Television, Serialization, and Endings

I read an article recently entitled “the Cosmology of Serialized Television.” It’s a great read if you’re interested at all in media and storytelling, so you should check it out.http://theamericanreader.com/the-cosmology-of-serialized-television/

 

The tl;dr is basically that the structure of television makes it impossible to create good art. Specifically, the “interferences” of networks and audience, the need to sometimes suddenly end a show or to stretch it out for four more seasons, ends up almost categorically creating failures. Any show that attempts to build an overarching storyline or mythology ends up becoming too complex, too grand for its own good. Shows like Lost fail because the creators can’t plan an ending, even though it seems like they’re working towards one, and then when they do it, they find it impossible to really tie everything up in a meaningful way, because it went on for three seasons too long.

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The Dangers of World-Building

An article today on NPR about fantasy world-buildingsuggests that what was once for the most outcast of nerds is (along with general geekdom) gaining more widespread acceptance, that the incredibly detailed worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan have a definite – and perhaps lauded – place. I'm a total geek. I love my world-building. I've been building a world for my stories for years, and it's great fun. And I certainly hope to be able to communicate some of that detail – and some of that love for the world – to my audience.

But to my mind – and I've heard the same from multiple writers and readers – there's a danger here. A couple, actually. Danger one is that as a writer, you spend too much time figuring out the world and not enough actually writing a story.

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Getting Writers to do Transmedia

A while ago, a friend of mine asked for my thoughts on a question she had, and I thought I'd post my answer here:

How do you explain or convince traditional writers of the value of transmedia writing? For example, if I'm dealing with a comic book writer who is dead set on creating a single narrative and who doesn't want to even remotely consider transmedia, how do I explain the difference and/or even the similarity in what he is doing with the comic and what needs to be considered for transmedia?

 

It seems to me that everything is rooted in a strong narrative, which is what a traditional writer will also say. So maybe there is no discussion to be had at all, but then again -- there is! Or do comic book writers naturally do what transmedia writers do? By this I mean: they develop characters, plot, and narrative. And that's all they need to do. So if I have such a writer, is it even worth my while to ask him/her to consider transmedia or would I simply hire different kinds of writers to take that particular story/IP across other platforms?

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When Escapism is Not Okay

We need to make better games.

I was at PAX Dev last week, the almost-new game developers conference that runs just before the Penny Arcade Expo. We were told not to tweet or blog about the content of the conference to allow developers to feel safe talking about strategies and stats, so I'm going to attempt to talk in more general terms -- because what I want to talk about it extremely important.

One of the panels at PAX Dev -- and in fact the reason I went in the first place -- was on Ending Harassment in Gaming, a topic very much in the public eye in the last little while.

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Writing with Inform 7

Last year, I taught myself the basics of writing Interactive Fiction usingInform 7. I did it to createone of the pieces of bonus content for Azrael's Stop, a short game called Dreamscape. A couple weeks ago, Sara Thacherand Lorraine Hopping expressed interest in the process of doing so, so I thought I'd write a little post. What is Inform 7?

For those who don't know, Interactive Fiction is the term used to describe story/games like the classic old text adventure games, like Zork. Rather than using a graphic interface to play a video game, it was all text based -- the game would say "You find yourself in a room. A door leads north." and you would type in "go north" (or just "n" for those who knew the shortcuts). And you would type "examine sword" and "use sword on troll" and "attack troll" and "tie rope to railing" and "climb down rope" and things.

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Audience and Story continued

Last week I wrote a post about story design in games and that relationship to transmedia. My argument was essentially that while there is certainly a place for the kinds of games that want you to completely construct your own story, like Skyrim (or perhaps more to the point, Minecraft), I think there will always also be a place for more structured or linear narratives like those found in games like Dragon Age. I had some great comments there, and Simon Pulman wrote a full response on his blog. I also had an interesting conversation with Brian Clark about reader-response criticism, that all stories should be evaluated as essentially the audience's regardless of authorial intent -- which is fair enough, but there's nonetheless a spectrum of how much control an "author" tried to put on a story, from deliberately making an open sandbox to, say, a novel.

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The Audience and the Story

There are all sorts of forms of storytelling, and all sorts of relationships between “author” and “audience.” When we talk about transmedia, we often talk about the role of the audience (as well we should), and giving control of the story over to the audience. We also talk a lot about “story” versus “world.” But what is the ideal relationship? I don’t think there’s only one, and I think it’s important we remember that. I readan article this weekend on GameSpy about Skyrim and the future of gaming. The article suggests that Skyrim’s open world and ability to generate meaningful, rather than random, quests in some ways customized to the individual player, is where storytelling in gaming is headed. Skyrim can create situations that have meaning to a player based on past experiences, and thus the storytelling comes not from an authored storyline the player is following, but from one created by the player through the very act of playing.

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Transmedia Writing is More than Writing

If there's one thing that strikes me about writing for transmedia stories, it's that there's a lot more to it than just writing.

If I write a novel, I have to plan the storyline of the novel, the character arcs, themes and tone, and then put it all into flowing, beautiful words. That's not easy. If I write a transmedia story, I have to do all the same planning, plus create a design framework that maps out how the audience gets the story I've planned -- whether it's in bits and pieces through blogs and emails, or the environment of a game, or the piece of the larger narrative found in a story or video. I have to consider how the audience will come across the work, if they'll come to it "out of order" or in the middle of the action.

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Teens Driving Transmedia

There was a great article this weekend from a MIPJunior panel about how the teenage market (or Young Adult market in publishing parlance) will drive transmedia storytelling implementation. These are the people that have grown up with digital content, mobile phones, and the ability to consume, produce, and distribute content on their own terms. Simon Pulman wrote a nice little analysis of the post as well; I recommend both as good reads.

The shift is not on the TV content, but on the way they consume content. They prefer to watch it on-demand than on the linear broadcast. And they multi-task: they don’t just want to watch the content, they will probably be doing two or three other tasks too.” --Nuno Bernardo
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Coming Soon to a Phone Near You

At last week's guest speaker event with Brent Friedman, one of the major ideas he proposed was that the future of media consumption was going to be through the mobile device -- phone or tablet. One of the common explanation given for why transmedia storytelling is becoming such a big thing now (whether you think it's ultimately a new thing or not) is the prolification of technology and devices allowing storytelling in new ways to a mass audience. And one of the main new devices is the smart phone.

If entertainment is being put out in multiple types of media, a smart phone can access all of it -- video, audio, social media, the internet, books and text, games, everything. Not only that, but it connects me directly to my friends; in an age of social entertainment, it is an inherently social device. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's with me all the time.

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Building Audience Trust

This week I attended a talk hosted by the What's Going On Salon in Vancouver with transmedia creator Brent Friedman. It was a great discussion on how the modern audience is a "moving target", changing perhaps more than technology and business models are (and in fact driving the changes in technology and business models). Annalise Larson has a nice write-up of the major points here.

The question was raised of what the ideal relationship is with an audience, and how you achieve that. The overwhelming answer that we discussed was building a genuine relationship based on trust. (Like any good marriage, as someone pointed out.) I think this can be broken down into a few steps.

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Building Hooks: Taking a Cue from the Harry Potter Series

At the Merging+Media lab and seminar back in April, Anita Ondine talked about the need to build "hooks" into a transmedia property. This was the name she gave to those bits of story that are put in one medium that draw you to another medium, another part of the story. They're the pieces of story that hook together the whole project, the things that make it one whole rather than a lot of pieces, the things that make it transmedia storytelling.

Last month, leading up to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series. In a month. I'd only read the books once each, previously, way back when each first came out, so re-reading them -- especially in such a short span of time -- was a great experience and led to a lot of insights I had previously missed.

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Advent Children and Accessibility

Remember all that lovely geek cred I built up by writing a six-part article about Dungeons and Dragons? I'm about to lose it all as I admit--I've never played through Final Fantasy VII. I was a huge Nintendo fanboy as a kid, and adamantly refused to get or play a PlayStation, which meant I missed out on a huge chunk of geek culture that I have yet to make up for. (I started playing an emulator version a few months ago, but got too busy with other things to keep it up... I will go back someday, though.) Final Fantasy VI remains one of my favourite games ever, not to mention one of my favourite stories in a video game. But I never got to VII.

Recently, though, I watched Advent Children with a friend of mine, a computer-animated movie from 2005 based on Final Fantasy VII. The story of the movie takes place after the story of the video game, in a very transmedia-storytelling-franchise kind of way. (No coincidence I think that this property comes from Japan, where platform-changing storytelling is what inspired Jeff Gomez to explore transmedia.)

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Pottermore's Potential

A friend and I were just discussing JK Rowling's Pottermoreannouncement from earlier today, especially in relation to this video I was pointed towards by vlogbrothers Hank and John Green:

The gist is that the announcement really said very little about what Pottermore is actually going to be. We know it's going to be some kind of digital/online experience, that there will be more information about the story world that never made it into the books, that there will be some kind of UGC portion, and that there will be experiences like being sorted by the Sorting Hat and getting a wand. We also know that ebooks of the series will be sold exclusively at the Pottermore site.

And it seems like we know very little else.

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Reflections on a Project in Progress

Four months ago I launched Silverstring Media’s first project, Azrael’s Stop. I largely envisioned Azrael’s Stop as an experimental project, a chance to test some theories of transmedia storytelling on a small scale, and to see what could come of it while I worked on other projects. Now that a significant amount of time has passed, it’s time to reflect on what the project has accomplished so far, what it has failed at, and where to go from here. I’d always hoped for this to be a learning experience for me; hopefully by putting these thoughts here in a production blog, I can share whatever I learn and help spark discussion.

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Interactive Fiction and Transmedia

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

In some geek circles -- certainly the ones I seem to roll with -- these two sentences are as able to elicit a knowing smile or make for an easy joke as "I... I'm attacking the darkness!" They come from the 1979 text adventure game Zork.

Zork was one of the earliest examples of a kind of game in which an environment is described to the player via text, and the player types commands into a prompt to act ("go east"), often to explore an area, solve puzzles, and get points. Though most of these kinds of games stopped being commercially viable by the 90's, a strong community exists online, creating and supporting them. They are called Interactive Fiction (IF).

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Consistency in Storytelling

I've been following FRINGE pretty much since it first aired, and while the first half of the first season or so was a little iffy, it's since grabbed me by the throat and pulled me into the detailed, plot-driven long-term story and interesting, well-thought-out storyworld. I think it's done a pretty decent job of setting things up early on that only come into play in later storylines, such that when they come, we all go "Ohhhhhhh!" instead of scratching our heads and trying to figure out what we missed or why the writers are pulling so much out of their rear-facing orifices.

WARNING: Fringe spoilers ahead.

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Last thing I'll say

I don't really want to write this post, because I don't really want to have to write this post. But SXSW apparently reared the ugly head of not-being-satisfied-with-the-term-'transmedia'. Again. I don't want to get into a whole thing with this. I thought we were past this. (I founded this blog with what I thought would be the last I'd say on the subject.) I just want to make a couple clarifying points, from my perspective.

Has "transmedia" been coopted to buzzword status? Yeah, sure. People who don't understand its core use it as a buzzword in marketing and such because people in marketing like buzzwords. Does that rob it of its usefulness as a descriptive term? No. The buzzword will fade. The innovative storytelling methodology will not.

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Twitter Storytelling

As we enter the second month of Azrael’s Stop, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the use of Twitter as a storytelling platform -- both on its own or as a driving platform, and as a smaller part of a transmedia story. Twitter has already been used in a lot of innovative ways for storytelling. Caitlin Burns had a great article about it last year, with several good examples. A now-common trope is for fictional characters from other stories to have Twitter accounts -- like WriteRCastle from ABC’s Castle. Caitlin Burns herself has three of her characters from her indie transmedia production Jurassic Park Slope tweet regularly and to each other (and talks more about the use of Twitter on that project’s production blog).

Such a use of Twitter is a great way to develop characters. Audience members can get a feel for the characters outside the direct plot of the driving platform, see the kinds of things that interest them, and even interact with them through @replies and the like. Some of the characters from the browser game Echo Bazaar have Twitter accounts as well, and will occasionally interact with each other (shedding the tiniest bits of light on some of the deep secrets that that game is built upon) and with players who @reply them.

But there are lots of other uses for Twitter in storytelling.

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