Inspired by much of the latest discussion around narrative and games, I’ve been thinking about interactivity and its place in transmedia. For me that means understanding and managing audience expectations.
Lucas Johnson and several other people have been writing about big narrative story lines being delivered through video games and using that to frame a larger discussion about how narrative should figure into games in general. Lucas and many of his readers are somewhere in the transmedia creator continuum — so naturally the latest post has ended with what sounds like the opposite of where the discussion began: “how much interactivity belongs in transmedia?” As much more of an experience designer than a writer, my answers begin with empathizing with the audience member/player/participant.Lately,
Before asking “how much of a story should games tell?” or “what place does interactivity have in transmedia?” it’s helpful to me to think about why those questions come up in the first place. After all, we don’t expect films themselves to be more than passive experiences. We’re not surprised when “Braveheart” keeps playing even though we’ve long since fallen asleep on the couch any more than we expect our video games to keep advancing when we’re not at the controller. (And yes, I have fallen asleep watching Braveheart, thanks for asking.) These formats generally meet our expectations of interactivity. However, we’re often disappointed in films that don’t deliver on their narrative promise, because by choosing to be films they implicitly promise to present a narrative.
Conversely, games of all ilk – from ones played on the screen, to those on a tabletop, to those on the sports-field – carry some expectations of ‘playability.’ They have varying levels of narrative and some have none at all. In the board game arena there are games that resist narrative like ‘SET‘ and ‘Boggle’ all the way through to paper-based role playing games like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or the lighter indie-made ‘Fiasco‘ that propel narrative as a core part of the experience. I think this question of ‘how much narrative should games have?’ comes up because some games sacrifice their ‘playable-ness’ for their narrative and that makes people grumpy. Sometimes these games in question have great narratives, but they just aren’t fun games. (And some miss the mark entirely and fail to deliver on either front.) Now, if they were packaged and marketed as interactive movies, these games might not make their players as frustrated and prone to writing long rants on the internet. But, they’re made by game developers, marketed alongside other things called ‘games’ and so it’s only to be expected that the people who buy them get frustrated when they don’t enjoy the gameplay (and subsequently lash out against narrative).
“That’s all well and good” you might say “But transmedia exists on many platforms, what does it matter how games and film do it?” And that seems to be the start of the answer right there: because transmedia uses many platforms in combination to tell a story, some of which might include film, some of which might include games, and some of which might include social media (to call out three examples). We have a set of expectations around how we think we’ll interact with each platform. When those expectations aren’t met, as an audience we get frustrated or disappointed.
So, I suggest that we as creators take a cue from each platform that we employ to determine how interactive our particular transmedia narrative needs to be. If we’re aiming for a certain level of interactivity, it’s worthwhile to choose platforms accordingly. The entire transmedia project doesn’t need to be ‘evenly’ interactive — meaning your film short doesn’t need to be as interactive as your text adventure game.
This gets a little hairier with newer platforms where our expectations are less settled or where different audience members will bring different expectations. In the early days of blogging, it was generally a broadcast medium. As the comments section morphed into social media, personal blogs turned into Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. What was once mostly a broadcast medium turned into a platform that fosters interactivity. If you’ve decided to make a narrative that exists partially in one of these media, it’s not unreasonable for your audience to expect to interact on that platform in the way they normally do. If your character has a Twitter account, you shouldn’t be surprised when people try to speak to that character directly using ‘@messages’ – the conventions of the medium. Now certainly not all @messages go answered; celebrity accounts are a great example of this. Some of them, like filmmaker Errol Morris, signal their rejection of some of the social aspects of Twitter by not following any other accounts. Morris finds his own idiosyncratic way to navigate Twitter’s interactive qualities by responding to other users without acknowledging them with an @reply. Expectations around social media behavior are still in flux and the ‘mores’ are still being written. There’s certainly room for interpretation and adaptation. But there’s a reason they call it ‘social’ and if you’re telling part of your story using these platforms, then your audience isn’t being unreasonable to bring expectations of interactivity. If these aren’t the expectations you intend to satisfy, look for ways – both implicit and explicit – to signal how your production should be consumed.
Similarly, as phone automation has become increasingly accessible, this is a tantalizing medium for inclusion in transmedia projects. Phone calls are generally an intrinsically interactive medium – we expect to talk back. As someone who’s gotten a particularly lifelike robocall and answered it like a human, I know firsthand that it can be a disconcerting experience. To increase the confusion further, voice recognition employed by help lines and interactive narrative experiences like Eagle Eye Freefall ask us to talk to a recorded message that can actually respond to us in a limited way. This puts phone interactions further in the ‘uncanny valley‘ of expectations. That doesn’t mean that in order to include phone calls in your transmedia project, you must use live actors or very sophisticated software that can mimic a responsive experience. It just means that if you decide to use a platform in a non-standard way, it’s important to communicate this to your audience to avoid frustration and confusion. Blast Theory handles this elegantly in their phone pieces. Early on in ‘A Machine to See With‘ the recorded character on the other end of the line tells you that he can’t hear you, so don’t ask questions. There are occasional points where you are asked to respond directly to a question and these are clearly differentiated from the rest of the call. The speaker does this in character, in the context of the call. By telling me how they’re expecting me to respond differently than I normally would, Blast Theory sets me up so that I understand and am not disappointed that this conversation doesn’t behave like a normal ‘fully reactive’ phone call.
There should be a reason that you choose the combination of platforms that you do. Often practical considerations weigh heavily and guide your hand more than narrative ones. That’s a fine place to start. In the above example of ‘A Machine to See With,’ cell phones were chosen because everyone has one. They’re ubiquitous and meant that Blast Theory could deliver audio content without having to distribute other listening devices. They also bring expectations about the way that characters will talk to us. Most phone calls are a personal one-on-one experience, and transmedia projects often make use of them because of our expectations around this person-to-person connection.
Making transmedia doesn’t necessitate the reinvention of each platform that you use. It can be fun to try new or alternate narrative uses for existing tools (like Andrea Phillips’s ‘Circular Logic‘ told using Google Calendar), but it’s also worthwhile to consider what’s already there. If your audience is coming to your project with an understanding of how to use a particular platform, that can work in your favor. Think of it as the expository dialog that you no longer need to have – instead of giving instructions about what to do to enjoy your project, you can just jump into the storytelling. On the other hand, there may be strong reasons that you want to use a particular platform but break some of it’s conventions. In this case, look for ways to communicate your new ‘expectations for engagement’ with your audience clearly and early on, or risk their rightful displeasure and frustration.