Storytelling has changed little since the advent of the printing press, despite the technological revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. The product is still linear, that is, one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Elbert Hubbard. And stories are largely the product of a single individual, though that person may head a team, such as film director. But artists and designers haven’t given up on non-linear storytelling. One example is Futurecoast, a project by game designer Ken Eklund.
Climate change is at the center of Futurecoast. It assumes a warmed world with rising sea levels that modify the world’s coasts. The world exists in a infinite array of possible futures which appear in the present as “chronofacts” that rain down as “chronofalls.” The facts manifest themselves as elegant, transparent forms that resemble the Spirograph disks I used to play with. The forms are themselves coded messages that one character describes as “leaks in the voice mail system of the future.” In the context of fiction, they are snippets of dialog between future lives that the audience eavesdrops. Individual voice mails are compelling, such as one from a woman in Alaska in 2050 discussing a new house built on a man-made island, or one from 2055 Seattle about a scientist hearing stories from his grandfather describing salmon runs that have gone extinct.
But the audience participation is not passive. Futurecast is a game, and players are encouraged to search out chronofacts, upload a photo of the object to the Futurecoast site for decoding, and even contribute their own voicemail that may enter the future to be leaked later. This kind of active role-playing encourages the audience to think carefully about what their lives might be like in a warmed world and share their imaginings. One feature allows the audience to construct their own timeline, underlining the principle that the future is something humans create, not just experience.
Futurecoast is an experiment in crowd-sourced science fiction, and it falls into the new sub-genre of “climate fiction.” Funded in part by a National Science Foundation grant, the project is not intended for commercial success; I doubt a game publisher could find a way to make money off it. But it’s an excellent attempt at a new way to reach an audience, particularly young people, with few options to learn about climate change in a mode different that sensational journalism or doom-and-gloom warnings from gray-haired scientists.