The neverending story

A couple weeks ago, Open Game Design posted an article about creating an "everlasting ARG" (which in turn referenced an article from Irene L. Pynn on the same topic). The basic message was the desire for a transmedia story that didn't end. Most transmedia stories, at least those based on the model of ARGs, that we've seen so far, take place in a finite amount of time. Conspiracy For Good started in May, and ended in August. You can't participate anymore because a big part of the experience were the live interactions with fictional characters, live events, etc., and the creators don't run those anymore. To do otherwise would, as Open Game Design points out,

... be like asking the writers of LOST to script dialog for their characters to deliver 24/7 for several months instead of 24 one hour chunks per season. Maintaining that kind of pace would require an impractical number of writers, and that's not taking into account that the drama would escalate at a ridiculous pace and the story would burn itself quickly.

Open Game Design goes on to describe how they're going to try an "everlasting ARG" anyway. By organizing the stories into seasons, they can essentially run annual short-term ARGs that tell a continuing story around one character, and between seasons, they keep that character present on the internet, interacting with people via twitter or blogs.

I love the theory of this idea. It uses existing frameworks of storytelling that we've come to understand from television, keeps the real-time aspect of ARG storytelling, and keeps the audience involved with the character between seasons.

I think there are, potentially, lots of ways that an "everlasting" transmedia story could work.

If the transmedia story is based on a single driving platform, that can affect how the story plays out around that platform. For example, if the base platform is television, then you have that season-system worked in from the start -- but suddenly, you have to be aware that the story being told through transmedia might not be happening in the same timeframe as the TV show. An extreme example of this would be 24. A single day is played out over a whole season of TV. How do you structure a real-time story told through the internet around that? Perhaps the transmedia part of the story is something that leads up to the events of the TV show, and those watching the show are getting hints as the series plays out as to what may be coming up in the story; both stories conclude at the same time, and something in the season finale episode jives with something at the end of the transmedia story. Perhaps this works even better if the story involves some kind of time travel of future prescience -- bringing the meta knowledge of what happens on the TV show into story canon. (Ok, that was a complicated example/conjecture/ramble. Does that make sense?)

I've personally considered the ability to do something like this with the base platform of a game. If that game is an app game or a browser game, or perhaps something like an MMO, then the creators can continually add new content for players to discover, but the very structure of the game means that players will discover pieces of the story only bits at a time. Perhaps they uncover the existence of a website in the game, and go to that website in real life to find more of the story. As the game expands, the content and story can expand. Even if one story arc finishes, people keep playing the game for the game factor -- and then come across a new story arc as the creators add it to the game. If the game is designed to not have a specific ending -- players can keep building their stats, finding achievements, etc. -- then you keep them engaged until the next piece of story is created. There's no end.

If part of your transmedia experience is through social media like characters with facebook or twitter accounts, there's the potential issue of constantly updating those, and having a continual arc for your characters. But lots of real people don't update social media constantly, and don't constantly have drama or conflict in their lives -- keeping those accounts updated could be a matter of five minutes a day. And then when there is more story to tell, you can kick that up a few notches.

Part of the transmedia story is just experiencing the richness of a storyworld, the depth of characters that makes them seem like real people. Making players see that depth is reason enough to do something like update a twitter account, even if there's no imminent, immediate story conflict going on. Like Open Game Design has done with their Martin character, he's become a real person in the minds of the people interacting with him, even though the true story hasn't started yet.

However, this talk of that neverending transmedia story does bring up another issue for me: what about players who come to a story late?

In a structure based around a game, a player may not start a story until months after the game comes out. That's why I like the idea of the game structure so much -- that player hasn't missed anything. As he uncovers the story in the game, he'll come across the transmedia story elements, just like everyone else. There's nothing to catch up on.

But if you're creating a transmedia story more like an ARG, it's not as easy. One of the biggest barriers I've found to getting into an ARG is that if you weren't there from the beginning, then you need to figure out and catch up on everything that came before in order to participate in what's happening now. And while a Guide or a wiki collects all the information of what's come before, it's not usually presented in a way that makes it easy for new people to really get into it.

If you're running a long-term, "everlasting" transmedia project, then this challenge will be increased exponentially. If I discover your story two years in, I need to be able to easily find out what's come before and where we are now. Otherwise, you're actively preventing new audience.

One way that I can think of to do this is to write a kind of walkthrough, like there might be for a video game. It says, here's the beginning, the rabbitholes. Here's a link to them so you can see for yourself. Now here's what you have to do to get to the next part. At this point, the community did this, and learned X.

Guides are a bit like this, but are written as the story progresses--in this case, a walkthrough should be constantly updated to be as clear as possible, with the express purpose of initiating new audience. If I come to the main website of a transmedia story, I should be able to find a place that explains to me what's going on, and within as little time as possible, be able to jump right in. I've never found this before, and the longer a story's been going, the bigger the barrier to getting into it.

I love the idea of an everlasting transmedia story, but it has to be structured in a way that lets it work. Whether the action is divided into seasons, or metered out through game mechanics that simultaneously keep the audience interested when there is no new story, or however else you can think to do it, you have to understand the barriers involved. And you have to do everything in your power to allow new audience, as word spreads about your story. Otherwise you're just shooting yourself in the foot.