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IF YOU'VE BEEN WRITING SCRIPTS FOR INTERACTIVE MULTIMEDIA, OR have been thinking about it, you've probably noticed the dearth of software tools designed to automate the process. Scripting multimedia has resembled Mark Twain's comment about the weather: Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The result: a hodgepodge of flow charts, database files, word processing documents, outliners and drawing programs combined in a slumgullion of script styles and formats ranging from traditional screenplays to three-column video scripts to a catalog of WYSIWYG screen shots (in which what you see on the screen is what you get printed out).

The real-world consequences are interesting, too. I've seen graphic designers feverishly using scissors and tape to cut and paste their thumbnails into a writer's word processing document while the FedEx truck is double parked outside. At the other end of the spectrum, I've seen writers cursing the slowness of Mac SE 30s while they grudgingly output their word processor and imported graphics files.

StoryVision 1.5, from StoryVision Software, Santa Monica, Calif. ($199), aims to change that. By effectively grafting an easy to use flowcharting tool to a Word for Windows file, StoryVision allows users to graphically plot out the flow, segmentation and linking of information throughout an interactive program, then describe each screen using a traditional Hollywood-style screenplay format. While StoryVision is more suited to the screenplay format used in long-form projects as opposed to the storyboard format used in commercials, it nevertheless provides a seamless integration of flowcharting and word processing functions that's an enormous breakthrough for interactive scriptwriters. Its manual also provides one of the more thoughtful examinations of different modes of interaction, including branching stories, complex web structures, parallel storylines, and worlds where a set of predetermined rules determines the interactions and events.

Users begin by invoking StoryVision's flowcharting tool to diagram their program on a scene-by-scene basis. Scenes are arranged schematically, and appear as balloons in a scrollable window. Once each scene is named (and the names for scenes can be as long as the user likes) the user simply presses the spacebar to fire up the word processor. Now the scene can be described, as fully as required, with the writer typing descriptions for screen transitions, onscreen copy or voiceover text, sound or music effects, and notes to the programmer. StoryVision, like a number of screenplay software products currently on the market, provides a series of keystroke shortcuts to help format each scene. Scene headings, actions, character names, stage directions, dialogue and scene transitions can all be templated in this manner.

Once one scene is defined, a user can begin to create a new scene balloon. As more scene balloons are added, the user can link them with a couple of mouse clicks to define their structural relationship. StoryVision draws on a directional line between scene balloons to illustrate linking hierarchies. Links can be defined with rules, which are essentially shorthand guidelines for programmers to follow. Anyone who has written an interactive script knows that a simple flowchart can quickly grow in complexity, soon filling a wall-sized space with page after page of taped together scenes, links, submenus and hierarchies. StoryVision deals with this complexity by allowing the user to hide and show levels at will. To print a StoryVision script users can print both the flow diagram of their script and their scene-by-scene text descriptions. StoryVision offers some nifty options, allowing users to highlight a sequence of individual scene balloons to select and print just the story pathways they want to output. Similarly, a text description of a selected storyline could also be printed. Hidden scenes can be printed, but will appear on separate pages from the rest of the flow diagram.

Users will also want to print the entire scene by scene text version of their script, and StoryVision excels here, too. The printout automatically labels each scene with the name of the scene balloon from the flow chart, along with the names of other scene balloons it is linked to. If a user labels each link with a rule, the rules will be printed as well. To help locate each scene, StoryVision automatically prints out page numbers and a table of contents linking scene headings to page numbers.

If StoryVision has shortcomings, they can be traced back to the shotgun marriage of interactive scripting and screenplays. Interactive scriptwriters are not making movies for 9-inch screens. The problem with the Hollywood model is that it simply fails to recognize interactive as a fundamentally different animal. Mating an outmoded method of operation to a new one will ultimately not prove serviceable.

While the screenplay format may be one that some writers are already familiar with, it will fail to address the needs of interactive multimedia. The computer carries with it its own conventions as well as incredibly powerful tools for communication and computation that filmmakers never dreamed of.

StoryVision for the Macintosh is due out shortly. Let's hope with each successive revision the folks at StoryVision will begin to address the needs of interactive scriptwriters by providing a tool appropriate for computer communication.u

Sam McMillan teaches Real World Writing for Interactive Multimedia at San Francisco State University's department of multimedia studies. He can be reached

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