I first encountered Adam through Twitter (as with a lot of my transmedia contacts, frankly...). At some point I realized that not only is this a guy with some cool ideas, transmedia-wise, but a guy who loves Dungeons and Dragons and video game soundtracks as much as I do. And that's just awesome. And then I heard his music and got myself a little musician crush. I met Adam in person briefly here in Vancouver a couple of months ago, and he's a really smart, nice guy to boot. Without further ado -- and be sure to read through the interview, Adam has a little bonus treat for you!
What excites you most about transmedia storytelling?
First and foremost, I’m interested in building storyworlds. As you know, storyworlds are experienced through individual stories (unless of course you’re reading something like a D&D campaign setting), and individual stories are told through mediums.
I see mediums as windows into storyworlds, and those windows are inevitably tinted. Every medium tells a story differently, and more importantly is capable of telling different kinds of stories. So transmedia is a way of connecting those dots into a cohesive whole. What a novel cannot express, a video game can, and vice versa. Done right, transmedia enables us to fully realize a storyworld by seeing it through every window.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but I use the word “world” loosely. It could be a universe or multiverse, or something within our own world like a secret society of wizards or a mysterious island. I actually call them “storyscapes”, a word my Artizens partner Charles coined for that reason.
You work at Starlight Runner, which I just found out recently. What do you do there (and how did you get that gig)?
I work as part of the team that writes the mythology bibles. Because of my background, my focus in the company is on video game properties. Some of my tasks include cataloging every detail of a client’s existing canon, providing feedback notes on games-in-progress, and co-developing brand new stories or games to be integrated into a client’s transmedia rollout plan.
I landed the initial internship by submitting the storyscape bible for Artizens that I had co-developed with Charles in grad school at ITP . I guess they liked it, because Caitlin Burns brought me in and trained me.
It's been over a year, and I still feel so fortunate to be there. Everyone at Starlight is insanely talented and amazing to work with. I’ve learned so much from my time there. Those guys just get story. It’s in their blood.
You also have your own project with your band Igor’s Egg, which I’m very excited about. Tell me about that! How did it come about?
Igor’s Egg is a band with a concept-discography. Every song on every album is set in our storyscape Amaris, which is a sort of post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy world. Everything we release is part of that singular canon.
We are currently developing a trilogy of albums and comics called Revolutions. Part 1 will be out sometime in 2012. We recently released a prelude of sorts, a short instrumental EP called Landscapes, that establishes some of the key locations in the upcoming story.
I’d like to give a free copy of Landscapes to all your readers... You can download it here by entering this super-secret passcode: CEPHMEETSOLAN.
That's awesome, thanks Adam! (And seriously go download it, the music is fantastic. I'm listening to it right now.)
So, why use music for a story project like that?
This may seem like the antithesis to an ideal transmedia approach, but... because we're a band. We decided to play music before we decided to dedicate that music to a storyworld.
But in our current process, we do ask that question - “what medium should tell this story”, even though we already know the answer. It’s drastically changed the story and the way the story is told.
It’s not just music, though. We’re also going to be releasing a 52-page comic book alongside every album. The album and comic are going to complement each other, and each will utilize its own strengths to express a larger whole. The comic is going to tell the main story linearly, while the album is much more focused on characters, backstories, world building, and of course themes and leitmotifs.
Music is abstract but emotional, so the actual instrumentals will hit on the tones and feelings. Lyrics are narrative, but we’re really trying to extract the raw emotions and images rather than sing about the proper nouns. What we’ve found is that music and stories are just experienced differently. You can’t have a plot-twist or a reveal, for example. Lyrics just aren’t experienced linearly like that. Music is usually experienced in cycles. The CD stays in your car, or on your iPod for a certain period of time. You learn the lyrics through repeated listens. You start to hear new layers and licks. So like any transmedia storyscape, the music of Igor’s Egg has its narrative place. Hopefully, as you unravel the layers of the album, you’ll be further immersed in the storyscape.
We are first releasing Revolutions as an episodic series on the web. So every week you’ll get a chapter from the comic, as well as a few songs. Major characters have their own songs, and we’ll be featuring those songs episodically as the characters are introduced. So, for example, when we introduce Logi in the comic you’ll also hear his song that week, which will describe his disposition and backstory through lyrics, and a sense of character and tone through the music.
What drives you, as a storyteller? What are you interested in, and what do you hope to accomplish?
I think I’m chasing the feeling of being a kid, when everything is so huge and new. The adventures are so epic, and you’re just absorbed in the magic. Once in a while, I’ll experience a story that will illicit that same feeling for me. I don’t necessarily mean stories that are for kids. Some of my favorite are downright inappropriate. But I think that feeling of being a kid is universal.
I could also get into the grown-up answer about how stories are abstractions of life, feed our empathic drives, and create cathartic experiences through windows into ourselves and our world... but the kid answer is way more fun.
What would be your advice for an indie transmedia creator?
Play Dungeons & Dragons. Seriously. It’s probably one of the most important exercises you can try if you want to understand storyscaping or interactive storytelling. I’m DMing a campaign with some guys from Igor’s Egg right now, and the experience has already been invaluable for me as a creator.
When you DM, you learn to really make it about the players, but to also fuse their content with your own voice and sense of authorship. Your players will do things you didn’t expect. They will experience the world differently than you intended. They will wander into places and inquire about things you haven’t made content for. And all that will happen in real-time, right in front of you, the storyteller. Learning how to navigate that is what makes the experience so valuable. My players are now taking my story in a direction I never imagined, and it’s really epic, even for me. I get to be both the author and the audience.
However, as DM, it’s still your job to overcome the problem with emergent stories, which is that it can easily stop feeling like a story. Have you ever played a video game (Baldur’s Gate comes to mind), in which you’ll reload if a party member dies fighting some insignificant Kobold, yet in a boss fight you’d let him perish “as part of the story”? Interactivity and emergence are powerful, but must be mitigated with a good sense of “real” storytelling. D&D lets you really explore that line.
Where do you want the transmedia storytelling industry to go? What would you like to see happen in this community?
I’m not sure I want it to go anywhere specific. I really enjoy reading all the theory and conversation that’s going on right now. It’s new enough to feel like a tight-knit community of people dissecting this art-form, yet also ancient enough to have real relevance.
Wherever it goes, I can say that this is definitely not a fad or even just a movement. As new as the conversation and formalization of transmedia is, world building is a timeworn practice. I think audiences just finally became savvy enough that we needed to start thinking about the way we’re building those worlds using previously disparate mediums.
I hear you're also starting a whole new project--tell me about that!
I started a company with my friends Charles Amis and Kai Skye. We’re building Artizens - an online multiplayer game in which players get to create and sell in-game content. You can draw your own weapon, or hat, creature, etc., define how it works in the game-world, and then sell your content to players around the world.
Charles and I both have stories from our childhoods of drawing characters for Mega Man, Street Fighter, or Ninja Turtles, and we’d even send the drawings in to the big companies. Of course, we never got a response. As kids, we just really wanted to contribute to our favorite games and storyscapes, and I think that’s a testament to how important those stories were to us. So now, we are really inspired to create a storyscape that invites the audience to do just that. I think the key for us was building a world around that concept. Artizens players don’t just exist in meta-land. Their ability to create in-game content is part of the narrative.
From a storytelling standpoint, I find this project really interesting and challenging because the only thing we’re creating is the world itself. There’s a strong narrative foundation, but there is no traditional “plot” other than the ones that emerge from players’ experiences. That said, the world of Artizens has a rich backstory to discover. We hope to one day illuminate that backstory through transmedia, be it other games, comics, novels, or animation. We have a pretty huge list of stories we want to tell, but they all take place chronologically before the events of the game. From the game onward the story is in the hands of the players, and I cannot wait to see what unfolds.
And finally -- what’s your favourite song from a video game, and what’s the best video game soundtrack I probably haven’t heard?
My favorite composer is definitely Yasunori Mitsuda. My favorite super-obscure soundtrack is probably from Tsugunai: Atonement. It has that signature Mitsuda sound but a little jazzier. I’m pretty sure Atlus brought the game to the US, but I never ended up playing it. I love listening to the OSTs for games I haven’t played. It removes nostalgia from the equation and lets me focus on the music itself.
[That's really interesting! My favourite soundtracks tend to be the ones I've played precisely because of the nostalgia factor -- and so that I can place in my head the context of the music. --Lucas]
If I had to pick a favorite video game song right now, it would probably be June Mermaid from Xenogears. That melody haunts me in my sleep! Man, voice acting killed the RPG soundtrack...