Category Archives: VI Onward with Invention!

Other design issues I find worth posting about, though beyond the scope of this book

Arrested Development as Multiple POV Replay Story

I have the same blouse

I have the same blouse! (It is her blouse on that gay activist protestor, and it is also her husband wearing it, thinking he is going to a pirate-themed party.)

After a seven year absence, the cult comedy hit Arrested Development released a 4th season this week, not as a network TV show like the first 3, but as a Netflix series. The first three seasons inspired obsessive fan attention  in part because of many subtle sight gags and references to minutiae of earlier episodes.  It was a good match for the switch from the time-shifting of the analog VCR era to the freeze-frame,  instant replay, and season-binging of the digital era of DVRs and DVDs, as  the creator Mitchell Hurwitz commented on at the time: “In a funny way we feel like we’re making a show for the new technology” of TiVO and DVDs  (from Fresh Air  2005 interview as quoted  by Farhad Manjoo in Slate).

The new season  is equally influenced by its new Netflix platform which differs from broadcast/cable models in offering simultaneous release of all 15 episodes.  This platform constraint was reinforced by the very different production environment which brought the full cast  together for only a few days. Hurwitz responded by experimenting with the episodic narrative structure, focusing each installment around a single character, while creating many intersecting scenes that occur in multiple instantiations, changing their meaning when seen from different points of view.  

In other words, he saw the new season as a potential  Replay Story, of the Multiple Points of View variety. Although he did not use those terms to describe it, he did underline the special potential of the digital platform for a different kind of narrative structure. From the Slate article:

Because the entire season would be going up at the same time, he [Hurwitz] toyed with making the episodes unordered, letting audiences choose how to watch. But he eventually went back on that plan. Instead, all the events in the season are occurring concurrently, and you’ll sometimes see the same scene in different episodes from different perspectives.

In the conference call, he explained that ideally viewers would be able to jump from one episode to another at the push of a button when that happens. But once again, he’s ahead of his time: “We have things in the show that the technology isn’t quite able to handle, just like we did in the first show,” he said during the press call.

Although I tend to agree with the reviewers who find this new season less focused and satisfying than the best of the original episodes, I also think that Hurwitz’s inventiveness in structuring these interconnected stories makes it a milestone in the evolution of  digital narrative formats, building on but going well beyond the easter egg pleasures of the original series. I will be offering some examples in later posts.

Replay Story Structure: Life After Life (2)

Following on previous posts on the replay structure of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life  and on Design Strategies  for Replay Stories,  here is a closer look at how Atkinson  presents the many alternate versions of the life of her protagonist, Ursula Todd (note that her last name is a pun on tod,  the German word for dead — appropriately for a character who dies repeatedly throughout the book).

LAL Partial Contents 1910 to 1926

Part of the Table of Contents , taken from the Kindle edition as displayed on an iPad.

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Six Key Design Strategies for Replay Stories

Replay Story: an interactive digital story structure in which the same scenario is offered for replay with significant variations based on parameters that the interactor may control or merely witness in action.

An emerging form of digital storytelling that has been widely prefigured in traditional media is the Replay Story.  Traditional examples of stories that are retold, within the same unisequential book or play, or through multiple books or plays,  can be divided into two main kinds: Continue reading

Narrative Design Example: Life After Life

Speakers at IFOG2013 last week were asking  how game designers can tap into the unrealized potential of interactive storytelling.  Computer scientists and designers often approach this question by looking at story-like game examples, like this year’s popular transmedia  game, The Walking Dead .   But it is also worth looking at it from the reverse direction  from “harbinger” artifacts  (as I call them in Hamlet on the Holodeck, i.e. books or films or theatrical plays that seem to be outgrowing the limits of traditional unisequential presentation.

For example, Kate Atkinson’s  inventive novel Life After Life (2013) in which the story  starts over again repeatedly like a videogame. By the end of the book, the reader has been offered  so many variants on the protagonist Ursula’s life that you would need   a flowchart like the one below to describe them.

Poor Ursula struggles through a perilous childhood followed by the dangers of World War II in Europe.  Her life is filled with the kind of life events that make us wonder what if things had gone differently.  It is unusual for a mainstream novel to invite us to indulge in  this kind of “what if” thinking, and to use multiple versions of the same event. Atkinson’s story draws on narrative strategies from post-modern literary experimentations (like Borges’s “Garden of  Forking Paths,” or Eco’s If on a winter’s night a traveller) and from science fiction parables (like Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”  or LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven).  But unlike these earlier works, the novel does not focus us on the subversion of narrative conventions or the mechanics of alternate timelines.  Instead, it uses the notion of alternate versions of the same life to explore what life means to a particular woman living through a very realistically and specifically rendered historical time.

LIfe After Life Flow Chart v3

Life After Life therefore seems to me to be a significant harbinger of an emerging interactive narrative genre — the Replay Story — that I have been predicting and assigning to my students for some time now.  Here is a draft definition:

Replay Story: an interactive digital story structure in which the same scenario is offered for replay with significant variations based on parameters that the interactor may control or merely witness in action.

Replay stories are characterized by complex causality and exploration of chance, and they gain coherence by offering clear parallels juxtaposed with dramatic contrasts.  I’ll have more to say about this genre in future posts.

Note: updated with revised flowchart (version 3) to include more detail and corrected attribution for Bradbury.

Simulating Heroism

Earlier this semester one of my students showed a Sony Playstation promotional video called Michael  in which characters from multiple videogames gather in a bar. A Globe and Mail column describes the scene like this:

“Michael” is a two-minute live-action film featuring characters from more than a dozen games that have appeared on PlayStation platforms. It begins with a pair of Second World War soldiers from Call of Duty parachuting through the night into a forest. The duo make their way through the shadows to a dimly lit pub, where they find PlayStation-exclusive heroes including God of War’s Kratos, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, and LittleBigPlanet’s Sack Boy mingling with personalities from popular multiplatform franchises including PortalAssassin’s Creed, and Metal Gear Solid. Continue reading

Transcending Transmedia Part 2

In a  previous post I described “transmedia storytelling” as an interim term for an additive strategy  of  creating a consistent fictional world across multiple legacy media platforms, like TV and videogames.  I expressed an expectation that we will see a unified new genre of storytelling native to the new digital medium, as I described in a previous book.

The SyFy TV show Defiance will have an associated MMO set in a different city within the same storyworld.

What would this new participatory story genre look like? Some of its conventions are clear, based on the way people have wanted to connect with existing story worlds and multiplayer games: It will involve an internally consistent but puzzling fictional world, an authored but participatory plot, and an encyclopedically large cast built around a small number of iconic figures. Continue reading

Transcending Transmedia Part 1

Every week there is a new announcement of “How transmedia storytelling is changing TV” . This week it is parallel TV and web contests on Bravo’s Top Chef.

Entertainment is a risky business, so anything that makes money or attracts attention becomes the basis of the next pitch and the next big investment. After the success of Lost in spreading fan involvement from the TV screen to the web in the form of intense plot speculation, map-making, webisodes, and games, “transmedia storytelling” — whose properties have been brilliantly observed by my old friend and colleague Henry Jenkins of USC — became the goal of many producers. I agree with Henry that the creation of a consistent story world with participatory elements that takes viewers deeper into the fictional universe is a phenomenon that is very much worth taking note of.  But I am also impatient with the concept, because I don’t expect “transmedia” anything to be around very long.

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