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Storyworld & Immersion before Plot & Platform.

In any discussion and professional practice of ‘new media’ there is a swag of terminology that gets kicked around;  cross-media, multi-platform & transmedia, interactive and pervasive media, emergent, non-linear and participatory storytelling, etc etc…

Generally speaking, I like Names for things. When they are good names, such words can be very powerful for Articulating and Executing as much as they are for Understanding and Communicating. But, at their worst, they can also be vacuous, meaningless, confused and unhelpful… In simple terms,  I tend to like names that reflect a Tool for building an idea rather than names which serve simply to Categorise an idea. 

If we think about three dominant ‘new-media’ terms - Cross, Multi and Trans media we can take a somewhat cynical approach and observe that ‘true’ Transmedia is Extremely rare (and rarely successful), Multiplatform is not always engaging on more than 1 platform & Cross-media is little more than re-packaging. And of all of them are too often subsumed into the all digesting vortex of ‘marketing’. (im still waiting for anyone to show me an ARG that is anything more than lame arse advertising built on petty fan-boy desires)

Screen Australia, responsible as they are for investment and funding of creative media, needed to define these terms in order to make judgements about where to put their money. And the definitions they arrived at are pretty good and useful:

Cross Platform -
Using multiple digital media to distribute a single piece of content (eg an episodic series available online as well as broadcast)

Multi-Platform -
Content created to exist on different platforms in different forms (eg a TV program with a website delivering separate audiovisual content; a feature film with an associated game - each platform explores the same storyworld but does not simply retell the same story)

Transmedia -
A story experience told across multiple forms of media, with each element making distinctive contributions to a user’s understanding of the storyworld as a whole (eg reaching a particular score level in an online game unlocks the next Web-Series episode. The audience must move across platforms in order to fulfil the experience).

These are all very functional definitions and help prevent their interchangeability in discussion, which can be decidedly unhelpful for practitioners.  

That said, the other word that often appears alongside these is ‘Immersive’. And it’s a word i like because its a word that is evocative and speaks, in an audience-centric way, to how an audience member ‘experiences’ and how they should feel about that experience - i.e. - they should feel ‘immersed’ in it.

The definitions above for Cross, Multi and Trans media are all essentially biased towards How the ‘content’ is delivered and Where it is accessed. With immersive storytelling these things are secondary to how a given media form can be used for best effect in ‘immersing’ the audience; its about bringing other media and platforms into the story experience, rather than pushing the story out to other platforms.

The terms Immerse and Immersive themselves mean “to plunge into”, “to be surrounded or saturated by”, “to be engaged in an active experience”  My work with Portal Entertainment is particularly focused on this idea of how to generate Immersion for an audience thought the building a very specific types of multiplatform productions. Not specific to any given type of technology or platform, our focus on Immersive Storytelling is that which employs four elements:

  • An holistic Storyworld that can generate multiple & ongoing narratives and points-of-view.
  • Draws multiple media types & platforms into a unified experience.
  • Allows the audience to take part in the story in an active and meaningful way.
  • Uses real-time parameters and pressures.


In other words World, Multiple Media, Role-Play and Real-Time.

Such experiences are not “games” (though they may use game mechanics and role-play), they are not “movies” (though they may consist of cinematic moving images, episodes and films), they are not “books” (though the written word and the act of reading may be integral to them), and they are not “websites” (though they may well be online and interactive) 

What these 4 elements might produce is wide open - 

It could be David Knauf’s Haunted -

Paranormal horror that uses timeline events, accessed in a non-linear way to allow the audience to engage in the unravelling of a mystery set over a limited time period. A mix of video, interactivity, online content and social interaction.

It could be Collapsus: The energy risk conspiracy -

A mix of factual documentary and speculative fiction in an interactive episodic form; where the audience is asked to participate in solving problems and crisis with game mechanics integrated into the narrative.

It could be Malcolm Tucker’s missing phone -

An darkly comic experience that envelops the audience in the life of another person with access to their personal emails, phone messages, diary and social networks. The experience persists in real time and involves the audience in a voyeuristic role-play.

It could be The Walking Dead -

An excellent example of a broad multi-platform storyworld where the different mediums of comics, TV series, video games all adhere to the same storyworld, but offer different perspectives, reward immersion and offer excellent interactive mechanics. Importantly Walking Dead is an example where all platforms have been equally popular whilst catering to demands of different audience types.

It could be….

Hotel 626 


Conspiracy 365


Kentucky Route Zero

Airship Dracula

Seven Poets

Dear Esther

First Draft of the Revolution

or Metro 2033 


Without needing to debate what is a ‘game’, what is a ‘web series’, what is multiplatform, what is transmedia or what isn’t; we can recognise a kind of unified focus and clarity in such projects. No longer trying to be all things to everyone, or so excited by the tools in the new tool shed that they design a smorgasbord just to use them all; we are slowly seeing a creative maturity, discipline and craft. 

Which leads us to ponder practitioners in this brave new world… 

For anyone defining their creative practice as a Writer, Director, Producer - but who are acutely aware that creative and professional opportunities span well beyond just movies and TV - there are 3 essential skill-sets they need to cultivate;

- Storyworld Development (how to construct and write a pressurised multi-perspective world)

- Audience-Journey Design (how to devise motivated movements of audiences through a holistic experience)

- Game Mechanics (how to generate engaging and pro-active role-play for an audience)

It’s these ideas that I will be exploring and presenting on over a number of programs and events this year: the SAFC Digital360 development program, the Immersive Writing Lab, the Australian national Screenwriters Conference, the Doha Film Institute as well as events with Screenworks and Metroscreen.

Thinking through a writer-centric process of developing such Storyworlds, I recently posted a 5-part writers guide to Storyworld development as the basis for the Immersive Writing Lab, Storyworld Writing Competition. 

  1. Storyworld - Logline, Timeline, Dramatic Pressures, Genre.
  2. Character - Protagonists, Antagonists, Communities, Points of View.
  3. Multi-stranded plot - Dramatic Questions, Events, Thresholds and Inversions.
  4. Audience - User Journeys - Paths of how an audience could enter & move through your world.
  5. Memories, Rituals and Emotional States - what memories will the audience take away from the storyworld and how will it make them feel? 

Notice there is absolutely NO mention of technology or platform. A storyworld that begins by pre-determinging its platforms will be railroaded and narrowed, rather than grown and expanded. Technologies are platforms should be Solutions to the needs of the experience not the other way around.  Construct the storyworld, design the experience you wish to create and then FIND the platforms and technologies best suited to Deliver that experience. Working Platform-first is cart-before-the-horse.

I’m reminded of a quote form Transmedia poster-boy, Lance Weiler

“I used to outline or write a treatment — maybe create backstory or generate character notes. From there I’d move into constructing a three-act screenplay… This is no longer the case…. What was once a single-format design for me is changing. I now consider my process akin to architecture… the creation of a storyworld bible, a document that provides an overview of the experience that I wish to create. It shows the relationships between storylines, characters, locations and interactions…”

What this recognises is the the dominant central creative IP that a writer, director or a producer can generate is not a Plot, or Characters or a Scenario, but rather a Storyworld that has enough potential to fuel all manner of creative experiences.

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