Creative Voice: David Varela

This week, we are launching a weekly interview feature called Creative Voice, in which we talk to various transmedia creators doing cool stuff out there. Each of our experiences offers a lot to learn, and we hope to share that as well as some cool projects that are our there -- or need support.We launch this feature by talking to David Varela. I met David at ARGFest in August; he is both a great wit and a great guy -- and apparently a great writer. Support the project he's working on at Clockwork Watch.

First of all, what excites you most about transmedia storytelling? 

There’s no winning formula yet – we’re all still figuring out what works, and there are still surprising projects cropping up all over the place. There are new genres, new media, new business models and stacks of new talent coming into the transmedia world. It’s not about to get boring anytime soon.

What’s your background? How did you get interested in transmedia storytelling?

I’m essentially a writer. I studied English at university and made short films, then got a job writing live entertainment for cruise ships and hotels: classy stuff. Musicals, game shows, educational fun... low-cost and lowest-common-denominator. From that, my short film scripts got me a job writing online video ads and websites for tech companies. When the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, I went freelance, writing a mixture of corporate work (speeches, websites, brochures, ad campaigns) and drama, joining the Young Writers’ Programme at the Royal Court theatre and getting my first radio play on the BBC. I also played around with digital radio, writing a play for BBC7 that used the DAB scrolling text as a parallel ‘interior monologue’ alongside the main audio story.

So I was already messing about with new storytelling forms by 2004 when I saw a job ad in the media section of The Guardian that was written entirely in code. (A substitution cipher, I think.) It was an ad calling for all kinds of creative people to join Project Syzygy – a game that would later become known as Perplex City. There was a long time and a lot of writing tests between me applying and actually starting work on PXC, but I soon realized that all of that freelance work – writing corporate websites and games and theatre and radio and experimenting with unusual media – was perfect training for writing an Alternate Reality Game.

Ha, that's an awesome job ad. What are some projects you’ve worked on in the past? What do you look for in a project that makes it great to work on?

Perplex City was my introduction to all this, and it was quite an act to follow. I worked on a couple of short ARG-style projects for the BBC and Channel 4 in 2007, then got involved with a company called nDreams, where I wrote and produced a couple of big games: one called Xi, which used PlayStation Home as its core medium; and then Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life, which was even bigger, with live events all over the world and some fantastically Hollywood filmmaking.

I suppose I’m always looking for the chance to do something new. Sometimes that freedom comes from having a big budget, sometimes it’s an opportunity like working with the sports world, or using a medium I haven’t tried before, or just taking this kind of experience to new audiences.

You’re also working on a project with past co-conspirators Andrea Phillips, Adrian Hon, and Naomi Alderman on a story project called Balance of Powers, after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Why did you choose to go with Kickstarter, and what are you most excited about with this project?

We all just wanted to work together again, and Kickstarter gave us a way to do that. Balance of Powers isn’t really about making money. It’s about the four of us creating a story together and entertaining a crowd.

I understand it’s not really an ARG like you’ve done before. How is it different, and why did you choose to go that route?

All four of us have spent the last few years producing and originating projects – and that’s hard bloody work. I think we all wanted to get back to basics and make something that was more about writing than project management. It feels more purely creative.

So if not an ARG, what form does it take? You said you like doing new things -- are you doing anything really interesting with Balance of Powers?

Without giving too much away, it's going to be a serialised story updated each week, with some physical items sent by mail to the higher-level subscribers and with live online events for them to take part in too. Technologically, it's not so groundbreaking, though the Kickstarter model was new to most of us. We hope the story is what will grip people.

You're all writers on Balance of Powers -- how do you coordinate with each other, and divide the work? What's the collaboration process?

We've spent a lot of Sunday evenings in Skype chats. Going back to last year. We gradually figured out what kind of world we wanted to create, then started making characters. They've solidified quite nicely now. We each write one character's point of view, co-ordinating their stories according to a unified timeline - which in practical terms means a wiki. Then we critique and rewrite each other's stuff in a remarkable civilised way. I think that stage is the part where our experience working together is most valuable: we don't have egos (much) and are happy hacking into each other's prose.

What drives you as a storyteller? What are you interested in, and what do you hope to accomplish?

I want to entertain. What’s great about interactive projects is that you get to see the audience reaction so immediately – you have a live audience. Ultimately, I guess I just want to create entertainment that will be remembered.

That's probably why I've got involved with Clockwork Watch, which is a really exciting steampunk project being pulled together by Yomi Ayeni. I'm involved just as a writer and only on the screenwriting side, but it feels like a really ambitious (and intelligent) piece of entertainment. Here's a quick plug for the first transmedia element - the graphic novel, which you can be illustrated into for $40 or more. Get in there:

What would be your advice for an indie transmedia writer/creator?

Keep writing, keep experimenting, and don’t be scared of sharing your work. Naomi Alderman said something very wise to me a couple of months ago: “Be open about what you love and your people will find you.” I think the web and crowdfunding have made that more true than ever. Be an enthusiast.

Where do you want the transmedia industry to go? What would you like to see happen in this community?

I think it’s heading in a very exciting direction. More and more people are getting involved, both as audience and creators, and it’s starting to become a mainstream concept, even if the word ‘transmedia’ is still jargon to most of the world. The way things are heading, my mum might finally understand what I do for a living soon.

Finally: who's your favourite other person doing cool stuff in the field?

Don’t make me choose my BFF.

Ha! Fair enough. What about a person or two doing something cool that you think should be getting more public recognition than they are?

I genuinely think that Clockwork Watch could be amazing. What's more, it needs support right now to get off the ground. A few dollars for the graphic novel will show that there's an audience for all the other good stuff still to come, so lend your support. That link again: