Think laterally.

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I went along to the Multiplatform Storytelling: From Idea to Market seminar presented by Screen Australia and StoryLabs at the State Library. The day was a goldmine of inspiration and useful advice for those hoping to get a transmedia project off the ground. The day featured many international speakers, as well as some fantastic Australian innovators in the digital media field.

The seminar was divided into three sections so rather than overwhelm you with a gigantic blog post because I took a silly amounts of notes, I’m going to write three separate blog posts about the day beginning with the Multi-Platform and Game Worlds section.

The first presentation of the day was Story R&D: Building Stories for the 21st Century given by Lance Weiler.

Lance Weiler (US) is recognised as a pioneer in mixing storytelling and technology. Businessweek named him “one of the 18 who changed Hollywood” alongside the likes of George Lucas and Steve Jobs. He sits on a World Economic Forum steering committee for the future of content creation, is founder of the Workbook Project, an open creative network, and writes a regular column for Filmmaker magazine on the impact of tech on entertainment. (courtesy of the printed seminar program)

Weiler used his two multi-platform projects Pandemic 1.0 which played out at the Sundance Film Festival and Robot ❤ Stories, a project which brought a Grade 5 French-Canadian classroom and Los Angeles classroom together as an example of the breadth of stories that can be told across multiple platforms.

No longer does one think of a story as limited to one platform or medium. It can be told using numerous platforms and each platform brings something new to the story experience. It’s a matter of “recontextualising the experience”.

Weiler emphasised that in order for a multiplatform story to be told it is necessary to be build a relationship with your audience. The multiplatform story results in a shift in authorship. No longer is the story in the maker’s hands, by involving the audience and asking for their contribution you have loosened your tight grip on your story but this is a good thing. This is what you want as a transmedia storyteller, but in order for the audience to run with your story you have to have built trust with them and also to have provided them with something that ignites a sense of discovery and of moving forward, of progression. Something exciting, really. Because it can become so easy to lose control of your story as they audience starts to live it and contribute to it, ultimately transforming it into something far beyond that which you could have imagined on your own, retaining a singular story vision is important. Weiler used a pane of glass as a metaphor for the multiplatform story. You have a singular vision of a story, from which cracks emerge and run rampant across the pane. These cracks that shoot off the centre are what you must let the audience play with. Glass can also break and Weiler explained that he encourages, nay wants, his audience to break the glass.

That’s where he lost me a little to be honest. I love a good metaphor as much as the next person, but I’m not sure if that was a good metaphor. As more and more cracks emerge as the audience continues to play with your story in numerous ways, extending and making it far larger than you could have comprehended, the suggestion is that if too many cracks emerge the whole thing will break, shatter. The idea will lack cohesion. The ties between the numerous, growing components will slacken. The relationships between them difficult to identify. Then it would seem the story becomes irrelevant. It was a nice starting point, but other than that…

With that in mind, it does not vie well to see your audience as passive. Consider them collaborators in the telling of the story. You have to leave room for participation, otherwise what’s the point of making your work transmedial? This last point is a really good one, because although the seminar was about multiplatform storytelling it was important not to forget that multiplatform storytelling is not a means within itself. The story must be there first, and strong enough to withstand being told using numerous platforms. Another speaker, Anthea Foyer spoke about this a little more in the afternoon.

The most impressive part of Weiler’s presentation was no doubt his projects, especially Pandemic 1.0. The sheer magnitude of the scope of the project was phenonemol. The multiplatform experience took place over five days at the Sundance Film Festival. Scott Lachut breaks it down at

Pandemic 1.0 is a transmedia storytelling experience that unfolded over the course of 120 hours at the recent Sundance film festival. The participatory filmmaking project united audiences both online and at the event to help stop the spread of a mysterious sleeping sickness that had begun to affect 20 residents, portrayed by actors who provide updates through their own Twitter feeds.

The collaborative, social experiment, engages attendees at a physical control room located at the festival that has been outfitted with interactive Microsoft surfaces and projectors that broadcast the story streams, as well as throughout the proceedings as they search for hidden objects and complete tasks through specially equipped Android smartphones that were seeded into the festival populace. Participants online were able to influence the outcome by following along on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at the project site Hope Is Missing, where their actions unlocked new possibilities on the ground.

Just the amount of planning that would have gone into a project like that boggles the mind. Something about it did irk me however. I kind of hate the real-time aspect of experiences like this because if you jump in late, which I often do as a person generally out of touch, you miss half of the experience. I know that it’s all media, but there is something to say for the opportunities and freedoms digital media has brought about in terms of time flexibility. No longer are we restricted by the schedules set by broadcasters. We can enjoy stories in our own time. I understand the power of the multiplatform storytelling experience, especially when it extends to offline, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a step backwards in terms of what digital can give the individual. The limited temporality or relevance of these immersive experiences is no doubt a contributing factor to Weiler’s continued attempts “to accomplish an infinity loop”. Unfortinately, I don’t have the answer for how to fix this problem other than limit the experience to online which is not a solution at all, but an additional restriction.

Lance Weiler’s presentation left me feeling pretty overwhelmed and thinking maybe I shouldn’t have come along to the seminar. There’s no way I could ever even imagine something like the experiences he had constructed, let alone pull them off. Sure they were inspiring, but also intimidating. Still, he got the seminar off to an impressive start.

Matt Costello next took the stage presenting Creating “Rage”: Game Story, platforms and original IP.
Matt Costello (US) has written ground-breaking and award-winning novels, games and T, including the Pirates of the Caribbean 3 game across all platforms. Rage, a 2011 release from id Software which Matt worked on, won the most Games Critics Awards at this year’s E3. Just Cause (co-written with Neil Richards) debuted as the number one game for Xbox 360 in the UK and named Best Adventure Game at the 2006 E3. His new novel, Vacation, will be published by St Martin’s Press in 2011. (courtesy of printed seminar program)
Costello’s presentation was more about what you must let yourself do as multiplatform storyteller. IP in this instance refers to “intellectual property” and not, as I thought, “internet protocol”. As Shane R. Monroe explains:

IP stands for “Intellectual Property(ies)” of a company. These are characters, worlds, environments (creative works usually) that were created, fostered, and usually beloved by fans.

IPs differ from physical or “real” properties because they are usually somewhat “intangible” – you can OWN a piece of real estate. You can put up a fence, you can shoot someone that trespasses, etc. It’s something people can see, feel and touch.

Intellectual property is usually a CREATIVE ownership. RetroGaming Radio is my own IP. I created it. I fostered it. Mario is an IP of Nintendo. Halo is an IP of Bungie (aka Microsoft).

Usually you use the term IP when you’re talking about the CONCEPT of the content – not the content itself. A SONG from High School Musical is the “real” property of Disney. They OWN it. They created it. The CONCEPT of High School Musical is an Intellectual Property of Disney.

Costello advised you do four things which he considers imperative to any creative project, but especially a multiplatform one: play, dream, wonder and experiment. He also emphasised the importance of building a “bible” for your world. A bible is selective andoutlines the necessary details about the world, informing the further development of the project and functioning as something to refer back to again and again. Gary Hayes, the founder of StoryLabs, went into further detail for constructing a bible at the end of the conclusion of the seminar.

With any transmedia project, it is important that it is intended from the beginning to be a multiplatform work. This ensures that extending the story in other mediums doesn’t feel tacked on or superfluous, but rather planned and logical.

In closing, Costello assured the crowd that “problems are good” because they represent things that haven’t been done yet. You’re breaking new ground.

The third and final speaker of this bracket was Neil Richards who presented Writer’s Dream, Nightmare High? Delivering to a complex brief.
Neil Richards (UK) has story executive, writer and producer credits for BBC, ITV and Channel 4 in drama, children’s and entertainment. Since co-writing Starship Titanic with Douglas Adams in in mid-90s he has worked increasingly in interactive media, scripting children’s iTV, education, broadband and platform games. He has written more than 20 game scripts, mentored in workshops and was senior lecturer in screenwriting at Bournemouth University.
Richards spoke about his experience working as a writer on Nightmare High, a web game for 12-13 year olds that sought to teach them about overcoming the obstacles associated with starting highschool. As a storywriter, Richards said you have to include the following components in your writing: story, plot, characters, motivation, truth, emotion, dialogue and audience. He especially emphasised the importance of truth when telling a story. To convey falseness means your story can cross over into melodrama, which Richards defines as “action unsupported by character”. Characters consequently become puppets to the writer’s whim (*cough* Amy Pond *cough*).

So how to build a (digital) story world? Richards advises asking the following questions:
  • What are the rules of the world?
  • Genre?
  • Isometric? Top down? 2D?
  • POV – 1st person, 2nd?
  • characters, how many?
  • inventory? Game state?
  • Dialogue system? Icons?
  • Where and how do we tell the story? Scenes? In-game? Drip feed? Narrator?

There has to be structure to the world and this is created through linear progression, however you have to be a little bit sneaky and create the space for the player to think they’re pulling the punches, when really you’re giving them subtle pushes in a certain direction.

Richards had a bit of advice for those hoping to bring in writers to flesh out their digital worlds: keep the writers on throughout the process, whether it be only in a smaller capacity later on, the story will benefit and be more cohesive.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Community and User-Centred Design in the next couple of days.


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