Games, Story, and An Extended Metaphor

There's a thought out there that all games have a story, because even in a game without an authored plot, you're constructing a narrative in your head of what's going on. This is what is the most important part, say its adherents; the experience you come away with is the story.

This has never sat well with me. To my mind, this is nothing but a semantic argument intended to obfuscate a real and meaningful difference between games that do, and do not, have an authored narrative. I maintain this is an important distinction, and trying to erase it on vague philosophic grounds does us all an enormous disservice.

But I've been hard-pressed to explain why. On the face of it, these semantic arguments aren't wrong, not exactly. And yet agreeing with the idea that you still get a story even out of a game without a plot misses an important point.

Inspiration has struck! So here I have an extended analogy to explain why I find that way of thinking so insufferable, so dismissive of authored narrative, and why there is a qualitative difference between the two kinds of experiences.

A game with an actual story in it, like Mass Effect, is like a restaurant. A game without, like Minecraft, is a grocery store. They both have the same net result: You get a meal (or an experience). But the process by which that meal arrives is so markedly different that you simply can't elide the two experiences under the banner of 'eating' and expect everything you say about the one to hold true of the other.

Look at how this analogy plays out: In a restaurant, you get fewer choices about the meal you're going to have (but not none!) In return, you can expect the chef to provide you with a certain baseline quality of cuisine -- a story with good pacing, characters, internal consistency. In a grocery store, the choice you have is vastly larger, but you're also going to have to put a lot more work into the experience to come away with an actual meal -- or a story that compares to what a chef might prepare.

As with games, sometimes the home-cooked meals will be the most meaningful to you; the holiday dinners with your grandmother, for example. But few of us are professional chefs, and so if we're looking for a sublime and surprising culinary experience, heading to the grocery store is not our best bet.

But there are also hybrids; buffet-style restaurants, if you will. These are games like Skyrim; series of authored pieces, where it's up to you to determine whether and how to fit them together into a proper meal. Not quite an authored story, not entirely a sandbox.

And there is no value judgement here, either. Both are valuable and necessary components of the food economy. But they are not the same thing, no matter how many surface similarities they have. You would never mistake the one for the other.

The experience isn't the story. The story is the story.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Closing Out 2012

That 2012, man. It's been a hell of a year, hasn't it? A hurricane in Manhattan, an election, the Olympics. Disney buying Lucasfilm. A South Korean pop star taking the world by storm. It's been one for the record books, I'd say.

A lot of people I know have had a terrible 2012, but actually... I think I had a pretty great year. I think? Let's boogie on down Memory Boulevard and take a look at all the stuff I did in 2012.

Invisible Projects

Through the first half of the year, I was incredibly frustrated, because I was getting a steady flow of projects... but nothing ever launched. 

A game for a Fortune 500 company that hasn't seen light of day, and as far as I know, may never; a prototype for a human rights game that never went on to further funding; a fair smattering of pitches that never went anywhere. It was kind of a downer, after 2011's eight launches in three months. It happens a lot, I know, but I'm not accustomed to doing much work that never makes it out the door. Spoiled rotten, I am.

All of the work in the world doesn't matter if you don't ship.

Bright Spots

But I did get to do quite a lot of work I'm proud of, particularly in the second half of the year. Perhaps the most notable was Is It a Deadly Affair? for Investigation Discovery. I'm still ridiculously proud of that structure, from both an implementation and a narrative perspective. I also got to contribute to a couple of Campfire projects, always a fantastic experience and a polished result -- The Wow! Reply for National Geographic's show Chasing UFOs, and Pledge your Allegiance for HBO's Game of Thrones. 

And this year, Naomi Alderman brought me in on a few things as well; another prototype, this one for an as-yet-unreleased fitness game (so many!), plus interval training missions for Zombies, Run! which also haven't been released yet, but I am 100% confident that it will happen!

Oh Yeah, That Thing

And then, of course, there was A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. It's sort of cheating to chalk it up to 2012, because the writing was all done by Halloween of 2011. But in early 2012 there were still photo permissions and copyedits to sort out, plus June brought... promotion. Sooooo much promotion. Speaking and podcasts and interviews and articles. I'm going to have to properly collect some of that, eventually. And I guess update my projects list with stuff I've done this year, too. Wanion!

The book got a tremendous and flattering reception. I got to launch at Film Society of Lincoln Center! People tell me they like it! And I'm led to believe that it's on the curricula of courses at Columbia, Rutgers, USC, and several other universities. I'm secretly hoping that in next year's roundup, I'll be able to link to a bunch of projects made by people inspired or influenced by my book; helping people to make more and better work was, after all, the whole idea.

Original Work

In my heart, A Creator's Guide is linked with the idea of owning a stake in your work, flying your own flag, putting some skin in the game. This year, I made several steps in that direction -- more than I had thought myself until I started tallying up the score.

First, you may remember that Stitch Media announced the children's book Circus of Mirrors, my contribution to their forthcoming Imaginary Friends line, for which work is ongoing. You guys, I can't wait for the frabjous day when we can show it to you. 

Balance of Powers, the collaborative Kickstarted occult Cold War thriller, also finally launched in August after several painful and ultimately expensive months of trying to figure out how to make a small international business partnership on the legit. The plot has recently very much thickened, so it's a great time to take a look.

There is exactly one notable thing I did this year entirely on my own. Late in 2011, I ransomed a short story on Kickstarter. Early this year, I e-published the rewards from that as Shiva's Mother and Other Stories. This was a tremendous step for me. For all that I've professionally written hundreds of thousands of words, this was the first time I'd ever put just-my-own no-collaborators original fiction out in the world for other people to look at. It's a moody, kind of strange little collection of stories, which is fitting, because I am myself moody and more than a little strange. I'd be delighted if you picked it up and let me know what you think. It's only 99 cents!

Oh, and I, uh, started a vlog?

And last but by no means least, in late March, I started a blog series called Making Felicity, about my transmedia YA serial fiction project. I fleshed out the parameters in public view, but it took me a good long while to get rolling after that, because (see above) I had a lot on my plate.

That ball is inexorably rolling forward now. Behind the scenes, the cogs to make Felicity happen are turning, while I wait here and chew my nails and try not to obsess about it. I don't want to go into specifics because I don't want to jinx anything, but... the process has begun. 

And for 2013?

I'm still thinking about what I want for next year, and how exactly I'm going to go after it. I mean, obviously I want to land a fat nine-figure deal for Felicity and devote my life to her, but that's... shall we say... implausible.

I have a few very promising projects in my pipeline, too, though nothing set in stone (or writing, if you prefer), so if you've ever wanted to hire me, now is a good time to reach out.

Meanwhile, I think maybe I've earned a break. So for the rest of 2012, I'm going to read books, play games, and let the ol' brain-batteries recharge so I can do it all again next year.

Joy and felicitations to you. Here's hoping you had a wonderful 2012, too. Failing that, a colossal and magnificent 2013.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Zen and the Art of Transmedia Storytelling

Several months ago, an indie film director approached me. He was searching for funding for his film, and he wanted me to "make a transmedia plan" for him, because he thought that would make the project an easier sell to investors. His business logic was sound; he wanted a way to create fans ahead of time, because it's naturally easier to get funding and distribution for a film that has a robust fan base already waiting to buy tickets. We have Blair Witch Project and dozens of comic book movies to prove that point.

What this particular gentleman was missing, though, was a crucial pillar to any transmedia project. He wanted transmedia as a mysterious, separate black box to add on to the movie… but he didn't much care what it was, much less have a creative purpose in mind. I had questions. What experience did he want to provide? What story information did he want to expand or reveal? What subplot did he want to play out? He was unprepared to answer, because he didn't know those questions were coming.

Now, I have deep sympathy, because heaven knows I've been there myself. This echoes my own introduction to scriptwriting -- sideways and accidental. At the time, I was working on a big-budget film's marketing campaign, mostly writing blog entries, Tweets, and emails from various characters. One of these characters was meant to begin posting videos, so I dutifully wrote a few short scripts and sent them off to be shot.

The production team came back to me with their questions. So very many questions! What time of day was it? What was he wearing? What did the room look like? Should there be anything in the background? This was a revelation to me. I came from writing prose first, where you highlight only the most important details and allow the imagination of the audience to fill in the rest. Before that moment, I had never truly understood that every visual element in a film is there because somebody made a creative decision to put it there. I now call this the practice of mindful design: being present and aware of every creative choice.

This won't be a new concept to any filmmaker, of course. It's one of the fundamentals of film. Every line, every scene, every shot and prop and article of costuming serves a creative purpose, be it furthering plot, characterization, theme. Ultimately, each one of these small creative decisions affects the quality of the whole work, so every last one of them matters.

So it shouldn't be a shock when I tell you that extending your film into a transmedia narrative is exactly the same. No website, no Tweet, no social media profile or tie-in graphic novel or webisode should exist unless you know what it's adding to the experience of your story for your audience -- because once you send it into the world, it becomes a part of your story, and it will inevitably color the audience's perception of your film.

It's easy to miss this simple fact. Transmedia has achieved super-hype buzzword status, and as my experience with that director shows, there's an idea floating around out there that "having transmedia" will help you with funding, distribution, or marketing… but lagging behind is the understanding that creating a transmedia narrative is fundamentally different from hiring a marketing team or cutting a licensing deal.

That pivotal difference is that transmedia elements are received as a part of the same creative work as the film itself, and so need to be produced with the same creative vision behind the wheel -- if not the same creators.

The evidence for this is manifold. Even a decade ago, the experience of watching movies like Blair Witch Project or A.I. were deepened by understanding parts of the story world revealed only on their web footprints. More recently, web components like the fictional TED talk deployed for Prometheus shed light on the history, character, and motivations of CEO Peter Weyland, and affected the viewer's perception of him in the film. If those elements hadn't been resonant in tone, quality, and content, the totality of the experience would have suffered.

That means you need to bring to your transmedia components the same kind of mindful design that you bring to your film. This is true at any scale, from the broad sweep of the big picture (when you're first choosing to, for example, create a blog or web video meant to convey a subplot cut from the film) all the way down to tiny details (like choosing fonts or putting a character on Pinterest vs. Tumblr). Because at the end of the day, for your audience, it's not just an add-on. It's another facet of the same story.

This doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself, of course. There is a growing industry of transmedia professionals experienced at reading a script or watching a rough cut and understanding the creative vision well enough to expand it across media. And it's not new to transmedia, either. It's simply continuing the tradition of film as a collaborative art.

But it also means you definitely don't need to hire an expert to do black magic and hand you "some transmedia" that you can then point investors toward. Indeed, outsourcing that responsibility could turn out very poorly indeed. Removing your guiding creative hand from the equation risks something much worse than wasting time and money. A tone-deaf and badly executed transmedia extension might damage the experience of your story and degrade the experience of your film for your audience, just the way a tone-deaf and badly targeted marketing campaign can hurt your film.

Does that sound a little scary? Relax, it shouldn't be. Absolutely hire on a team to build websites, draw graphic novels, or manage a social media footprint if you don't have the time and skills to do it yourself. Just keep yourself in the loop. As a filmmaker, you already have the single most important ingredient for a great transmedia narrative: a vision for the story you want to tell. All you have to do to use the transmedia toolbox is take a step back and imagine that story -- your story -- behind and beyond the frame… and mind the details. 

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Deadly Affairs

So hey! Haven't had enough self-promotion from me for one day? Step right up! There is a thing that I am doing that I would like you to know about!

Deadly Affairs is an upcoming show on Investigation Discovery, and I have the pleasure of working on an immersive experience in the run-up to the premiere. It's... well.... it's... gosh.

I'd love to talk about it with a little depth because we've made a lot of pretty interesting creative decisions, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. Go check it out for yourself, OK? And then let me know what you think!

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Continuing my spotlight on anyone-but-me: You guys, Lizzie Bennet Diaries is so good. The writing is funny, the actors are charismatic and convincing both, and the adaptation manages to stay true to the spirit of the source material while adapting the whole thing for modern times so that it feels inevitable and natural. SO. GOOD.

In case you don't believe me, just take a look at the first episode your own self.

I've been meaning to catch up on this project for weeks now -- it's 19 episodes in already, and of course there are presences for the characters on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and probably a million other places. But don't feel overwhelmed! I caught up in just a couple of hours, and you can too, by just watching the videos online, and then catching up on the relevant pieces of social media on the LBD hub, which captures them in Storify. 

This project isn't just pitch-perfect on a creative level; on the structural level, too, they make it easy to engage on the lazypants level (like I likely will) but there are more immersive layers there, too, if you want them -- and because of that catching-up hub, you can be a lazypants without feeling like you're missing out on key parts of the story. If I were to offer one critique, it would be that the catch-up link isn't as dead obvious as it should be; I wish they cross-linked that particular URL from every video.

Still, in all, it's an exemplary project and you should all go check it out. Well played, gentlefolk. Well played.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android