Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

Archive for the month “November, 2012”


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.

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