Digital Storytelling with Aesop Story Engine

At first I didn’t understand the point of Aesop Story Engine.

I installed it in a local test instance of wordpress, and started using it. Initially all I could see that it let me add blocks of content via the editor. But members of the wordpress design and development community whose opinion I really trust are quoted as saying that it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

A couple of things helped me to ‘click’. First I read this article in the documentation. About halfway through reading it, I started to get it.

 The Niche

The marriage of digital storytelling and longform journalism has some produced some remarkable, and remarkably compelling pieces of online content. Here’s a famous example from the New York Times. Wired magazine produces some masterful pieces as well, including this one Edward Snowden.

The examples linked to above represent the state of the art, produced by a team of people fulfilling the roles of designer, developer and art director.

Can a wordpress plugin help you craft beautiful pieces of masterfully designed digital storytelling?

Probably not. Masterful craftsmanship takes more then a plugin. But Aesop Story Engine can give you a start in that direction. And in my opinion, if you channel skill, focus, time and digital resources into it, then maybe with ASE you an create something that approaches the state of the art.

 How Aesop Story Engine Is Being Used Today

The showcase has a mixed bag of examples that is, overall, inspiring. The showcased sites use themes available from ASE. Some of the uses are really great. In terms of presenting content all of the examples are at least pretty good. I think the ASE developers should be really proud of the possibilities that they’ve enabled for content producers.

The Ecosystem

aesop homepage

ASE can be downloaded for free. It’s available from the wordpress plugin repository and from github. Once enabled from the wordpress backend, it can be used straight easily and immediately from the wordpress editor for posts and pages. Although that probably isn’t what you want to do (more on that in a bit).

Official themes for ASE are available for download at cost from the ASE website. They aren’t as cheap as most themes, but I have no doubt that they are worth it: wordpress themes generally are underpriced and I’ve got faith that the team behind ASE produce great themes. My only reservation was that I’d love to be able to take an “official” theme for a test run and dig into the code.

However, there is this: a minimal example sample theme on github, offered for free by the developers.

It was pondering the way that the example theme worked that made me click to the “why” of ASE’s existence.

Now, there do not seem to be any free themes made for Aesop. But I suspect that they may come. Personally, I find this empty niche interesting. I can see third-party developers creating themes in the future and I’m tempted to build one myself.

The ASE site offers a bunch of inexpensive plugins, none of which I’ve tried. I’m sure they could save some development time for coders and non-codey site operators. Personally I couldn’t justifying shelling out for any while just test-driving ASE. Besides, I’d probably want to buy them all.

Why And How I Want To Use ASE

Digital multimedia storytelling can look beautiful and be really compelling. I’m dying for an excuse to use ASE.

Personally I think that multimedia digital storytelling can be more powerful if the content has some kind of contrast against it’s immediate context.

Here is what I mean by that:

Articles in this style in Wired magazine online look different from other articles in wired. They contrast. And that contrast adds to the character of those articles.

So for a website focussed on text content, I would like take either a few or none of the default styles and create specific articles with ASE using the minimal sample theme on github. I’d use something like  this plugin to deploy the custom theme for a specific post. (Thanks to an article in wpmudev for making me aware of that plugin).

Now some developers would wonder why I would use ASE if I’m going to code for that article anyway. My answer is “pure curiousity”. I might be able to achieve the same thing in roughly the same amount of time if I can do it by hand. I really don’t know if this is the case but I’d like to find out.

— edit —

Taking a slightly closer look at some of the features and add-ons to ASE, I can definitely see how building a story with ASE can be faster then doing it all by hand.