Where does the story begin?
It’s a question that would appear to be that most fundamental to storytelling since a caveman first grunted to his family about the ‘mammoth that got away’. And yet in the digital age of cross-platform, interactive and multimedia storytelling, this question takes on new significance.
The question of ‘Where does the story begin’ suggests not just conceptual narrative questions of Where and When in the story diegesis, but also Where and When in regard to platform, technology and experience? On what platform, in what mode, does the story start? Where does the audience first enter? What expectations, experiences and mechanics have they engaged with to get to that beginning? The answers to these are often a mix of conceptual and practical elements and what became apparent to me in recent work on an immersive interactive production for iPad, was that the app-store itself is, in many ways, where the story begins.
The idea of an online app-store for electronic devices is arguably one of the great innovations of recent decades that has created enormous opportunity for creative producers to reach an audience. Whilst many, myself included, are often highly critical of Apple’s belligerent approach to its eco-system and the insular and restrictive nature of both its business models and its technology platforms, it’s still fair to say that the app-store creates an incredibly viable and vibrant economic framework for digital creation. More specifically, the combo of the app-store and the iPad created the most accessible and versatile creative platform we’ve ever known for cinematic and interactive storytelling.
But, by and large, the app-store is seen and used solely as a delivery mechanism - a means to get the product to the audience with a ‘no mess, no fuss’ purchasing mechanic. But what we might also recognise is that the app-store, in a very literal sense, is the first contact point between the story and the audience. This is particularly so when producing ‘premium content’ for the iPad (digital products for which a premium price is charged along with an expectation on the part of the audience that the product will be of a premium quality) the app-store itself represents the start of the story experience.
With such digital products as games, interactive media, hybrid books and immersive entertainment apps it’s a fair assumption that the audience will certainly read the blurb and overview-synopsis text, as well as view the preview images of what they are buying into. I would argue that if you treat this blurb as nothing more than an explanatory and advertising hook then you are missing an important narrative opportunity.
When you’re working in mediums and forms of storytelling that are outside of - or extend upon - traditional movie or book, you have to recognise that you are placing higher demands and barriers to entry for the audience. If you’re going to ask them to interact, solve puzzles, role-play and immerse themselves in an active way in a story experience then you are quite directly making them work harder. As such there is a need to provide scaffolding to ease that engagement in and establish context and motivation for what you’re going to ask them to do.
The app-store is where that process begins.
The blurb and images in the app-store, as the first point of contact with the narrative, is your opportunity to efficiently establish the storyworld and its initial dramatic questions. It’s the first chance to orientate the audience with the crucial Who, Where & What of the narrative, not just the dry explanation of what the app does. Crucially, this app-store introduction is also where Mood, Tone and Genre are first framed, positioning the audience to know what they are signing up for at an emotional level.
The genre of any kind of narrative is essentially a contract with the audience, what the creator agrees to deliver on as an emotional state - horror will scare you, thrillers will thrill you, scifi will amaze you, comedy will make you laugh and romance will…. well it’ll Romance you. The blurb and images in the app store have the chance to establish all this before the app is even downloaded and in this regard, when done well, become effectively the Prologue to the story experience.
Now, this may seem obvious but there are good reasons to point out this little nugget of possibility.
The first is that if you don’t treat the app-store blurb as a genuine narrative prologue and the beginning of the experience you are essentially creating an extra step for the audience, another gate to pass through, before the story begins. Subsequently, without a genuine narrative intro and setup in the app-store itself you leave that heavy lifting of establishing narrative framing to the app which may be an inefficient approach or, worse still, after-the-fact. This is particularly important in regard to role play. Any form of interactive narrative essentially asks the audience to play a part in the story; to find, fight, solve, explore, build, manipulate and so on. For an audience, knowing what part they will be asked to play, and how playing that role will make them feel, is a crucial part of their decision to buy the app in the first place.
So we might see 3 elements that an effective narrative-based intro on the app-store page should construct for the audience.
1. Define the role the audience is to play.
Who they are? What they will do? What actions they will be compelled to perform. In a traditional interactive game this might involve the usual run/jump/fight/shoot mechanics. But it broader terms of interactive media this might be more abstract - but none the less substantial - roles of narrating, helping, detecting, choosing, navigating, selecting.
2. Frame the emotional expectations of mood, tone and genre.
The audience should be clear from the app-store page how the experience will make them feel at an emotional level - excited, thrilled, scared, amused. Will the experience have an attitude - sardonic, dark, wry, cold, empathetic, heartfelt and so on? Audiences take on a story because they want to Feel particular emotions and they will chose an experience that promises to deliver on those emotional expectations.
3. Establish the dramatic questions of the narrative.
Dramatic questions are those that the audience are prompted to ask as a result of the story; questions which have stakes and risk and conflict around them and for which the audience will stay with a story to see answered - hopefully in surprising and exiting ways. The app-store can go a long way to posing these questions in the mind of the audience and make buying the app about answering those questions and curiosities, rather than buying the app to find out what the questions are.
It’s very easy to see the app-store as simply a means to an ends; a global virtual credit card slot. But to take this simplistic approach is to miss a crucial opportunity to engage the audience with more than vacuous hype about how great your app is, or how much everyone already loves it (which seems to be the sum extent of most app-store pages). If the story begins on the store page and you can be smart and efficient about framing Role, Genre and Dramatic Questions, you will light a fire under your audience to compel them forward at an emotional narrative level. I would argue this is not only more effective promotion, but also a vibrant way to ensure that the audience enter the experience itself with clear expectations. If they came in knowing what they are in for, and motivated to engage because of questions already posed in their mind, you can be a much more effective storyteller.