Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

Another War of the Worlds

In the film “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” Bill Murray’s character, Wallace Richie, visits his brother in London where he’s signed up for an avant garde experience called the Theater of Life.  Essentially, the Theater of Life is a Live Action Role Playing experience, in which you, the client, pay for the privilege of playing a character against a bevy of actors throughout the city who adlib their way through a narrative that’s scripted to them but new to you.  Of course, Bill Murray’s Richie, who believes he’s engaged in an entirely fictional theater experience, winds up stumbling into a real-life conspiracy of industrial espionage, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the ensuing farce is actually a matter of life and death for Richie himself and the other parties involved.  But in a world where Alternate Reality Games set out to blur the line between fiction and reality, this scenario may not be as farfetched as it sounds.

Of course, storytellers had been blending fiction and reality for years before transmedia was even a concept.  In 1938, the now-infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” sent listeners into a panic when they failed to notice the numerous disclaimers that the faux-news broadcast of an extraterrestrial invasion was, in fact, a work of fiction.  Now, in contemporary society, it seems safe to assume that the internet and real-time social media platforms like Twitter would prevent something as unambiguously fictitious as “War of the Worlds” from entering the public consciousness as a real event.  But this didn’t stop Boston citizens and law enforcement from mistaking guerilla marketing devices for the 2007 “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” film for improvised explosives, despite the fact that the devices in question were little more than glorified Lite-Brites.

And even allowing for the possibility that players are fully aware that an ARG is 100% fictitious, introducing time limits with measurable consequences for failure could result in real-life health hazards.  Frankly, anytime you task someone to get to a specific place within a constrained time period, risk becomes an inexplicable part of the equation.  For more than 10 years, Domino’s Pizza ran a promotion guaranteeing that your pizza would be delivered in 30 minutes or less, or you would receive the pie free of charge.  But unbeknownst to their customers, the cost of those free pies came out of the paychecks of the hapless delivery people who failed to deliver said pizzas on time.  Needless to say, most Domino’s employees couldn’t afford to eat the cost of a pizza or three, so they found themselves in the unenviable position of doing anything and everything they could to ensure that they made it to their customers’ homes before the 30-minute deadline.  And if these extreme measures included breaking the established speed limit, so be it.  Not surprisingly, this policy resulted in several documented auto-accident related fatalities attributed to “reckless” Domino’s drivers, and after the ensuing lawsuits were settled, Domino’s finally discontinued the promotion in 1993.  And occasionally, this disregard for one’s own safety has manifested during Alternate Reality Games as well.  During the “I Love Bees” ARG for Halo 2, players were tasked with taking calls at certain payphones at prescribed times.  And one ardent player in Florida actually braved Hurricane Frances to take just such a call.  This die-hard fan emerged from the experience none the worse for wear, but things could have ended very differently.

And that’s not the only potentially dangerous situation that “I Love Bees” puppet master Elan Lee has seen result from an ARG he was helming.  As we’ve discussed previously, modern gamers have a tendency to push the boundaries of the games they’re playing, and during the Painting in the Dark panel at StoryWorld 2012, Lee recounted a story from AI’s “The Beast” ARG in which a few players in Chicago pushed the boundaries a little too far.  After going to a bar where embedded actors played out a murder mystery, these players followed the actor who played the murder victim all the way back to his real-world home, where they were ultimately arrested by honest-to-God cops.  And while the players surely harbored no ill intent towards the actor in question, Lee observed that, like Live Action Role Playing, sometimes ARGs need safe words too.

During his panel at StoryWorld, “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof recounted a story from his childhood, when his parents took him to a Six Flags stunt show.  When a man in the crowd, who was seemingly unrelated to the stunt team, volunteered to dive off the high board that even the trained professionals refused to brave, a young Lindelof watched in awe.  It wasn’t until later that his parents explained that everything they’d seen had been part of the show.  And young Lindelof was so duly impressed by the deception that he declared, “When I grow up, I wanna be the world’s greatest schill.”  As far as Lindelof is concerned, there is a hucksterism inherent to his job, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the design and implementation of ARGs.  At Comic-Con in 2006, Lindelof put his inner-schill to work by staging a confrontation between himself and a woman calling herself Rachel Blake.  Some of the more casual “Lost” fans were probably left scratching their heads, but die-hard fans recognized Blake’s name from the “Lost Experience” ARG; they were seeing a character from the game come to life.  Though we can look back as far as pioneers like Andy Kaufman for examples of creators breathing life into fictional characters and refusing to let fans in on the joke, new media technologies have enabled this kind of hucksterism to soar to new heights.  “LonelyGirl15,” one of the earliest vlog-based web series, made every attempt to convince their viewers that the titular lonely girl was a real person, and for a long time they succeeded.

Now, I’m not saying any of these creators were deliberately trying to perpetuate hoaxes, they were really in the business of telling stories.  That said, a lot of these same tools could potentially be subverted to any number of nefarious purposes.  On the Way Forward panel at this year’s StoryWorld, after Flint Dille announced that he was working on a project with DARPA, Jeff Gomez admitted that he’d turned down the DARPA gig precisely because he feared the possibility that this kind of transmedia storytelling might be, for lack of a better term, weaponized.  Dille assured Gomez and the crowd that there was nothing untoward about the work he was doing for DARPA, and I tend to believe him, but the fact of the matter is, there’s a reason why ARG creators are commonly called puppet masters; A fundamental part of most ARGs is manipulating people into doing what you want them to do.  Of course, when we’re talking about transmedia properties in the entertainment world, hopefully the worst that those experience designers can be accused of is trying to sell you on a product or a brand.  But many transmedia storytellers have posited that there is another “War of the Worlds” out there, and the mobilizational power of that kind of carefully-constructed fantasy could certainly be a powerful weapon if put into the wrong hands.

Now, I mention these cautionary tales not as indictments of transmedia creators and their work.  For my money, the illusion of reality in well-designed ARGs is one of the most intriguing and engaging elements of the transmedia storytelling phenomenon, and continuing to blur that line between fiction and reality is something that I am constantly exploring in my own transmedia work.  But I figured I’d devote this one blog post, at least, to reminding all of us all of the great power we transmedia puppet masters wield, and the great responsibility that comes with it.

Legacy

Historically, TV formats like procedurals and sitcoms have been among the most popular television programming.  Shows that promote a kind of escapism, which, each and every episode, culminates in a mind-numbing return to the show’s status quo.  As you might already be able to tell, this kind of storytelling has never really appealed to me.  Truly serialized television storytelling is a relatively recent phenomenon, and was a revelation for people like me who are looking for immersion, for that extra level of engagement, a legacy of character and a legacy of story.  Likewise, for the longest time, games had very little inherent story outside of what we, the players, brought to the experience, and each game was, by definition, self-contained.  But in recent years, all of that has begun to change.

As I’ve told people time and again, when it comes to legacy of player agency, no video game has spoiled me more than Mass Effect franchise.  At the start of each new game in the trilogy, you were able to import your character from the previous game.  This import retained not only your character’s physical attributes, but also the important decisions you made as that character in the previous games, which would have a direct impact on how the subsequent games played out.  We’ve been talking a lot on the blog about the benefits of giving players’ actions the illusion of story-world significance, and with the Mass Effect series, Bioware has done this more successfully than perhaps any game franchise I’ve ever played, and they did it by giving my actions an enduring legacy from one game to the next.

Remarkably, even board games are getting into the act.  My friends and I are long-time Risk fanatics, and back in high school, we were inventing new rules for classic Risk long before Hasbro started expanding on the original concept themselves with spinoffs like Risk 2210 and Risk Godstorm.  Given that, and our proclivity for serialized gaming in general, it should come as no surprise just how much my friends and I geeked out when we learned of the existence of Risk: Legacy.  In this game, you play a series of 15 games with the same players on the same board, and the outcome of each game has an impact on the face the world and the rules themselves.  And you aren’t playing as some non-specific regime fighting for world domination, you’re one of five distinct factions, each with their own unique powers.  The official rules of the game call for players to draft factions at the start of each game, so you aren’t necessarily playing the same faction from one game to the next, but on our board, we did things a little differently.  After randomly determining who would play which faction at the start of game 1, we decided to set those decisions in stone: each player played the same factions for the entire 15 games.  This resulted in an even more visceral history for our world, and a bizarre sort of nationalism that manifested in the in-character e-mails we started exchanging in between game sessions.

But what is so attractive about the idea of legacy in gaming?  For starters, there can be very functional, practical benefits, like the age-old gaming convention of leveling up.  Leveling up is a tried-and-true staple of many video games, but it also dates back to pen-and-paper RPG’s like D&D.  These games become about more than simply enjoying the experience for the experience’s sake, because the act of playing has a concrete, measurable reward system: leveling up (and learning new skills as a result) provides players with not only a seemingly limitless variety of gameplay, but also a sense of pride in having reached these gameplay milestones.  This was certainly the case in Risk: Legacy, where every win you accumulate earned you permanent upgrades that enriched the gameplay experience and promised to make your road to global domination that much easier in subsequent games.  And in an immersive game like Mass Effect, the rewards for extended play are not limited to functional level-ups; players can also earn emotional payoffs by seeing the eventual impact that their decisions have on the world of the story.

And interestingly enough, when a series is rooted in giving players’ actions the illusion of story-world significance, any diminution of this player agency can be a deal breaker.  As anyone who follows the Mass Effect series knows, there was a great deal of fan controversy surrounding the culmination of the trilogy.  Now, there were plenty of people who disliked the ending of Mass Effect 3 purely for story reasons, and others who nitpicked lapses in logic in the game’s final sequences, but as far as I’m concerned, the main problem with the end of the series boils down to this: in a game that was built around infusing players’ choices with story-world significance, the final choice we were given amounted to no choice at all.  In the final moments of game 3, your Commander Shepard is presented with three choices, three ways to defeat the Reaper menace that has plagued the galaxy from the start of the series.  But regardless of which option you pick, the three endings of the game are virtually identical.  In response to almost unanimous fan outrage, Bioware eventually released a free, downloadable extended ending, and while this afforded them the opportunity to address story concerns like the lack of an epilogue and the plot holes that mired the final sequences, without rewriting the ending entirely, this kind of workaround simply was never going to be able to address the endemic problem of markedly diminished player agency.

So how does all of this apply to transmedia storytelling?  In general, it seems to me that the kind of fan who enjoys the enduring legacy in serialized storytelling is the same kind of fan who will be most engaged in immersive transmedia experiences.  The kind of fan who is inclined to pore over every frame of every episode of their favorite TV shows, backwards and forwards, is probably also the kind of fan who is going to follow every character from their favorite series on Twitter, and dive down the rabbit hole of a corresponding transmedia experience as far as they are able to go.  And legacy, as far as transmedia experiences go, I think comes back to that illusion of story-world significance.  Just as it’s far easier to get invested in a traditional media story world that changes and grows dynamically over time, I firmly believe that a trasmedia experience that encourages player agency will be far more successful and fulfilling if the interactivity is more than just a novelty, more than just a choose-your-own-adventure style choice between a couple of canned alternatives.  In this case, we’re not just talking about the legacy of stories and characters that exist remotely across the great divide between you, the fan, and the storyteller, we’re talking about the enduring legacy of your actions as a character in that story.  And what could be more engaging than that?

Happy Thanksgiving

Hi, all.  We’ll be taking a week off here in observance of the holiday.  But happy belated Thanksgiving to all, and I’ll see you back here next week!

- Emmett

Consistent Story Worlds

At StoryWorld 2012, Jeff Gomez’s keynote was centered around what he called the 10 Commandments of 21st Century Franchise Production.   Gomez went on to rate certain franchises based on how closely they adhered to these rules he’s laid down.  I feel as if his list has been adequately covered elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it here, but I thought I’d use it as an excuse to take a look at one important aspect of transmedia world building, maintaining a consistent story world, and do my own analysis of how successfully a few of these mega-franchises have trod this ground.

When the news broke a few weeks ago that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and had thereby renewed the Star Wars film franchise’s lease on life, me and most of the other geeks of my generation were literally atwitter about the possibilities.  So let’s take a look at Star Wars’ so-called expanded universe.  Allegedly, during his reign at Lucasfilm, George Lucas himself signed off on everything in the Star Wars expanded universe, but the franchise has become so voluminous in recent years that I have to assume Lucas was rubber stamping a lot of this content, leaving most of the heavy lifting in this department to Star Wars continuity cop Leland Chee.  Chee maintains a database called the Holocron, an exhaustive font of Star Wars knowledge with dozens of levels of canonicity.  But before Chee was put to the herculean task of unifying all of the Star Wars stories under one umbrella, the state of the franchise was quite different: At the beginning of the Star Wars multimedia blitz, very little effort was made to maintain a consistent canon.  The first original novel based on the series, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” depicted brother-sister duo Luke and Leia getting a bit too close for comfort (before the characters’ shared lineage was public knowledge).  The Marvel Star Wars comic series, which told stories between and betwixt Lucas’ original trilogy, ran for more than a hundred issues, and was riddled with contradictions to the canonical films.  I applaud Lucasfilm for appointing a keeper of the continuity, but even after Chee came into the picture, Lucas reserved the right to alter Star Wars continuity on a whim, which meant, when you got right down to it, the only truly canonical Star Wars material were the films that Lucas made himself.  Even for a die-hard Star Wars fan like myself, it remains difficult to know precisely what is real canon and what isn’t.  As characters like Lumiya from the Marvel Star Wars line start appearing in the modern-day expanded universe novels, wouldn’t it be natural for us assume that that entire comic series has now been admitted into canon, contradictions and all?  Even the 1978 Star Wars holiday special, a variety show so bad it only exists today in bootleg form, and for years was alleged to have been disavowed by Lucasfilm completely, has seen elements like Chewbacca’s family and the Wookie celebration Life Day bleed into continuity.

But despite a somewhat convoluted canonicity, there are elements of the expanded universe that are near and dear to me, and one of my biggest concerns about the forthcoming Disney Star Wars films is whether or not they will adhere to the post-episode 6 expanded universe continuity which essentially started with Timothy Zahn’s fan-favorite “Heir to the Empire” novel trilogy, and has been playing out ever since in novels, comics and all manner of disparate media.  If the new regime at Disney’s Lucasfilm fail to honor the expanded universe in the upcoming films, they risk alienating a large percentage of the fanbase.  Of course, the alternative also leaves something to be desired.  Even if they find a compelling way to tell new stories with these beloved characters that take place in between the extant expanded universe installments, my experience watching the future films would be rather like that of a fan of the “Harry Potter” novels watching the movie adaptations: while it may be thrilling for them to watch their favorite scenes from the books realized on the big screen, there aren’t a lot of surprises there.  Since the big developments of Luke and Han and Leia’s lives have been laid out in the expanded universe for years to come, adhering to those would create an awfully rigid structure for the makers of the upcoming movies to have to work within.  And to a certain extent, it would rob die-hard expanded universe aficionados of the wonderment we experienced the first time we saw the original trilogy, when the sky was literally the limit in terms of what came next.  All that said, I’m starting to veer a little outside the scope of this particular blog entry: we’re here to discuss why maintaining a consistent story world is key to the success of a modern franchise.

So let’s shift gears for a minute to a Marvel universe and the DC universe.  When Gomez rated Marvel a 10 out of 10 on his franchise scale and DC a paltry zero, I believe he was referring specifically to the movie universes.  Interestingly enough, though, in its current state, even the continuity in the DC comic book universe is far from an exact science.  For starters, they recently resorted to the mother of all retcons by rebooting the DC universe entirely.  Retroactive continuity was the subject of an earlier entry in the blog, and is a necessary staple of the comics industry when a company’s central characters have been around for as many as six decades.  And even though a page-one reboot was seemingly a drastic action, when it was first announced, I was willing to give DC the benefit of the doubt.  If done right, a reboot could have revitalized the DC universe.  But to my mind, after a universe reboot, someone who’s lived in a cave for their entire life should have been able to pick up Batman #1 or Superman #1 with no knowledge of the characters and still been able to follow the story.  Instead, after the reboot, we were essentially dropped into the story in medias res, forced to assume that everything we knew about the characters was the same until we were told different.  It struck me as a particularly lazy way to handle such a massive retcon.  Now that I think about it, probably the best thing DC could have looked to as a model for how to handle a reboot would have been the early days of Marvel’s Ultimate universe.

But whether or not you’re on board with the DC reboot, the new books don’t even seem to be internally consistent.  After the reboot, DC made the interesting choice to start ongoing series set in completely different eras, a present day Superman series, for instance, and a year-one era Superman series telling the story of a younger Clark Kent’s early days.  Again, on paper, I love this notion of ongoing, parallel storytelling in two different time periods, but to make it work, it is absolutely essential that one hand talks to the other, and the word on the street is that very little of that his happening in the DC bullpen.

On the other hand, Marvel, in recent years, has been pretty good about keeping their comic universe consistent and keeping a dialogue going between their creators.  Once a year or so, Marvel’s top creators have a story summit to beat out the major story points in the coming year, and to coordinate to what degree the various books will be involved in the year’s tentpole events.  And unlike the Marvel of the early ‘90s, when slapping “An Infinitely Gauntlet Crossover” on a cover was little more than a thinly-veiled attempt at selling more books, it’s been my experience of late that when an ongoing Marvel series ties in to one of their big event storylines, by and large these interludes are expertly woven into the larger context.  And when you really think about it, the fact that all of these separate comics exist in the same unified story world gives Marvel the opportunity to explore aspects of the story that a film or TV universe never could.

But even Marvel is not immune to the sin of retroactive continuity, the most egregious example in recent memory being the mystical annulment of Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson.  Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada had long been on record as saying that he wanted the opportunity to tell stories involving a single Peter Parker (even though, for my money, Marvel already had the perfect venue for those kinds of stories in “Ultimate Spider-Man”), and a few years back, Quesada pushed through a plot device involving a devil’s bargain between Peter and the demonic Mephisto which reshaped reality as though Peter and Mary Jane had never gotten hitched.  Now, the last thing in the world I want to do is vilify Joey Q, because overall I think his influence on the Marvel universe has been stellar: It helps to have a creator at the helm instead of a bean counter, and I have little doubt that the methodically unified Marvel universe that fans like me enjoy today is due in large part to Quesada’s efforts.  All that said, we’re digging up this old chestnut now to highlight the dangers of massive retcons, so here’s what really bugged me about the now-infamous “One More Day” storyline.  The profound personal implications this development had for Peter and MJ were bad enough, but there was a component of the change that, for me, was even more vexing.  When you have a massive story world like the Marvel universe, every retcon has a butterfly effect of repercussions, some of which are impossible to predict.  During the Civil War storyline, Peter Parker famously outted himself as Spider-Man on National TV news, and Peter’s company-mandated deal with the devil apparently retconned this out of existence too.  As I recall, the official spin from Marvel tried to band-aid the problem by claiming that Spidey still outted himself during Civil War, only now no one remembers who was actually under the mask.  But, seriously, in what way does that make sense?  And just to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes, it took another storyline, “One Moment in Time,” just to hash out some of the lingering continuity issues that grew out of Mephisto deal.  At any rate, after this happened, despite my longtime love for the character, I boycotted all of the Spider books in the Earth 616 universe.  Because, honestly, why should I bother devoting time and energy to becoming invested in Spider-Man and his story if some editorial edict can invalidate the most important relationship in Peter Parker’s life while at the same time irrevocably disrupting the Marvel Comics story world that I know and love?

And I think that gets to the heart of the matter.  If we’re going to devote the time to get invested in a series, we want to trust that we’re in good hands.  We want to know that like the Cylons, the storytellers have a plan.  And we want to be secure in the knowledge that no one’s going to come along and retcon our favorite stories out of existence.  Now, in the strictest sense, you could make an argument that the Star Wars franchise is really more multimedia than transmedia, and comic book universes aren’t even necessarily that.  But the one thing all of these things have in common is a massive, interconnected story world.  The dozens of separate series that make up the Marvel and the DC universes are different windows into those vast story worlds, the same way that transmedia tools like social media and alternate reality games provide windows into the transmedia experiences we’re creating.  So what are the takeaways from today’s post?  Take the time to map out your story and your story world up front in intricate detail, because the fans can tell when you don’t.  Remember that when you’re designing immersive narratives, division of labor can be the enemy if all of the creators involved aren’t on the same page.  And do everything in your power to avoid painting yourself into a corner that only a massive retcon can rectify.  Because fans like me who are obsessive enough to immerse ourselves in your transmedia story worlds are exactly the kind of people who are going to crucify you if we feel like you’re jerking us around.

Narrative Necessity

So I’ve been thinking about something Brian Clark said in his keynote at StoryWorld 2012, how oftentimes part of our jobs as narrative designers is to give the audience the illusion of choice, something that’s echoed through a great deal of my own work and other transmedia experiences I’ve seen.  And since Clark so thoroughly covered dead French and German philosophers in his treatise on the phenomenological aspects of the narrative design art movement, I thought I’d throw a dead Russian into the mix.  This illusion of choice reminded me of a fascinating piece I’d read by a Marxist philosopher named Georgi Plehkanov, “The Role of the Individual in History.”  But what does a piece of Marxist propaganda have to do with transmedia storytelling?  As it turns out, quite a bit.

It boils down to this: Plehkanov believed that the larger-than-life figures who are the cornerstones of human history, while possessed of extraordinary abilities to be sure, were merely in the right place at the right time to see their potential realized.  “A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time,” Plehkanov said.  Plehkanov believed that great men like Napoleon were unwitting thralls to what he called “historical necessity,” and that had Napoleon met an untimely end before he was able to carry out some of his most influential acts, a different but equally capable individual would have necessarily risen to fill the power vacuum left in Napoleon’s wake.  That being the case, Plehkanov did not consider Napoleon to be a hero “in the sense that he [could] stop, or change, the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities [were] the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course.”

Now, whether or not you believe the doctrine of historical necessity applies to events in the real world, it is undeniably the case that many Alternate Reality Games and other transmedia narratives that call for audience engagement have been designed in accordance with Plehkanov’s world view.  The puzzles that underpinned all of the ARGs for my web series “Fury of Solace,” for example, were designed such that only a single individual (or at best a small group) would ultimately fulfill them.  Any one of our viewers had the potential to step up and claim a place in the “Fury of Solace” canon by completing the game and pushing the story forward, but ultimately it didn’t matter which one of our fans that turned out to be, because in the end, the outcome of the game was a pre-scripted, foregone conclusion.  Even in what I’ve been calling “instanced” ARGs, which allow innumerable fans to each play through their own distinct instance of the game in their own time, the narrative designers behind them are creating a role for those fans to step into, allowing the players to fulfill a sort of “narrative necessity.”  In the case of transmedia storytelling, I suppose narrative necessity could be defined as the player agency that must be exercised in order for any given deconstructed narrative to progress.

This seems to be as good a place as any to bring up the concept of emergent behavior.  The propensity for the individual ants in an ant colony to fall into prescribed roles without any kind of centralized decision making has led to ant colonies being categorized as superorganisms, “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.”  Individual ants, in fact, are not designed to live very long on their own, and each of them is to their colony as a single neuron is to our brain.  So a colony of ants is, in a very literal sense, greater than the sum of its parts.

And emergent behavior is certainly not limited to ants, human beings exhibit it as well.  Emergent Groups, for instance (as defined by Robert Stallings and E.L. Quarantelli), are groups of  “private citizens who work together in pursuit of collective goals relevant to actual or potential disasters but whose organization has not yet become institutionalized.”  And even though most of the research on emergent groups is focused on the way in which people organize in response to crisis situations, a lot of the same principles can apply to the way players organize in response to the complex puzzles presented by ARGs.  And what’s more, just like ARG communities, emergent groups tend to form and congregate via social media.

I will likely devote a future post to analyzing the specifics of the overlap between emergent groups and ARG participants, but in general terms, I guess the lesson of today’s post is that narrative designers should be conscious of the roles they’re creating for their audience to inhabit.  People like to feel like they have a purpose, and they’ll probably be a lot more likely to participate in an immersive narrative experience if they’re offered the opportunity to put their own distinctive skill sets to use.  If there is, in fact, a link between people who play ARGs and the kinds of people who participate in emergent groups, maybe specifically facilitating this kind of emergent behavior in the context of a game could make would-be players more willing and able to fill the roles we’ve created, in service of the narrative necessity of our story worlds.

StoryWorld 2012 Part 2: The Future of ARGs

Welcome to part 2 of my StoryWorld 2012 recap.  From here on out, instead of doing this one panel at a time, I’ll be focusing on themes that ran throughout the conference.  This week, we’ll be talking about the future of Alternate Reality Games.

On the Way Forward panel at this year’s StoryWorld conference, some of the biggest names in transmedia storytelling addressed an important question: Has the Alternate Reality Game run is course?  Interestingly enough, the man who was most outspoken in his belief that we’ve reached the twilight of the ARG also happens to be a man who has been intimately involved in the creation of some of the earliest, largest and best-known examples of the form: Fourth Wall Studios’ Elan Lee.  So what soured Lee on the ARG experience?

For one thing, Lee has seen more than his share of players intent on breaking the games he and his team have poured blood, sweat and tears into creating.  As part of the Halo 2 “I Love Bees” experience, players were given clues that turned out to be locations of pay phones all around the world, and times that said phones were going to ring.  Many players were merely treated to automated messages, but a lucky few had the opportunity to speak to real-live actors portraying some of the ARG’s characters.  This proved to be an immensely engaging experience for the thousands of fans who participated, but one thing Lee and his fellow “I Love Bees” developers failed to anticipate was that during one fateful phone call, one of the players would cave and reveal the location of the sleeping princess to the menacing Melissa A.I. that was pursuing her.  This required Lee and his team to jettison several chapters of their planned storyline and engage in draining, last-minute rewrites.  To the players, this development was riveting; to the creators, it was nothing short of a nightmare.  And while, in this case, the player who was the architect of Lee’s woes may not have consciously set out to break the game, time and again Lee has found himself in the unenviable position of having to deal with players trying to do exactly that.  Of course, this begs the question: Why would someone go to such length to derail a game?

On the Painting in the Dark panel, GR Experiential Learning Founder Carl Heath likened gamers to toddlers who don’t know their boundaries.  Indeed, many modern-day video gamers’ natural inclination is to push against a game’s boundaries at the outset, to find out exactly what the game mechanics allow them to do.  And when a game is set in the real world, the line between in-game and out-of-game elements can become blurred so completely as to be almost indistinguishable.  As Sony Computer Entertainment’s Amy Henning keenly observed during the Game Vs. Story panel, “There’s a razor thin line between preserving player agency, thus risking that disruption of the narrative flow, or telling a more linear story that risks showing the puppet strings.”

Lee has walked that line time and again on increasingly ambitious ARG projects, so much so that he seems to think his brand of ARG storytelling has hit a glass ceiling.  That, coupled with a reportedly plummeting ARG audience and the creative frustration that comes from the proliferation of gamers who push the games’ boundaries to the breaking point, has caused Lee to shift gears.  His company Fourth Wall studios has set its sights on telling smaller, more instanced interactive experiences, like their Emmy award winning series “Dirty Work.”

But that kind of instanced interactive storytelling does come with its share of potential pitfalls.  During the Writing Open Story Worlds panel, Blizzard’s James Waugh shared an anecdote that got to the heart of the matter.  There is a playable mission in Blizzard’s flagship Massively Multiplayer Online RPG “World of Warcraft” which calls for the players to slay a dragon called Onyxia.  But when Blizzard established that the character Varian Wrynn struck the killing blow in a storyline in the canonical WoW comics, fans were outraged; Blizzard had inadvertently robbed their players of the roles they’d carved out for themselves in the world of the game.  And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d take it one step further to say that during my MMORPG days, the knowledge that thousands of other players were playing through the exact same instanced dungeons that I was playing through created a cognitive dissonance which, for my money, diminished the overall experience.  I don’t want to feel like I’m just a cog in a narrative machine; if I’m taking the time to actively interact with a story, I want to feel like my adventures are my own, and that my actions are imbued with story-world significance, or at least the illusion of it.

Of course, I understand how impractical and fiscally irresponsible it would be to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on game experiences that only happen once and are tailored to just a few people.  In the case of my transmedia web series “Fury of Solace,” most of the ARGs played out entirely in the digital space, they didn’t cost anything to produce outside of the sweat equity spent drawing them up, so the fact that they were one-off events is a little easier to swallow.  But while I like to think our games were highly engaging for our small but loyal fanbase who experienced them, that is far from a viable model for larger gaming enterprises.

So where does this leave us?  Does increased fan apathy signal that the massively multiplayer ARG is well and truly dead?  Not all of the speakers on the Way Forward panel seemed to think so.  As far as Lucasfilm’s Ivan Askwith is concerned, the audience isn’t burnt out on ARGs in general, they’re simply tired of “engaging in things that have no value to them.”  And Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez, for his part, said that taking on a role within the context of a story world is something nearly all of us do in childhood, and he contends that that kind of role playing is something that people want to hold onto.

Part of the reason ARG participation has always catered to a seemingly small percentage of any given franchise’s audience probably has something to do with the fact that this kind of play is actively discouraged in adults, they lack what psychologist Denise Weston on the “Psychology of Games and Gamers” panel referred to as “play permission.”  On the same panel, psychologist and Founder of Transmedia Associates Pamela Rutledge said that the best way to counter these barriers to entry is to make an environment that is rich with safe points of entry.

Which is exactly what Imagineers are currently experimenting with within the confines of Walt Disney theme parks.   Certain park-going families have been given the opportunity to play-test new experiences like “Legend of the Fortuna” and “The Starlite Detective Agency.”  These ARG experiences play out over the course of the family’s visit to the park, and see each of them taking on a role in the story and interacting with actors seeded throughout the park.  During his keynote, Walt Disney Imagineering’s Scott Towbridge related the story of a pair of 7-year-old participants who were astonished that by the end of the day, their initially-skeptical mother had thrown herself completely into her role.  “That’s the first time we’ve ever seen our mom play,” the boys said, when all was said and done.

Does this mean the future of ARGs is in smaller, less expensive interactive experiences in more controlled environments?  That’s certainly a possibility.  But when it comes to corporate, massively multiplayer ARGs, Lee ultimately agreed with his fellow panelists that that kind of storytelling isn’t necessarily dead, so long as it continues to evolve.  In that regard, maybe we’re just waiting for the right creator to take the next giant leap forward.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned for at least one more StoryWorld recap, and possibly some commentary on Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm.

StoryWorld 2012 Part 1: Phenomenal Work

So last week I attended the second annual StoryWorld Conference.  I was unable to attend the inaugural event in San Francisco the year before, but I heard so many glowing reviews that attending the followup was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  And I could not have asked for a better experience.  Held at the Loews Hotel here in Hollywood, CA, StoryWorld 2012 was a 3-day romp of invaluable presentations & panel discussions, and elbow-rubbing with some of the brightest minds in the transmedia space from a myriad of disciplines.

I can’t possibly cover StoryWorld 2012 in a single post, so this will be the first of a multi-part series recapping the conference.  And I’ve decided to start my recap with one of the final presentations, by GMD Studios’ Brian Clark.  Clark called his keynote “Phenomenal Work” (as in the phenomenology) and stood on the shoulders of “dead German philosophers” like Immanual Kant, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger to propose that now is the time for enthusiasts of immersive storytelling to spearhead a global design art movement.  Clark suggested that by focusing on the totality of the entertainment experience, transmedia storytellers are venturing into the territory of Husserl’s phenomenology, acknowledging that there is a difference between the story itself and the way fans experience it.

The central narrative of any story only touches on what keynote speaker Damon Lindelof refers to as the “tip of the iceberg” of the story world, everything below the surface is intuited by the audience.  Clark invoked the philosophical term “intentionality” to describe the audience’s ability to project story into the negative space implied by the creators of these immersive story worlds, a capacity that Microsoft Studio’s Lead Narrative Producer Geoffrey Long described in another panel as “negative capability.”  “Our work doesn’t provide the meaning,” Clark said, “it provides a context for it.  The audience provides the rest.”

Clark singled out Shepard Fairey as one of the most successful transmedia creators in the world today.  Fairey’s famous Obey Giant campaign was a self-described experiment in phenomenology.  His stated goal in the Obey Giant manifesto was to “reawaken a sense of wonder” in the world, a basic tenet of phenomenology, and one which Clark argues should be an underlying goal for all transmedia creators.

Clark cited “Mr. Sardonicus,” the world’s first choose-your-own adventure film, as one of the earliest examples of another important tenant of the transmedia movement: Sometimes, interactivity just means providing the illusion of choice.  The director of “Mr. Sardonicus,” William Castle – who by all accounts was a far better marketer than he was a filmmaker – claimed to have shot two endings to the picture, allegedly leaving it to the viewing public to decide to dole out punishment or mercy.  But Castle was such an adept puppet master that not a single audience ever chose to be merciful, and in fact, we now know that that alternate ending was never actually put to film.  Indeed, many ARGs (including those in my transmedia series “Fury of Solace”) are heavily rooted in this idea of the illusion of choice; the outcome of the games are never in question, but the players of an ARG well-told feel as if they are having a direct and measurable impact on the unfolding story.

Next, Clark praised George Lucas, not, in this case, for his success as a world builder but for pushing the film industry forward by championing the THX sound system.  Since transmedia storytelling is about the overall experience, Clark reminded us that “media happens somewhere, and that somewhere can be designed too.”

Because what we do as transmedia storytellers is so rooted in phenomenology, Clark proposed that instead of coining new terms to define our disparate disciplines, we simply preface our existing titles with “phenomenal.”  A phenomenal writer, for instance, is a writer who writes with the totality of the audience experience in mind.

Carrie Cutforth-Young, who I was also fortunate enough to meet at StoryWorld this year, responded to Clark’s keynote on Twitter, suggesting that perhaps the transmedia art movement that Clark proposed had already begun.  Cutforth-Young is one of the organizers of Transmedia101 (formerly Transmedia Toronto), and indeed, there is perhaps no more convincing argument for the existence of this emerging movement than the proliferation of transmedia groups all around the globe.

StoryWorld 2011 featured an unofficial meetup of transmedia meetup groups, and this year the organizers decided to officially incorporate that concept into the program.  Hosted by Transmedia L.A., this year’s Meetup of Meetups boasted representatives from StoryCode, Transmedia101, Transmedia Vancouver, Transmedia SF, Transmedia Europe & Alliance, T Storyteller and the EraTransmedia.  And I’m certain (as Damon Lindelof is so fond of saying) that those are only the tip of the iceberg.  Hal Hefner hosted this year’s meetup, and publicly announced something that I’ve been hinting at on the blog for several weeks: he’s stepping up as new managing director of Transmedia L.A.  And I’m proud to announce that I’ll be playing an important role in the future of the group (more on that in upcoming posts).

Jump on over to Clark’s blog to check out the slide presentation from his keynote, and to keep up with his in-depth exploration of his proposed global design movement.  And stay tuned here for more coverage of this year’s StoryWorld conference!

Push

Recently, some internet marketer friends of mine who also happen to be big fans of my web series “Fury of Solace” came to me with an interesting marketing idea for the series.  They’d had a great deal of experience using e-mail autoresponders for  traditional marketing, selling products, and they thought “Fury of Solace” lent itself to using autoresponders to simply tell a story.  This actually ties in to my last post on instancing, because, in effect, this approach would create a semi-instanced version of our show.  For a more in depth discussion on instancing go ahead and click back to the previous post, but in general terms, in an instanced transmedia experience, even though each user is experiencing the same narrative content, that content is being delivered in a self-contained bubble, a unique user-experience which begins when the user signs up.

I was not surprised to learn that other transmedia projects have already been dabbling in this particular content delivery system.  I haven’t had a chance to check out the project yet, but I learned via an episode of the Story Forward podcast that this autoresponder approach is currently being utilized by a project called “Guidestones.”  Jay Ferguson, the project’s creator, refers to this content-delivery method at the Push system, and since “push” is a lot more accessible than “autoresponder,” that’s how I’ll be referring to it from now on as well.

For our most recent cycle of “Fury of Solace,” we released four new videos a week for four weeks.  As I’ve mentioned before, since so much of our story is told through social-media interactions and Alternate Reality Games, it was always my goal to make that transmedia content accessible to people who stumbled upon our series after everything was said and done, and the Push system sounds like a great way to help people those people navigate through our ever-expanding web of content.  Using the Push system, new viewers would sign up at our site, and from that point forward they’d receive four e-mails a week until the story was completed.  Each e-mail would include not just a link to the next episode, but also links to Storify recaps of relevant character social media interactions, character blogs, ARG recaps, etc.  It would be almost as if our new viewers were experiencing the series the same way it was experienced by people who were watching it day-to-day as the content was originally released.  The reason I call it semi-instanced is because, unlike our viewers who were there from the beginning, these new viewers would not be able to interact with the characters in real-time because the story events our new viewers are only now discovering happened for the characters some time ago.

All of our content is currently available for free at furyofsolace.com, so the question then becomes, why would we offer our viewers an alternative way to experience the show via the Push system when they could just as easily go to the site and moderate their own experience?  Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that.  First off, I’ll be the first to admit that navigating furyofsolace.com is potentially overwhelming for your average viewer.  For one thing, because “Fury of Solace” was an indie, low-to-no budget series, our site isn’t a custom-built delivery mechanism for our particular brand of transmedia storytelling, it’s a WordPress theme that we’ve jury-rigged to deliver our content as best as we’ve been able.  So using the Push system is a good way to hand-hold new fans through the experience who are intimated by the prospect of digging through all of that content on their own.

Beyond that, I have a feeling that when the next live-action episode is only a mouse-click away, many viewers will have a tendency to skim over (if not skip entirely) the more text-based transmedia content.  But I think your average viewer will be a lot more likely to delve into that added transmedia content if the content is being sent to them in daily doses.

And, of course, from a marketing standpoint, there’s nothing more valuable than having direct access to your fans’ inboxes.  If they “like” you on Facebook or follow your Twitter feed, it’s still crapshoot whether or not any given fan will see your social media announcements in their streams.  If you’re sending them direct e-mails, you know they’re receiving your messages, and you have direct access to each and every one of your fans, not just for delivering content but also for fundraising initiatives, series announcements, the sky’s the limit, really.

As far as “Fury of Solace” goes, I think the ideal user experience is to watch it as the content is being released, thereby having the opportunity to interact with the characters in real-time as the story unfolds.  But the Push system may just be the best way for viewers to jump into our story world after the fact.

And speaking of, the second annual StoryWorld conference starts today here in L.A.  I’ll be attending all three days and will report back on the entire experience in an upcoming post.

Instancing

I started dabbling in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games as far back as Ultima Online in 1997, but no MMORPG captured my imagination like “Star Wars: Galaxies.”  Admittedly, it was less the gameplay and more the story world that drew me in: I’d been a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan since my parents took me to see “Return of the Jedi” in theaters when I was 3.  I found “Galaxies” so engaging, in fact, that it took me moving to Los Angeles in 2008 to wrest me from the game’s grip, and I have subsequently sworn off MMORPGs altogether, in the name of productivity.  Exactly what kept me coming back hour after hour, day after day, will likely be the subject of a future blog post, but today I’m going to focus on one particular aspect of MMORPGs called “instancing,” because I believe the concept is just as germane to Alternate Reality Games as it is to Online Role-Playing Games.

Periodically, MMORPG designers introduce new play areas, which, due to the proliferation of sword & sorcery games in the genre, are generally referred to as “dungeons.”  These dungeons offer new challenges, new enemies, and generally, new coveted loot drops which players stand to gain by exploring them.  Needless to say, after a new dungeon drops, die-hard and casual gamers alike flock to it in droves, underlining the “massive” in “massively multiplayer.”  This overcrowding can potentially cause any number of problems, from the technical to the practical.  On the technical side, too many players in one place is taxing on the server, and the system you’re playing it on.  On the practical side, forcing all of the players to explore a single dungeon means the new loot drops are likely to be scarce, and die-hard players will tend to have a leg up on casual players when it comes to acquiring them (though this could also be seen as a benefit, if you’re looking for a gaming experience that promotes competition and a player-driven economy motivated by scarcity of resources).  To combat these problems, certain MMORPG developers introduced the concept of an “instanced” dungeon: When a player and his or her party enter the dungeon, they are transported to a newly created instance of the dungeon, identical to the dungeon each of the other players experience, but separate from the virtual world they all share.  In this way, every player is able to experience the content without interference from the rest of the teeming masses, and players of every skill level have the same opportunity to obtain the sought-after loot contained therein.

And many Alternate Reality Game designers have essentially implemented instancing for their gaming experience for similar reasons.  It allows for the highest number of participants, and for players to experience the ARG at their own pace in their own time.  Generally speaking, a fully instanced ARG has to be completely automated and exist only in the virtual space.  You e-mail a character, for example, and receive a canned, pre-scripted, automated response which leads you to the next part of the story, you solve various online puzzles and play through the game to its conclusion.

And while this approach makes a lot of sense from a game-management perspective, I have to admit, canned dungeon content, instanced or otherwise, was my least favorite part of the “Star Wars: Galaxies” experience.  The knowledge that hundreds of thousands of other players completed the exact same missions I did pulled me out of the otherwise dynamic, open world that the designers had created.  Similarly, I tend not to find myself fully engaged in instanced ARGs because, though they may provide the illusion of interactivity, I’m all too aware that ultimately, my actions don’t have any direct, observable impact on the story.

That was our goal for each of the ARGs we staged for the web series “Fury of Solace,” to make fans feel like their actions mattered.  Of course, following this model, our ARGs generally had only one “winner”: however collaborative the process may have been up to that point, it was only one person who would ultimately crack the code, after which further exploration of that particular game became redundant.  So the fact that the ARGs were designed for a small number of players and a short time-span meant that we had to find a way to engage people after the fact, for the benefit of those who were unable to participate at the time, or who hadn’t yet stumbled upon our series.  A way to convey not just the important plot information that came out during the game, but to also immortalize the contributions of the players who did participate (both as a reward to them and as a demonstration that future players, too, could secure themselves an enduring place in the “Fury of Solace” canon).

So when it comes to ARGs, the question becomes: to instance or not to instance?  And ultimately, I tend to think, as with all things, a little instancing is fine in moderation.  (I should point out, it’s been quite difficult to resist the urge to use the phrase “for instance” in this particular post.)  For example (ahem)… When “The Miracle Mile Paradox’s” Rex Higgs went into hiding, and seeded his business cards at local businesses on the strip of L.A.’s Wilshire blvd known as the Miracle Mile, the creative team was able to instance a portion of the game without violating the integrity of the story.  Higgs was trying to recruit as many allies as possible in his struggle against the evil AIC corporation, so it made perfect sense that each player would jump through the same series of automated hoops to get onboard, without the reality-breaking mechanic of having multiple players fill the same role in the same story.  Players were playing themselves, their actions mattered, and because finding the clues actually did require human interaction with employees at the various participating businesses, each player’s individual experience varied.  Obviously, this is an evolving form, and I feel like we’re only just scratching the surface of how engaging ARGs can be.  I, for one, am excited to see where we, as transmedia producers, and the fans who complete the equation, take this form in the days to come.

That’s it for this week, but I hope to see many of you in person at next week’s StoryWorld conference!

What’s in the Bxx?

This week, I’m going to talk about another transmedia property I had the privilege to take part in, an experimental web series called “Bxx: Haunted,” helmed by Daniel Knauf, creator of HBO’s “Carnivale.”  For a time, after “Carnivale’s” untimely cancellation, Dan and his son Charlie wrote the “Iron Man” comic for Marvel.  It was because of that (and my three-year stint as a staff writer for Comic Book Resources) that I first became passingly acquainted with the Knaufs.  So when I read about Dan Knauf’s groundbreaking idea for a transmedia web series, I did not hesitate to reach out and offer my services.

In “Bxx: Haunted,” Dan Knauf and his loyal crew set out to tell the story of a paranormal investigation gone wrong.  But their goal was to tell the ENTIRE story.  So they set up 16 cameras in a house in Pasadena, rolled for 32 hours straight, and let their actors eat, breathe and sleep their characters until the story had played out.  There wasn’t a script per se so much as a series of primers, tailored to each character, instructing the actors about their backstory, personalities, and certain key emotional beats they had to hit at specific times, etc. (not unlike what I’m told was provided to the actors in “The Blair Witch Project”).  “Bxx: Haunted” was originally slated to take place over 48 hours, but my understanding is the entire experience became too taxing on the actors involved, so they were forced to move up their timetable on the fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t become involved with the project until after this insane 32-hour odyssey had already been shot.  I would love to have been present for that part of the undertaking.  Ultimately, all of these hundreds of hours of footage were presented, unedited, on the show’s website in 6 minute intervals.  Viewers could watch as much of the story as they wanted, in whatever order they wanted.  There’s also a way to synch up multiple cameras so you can watch different rooms at once.

My chief task on the project turned out to be working with Dan’s son Charlie to create what Dan affectionately refers to as “ephemera.”  The supposedly haunted house where the story took place had a long fictional history, as did the primary characters in the story, so Charlie and I were tasked to write old newspaper and magazine articles about some of the house’s sordid former occupants, paranormal research papers supposedly written by cast members, police reports, and all manner of supplementary, world-building material.

And while we were in the midst of producing this material, I came up with what I thought was a novel way of presenting the material to the fans.  I’d recently been playing through the Xbox game “Arkham City,” in which fulfilling certain achievements unlocked piece of narrative back story.  It occurred to me that, to encourage exploration through the countless hours of material, this ephemera that Charlie and I were producing might best be made “unlockable,” i.e. watching a particular 6-minute segment of the show from a particular angle would allow a viewer to access a particular piece of supplementary content that was germane to what was happening in that clip.  I figured that would foster fan discussion, and appeal to the completionist tendencies of the video game generation, who would want to unlock all of the supplementary material just to say they did it.  So I was excited when Dan and his team took my advice and implemented that evidence-gathering approach to the supplementary material Charlie and I created.

And for those of you who are a little overwhelmed by the prospect of sifting through hundreds of hours of content, Dan and Co. have edited together a traditional, found-footage feature film out of the project, which is actually a good entre to the world of the series.  You may think that by watching the movie first, knowing the end will spoil the journey, but I would beg to differ.  The film actually works as something of a framing device, and watching the film makes you wonder what happened in the footage the film didn’t show you.  Not only that, the cast is so entrenched in their roles that you almost can’t even call it acting, and watching the way they unravel over 32 hours is a fascinating experience in and of  itself.

I had a blast working with Dan, Charlie and the rest of the cast and crew on “Bxx: Haunted,” and I encourage each and every one of you to head over to their site and check out the project.  I know Dan loves the possibilities that this format presents, and wants to use it to tell other stories.  “Bxx: Haunted” is kind of a dry run for this new type of narrative storytelling, and it’s being shaped by fans like you and me who provide feedback as we delve into this nigh bottomless well of material that Dan and Co. have produced.  Working on the project was a great experience, and I hope I get to work with those folks again in the future.

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