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All opinions on this site are those of Mike Jones and are not intended to represent his employers or associates.

 

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Monday
Aug112014

Old Dramatic Principles in New Interactive Narratives

First published in ‘Storyline’, Journal of the Australian Writers Guild 2013

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Book, Theatre, Radio, Cinema, Television… Each of these narrative forms entered the world by building and expanding on their predecessors. Each form added complexity or possibility or diversity to what was possible for the telling of stories. Each expanded the canvas for professional writers. Each one evolved and developed new audience expectations. And yet none of these forms ever disappeared because of the arrival of a new form. Book, radio and theatre are still very much alive, reports as to the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated and TV seems to be among the most popular and vibrant narrative forms on the planet right now. Observing this fact of history tells us some important things about writing in the digital age and the principles that might underpin the vibrant world of Interactive Narrative Writing.

Interactive stories - those where the audience take part, effect, choose, control or play the narrative - are not only part and parcel of mainstream story-consumption but also increasingly, bread and butter professional work for writers. But does working in these forms mean entering a revolutionary new world where the language is foreign? Or is interactive narrative simply part of an ongoing, incremental evolution still grounded in ancient universal ideas?

It’s worth establishing the broad scope of interactive narrative. Very often such experiences are simply called ‘Games’ (prefixed by the words Video or Computer), but ‘Game’ is a problematic name. A Game does not need, nor have to have, a Story. ‘Tetris’ was a massively successful Game and there is no narrative to speak of. On the other hand ‘Bioshock’ is a Game with an extraordinary dystopian, and philosophically compelling, narrative, rich in character and allegory. To call both ‘Tetris’ and ‘Bioshock’ ‘games’ may be technically true but it is decidedly unhelpful if you wish to understand what makes either compelling. Hence the simple descriptive term, Interactive Narrative. A term which can encompass a broad range of experiences where the Audience is asked to play a role, to participate or to engage directly with character and plot through action. An experience that involves game-play but does so in the context and service of telling a story. 

It’s a broad church that, like filmmaking, spans from the mega-budget blockbuster to the indie production - from computers and tablets to mobile phones and real-world events. For writers the demands of these mediums can be both foreign and familiar. Too often the focus has been on the foreign; stressing what is new or different and subsequently ignoring or subverting what is familiar - a proverbial situation commonly conjured with images of babies flowing down sinks with dirty bathwater. Writers in the interactive space, I would argue, are better serviced by first engaging with what is consistent across narrative mediums in order to understand how the medium evolves that thinking. 

One way to consider this is to look at a mainstay idea often regarded as universal to storytelling - Character Transformation - that we are most engaged by a story’s characters when we bear witness to their transformation through struggle. There are numerous perspectives on this of course - inner and outer journeys, shifts from wants to needs, hero’s quests to fulfill destiny, and so on.

However it is expressed, the idea holds of a character changed by their experiences and transformed as a person by their actions (or as is often the case in TV, particularly SitCom, have the potential to change but are reset in an episodic pattern). The result of being an audience to such character arcs is catharsis; from the greek meaning a ‘purification or purging’, a renewal, restoration, and revitalisation. But there are other ways to think of change and transformation in narrative that have particular value in interactive storytelling.

Take a seminal film like Citizen Kane. The character of Charles Foster Kane himself doesn’t really change or transform at all. He’s a bombastic, self-absorbed arrogant man from very early in the film, and he’s much the same at the end. BUT, the audiences’ perspective on his character does transform dramatically over the course of the story’s telling. We grow to empathize with him and connect with him despite his lack of change - from a newsreel about a figure larger than life we, the viewer, are transformed in our perspective by a confounding and intimate portrait of child longing for a lost snow sled. The transformation in a story like Citizen Kane is much more in the audience’s change in understanding of character than it is of the character’s transformation itself; and the effect is none the less profound.

Of course, these two types of transformation - change of Character and change of Audience Perception of character - are not mutually exclusive; often sitting together or intertwined in complex narratives. However, recognising their differences is particularly useful for considering how such ideas apply to interactive narrative where engagement is most often found in the transformation of the way the player sees other characters, events or the Actions they themselves have performed.  

The successful and evocative game ‘Braid’, which tells the story of man looking for redemption and reconciliation with a lost love, is an excellent example. What is otherwise a clever puzzle-platformer with a rewinding-time game mechanic (think, philosophical Mario Bros in whimsical water-colour), becomes something much more effecting and profound in its cathartic transformation. In the finale the player realises that all the actions they have performed, which they thought were ‘good’ and ‘redemptive’, turn out to have been the opposite of that - the player realises that they were the Monster not the Hero.. The player’s transformation is in being forced to see their actions in a way that is fundamentally different at the end of the narrative than at the start. The character we are playing doesn’t change, but our understanding of both changes radically making for a very satisfying narrative experience.

This technique of generating transformation not directly in the Characters of an interactive narrative, but rather in the way the audience views the choices and actions they have performed, is remarkably consistent. ‘The Walking Dead’ game, that extends from the popular TV series, places a great deal of emphasis on moral dilemma choices the player is forced to make. The character the audience controls transforms little, but as the audience is compelled by the narrative to perform drastic actions without moral clarity, they are transformed in their perspective of the scenario and of themselves.

Such transformations in a narrative context require dramatic Stakes and this prompts us to consider broader possibilities for how such stakes can be enacted within an interactive narrative.

In a typical ‘video game’ like an first-person shooter, the stakes are largely clear and simple - life and death, survival or not. Run, jump, shoot, stay alive. But in the ever increasing diversity of interactive narratives there are infinitely wider possibilities.  A fascinating example is the hilarious ‘Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone’ - an interactive app from the storyworld of the British comedy TV series ‘The Thick Of It’.

Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone has a simple construct - a character from the show has lost his phone and You have found it. Your phone now acts and presents as that once owned by the character Malcolm Tucker; complete with all the comic farce of the British parliament.  

Within the experience, the audience’s actions are linked to real-world actions - Answering Emails, Reading SMS, Listening to voice mail, and so on. And in doing so the audience is not only witness to the hilarious ramifications of Malcolm Tucker losing his phone in an immediate and epistolary way, but they also have an active role to play; to piece together what happened and how Malcolm lost his phone, to work out what machinations are taking place behind Malcolm’s back and to be a part of the story’s complexity as the ‘possessor’ of the phone that everyone wants so badly - You are the holder of the Stakes.

The stakes in Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone are not on the audience as a character but rather on third-party characters who have something to loose and for which the audiences’ continued possession of the ‘phone’ away from its owner, deepens the dilemma and raises the stakes for those characters.

Whilst interactive narrative creates a distinctly immersive quality, we can also recognise that suspension of disbelief only goes so far. As much as audiences may play as an avatar, dramatic stakes imposed solely on them as player rarely contain a tangible emotional kick. The truth is it’s hard for audiences to worry or care about ‘themselves’. In an action game the audience may have self-preservation as key stakes but these kinds of mechanics don’t hold the same emotional weight as those that come from something narratively beyond the sport of player self preservation. 

However, players can be motivated to care deeply about other characters diegetic to the storyworld, compelled to be conscious of their gameplay choices as having ramifications and impact on those characters they have come to care about. 

Many interactive narratives for games often fail to recognise this idea and all the stakes in the world mounted onto the player’s avatar are worth but a fraction of the stakes mounted on characters the player must care about, protect, defend or save. A superb example of this balance is the game ‘Mass Effect’. Ostensibly a space opera with ‘end of the universe stakes’, Mass Effect writer, Mac Walters, understands that ‘End of the Universe’ holds no emotional weight unless it means losing something the player cares about outside of them self and more intimately than the abstract universe. Mass Effect subsequently spends enormous effort on building very complex characters and relationships around the player’s avatar - continually forcing the player into situations where they must make hard moral choices about the fate of these characters - whilst allowing the avatar itself to be effectively a tabula rasa, a blank slate with very little characterisation.  

This might seem an anathema to traditional writers whereby, in effect, the protagonist is a nondescript character with the least amount of defined characterisation, whilst the minor characters are richly detailed. But it comes from a central understanding of interactivity that allows space for the audience to inscribe their own character on the blank slate of the protagonist (which is fundamental to game play) whilst using deeply developed supporting characters to bring emotional weight and transformation (which is fundamental to storytelling).

There’s a lot of complexity in the idea of agency and the role of the audience as an active agent in a story, what they are made to care about and what compels them to interact. But recognising the potential vibrancy and diversity of what’s possible for interactive actions demands we consider the narrative implications for what makes the audience care and how they will be transformed by their experience of actively caring. 

Writing interactive narratives that embody the audience in role-play and active choices is no easy task but it’s also not a foreign land where nothing is the same. Interactive narrative is evolution not revolution and the fundamental tenets of good writing - Transformation and Stakes hold a profound universality across all narrative mediums, interactive or otherwise. 

Monday
Aug042014

Writing Process of 'Transgressions': Imagery and Problem-Solving

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” - Fredrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

When I was in the 5th grade I wrote a story for my school class about a Knight who goes into a dark Forrest to fight a demon. He narrates the story in the first person but at the end of the story he dies and it is revealed to the reader that the Knight was dead all along and that he is trapped in a nightmare watching himself fail to defeat the monster, and destined to repeat that failure over and over. 

My teacher made me re-write it. She said it was ‘wrong’… When I asked how a story I made up could be ‘wrong’ she replied - “how can someone who is dead tell their own story?

It was only in later life that I found myself bewildered at how a teacher, of all people, could be so detached from classical metaphoric mythology, or so ill-read in the classics of gothic literature..? Good thing my 10 year old ego was too big to let the first ignorant critic deter me.

Yet the truth was that I was very much afraid of the demons I felt compelled to write about. The monsters of Greek myth, fused with a healthy dose of western-Catholic guilt,  had formed themselves into very personal spectres that gave me shivers when I wrote them… And it was exactly that sensation that I lusted after every time I put pen to paper. Every writer should be afraid of their creations… 

Later, when a good, broad school education introduced me to history, philosophy and big narrative concepts, it felt much like I was matching substance up to the ideas I was already probing…. Redemption, transgression, metaphor and revelation.

Now, more than 25 years later I’m well into a writing project that feels very much like it began there in that 5th grade class.

TRANSGRESSIONS is 3-book series of supernatural horror. Each book is a self contained novel but the collection is linked tightly together by concept, imagery and shared themes of madness, mystery and redemption. People running from their sins, their personal demons and from themselves. Broken figures who must confront haunting spectres, monsters and manifestations of a dark past that compel them toward restoration. Characters caught in labyrinths of memory, shadow and regret manifesting as minotaurs to hunt them in the dark.

The above quote from Nietzsche really sets out the heart of all three stories - and perhaps for me as a writer. I’ve printed it and stuck it to the wall of my office as a creative linchpin. The monsters come from within…  the scariest demon is that which is personally tailored to You, that drives your own transgressions in hideous form and from which you cannot escape. Yet, like Pandora’s box, once all the chaos and evils are released Hope still remains at the bottom of the box. This is horror but it is not nihilism.

The first book, The Mothers, is complete and I am now neck deep in the second of the series The Scrimshaw Marionette…

After the death of his wife by his own failing, William flees the hardship of depression-era Sydney with his young daughter, Rosa. Battling his addictions and his sanity, William travels far south and finds work on a remote island Whaling station. But when Rosa finds a small scrimshaw marionette doll under the wharf, a restless spirit awakens to puppeteer the living and drag them into the sea. Grappling with his sanity and reason, William must confront the truth of the past and put the restless marionette ghost to rest to save his daughter and himself.

This distilled pitch-synopsis and the book that hopefully executes on the promise of that idea, began with a photograph of a doll.

For me as a writer imagery is almost always the key origin point. I can’t write a story until I know how it ends and knowing how it ends means knowing what the last image is - what is the final thing the audience ‘sees’ (be it literally in cinematic form, or conceptually in literary form).

The process of developing the story, breaking down its plot and characters into beat-sheets and outlines is a process for me of finding all the key images that build the story like keyframe storyboard cells.

The image that triggered The Scrimshaw Marionette was one shown to me by curator Penny Edwell of the Australian National Maritime Museum. I have been working with the ANMM on a immersive narrative exhibition experience - a naval thriller set in very real war ships anchored at the harbour side museum (which you can read about here).

image curtesy - Aus National maritime MuseumThe image Penny showed me was of a hand-made doll carved of whale bone ivory and made by whaling sailor more than a century ago. The doll was simply made but presented such emotional weight, a hand-made gift carved at sea by a sailor for his child. It was beautiful yet haunting. It’s darkly uncanny face and rough features made it tortured in some strange way, the pain of the whale being slaughtered somehow imbued into the dolls limbs. And most of all it was the physicality if it - delicate and brittle and yet carved from the bones of an ocean leviathan, a creature so massive is dwarfed the ships that hunted it. 

A doll must have an owner and such an owner would be a child… But a child who is a changeling - a child who knows more than they should know and who can sense and see more than they should see. A child who has been broken and wronged. The emotional weight of the whale bone somehow empowering the spirit of the little girl who treasures it as her only comfort in the darkness.

And from this comes the idea of a Marionette. It’s not just a type of puppet, it’s a wonderfully delicate and antiquated word and yet one that is loaded as metaphor for control and manipulation.

And finally there comes the idea of Scrimshaw - an ancient craft of carving designs, patterns and images into ivory. Most Scrimshaw from ocean whalers depicted images of whaling itself, of the hunt and the sea, the ships they sailed and the whales they fought.

All this imagery of carved whale bone marionette dolls intertwined with the spirit of a changeling child gives rise to a vision that scared me and gave me that shiver I was looking to evoke - a doll possessed by a broken child that puppeteers the living by invisible strings in their nightmares and drags them into the sea…

So, we now have a demon monster but this doesn’t make for a story until there is someone to struggle against the monster. Such a demon could haunt anyone, but randomness is the least effective horror story technique. The big question to ask is “who should be the most afraid of the scrimshaw marionette…?” Who deserves to be haunted? Who has transgressed in such a way that the Marionette appears to be a personally tailored demon?

This is how I found my protagonist - William. Guilt-ridden, depressed, addicted. A broken man, but not one out of reach of redemption… He’s just going to have to learn his lessons the hard way if he wants a chance to make up for them… ;-) 

The other key story development component for me is the physical space of the story - the environment, the location, the topography, climate and architecture. And of course When? What timeframe provides the right collision of forces for the story?

For The Scrimshaw Marionette the object itself dictated the place as much as the concept of the monster.  Hence the story is set on a remote southern whaling station, a craggy rock in the Tasman sea where the whalers hunt the migrating southern right whales from shore in longboats.

The decidedly cinematic imagery of such places - the scale of the ocean beasts hauled to slaughter and the brutal weather breeding hard men - was self evident.  But for the full effect of that sense of haunted remoteness to impact on an audience they need to experience it as an outsider, a new arrival, a stranger in a strange land who is cast upon a place they do not, and cannot, fully comprehend.

So it is that our protagonist of William needed to be an outsider - a man who knows nothing of whaling and from whom such a place is an anathema to everything they do know. Of course this presents a narrative problem-solving challenge with questions that need answering - What could compel a man to go to such a place? And Who is the opposite of a remote island whaler?

Clearly a man born and bread in the crowded confines of a city is the antithesis to one living on cold remote island as a whaler. So, What would compel such a man to leave the city and go to a haunted remote place where he is so much a fish out of water? One answer, and the answer that gives me great narrative momentum, is the Great Depression.

As economic collapse grinds the city to a pulp of poverty and despair, William is compelled to leave and find work wherever he can… A remote island whaling station where few wish to go provides the only answer for Will and, perhaps his only chance of redemption.

Storytelling is, in many ways, problem solving. The cause and effect chain is crucial and it’s assembly is a construction of creative logic. The story of The Scrimshaw Marionette was built from a photo go a doll, to the creation of a demon, to a character forced to go to the end of the earth where a collision with that demon is inevitable.

And as William gets lost in the siring nightmares of the labyrinthine whaling station, caught between past and present he should beware that Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.”

—-

Transgressions will be released early 2015 by Simon and Schuster. Stay tuned or follow my tweets on the writing process @mikejonestv #transgressions

Monday
Aug042014

Simon451 - new genre publisher with e-first thinking.

Named in honour of the great Ray Bradbury, Simon & Schuster’s new Scifi, Fantasy, Horror and Supernatural imprint publisher SIMON451 has put out a sampler of its forthcoming titles, including ‘A Vision of Fire by none other than X-Files star Gillian Anderson.

S&S describe SIMON451 as intending publish “in multiple electronic and printed formats, with a focus on digital-first publishing and ebook originals. Its editors will develop new authors and branded series, and bring established authors to new audiences with the ability to move quickly and nimbly between digital and print publication, taking advantage of marketplace opportunities as awareness builds for authors and series. Simon451 will experiment with publishing serialized novels and original short stories, and will also re-issue classic backlist titles in ebook.”

This should sound like very good news to any writer with rich and dynamic story ideas ready to roll in these genre spaces.

For all the excitement of self-publishing it’s important not to forget that strength and weight that comes in having solid editorial contribution from an experienced publisher and the audience-centric legitimacy that comes from a recognised brand. With a focus on e-first, Simon451 would seem to have the ability to be far less risk-adverse than traditional publishing and this may be that perfect happy medium for writers. The weight of a major publisher on one hand, the nimble experimentation of self and indie publishing on the other.

Monday
Jul282014

Story+ and the Brisbane Writers Festival

It’s been great to see the major writer’s festivals of Australia grow to such prominence over the past decade with Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane Writers Festivals becoming both truly international as well as popular. Audiences are diverse as are the range of speakers, genres, forms and ideas. It was a great pleasure to speak at this years Sydney Writers Festival back in June and now I’m making the year a quinella having been invited to speak at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. 

I’ll be giving a keynote presentation for the BWF’s Story+ conference examining the relationship between Narrative, Design and Technology and ideas of authorship and storytelling across media forms. This will then be followed up by a lively panel discussion on challenges and opportunities for writers in the digital world and how to build a flexible career across formats.

And I’m certainly amongst good company with fellow speakers including much celebrated novelist Lauren Beukes and Greg Broadmore author and key artist at the much lauded WETA Workshop.

Story+ is on 4-5th September http://bwf.org.au/more-events/story/ and the official blurb reads:

“If you’ve been wondering where writing and publishing is heading next, how to tell inspiring stories, how games influence culture and what it means to shape a truly interactive narrative, then STORY+ is for you. Two full days of inspiring talks, debates, panels and hands-on play featuring cultural leaders, writers, transmedia producers, interaction designers and publishers.”

Following all this on Saturday 6th I’ll be running a masterclass on Designing Storyworlds 

“Cross-platform narratives hold exciting creative opportunities for writers. Acclaimed transmedia producer and writer Mike Jones of Portal Entertainment shows you how to design immersive storyworlds and narratives that can engage audiences across books, TV, film and interactive media.”

So with this I will have done Sydney and Brisbane Writers Festivals. So what’s up Melbourne…? Don’t ya love me?

Monday
Jul142014

Hellraiser and the art of Monster Design

Great horror narratives start with great Monster Design. More than just scary imagery, a great ‘monster’ should be a metaphor, a representation of a high concept idea as well as the demon inside the protagonist - a shadow-self, embodying their transgressions and their worst imaginable fears tailor-made for them.

Clive Barker’s Cenobites from HELLRAISER are a superb horror creation and this article breaks down the evolution of Pinhead as a horror concept and character. It includes exploration of the mythology and imagery that went into the design of Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites and the horror writing process of Barker himself.

“One image I remember very strongly from The Forbidden was that Clive had built what he called his ‘nail-board’ which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares. He spent endless hours playing with what happened if a light was swung around in front of it to see the way that the shadows of the nails moved and what happened if it was top lit and so forth. Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for this gentleman, it rang a bell with me that here was actually Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with with the nail-board in The Forbidden, now 10, 15 years later or whatever here he’d now put the image all over a human being’s face. Which is typical of the way that he will work with ideas, you’ll find little bits of ideas that he would play around with that ten, fifteen years later when apparently it’s all forgotten with, that idea is suddenly brought up again and dealt with in a much bigger way.”

http://www.clivebarker.info/pinevolution.html

 

Monday
Jul072014

Podcast Interview discussing Victorian Gothic Horror

Death Becomes her - Metropolitan Museum of Art NY 

Progress continues on my new series of horror novels and, as I set into the second book this month, I continue to interrogate the concepts that underpin the the story ideas I’m executing. 

Having spent a number of years teaching writing my own creative process has become infused with the kind of reflection you have to do as a teacher in interrogating Why you make the narrative choices you do.

To that end, last week I had the opportunity to talk about Victorian Gothic Horror with ABC Radio National’s Antony Funnell and the discussion ranged over the genre’s form and appeal as well as speculating on why we continue to tell these kind of stories, even in a modern digital age. What is it about this particular period in time that makes for such a compelling mix of dramatic forces, ideas and motifs?

The full podcast of the interview is available online here…

“The Victorian age may be long gone but it’s certainly not forgotten. It continues to be a reference point for counter cultural movements like steam punk and of course for fiction.

Just think of all those shelves of vampire stories you find in bookstores these days.

They may not necessarily be set in the Victorian era but they certainly borrow from the look and feel of Victorian Gothic Fiction.”

Tuesday
Jun172014

Screen 2030: imagining the future present

“This is the best time ever to be a writer, creator, producer or director of stories because there’s never been more diverse audiences, there’s never been more active niches and there’s never been more mediums to tell these stories”.

Or so I said in the documentaryScreen 2030: Making my Content Pay which was featured at the Vivid Ideas Festival in June. The doco probed at the wide range of both problems and opportunities the digital world puts in front of creative producers and teased at the issue of how a professional living can be made.

From the blurb:

This year’s VIVID IDEAS event launched the documentary, Screen 2030: Making My Content Pay, to a full house at the MCA. Host Tim Parsons led a panel discussion exploring the future careers of emerging content makers with some of the screen and media industry’s key thinkers including media futurist, Mark Pesce, Senior Manager of Strategy, Research and Communications at Screen Australia, Georgie McClean, Emmy Award winning producer, Marcus Gillezeau,  and all media documentary producer, Ester Harding.

Monday
Jun092014

Audience Positioning and Interactive Narrative

Interactive Narrative is a very broad bucket of possibilities - a story where the audience has some level of agency to influence, effect, steer, control, manipulate, tell or progress the story, has an almost infinitely wide range of possible executions. 3D, open world, first-person video games provide a great deal of agency, where as a tablet-based interactive graphic novel might allow for only very limited or specific agency. Yet both (and anything in between) can be understood as interactive simply by the presence of that agency. Which is not to say that there aren’t unifying elements along that spectrum that can help articulate core mechanics and audience alignments; in particular Action, Motivation and Reward…

The ‘agency’ in an interactive narrative is predicated on a Role for the audience to play and this is best understood as an active-verb - to Fight, Find, Assemble, Help, Escape, Create, and so on. But for that role-play action to be effective, and more than just button pushing, it must be leveraged also with Motivation & Reward. The audience needs to be compelled and motivated to play the defined role (dramatic stakes and dramatic questions are certainly a great motivator) And the audience need to be rewarded for taking action (in a traditional video game this might be points or levelling up, but may also be the progress of the story itself as the reward system for motivated action.) Action, Motivation and Reward are the foundations of any good interactive narrative.

From that basis, my current work with Portal Entertainment - working here in LA with a US studio developing interactive projects - has compelled me to think through the archetypal forms of audience positioning and how they relate to storytelling momentum and dramatic questions? And what bubbles to the surface of my thinking is 4 interactive modes as a kind of test board to throw story possibilities at in the writers room. These are by no means the definitive ways to think about constructing interactive stories, but there do provide useful launch points.

PROGRESSIVE: The audience engages the story progressively forward against obstacles with a motivation in the immediate present. i.e Start the experience, X happens, now ‘you’ must do Y. And when you do Y now you must do Z…. etc. this seems obvious but what this mode does is render Backstory outside of the experience - what happened ‘before’ the start of the story doesn’t matter to the audience, only what happens next and what must be done next and what is to come. This kind of story requires constant addition of escalating plot elements that grow in front of the audience and dramatic questions that are speculative and forward-facing. 

REFLECTIVE: The audience is positioned as ‘amnesiac’, not always (but sometimes) literally. That they do not know their own backstory yet are motivated to discover it. The backstory is central to the narrative but is unknown to the audience at the start. Subsequently, actions and choices are motivated by the audience’s desire to answer questions that reveal the backstory. In other words, the audience plays to discover ‘what happened?’ ‘how did i get here?’ ‘who am I?’, ‘how did the world get this way?’ etc. Subsequently the entry point into the story for the audience is in-media-res; in the middle of things. The story plays forward in order to reveal what happened before.

From a narrative writing point of view this in-media-res starting point can often solve key problems. It allows for the audience to begin the story at a very high-stakes moment in the narrative timeline, giving an opening that is energised and has momentum - a dynamic position from which more speculative exploration can then be undertaken. In other words, start at a high-point and the writer subsequently buys themselves freedom to bring exposition and detail out in a way that wont struggle so hard to maintain attention. Importantly it changes the dramatic question for the audience. Rather than ‘Will I/they be able to…?’ it becomes ‘How were I/they able to’. The ‘gameplay’ becomes about playing-to-reveal rather than playing-to-achieve and this can be a very useful device for a range of narrative genres.

PARALLEL: Sometimes the orientation of audience is not to be central to the story but to be positioned at a slight remove, looking in and effecting the story and the experience of the story whilst also being a witness to the events happening to other protagonist characters. In this Parallel mode the Audience plays their actions in a story running parallel to another character and events. Looking in on it, having to make choices about it, but at a remove. In more practical dramatic terms, audience actions reveal what happened to someone else and it’s their backstories and parallel experiences that ‘you’ uncover through actions.

EXTRANEOUS: Not all interactive narratives are about ‘You’, the audience isn’t always playing a projection of ‘self’. An Extraneous mode of interactive story is one not happening ‘to the audience’, but rather one they participate in as an outsider - Helping to tell the story or be a part of the telling, or making choices and actions on behalf of the character in the story. But where they themselves are not actualised. There’s a lot of interesting precedents in this mode - the iPad extension app to Alice Madness Returns for example uses the mode well to make the audience complicit in the maltreatment of a psych patient because they have to perform the experiments to advance the story. 

The point of breaking down these story modes as methods for positioning the audience in relation to the story is not to serve as some kind of rule set, but rather to compel us to ask useful questions that help to solve the very tricky problems of interactive storytelling. So, in my own work, I’m conscious that before plotting we need to think about which of these modes will set the alignment of the audience and then develop from that to shape an audience-centric experience. Also, at a very practical level, this clarity also allows for a pitch that is strong and clear in both narrative and interactive experience. 

Tuesday
Jun032014

How you describe your project is as important as how you make it.

We of the Portal Entertainment team have arrived in LA and moved into our new offices in Burbank. Holing up in new office in a new city for new projects. The tragedy being that, much like the first rule of Fight Club is you can’t blog or tweet about Fight Club, there’s not much I can say about the projects we’re working on… (other than they are seriously fucking cool..!) 

Happy writers in their happy new officeWhat I can say is that many of the questions I’ve been wrestling with over the past few years around the challenging central mechanics of constructing interactive narratives are very much at the front of the writer’s-room discussion and the development choices we are making.

A high-level meeting today with studio experts on promotion, marking and audience development for digital, interactive and transmedia projects fuelled that discussion further. And sometimes it’s the asking of very simple, almost perfunctory, questions that prompt the most insightful responses.

‘Where in the app-store do you put your ‘interactive narrative app’ product?’ Without any clear category of its own to encompass such an experience, creators are compelled to put their round peg in a variety of trapezoid shaped category holes. 

Each category in the app-store is predicated on well established forms when the product you are making may not neatly sit within suck buckets. Each app-store category creates expectations about what the experience of the product is and those expectations need to be met or satisfied.

Put it in GAMES and ‘audience’ immediately expects to be a ‘player’ which brings with it a host of expectations around ‘play’ which can be surprisingly restrictive. And in practical terms this often implies problematic expectations around the duration of the experience and the amount of agency handed to the ‘player’. (generally spekaing, ‘players’ expect to have a lot of agency and play for hours and hours).

If you put it in ENTERTAINMENT you free yourself from many expectations of form but you run the risk of being in a category more often filled with apps that are utilities rather than experiences. Social TV interfaces and remote controls, streaming services and so on. 

If you put it under TV you could aim for presenting as a hybrid ‘next-gen’ app-based TV experience with interactive elements… but you’d also be sitting alongside actual ‘TV Shows’ and run the risk of being dwarfed or mis-represented. 

Office kitchen full of snacks including these… I’m 2 down for the day & the casualties could go higher So, are you in fact ‘publishing’ and so should place your interactive narrative production under BOOKS, presenting a hybrid book experience? I’ve written before about Platform-Agnostic publishing and publishers embracing the idea of separating what they do from the medium they have traditionally sold… I wrote…

“Publishing’ is about Development and Delivery of Stories; Development and nurturing of writing talent and the Delivery and distribution of their work to audiences. Where are the publishers who see interactive and screen-based iterations of their writers work as core business rather than add-on.” Or in other words, publishing is about development and delivery NOT selling books. The music industry already made that mistake when they thought they were in the ‘CD Selling’ business, rather than the ‘delivery of music’ business. 

But of course, in the app-store, putting your interactive narrative app under the BOOK category suffers the same potential misconstrued expectations as putting it in TV.

So inevitably what becomes key is clarity of language around how you describe what it is you have made. This prompted the simple realisation for the day; that how you describe and talk about the project is as crucial as what the project is and how you write it. If you can’t communicate it, you can’t find an audience for it. 

Monday
May122014

The writing process of Transgressions: Scripts, Games & Gothic Horror

I first starting thinking of myself as a writer aged sixteen. At eighteen I wrote my first professionally produced stage play (a god-awful, self-indulgent, black comedy about the end of the world that nobody thought was funny) Since then I’ve written for all manner of mediums and forms with the tenacity of someone who has no faith in their talent, yet an ego too big to let a lack of talent get in the way. I figured if I just wrote ‘more’ than anyone else I’d crash through (or just crash).

This week I wrote ‘The End’ on my third full-length novel and the first in a brand new series of supernatural and gothic horror books entitled ‘Transgressions’ which will be published next year by Simon & Schuster. 

Some writers hate writing, but love having written. Others love the writing process but are never happy with the results. I spent much of my career working on ‘other peoples’ projects’ so it was always the process I had to engage and love first and foremost because the outcome was rarely ‘mine’ to love. It’s only now that I realise, and can appreciate, the positive effect this had on my own writing process. It may have been frustrating but spending so many formative years working on ‘other peoples projects’ forces you to appreciate, interrogate and articulate process in a way that many writers never do. 

In more recent years I’ve found greater traction on my own projects and penning the first book of the ‘Transgressions’ series - entitled ‘The Mothers’ - felt like a key milestone. The book was a true joy to write with the action of writing feeling like the culmination of everything I had learned and refined as a process from 20 years of crash and burn mistakes. 

Before setting into the manuscript I had spent time building up a scene by scene detailed outline that mapped the plot into the specific dramatic patterns I wanted to exploit. My influences as a writer are broad - not just in genre and stye but in the very literal sense of format. With much of my work being in cross-platform and interactive media as well as film and TV, it was inevitable that even when working in the very traditional mode of novelist, my writing process and end result would be heavily influenced by these non-traditional mediums. 

So in writing ‘The Mothers’ I brought a very Feature Film centric idea of highly detailed outlining to a pre-defined ending. I could not begin to write the manuscript until I knew exactly how the story would end. Only when you know the ending can you write each scene with all its arrows pointing in that inevitable direction. The tiny canvas of the 2hr feature film demands this kind of efficiency in a way that few other story mediums do. Minimal waffle. Constant progression. 

Similarly, from the sensibilities of TV and Multiplatform writing I brought to ‘The Mothers’ a very specific attention to episodic structures. Each chapter was built so that it answered a specific dramatic question and then, in the answering, posed a new - extended - higher stakes dramatic question to instigate the next chapter. More than just a simplistic notion of ‘cliff-hangers’, I was looking to ensure that each chapter encapsulated a clear playable action for the character that resulted in satisfying rhythmic pattern for the audience that felt like it was always moving. If a chapter did not have such an action built from a clearly identifiable dramatic question (Will X, be able to Y or else Z?), then it was jettisoned.

Finally, from a life well wasted in front of video game consoles and computers, I could not help but bring a game-mechanic sensibility to the book’s story. This meant that in creating the story’s antagonistic forces and, more particularly, their specific modus operandi of delivering obstacles, I was very conscious of those obstacles being ‘playable’. I wanted to write a book with a natural game mechanic infused in the narrative and motivating the character as a player might be motivated to play. In ‘The Mothers’ this is predicated on two things the protagonist is constantly forced to deal with - a Labyrinth - a puzzle mechanic, and Light (or the lack thereof) - a resource mechanic. The hero of the story, a wayward and desperate woman seeking to escape from a haunted quarantine station, has to navigate a maze whilst trying to find, maintain, stay in, or stay away from, sources of Light. These two elements give me a very happy triumvirate of:

a) providing near endless sources of dramatic tension, suspense and obstacles for the character as they try to “escape the maze in the dark”.

b) clearly tapping into the long-standing iconography and conventions of the Gothic Horror genre and its metaphoric ideas of inner-demons, guilt and descending madness through mazes, mirrors and shadows.

c) ensuring that the protagonist always has an Active Goal to pursue in each and every chapter, that the story Never becomes one based on ‘stuff happening’, but rather always about ‘characters doing stuff’.

Interactive game mechanics naturally drive this thinking. I would argue writers have potentially more to learn directly about storytelling from playing games than they do just from reading books. I played a lot of games growing up and what Dungeons & Dragons taught me spoke to the very essence of good storytelling. Games - whether table top or video-screen - are intrinsically predicated on Structural Patterns, Escalation, Characters-in-Action, Obstacles, Progression, Climax and Catharsis. It’s quite possible for inexperienced writers to write a story and never effectively engage with any of these things and still think they can write. But it is quite literally IMPOSSIBLE to play or create a game without these things as without them there is No game nor any reason to play.

Observing the influence interactive and multiplatform writing had on the way I approached penning ’The Mothers’ as a rather traditional novel, speaks to the way Ive come to see some of the industrial parameters around what it is to be a professional writer in the 21st century. Where once there were unified audiences and a hierarchy that privileged certain story mediums over others, the world is quite considerably shifting (and indeed I would argue, has already shifted).

The world for storytelling is now a multiplatform, non-hierarchical one full of segmented and diversified audiences. Subsequently, in such a non-hierarchical multi-platform world any Writer who defines their craft by a specific medium is limiting themselves to a narrow ghetto. Platform flexibility is the only way to be a professionally viable writer in such a world and terms like ‘Novelist’, ‘TV-writer’ and ‘Playwright’ are increasingly irrelevant descriptors. The platform should not define your skills, no one medium should limit how you apply your skills. This means not only being flexible about how to execute your craft but also flexibility allowing the skills and knowledge from those other mediums to bleed into the medium you are currently working in. 

For the better part of a decade there has been a lot of buzzword-bingo talk about multi platform storytelling from a host of self-described ‘Transmedia Gurus’. But where I fear the fundamental disconnect has been is in the arse-backwards thinking that privileged the ‘new’. Multi-platform writers should look first to what is consistent across forms, rather than what is different - core principles before unique qualities - else the narrative baby can go out with the bathwater. When a writer is able to see what is consistent between story mediums (rather than being dazzled and distracted by what is unique) they put themselves in a much better position to both satisfy audience expectations as well as fully exploit, adapt and apply those unique properties. 

So, at the end of all this, I sit back and I look at the book I have just written. It’s a story that openly and honestly wears its influences on it’s sleeve. It draws from a long history of the horror story and the thematics and imagery of the gothic tradition. At the same time it’s a book whose process of development and structure of narrative have been directly shaped more by television and multiplatform experiences than by other novels. Similarly the characters and dramatic actions are directly predicated on ideas drawn from game mechanics and interactive role-play. 

When it finally came time to write the manuscript, the process of putting words on the screen was as fluid and immersive an experience as any writer could have wished for. The entire manuscript was written top to bottom in just eleven writing days. It felt very much as if I was ‘writing through’ the story. The structural cause and effect, escalation and reversal patterns had all be broken down, the ending predetermined in the structure. So the writing of the text was like colouring between the lines

Creative process is a unique and infinitely varied creature. Certainly every writer works their own way and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. However, that difference that separates out the Professional Writer is the ability to sustain and maintain creative output and to flexibly apply craft discipline. Doing that requires an interrogation, articulation and examination of process - even more so in a multiplatform, non-hierarchical, audience segmented world. It’s been 20 years since I wrote that first stage play at 18, and I think it’s taken me all that time just to begin to get a handle on a clear writing process that allows me to be professionally disciplined, focused and flexible. 

No one said this writing schtick was easy.