Tag Archives: Replay Story

The Life-After-Life Replay Story is becoming a genre

Thanks to Andrew Marantz for calling my attention to this December 2015 interview with filmmaker Charlie Kaufman in which he describes a TV pilot he worked on with a plot structure similar to Life After Lifeexploring the alternate paths the same person’s life might have taken:

It seems that you would be an ideal person for an Amazon or a Netflix to throw a lot of money at and say, “Hey, make us a distinctive, Charlie Kaufman–esque show.”
I had a pilot at HBO that Catherine Keener was going to be in. The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is. What I thought was really cool about the show, in addition to the premise, which I really liked, is that there’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-hamoments.

So what happened with it?
I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head. Ultimately, they didn’t go ahead with the series.

This is clearly a genre that will work best on interactive platforms. The significant thing here is that both Charlie Kaufman and Kate Atkinson, Hollywood/experimental filmmaker and mainstream/experimental  British novelist  are conceiving of extended replay stories of this kind.

 

Future of Storytelling | Dramatic Agency

Here is a film that was made for my participation in the the 2015 Future of Storytelling Summit.

Source: Future of Storytelling | 2015 Films

Among the games that flash by are Dys4ia, Blood and Laurels, Unmanned, Every Day the Same Dream,  Framed,  Walden, Her Story, Papers Please, and Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice

The interactive TV projects are from my Georgia Tech eTV Lab

Arrested Development’s Major Meet-Ups

Serial TV dramas (daytime soap operas, prime time drama) have long used the convention of the Major Meet-Up — a party,  holiday gathering, public announcement, wedding, funeral, or  some other staged event with a set time and place — to bring together multiple characters and multiple story threads for some heightened dramatic encounters.

The Netflix-based Season 4 of  the dysfunctional family sitcom Arrested Development, which I have already described as an example of a Multiple Point of View Replay Story makes significant use of this technique  with such classic dramatic Meet-Up situations such as Continue reading

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.

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.