Part 5: Interactivity

This is PART FIVE of six posts reproduced with kind permission of Maureen McHugh, Partner at No Mimes Media.

Why So Serious offered a new audience experience, fully immersing players in the story

Why transmedia? Why not watch a movie? Or read a book? Because video games have taught a whole generation that it is possible for the audience—in this case, the player—to interact with the story. The interaction is extensive in video games. Without it, there is no experience.

But the story is also pretty limited. Video game interaction is repetitive, limited, and often tangential to the story. For many players, story interrupts the game, just go online and read about any video game that doesn’t allow the audience to skip the cut scenes. It’s the experience, the shooting, the driving, the changing the radio station, the exploring, that engages the audience most.

Interactivity is a double-edged sword. We don’t put video games on TV because watching them is, frankly, boring as hell. Doing them, despite their often repetitive nature—shoot that, now shoot that, now shoot that—is fun.

Here’s a secret about transmedia. Every time the story shifts from one media platform to the next, a percentage of the audience stops following. Every time there’s a puzzle, a percentage of the audience stops following. In this way, transmedia is a great deal like video games. Only about 20% of all video games purchased are played to the end. (That’s a guess, by the way, from the video game industry.) People get to a sticking point—an ambush they can’t seem to get past, or a big boss they can’t defeat, and they walk away, and a lot of times, they never get around to coming back. The video game industry, at one level, doesn’t care if you finish the game. They just need you to buy it. Game designers do want you to finish the game.

What the audience wants from an interactive story is the sense that their actions mattered. Their sense of that possibility deepens their investment. It makes the experience feel ‘real’. Historically, audience actions have changed the storyline. In the earliest days (okay, maybe even now) the stories were often still being produced even as the first instalments went live. So if the audience took to a character, that character’s role would change in response. The audience wants to see the ripples of their actions through the story. They want to affect the story. They want to be part.

To continue to borrow from video game nomenclature, they don’t want the game to be on rails. That is, they don’t want the experience to be so scripted that they have to simply guess what the right answer is to unlock the next piece of story. They want room to play, to be part. They want power within the story. The ultimate expression of this would be what video gaming calls the sandbox. That would be that the experience sets up the world and some conditions and the audience creates the stories. Unfortunately, the intrinsic impetus for plot is that things go wrong. And the audience, like most quite normal people, don’t want things to go wrong. They want things to go right. But without tension, there’s no reason to go forward, nothing to resolve.

Sean Stewart says, “storytelling isn’t broken”. That is, we know how to tell stories that work for our audiences. Most of the time, we are better at creating entertaining stories than they are. This is no reflection on the audience, I have spent 30 years practising. Spend 30 years practising piano and you’ll be better than most people. Story starts with something going wrong and the simplest rule of plotting is that things get worse.

MMOs like World of Warcraft get around this with quests. Quests are pretty simple plot-wise. They present a goal (the problem is ‘how do I get x’). There are obstacles (at first very simple ones but as the quests get more sophisticated, so do the obstacles). Players who figure out how to accomplish the quest get resolution. The quests are not great storytelling (although the more sophisticated ones have more and more story in them). But like sex, they are for many people a lot of fun to do, even if the what’s most fun to do may not be all that entertaining to watch. (Your mileage may vary.)

But when transmedia projects have attempted to allow the audience to create content, the results have not been particularly successful. What an audience wants is an existing story where their actions matter, rather than to create the story themselves. What they want most of all would be for the story to remain in flux. They would act, and then we would react, and create the next instalment of the story.

This has actually happened, in some sense. During I Love Bees, an ARG set in the world of the video game Halo in 2004, the actions of a member of the audience actually scuttled the existing plot. During a live phone call (with an actress playing a character) the audience member revealed the location of another character. There was much re-writing and revision of the affected websites.

The problem is that video has to be done weeks in advance or it looks amateurish. Scripting, casting, planning, filming and editing all take time. While it’s theoretically possible to turn content around in a week it’s also very expensive. The more lead time there is on creating websites, crafting video and audio, creating an interesting and compelling narrative, the better the experience looks and feels. This doesn’t mean that changes aren’t made at the last minute. I’ve seen a project where a producer was auditioning actors when an urgent request came in for an actor to do an audio recording. The producer picked an actor from the audition, sent the actor back to record right now, and the new audio file was posted before the audition was finished. But that’s a way to burn out the people making the transmedia project.

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