A few things Mark Wallace

Tag: narrative

Storytelling Together (Not Bowling Alone)

I’ve always been really interested in the kind of collaborative storytelling that emerges from tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like, and I keep enough people in my Twitter feed to occasionally notice new stuff going on in the space. At the moment, things seem particularly rich, with a ton of interesting Kickstarters and other stuff popping up:

  • Microscope is what I think of as a “historytelling” game, which lets you “explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon.” Ben Robbins, the game’s creator, is now Kickstarting an expansion set. Worth the $10 for the pdf, I say.
  • Downfall (currently being Kickstarted) sounds like a very interesting historytelling game. You don’t so much create a society as briefly describe and define it — and then narrate its collapse. Awesome.
  • The publishers of Fiasco, a really cool take on tabletop roleplaying (catch Wil Wheaton playing it here), are now Kickstarting The Warren, which essentially turns Watership Down (one of my favorite novels) into an RPG. Such a great idea.
  • There’s a new edition of the Blue Rose role-playing game of “romantic fantasy,” a loosely defined genre that focuses more on character development and interaction than on swordplay and dungeon crawls. Its Kickstarter reaped more than $85,000.
  • A Patreon from Tracy Barnett, who created the School Daze role-playing game about being an awesome high schooler a la Buffy, or whatever other kind of awesomeness you can think up.
  • I noticed Cheat Your Own Adventure via this blog post and this Tweet (or maybe this one), complete with a fun after-action report. It’s a collaborative storytelling take on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood. Definitely want to play this with my stepkids, who are 13 and 16. Grab the two pages of rules here.
  • Plus, a game about life with migraines.

One of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that, like board games, these are experiences that all but require people to be in the same room at the same time. (You could, of course, play these games via Skype or the like.) That’s one of the things I love about analog gaming, and it’s also part of the reason I think it’s important: It’s an activity that brings people together at a point in history when technology makes it ever easier to remain in our own little orbits, talking to and seeing each other less and less and less. (Not that it requires that, it just makes it easier.)

I have a hard time envisioning tabletop roleplaying games becoming popular in a really significant, mainstream way, a way that cuts across generations, genders, and class divides. (I could be wrong.) But in a world where people are still afraid of bowling alone, it’s nice to see so much activity around a pastime that requires participants to build and engage with their community.

Transmedia and the Future of Narrative Entertainment

I have a picture in my head of someone’s experience, circa 2-5 years from now (and probably starting sooner, like already), that is about how we will discover and consume our stories — our narrative entertainment experiences of whatever kind. Imagine a 17-year-old girl. While finishing some seriously late homework on her MacBook one morning before school, she happens on a Facebook post in which one of her friends has “Liked” a 6-minute video Webisode of Ninja Dino-Zombies of the Vampire-o-Sphere (more commonly known as “Ninja D’s,” or in other words, Entertainment Property X). The Like was posted from the smartphone on which the friend viewed the Webisode, and is coded with the geolocation of the bus line the friend was riding as she was watching it. Our girl watches the embedded video on Facebook and discovers a gripping tale of highly competent giant undead lizards trapped in a world of bloodsucking astronauts — naturally, she becomes interested to know more about the story, and clicks through to a page that lets her subscribe. She reads a chapter of a parallel narrative thread that’s just appeared as a blog post, checks out the zombie dino-damsel’s distress calls on Twitter, then heads to class. (What about the homework? Oh well.)

In class, she’s embarrassed by the chirp of her phone — it’s a text message with a news headline about developments at the vampire space station. Once the bell rings, she clicks through to download the next 6-minute video installment, and watches it while she heads off to Civics, which is two corridors away (so she has plenty of time if she takes it slow). At home that evening, she finds she’s gotten an email flagging the next chapter of the text-based narrative. While reading that, she notices a link to a Web-based scrapbook one of the other characters has created, explaining his love of the zombie dino-damsel and why their relationship is fated never to be (she’s just not that into inter-racial vampiric hookups, it seems). Our girl is more open-minded, though, so she posts a comment hoping he sees his way clear to confessing his affection, and — if she’s part of the 1 percent — maybe even writes her own alternate next chapter (or couple of paragraphs, anyway), in which he does confess his love, and sets off to rescue the maiden.

Meanwhile in Des Moines, there’s an aspiring writer who’s been following the same story (he’s mostly been playing the associated vampire-space-station-simulation game, though he refuses to buy any virtual blood), who spots our girl’s contribution, and who decides to run with it. Because Ninja D’s bears an accommodating license (like all truly popular works of the period), our Iowan can go ahead and cook up an entire alternate storyline in which the lovestruck bloodsucker rescues his girl and the two fly off to set up shop on a nearby planet — where a whole host of spinoff adventures start happening to them, authored both by this guy (who is so good that he’s making his living off the revshare produced by his work) and by other readers who pick up parallel threads of the cloth he’s weaving. This material too gets pushed out in the form of blog posts, chapters, video, text messages, Twitter accounts, push notifications, images, and more — all of it placed within the broad stream that is a single entertainment property in the transmedia age.

Insert end-of-vision tag here. I realize, of course, that there are already entertainment properties out there that are starting to behave in a similar manner. But what I’m really talking about here is the system that underlies those works, and that lets people create, consume, contribute to, discover, and distribute them on a synthesized, systematic basis. If you are interested in helping to build something like this (or think you already are), please get in touch.

Playing the Story

I’ve been doing a bunch of of over-thinking lately about the evolution of story and the future of narrative entertainment, so rather than continue that navel-gazing, here’s the short form (the short story, so to speak), and I’ll have more to say about this later. Not that all of this thinking is original to me; I’m just doing what I always do: scanning the landscape, picking out the relevant pieces, putting them together in a way that makes sense to me, and adding my own contributions as I go. So…

In the future, books will behave more TV shows. And not just TV shows, but interactive TV shows you can play like a game on your mobile device between reading installments of a parallel story unfolding at the same time. They’ll be released in episodes, there will be more than one thread to them, they’ll be interactive / participatory / responsive in some way, and we’ll take them with us wherever we go. And this won’t happen in the distant future, but within the next five years or so, and perhaps sooner (like now). Not to all books (or films, or games, or what-have-yous), but certainly some, most likely many, and possibly — eventually — most. At some point, in fact, it will become difficult to tell a book apart from a television show, and we’ll need a new name for this kind of narrative entertainment experience. We have the word “transmedia,” but that’s an adjective, not a noun (and it’s a term of art, in any case, rather than a consumer-friendly word). I’m not going to propose a new noun here (though I’m interested to hear ideas), but I do want to take a minute and describe what this experience will look like.

Here are four broad bullet points (not all of which will apply to every work):

  • Serial: Content will be released over time, in bite-sized chunks that can be consumed in a single sitting. Most narrative art — whether it be text, video, audio, or otherwise — will take the form of episodes. Long-form content won’t go away, but serialized narratives will be the default. You might get a bit every week, or a bit every day, you might get a number of text messages daily, or the pace of the story might vary according to how often you interact with whatever’s framing the experience — perhaps a framework like a game.
  • Multichannel: A work will feature multiple story threads, or “channels,” each of which will add its own unique content to the overall experience. These may be in the same or different media, and they may be narrative or merely descriptive (e.g., the fictional Web site of a scientific institution featured in a work). We will need new paradigms of linkage in order to navigate all of the fragments; an episode in one channel may point to an episode in another, which may in turn loop back; sequence may be important, or it may not. Narrative experiences will need to develop the signals which indicate these things to us, both technologically and in terms of the narrative itself.
  • Participatory: At least part of the form, distribution, sequencing, and/or other elements of the content (including, in some cases, portions of the content itself) will be shaped or created based on the participation of the audience. Rarely will a narrative be the same set experience for all who consume it. You may enter and leave it at different points, your choices may alter the sequence in which you experience it, the collective choices of the readership may alter what everyone sees, you may write a portion of it even as you consume some other element, or one of too many alternatives to list here may also be the case. Some of this may happen incidentally, merely as a result of following linkages, some may happen more consciously, some may happen as a result of a game, etc. But the monolithic story-object will become largely a thing of the past, and the shape of the experience will come to be determined at least in part by the actions of the audience.
  • Ubiquitous: Content will, at a minimum, be portable via mobile devices, and may also encompass platforms that reach all areas of a consumer’s daily life. That is to say, you may take your experience with you on a mobile device, or you may find that the experience follows you around across many devices and many contexts, despite the choices you make. As we become more connected, not just to the Internet but to the environment around us, narrative will take advantage of those connections and come to saturate them with story wherever it can.

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