Relocating desire: on HTML5 parallax scrolling and digital storytelling

Published:  May 12, 2015
Jessica Yu

“Longing, will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond.” – A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

Daniel H Gray

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

I grew up in the noughties playing a lot of games – especially Game Boy games, which you could take anywhere and were especially attractive on long car-rides to other states and cities. Solnit’s blue mountains evoke in my memory the setting and nature of this computer gameplay. My favourite game was Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, in which each level is represented by a different location on an island and has different properties, challenges, goals and ways of navigating than the previous level. In the background of every level sit the far-off blue mountains of another part of the island: a part you cannot get to.

In this game you can fly, jump, swim, fall, dive, swerve and turn, but you can only, ultimately, move from left to right across your screen (this occurs by the scenery shifting from right to left to give you the feeling of movement). If you want to turn into those mountains, well, you simply can’t. You learn to accept them as symbols of where you need to go next and where you long for now. But every time you arrive at that next location, you long for the next until the game is over.

I used to play Yoshi’s Island in the car, to get away from the bland scenery moving from right to left through the window; the world of Yoshi’s Island itself was a destination that I longed for. But once I started playing, there were more boundaries to desire, more places to long for. This insatiable desire is not a bad thing when you are playing a repetitive and simple game; in fact, it is essential to make you complete the game in the shortest period of time possible. Like a strange, internal cheer squad, it eggs you on and forces you to persist.

We have been told that the internet is a ‘distraction’. An alternative view is that it is the place in which we try to satiate our desire to escape. So we imagine that our desire is for Facebook or TripAdvisor or YouTube, but this desire – like the childhood desire found on long car trips – is simply to be elsewhere; anywhere that is not our reality.

For those that tell stories on the internet, there is the challenge of holding the user’s attention within the world’s biggest carnival. It is a space that appears limitless in both the abundance and availability of its many possibilities: there are just so many places to visit, with most of them forgoing travelling time and appearing on our screens instantly. On the internet we become ‘browsers’ or ‘users’: terms that denote our detachment and lack of commitment as bored and mostly savvy thrill-seekers.

Many online content makers pursuing clicks cope with this problem by being less ambitious about the duration of time for which they can hold their audiences. Hugely popular content farms such as Reddit, Buzzfeed and Junkee post articles that are short and snappy, didactic rather than dialectic and topical to the minute. They have recognised that if prestigious print publications pride themselves on being the fine dining of storytelling, then online platforms can corner the market as the equivalent of fast food. They publish clickbait – either blatantly trashy or masquerading as think-pieces or news – which awakens your desire for a story, but rarely leaves you feeling satisfied.

Still from's 'Sky High'.

Still from’s ‘Sky High’

Still from's 'Sky High'.

Still from’s ‘Sky High’

Still from's 'Sky High'.

Still from’s ‘Sky High’

Still from's 'Sky High'.

Still from’s ‘Sky High’

The recent online trend of turning non-fiction longform texts into HTML5 and parallax scrolling narratives that incorporate cinematic elements may be a reaction to this dearth of thoughtful online content. Longform, scrolling narratives such as ‘Snow Fall’ – the story of a 2012 fatal avalanche in Washington State published by The New York Times using an in-house coding structure, or ‘Sky High’ –’s biographical piece on Danny Brown, all demand that we pay them the kind of undivided attention we would a book or a film. These narratives engross us with the immediacy of their filmic elements, including high-quality, looping videos and carefully constructed sound design. At one point during ‘Sky High’ while you’re still scrolling, the screen stops moving and a car emerges from the background to the foreground of the image, and then the whole screen fades to black. It stays this way for the seconds it takes you start breathing again, before a line of text that reads, “The car came out of nowhere and hit me” appears.

These stories attempt to take us elsewhere and keep us there – whether that’s in an avalanche at Tunnel Creek or Danny Brown’s childhood in Detroit.

The reader navigates these parallax scrolling narratives in a similar way to the Super Mario games of the nineties and noughties I used to play, but with one crucial difference: instead of moving from left to right by shifting an unreachable landscape in the background from right to left, you scroll downwards as the background shifts upwards. The simple linearity makes you feel that you are moving somewhere beyond where you began. In the case of the ‘Sky High’, this conceit is not just arbitrary, it symbolises the reader’s plunge into Danny Brown’s past. As you read you scroll through a visual of Danny Brown (falling out of the sky and into his childhood beginnings, through his life as a dope dealer, and then his eventual imprisonment) marks your spot in the text. But this also works in contrast to the direction of his life’s story: where Danny Brown’s life is told as an accidental rags-to-riches biography by the writer, visually we see him falling farther and farther from the sky. This reversal is a pleasing way of dealing with the aggressively chronological nature of reading in any format, and its implication of a nice and tidy beginning, middle and end.

'Snowfall' from The New York Times.

‘Snowfall’ from The New York Times

If anything has a shot at keeping our eyes from wandering as we read on the internet, longform non-fiction narratives powered by Adobe HTML5 parallax scrolling narratives could be it. Though of course the form is not without flaws. For instance, when reading ‘Snow Fall’, the masses of Georgia text sometimes fade into a kind-of patterned background as the reader scrolls up and down to track the various pieces of looped film, infographics and high-quality visuals – which inevitably attract our attention before the text does. It is an old problem: visuals competing with the text that they are meant to complement.

It is a problem that stems from the process of creating a parallax scrolling narrative. In this process, like in a print media process, the writing or, at the very least, the outline of the written piece is presumably completed before the visual elements are compiled. This working chronology means that the writer naturally produces work that is every bit as imagistic as a standalone piece may be. If the writing works well enough by itself, rather than being elliptical in order to accommodate the visual elements, then these other elements become redundant, a ‘distraction’.

It is a problem that comes, perhaps, from the fact that it is large publications dealing mostly in words that commission these narratives, which are both costly and time-consuming to commission and create. And, maybe, this problem stems also from something that is much more difficult to untangle: the cultural problem of the hegemony of the text and its reign over the image. Longform, non-fiction HTML5, parallax scrolling narratives, in fighting the battle for the online reader’s attention, have the potential to impale themselves on their own swords. The distractions that compete with the telling of a story in this kind of text may be in-built rather than external. If parallax scrolling narratives are to save us from our own inability to concentrate, then the cohesion between image and text within them must necessarily evolve.

 Recently I went to China and realised that the two billion other people in the country and I could not Google anything. Nothing doing, I typed the addresses for The Age, The Australian and The Herald Sun into my web bar. They were blocked, as were Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and Gmail. When I realised I had virtually no internet access to any part of Australia – my home – I felt shocked at the fact that every minute I spent in China would have to spent in China. I would not be able to escape elsewhere through the medium of the internet if I felt scared, sad or alone. Worse still, I could not erase or temporarily assuage my feelings of homesickness with the surrogates of photos, news stories or emails gleaned from the internet.

The internet has created this desire for always accessible, vicarious travel and play, and now it remains that it must satisfy these self-regenerating desires by generating more ways of telling stories. We tell stories on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter of love, domesticity, professional and personal success, exploration, heartbreak, adventure and sex to name a few. But we need more. We need new ways of telling stories, new ways of experiencing them, and new stories in and of themselves. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. The insatiable human hunger to be somewhere else, to travel through the experience of having a story told to you, is what makes our creativity in storytelling a regenerative tool. One that evolves out of necessity – out of the need to survive.

If stories (whether these are fiction/non-fiction or told through games, films or words) are a way of moving beyond what we know, where we are and what we want – a way of increasing rather than satiating our appetites for newness, foreignness, for other places than the continually expanding horizons of human desire – then this may be a good thing for us. Our unreachable desire may make us ache and we know that the ache cannot be satisfied by the object, but it is a story we must tell ourselves over and over again if we want to move from left to right, from up to down or get lost in the evolution of storytelling.

Snow Fall: words by John Branch, graphic direction by Steve Duenes
Sky High: words by Lauren Nostro, photography by Andrew Cutraro

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