referring to project “Halfeti: Only Fish Shall Visit”] reminds us a game structure, so it’s crucial for interactive documentary to assess what can be merged with other areas and how to perform the operation. Another successful approach can be seen on the documentaries “The Big Issue: Obesity” and “Prisonvalley”, where a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type of strategy is used to engage the audience.” (Almeida and Alvelos, 2011:126)

Figure 9. Pax Warrior (2006)

Summing up, one of the essential assumptions of the traditional documentary is the desire to organize a story in such a way that it is informative and entertaining at the same time. In this respect, the interactive format must follow tradition and attempt to offer similar experiences that combine as efficiently, originally and attractively as possible, an entertainment with a didactic and/or educational dimension – knowledge. This is possible mainly as a result of the combination of the different modes of navigation and interaction in an application, which enables a multiple exchange between the work and the interactor.


1. Viewing (observer) Representation modes
2. Playing (player) Navigation modes
3. Sharing (interactor) Interaction modes


First, the act of navigating and visiting various ideas for presenting and structuring content (information and knowledge), implies using game strategies and resources. As a result, using the structure of the interactive documentary, and the modes of navigation, users to a certain extent “play” with the opportunities which are offered by the work and which can meet their basic needs: those related to fun and entertainment.

Figure 10. Rider Spoke (2007)

Second, this strategy, which is similar to the game experience, usually involves a deep sense of immersion for the visitor and prevents their learning from being boring and their need for information and learning from disappearing. The didactic approach offered is therefore attractive and dynamic, and much more so than the approach used in the majority of classic hypertexts.

Figure 11. Walking the Edit (2011)

At this stage, the interactor “learns by playing” and after having “learned the lesson” in a fun, original and relaxed way, can share it with other interactors, in real time or whenever appropriate.

Figure 12. Prison Valley (2010)

We therefore see how an interactive documentary can satisfy a triple need and/or desire: that of the player – entertainment – that of the student or the individual with an interest in cultural-educational issues and/or training, and relational concerns – at a level of communication with other participants. We believe that the right combination of these three aspects can make non-fiction multimedia applications as appealing as attractive as fiction-based approaches. In this regard, Salaverría and Díaz Noci (2003) highlights the importance of being able to combine entertainment strategies with respect to the dissemination of information in the new digital interactive paradigm.


 Figure 12. The heart of Serious Game Design (Michigan State Univesrsity)


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Almeida, A.; Alvelos, H. (2010),  “An Interactive Documentary Manifesto“. ICIDS’10. Proceedings of the Third joint conference on Interactive digital storytelling. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag Berlin. Conference Proceedings, pp 123-128. ISBN 3-642-16637-7978-3-642-16637-2.

Americas Army (2002), United States (english). US Army.

Collapsus (2010), Holand (english). Submarine Channel. VPRO Backlight.

Díaz Noci, J. and Salaverría, R. (2003). “Hipertexto periodístico: teoría y modelos”, 81-139. Manual de redacción ciberperiodística. Barcelona: Ariel.

JFK Reloaded (2004), United States (english). Traffic Software.

Michigan State University “The heart of Serious Game Design”.

Mozilla Popcorn. Mozilla Foundation.

One Millionth Tower (2011), Canada (english). Katerina Cizek. Highrise, National Film Board of Canada.

Out my Window (2010), Canadà (anglès). Katerina Cizek.  Highrise, National Film Board of Canada.

Pax Warrior (2006), Canada (english). 23 YYZee.

Prison Valley (2010), France (english). Arte. Upian.

Rider Spoke (2007), Great Britain (english). Blast Theory.

Walking the Edit (2011), Germany- Switzerland (english). Ulrich Fischer.

Whitelaw, M. (2002), “Playing Games with Reality: Only Fish Shall Visit andinteractive documentary”. Catalog essay for Halfeti: Only Fish Shall Visit, by Brogan Bunt.


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