Worldbuilding

Why You Should Still Fund Balance of Powers

As you may know, Balance of Powers became fully funded on Kickstarter this weekend -- and with several days to spare! So the project is thankfully, blessedly, happily a go no matter what happens next. But we're going to continue our fundraising efforts until the absolute last second. Here's a handy list of reasons why you should still consider helping us out.

1. You want to hear the audio. If we go $2000 over our goal, we're going to add audio content to the project. Audio is an incredibly rich and underused medium, and we think we can pull off something really special.

2. You want all of the content. When we officially launch, we will almost certainly be charging more than our Kickstarter reward levels -- and it's possible some of the things we're offering as Kickstarter rewards won't be available later at any price. Fund us now to lock in your rate and your access!

3. You love us. (Or at least one of us.) Whether you're a fan, a friend, a relative, a secret admirer, or a stranger on the internet who thinks we're funny on Twitter, it is at least plausible that you have a tender spot for one of us in your heart. Helping us to make something we deeply care about is an excellent way to show you care about us!

4. That grail-like business model. I highly suspect many of you want to see if this freemium business model works as badly as we do. We're already committed to running the experiment, and the more money we have, the better a proof of concept this will be. Surely it's worth throwing us a few dollars to see if we can spin a few thousand dollars into an ongoing project. Call it your R&D budget, or better, call it corporate espionage, since that sounds more fun.

5. You forgot until now. Maybe you already meant to fund us and just hadn't got to it yet. There's no time like the present!

So there you have it: Five reasons you should pitch in for Balance of Powers, even though the project is going to go on with or without you. The clock is ticking. Ten days to go! Let's see how high we can push the needle, shall we?


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Oceanea

Today marks the launch of a brand-new EP by Thomas Dolby -- yes, that Thomas Dolby. It's called Oceanea, and it is just gorgeous. Moody and full of longing. I particularly love the title track -- it struck me as being something very special the first time I heard it.

This not being a music blog, you may suspect there's a reason I'm bringing it up. And you would be right! As it happens, I have a little ulterior motive -- Oceanea and some of its fellows on the full album, A Map of the Floating City, have been the sound track for a lovely, dreamy project I've been involved in for the past few months. 

Launch is just around the corner, but I won't have a lot more to say just yet... in the meanwhile, why don't you go have a listen to Oceanea? It just might be that you'll love it as much as I do.


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Reality is Broken

First off, I should make it clear that I have not yet read Jane McGonigal's hotly promoted and best-selling book, Reality is Broken (lack of time, not lack of interest). But I've read a lot of talk about it, and that talk has launched thoughts whirring around in my head.

I would like to share them with you.

The Long Game

Jane is wrong. We don't need to invent a Long Game. We have one already: Life.

It's a collaborative, social game, life; you won't even get past the starting levels in a solo attempt. It's a casual game, and you can go with the flow, dabbling in doing whatever you think is best. Or maybe you can read all the strategy guides and min/max it like the hardest of the hardcore.

There isn't one complete leaderboard, but you can score it any number of ways depending on your preferred play style, and even compare against your friends, just like on Facebook: money, grades, hours worked, prestige, sex partners, adorable grandchildren.

The narrative is a little iffy in spots, but it's an addictive and varied game, life is. Sure, it's a grind sometimes, but it'll make you laugh and cry before you're through. It'll inspire fiero.

It's the best game ever.

...Then Again

Jane is right. Reality is broken. This game we're all playing together? It is completely broken.

It is the worst-balanced piece of crap you will ever play. Access to resources is distributed unevenly and blatantly unfairly. How well you do is heavily influenced by your entirely random starting position.

If you luck into a great spawn point, you're almost certainly going to have a great game. If you have the ill luck to start out poor -- especially poor and female -- well... it's not like playing the same game at all, is it? The same strategies certainly won't work.

As it happens, my starting position in the Great Game was a lucky one. A few points against me: I'm female, I sometimes have weight problems, and I could have started out a lot richer. But then again: I'm white, I'm heterosexual, I'm kinda cute, and I occupy a fairly high socioeconomic class in one of the wealthiest societies ever built in this game.

This has brought me (and if you're reading this blog, probably you, too) advantages that I often take for granted. As I child, I had easy access to nutritious food and clean water. I got easy antibiotics for my frequent bouts of strep throat. I was vaccinated. I had access to countless books from an early age, and the leisure time to read them. I was educated, even after I began menstruation, and I was self-determining once I reached adulthood: I chose my career, my spouse, my home.

But game economy and resource distribution aren't the whole problem. Players' experiences are very much at the mercy of other players; a terrible design, if you ask me. A single griefer can abuse, rape, or otherwise completely destroy the play experience for another player. They may in time be penalized for it -- even removed from the game entirely -- but by then the damage is done, isn't it?

Why I'm An Activist

Jane says reality is broken. I've been saying that a long time in a slightly different way: Life isn't fair.

But this is why I'm an activist, at the heart of it. Because life isn't fair, but we can make it fair, by inches.

If you've been reading my blog for more than, say, ten minutes, you've likely cottoned to the fact that I am a strident feminist. I am also anti-racist, to the utmost of my ability. I support the rights of people who are gay, fat, trans, disabled. I support social welfare programs that nurse the sick, feed the hungry, educate the ignorant.

It's because we're all playing this messed-up broken game together, and I'm not doing so well because I'm a better player, or because I'm a better human being. It's because I hit the freaking jackpot for genes and resources. I am excruciatingly aware of that. And so I feel like I have to use what I have to at least try, try, try to help some of the other players who didn't win big on their starting roll.

It's too far broken to fix all at once, mind, and focusing on the massive flaws in our shared ruleset will lead to despair. I know that the problem of, say, sex trafficking in India is much too big for me to solve on my own. But this is a collaborative game, and if I try to fix one little broken thing by calling out a racist comment... and you try to fix one little broken thing by donating ten bucks to Heifer International... maybe we'll get somewhere, given enough time.

Lucky us, it is a thousand-year game. We're playing it right now. And the way to win it is to level the playing field.


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The Talking Dead

So now that I'm on record talking smack about how difficult it is to get users to create content, blah blah blah, let's take a look at The Talking Dead, the latest of Jay Bushman's Loose-Fish massively collaborative narratives.

The latest of Jay's projects are fabulous creations in which users collaborate on the fly to construct narrative. Or in less academic terms, Jay builds frameworks so groups of people can all play 'let's pretend' together. I will, Halloween-style, dissect these projects like flatworms and see why they work, when one might plausibly think that I explained in depth yesterday why they shouldn't.

1. Yes, user-generated content is hard. But the beauty of Cthalloween and The Talking Dead is that each individual piece of content to be user-generated is tiny. 140 little characters isn't as much work as contributing entire news columns, for example, or crafting an entire fictional internet persona. You can Tweet once and still feel like you've been a part of it. Low barrier to entry.

What's more, you can still engage with the experience in a meaningful way as a spectator; I guarantee you there will be far more people watching the action on stage for The Talking Dead than there will be actively participating. This is only natural and to be expected.

2. There is no burden of maintaining a central canon and its continuity. For projects like Cthalloween and The Talking Dead, continuity doesn't matter. Each cluster of player-participants can spin its own interpretation of the story as they go along. So what if there are four Lizzie Bordens and nine Mark Twains? As long as everyone is having a good time, there's no harm done.

3. There is no liability issue here. Everyone knows everyone else is a player. There is no central voice of authority, so no expectation that any one player might be speaking on behalf of that authority, even though they are playing as fictional characters within the story world. The boundary is clear.

The Talking Dead and projects like it are truly net-native works, and I'm excited to live in a world where this is possible. If you did this as a book, as a film, as a TV show, it would be a mess. If you did it even in person, it would kind of be a mess! The vehicle of Twitter lets you dip in and out of it, instead of devoting the entirety of your weekend to meeting up with a bunch of people with flour on their faces and ketchup on their shirts to exchange pithy barbs. All the fun, none of the overhead. 

So that's why Jay Bushman can get away with ignoring that line between the audience and the creator. It can work, but only in very specific and structured contexts.

Oh, and you should totally participate in The Talking Dead. It's going to be amazing.


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The Case Against Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's Gun is generally regarded as a brilliant principle for writing tight narrative. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. 

He elaborates that if you don't plan to fire your firearm in a subsequent act, then it doesn't belong in your story, and you should remove it entirely. 

The widely accepted interpretation is that nothing should be present in your story unless it's serving some critical narrative purpose. Judicious application of Chekhov's Gun can rid your story of elements that aren't doing anything for you. 

It might well be you're better off without that methodical scene in which a character checks into her hotel room, takes a shower, and goes to sleep for the night. And it's true, if you leave too many loose ends floating around, your final scenes risk leaving the reader feeling dissatisifed.

Generally, the novels I enjoy most adhere (loosely) to the Chekhov's Gun principle. For single-media narratives, it's an important reminder to be aware of what work each scene, paragraph, sentence is performing to keep your story rolling along.

There are problems with Chekhov's Gun even in traditional media, though, particularly where it meets up with Occam's Razor. From time to time, I've found an author adhere so zealously to the gun principle that an entire story unravels into tired predictability.

If your story is so tightly wound that every element serves a single distinct function, the discerning reader can often deduce what that function is. Yawn. So the principle is always best used with a bit of caution.

In transmedia, though, you just might be better off forgetting you ever heard Chekhov's name.

Locate Your Exits

I learned long ago from Uncle Jim that everything in a novel should reveal character, advance plot, or support theme. This is much looser, and it's something I can very nearly agree with.

For transmedia,  I'd add one more item to Uncle Jim's list: Adding color to your world.

Part of the juggling act that is telling a transmedia story involves creating depth and richness. You need to signal that there are more and deeper stories going on in your world than the single narrative at hand -- your world has to seem bigger than your characters. That means introducing elements that provide color and flavor to your transmedia world, even if they won't be immediately relevant to the story you're telling.

But there's another reason to do this in transmedia, too. You need to build in escape routes and back doors, because you never know when you'll need to make a hasty exit. This is particularly the case if you're planning on telling an ongoing narrative.

I wrote two years of Perplex City Sentinels, and in the process left so many guns lying about that you'd think a war would break out by the end, so to speak. Nothing ever came of Crispy Heaven's health violations. We never went anywhere with 78-year-old puzzle design superstar Alan Willow, and the cracks in the Mobius Strip were, indeed, nothing but ordinary wear and tear, never to be spoken of again.

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But for every throwaway piece of color we never touched again, there was another that we picked up onto our needles and knit into the fabric of the story weeks or months or years later, because suddenly it solved a problem we didn't see coming, or added a complication that made for a more interesting story. A mayoral election produced  a new political nemesis for Sente Kiteway. A recording mogul became the employer to a sociopathic killer. A name fabricated for a single quote became a double agent working for the police to undermine a secret society.

We never knew what we'd need next, but we knew we could look back on our established canon and be sure we'd find something that would help us out of our latest pickle. We did this so often that it became our team motto: Ita est tamquam haec consulto fecerim. It's like we did it on purpose.

Your takeaway: The multithreaded and sometimes reactive nature of transmedia means that you can't always go back and revise your first act to include a gun if it turns out, now that you're in the third act, that you really needed one. Sprinkle your story with guns, just in case.

This is true of both spiderweb and sequential transmedia. If you establish in the movie that Bob dropped his gun into the river, you can't have him pull it out of his pocket in the comic that immediately follows. It's a curious opposite to narrative structure in a single-medium story. In transmedia, if you don't leave yourself loose ends in case you need them later, the resulting overarching story might actually be weaker.

Continuity can be a real storykiller.

So what do you think? Should we abandon Chekhov and his philosophy on ballistics for transmedia, or can you make a case for keeping him around? Take it away, Machinites.

 


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