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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

26  EXT  INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING      DAY


 
"The reason we need such a word [as 'interactivity'] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport - the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head." 
 
Douglas Adams (in 1999)
 
 

The Future Of Storytelling:

Immersion, Integration, Interactivity, Impact

As technology becomes more advanced and more accessible across multiple platforms, it’s only natural for consumers to expect increasingly higher standards of creativity and engagement from content creators. However, with social media, apps, tablets, smartphones, websites, TV, etc. all part of the audience’s viewing habit, learning how stories should be evolving and how to make narratives work across platforms is a complicated matter. A new study offers some perspectives on what audiences may be looking for in their stories.

Research consultancy Latitude recently released phase one of a two-part study titled "The Future of Storytelling" that looks to uncover trends and audience attitudes about content. Overall, the study revealed that audiences are looking for a blurring of barriers between content and reality in a layered yet cohesive execution. The company asked "early adopters" around the world how they wanted to experience stories and asked them to reinvent some of today’s well-known stories accordingly (according to the company, early adopters are "people in over 10 countries who are more likely to own smartphones, tablets or both; who are already more likely to seek out content through multiple avenues; and who are more likely to be aware of the possibilities that the Internet and emerging technologies present").

Based on participants’ responses the study zeroes in on "four I’s" that will continue to shape storytelling:

Immersion: Delving deeper into the story through supplementary context and sensory experiences.

 

Interactivity: Allowing consumers to become part of the narrative and possibly influence its outcome.

 

Integration: Having a seamless connection among all platforms being used and going beyond just replicating content on different devices.

 

Impact: Inspiring consumers to take action of some kind, e.g. purchase a product, sign up for a service, support a cause, etc.

 

Other findings from the study:

"Transmedia is more than media shifting:" 82% wanted complementary, not duplicating, mobile apps for their TV watching experience.

"The real world is a platform:" 52% consider the real world as another platform in which 3-D technology, augmented reality, and the like are expected to link the digital and physical.

Control: 79% expressed the desire to become part of a story, interacting with its main characters.

"So far, one of the biggest insights for us is that the emergence of new technologies means there’s a largely untapped opportunity to allow people to tie stories directly into their own lives—bringing narratives 'out of the screen,' so to speak, often through meaningful connections with characters," says Neela Sakaria, EVP/Managing Director at Latitude. "We’ve distilled our findings down into a few key principles, and our hope is that content creators begin to embrace the idea that the desire for interesting cross-platform experiences isn’t as niche as some might think. Innovative storytelling isn’t just for fantasy fiction, and there are exciting new opportunities for news creators and even retailers to use storytelling principles to engage people more deeply."

"The Future of Storytelling: Phase 2" is slated for release this fall, but Latitude’s current study is online in full.

 
 Content Warning: This educational episode contains graphic sexual and violent game footage.

In this episode, we explore the Women as Background Decoration trope which is the subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players. Sometimes they're created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.



This is the second episode exploring the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games. In this installment we expand our discussion to examine how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.

"The Women as Background Decoration" trope which is the subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players. Sometimes they're created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.  
 
 
 
13 TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
 
 
 

CLICK HERE FOR CONTENT MAKER'S MANIFESTO

    The Future of Storytelling

 

by Tim Wilde

Ever since humans started communicating with each other, they have told stories. In that time some things haven't, and won't, change due to the nature of story,  characters, plot and narrative mode. But storytelling has changed a lot; in fact it continues to evolve like the living creature it is, adapting to its surroundings and needs. It started with sounds, gestures and expressions, but as we evolved so did the art of storytelling to encompass painting, (whether on rocks or canvass or whatever), dance, the written word, theatre, music, cinema, radio, television, video games and the internet. I'm sure there are others I've missed, but you get the point. This evolution in storytelling has occurred to meet our needs pertaining to why we are telling stories in the first place, whether it's to entertain, educate, promote or instil moral values.

Two things have affected this change; humans procreating in vast numbers and increased intelligence creating new technologies to reach the ever expanding masses. It's easy enough to track the evolution of storytelling, ironically it's documented through stories and all mediums are still used today to varying degrees. In the last century, cinema and television emerged as the preferred modes. A century prior, who would have believed you could watch characters live and die on a huge screen and then be able to see them do it time and time again exactly the same way? Sure, they watched stories play out in front of them through the theatre but any live performer will tell you that no two performances are the same. That, along with being able to feel the personal energy from the characters, being in the same room as them, is theatre's beauty and what makes it unique.

More recently video games have become, more than most mediums,  the more more popular means of consuming story. I know it makes more money than the film industry; I'm not sure about television. With TV's accessibility, I suspect this may be the most popular. Someone Google that shit because I can't find it. If you disagree with the popularity of video games, look at what your kids are doing, ask them about the films, TV shows and games they play and see what excites them most. How will they tell their stories? I think it will be something like this

Fellow sci-fi geeks will recognise this as a holodeck from Star Trek. For those not as cool as us Trekkies, Wikipedia describes the holodeck, "as an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated by a combination of transported matterreplicated mattertractor beams, and shaped force fields onto which holographic images are projected. Sounds and smells are simulated by speakers and fragranced fluid atomizers, respectively. The feel of a large environment is simulated by suspending the participants on force fields which move with their feet, keeping them from reaching the walls of the room (a virtual treadmill).

"Most holodeck programs shown in the episodes run in first person "subjective mode", in which the user actively interacts with the program and its characters. The user may also employ third-person "objective mode", in which he or she is "apart" from the actual running of the program and does not interact with it."

There's a whole lot of "techno-babble" in that description; it's Star Trek, it's expected.

Simply put, the holodeck creates story worlds and characters for the user to physically interact with. Essentially the audience becomes part of the story, stepping into the shoes of the character. They become the character. It's an exciting concept that means we would be able to be the character in the story and either play it out as it's traditionally told, or take completely different actions, thus allowing the story to become a truly personal experience based on what we would do or what we would like to do in those given circumstances. Audience ceases to be passive; instead, it actively engages with the characters, creating or co-creating its own stories inside story worlds it loves and can experience on every sensory level.

Any good writer is already doing this when they write; a holodeck allows the audience to participate and if preferred, take the reins in the creation of the drama.

I know this concept of empowering the audience to create story scares the bejesus out of many writers, believing that the audience either has no right or little ability to tell a story as effectively as they can. It's such a shame because these writer's are already demonstrating a prejudice that will hold them back artistically. I think it was John Cassavetes who said "sophistication is the death of creativity." There will always be a place for writers, someone must devise story worlds and characters for the audience to play with, and someone will always have to find dramatic problems to be programmed into these worlds... Or will they?  Even now it is possible to imagination a situation in which the characters inside the story worlds will become so complex that their actions and reactions might well be self-generated, from what they perceive, and learn, making decisions based on the oral sounds, gestures and expressions of the person or persons participating in the story, in virtual cyber imitation of how storytelling first started.

Would this lead to them becoming self aware? Maybe, who knows? It gives me - a massive sci-fi nerd - a chubby merely thinking about it.

I like to believe - and believe I am right - that this interactive way of telling stories is inevitable. Whether it's a Star Trek holodeck (don't be surprised if it is exactly that. It wouldn't be the first technology inspired by that prophetic series. mobile phones anyone?) or a small nanobot generating chip in our brain that manipulates synapses creating those worlds and stories in our mind's eye, it's going to happen. In fact it already is, and I'll show you how.

Nearly everyone is playing video games, whether it's on a console, their computer, phone or tablet. They are already interacting with story regardless of how dramatic that story is. Alternate reality games (games where you role play as the character or you are the character online and/or in the real world) have found a loyal following. Cinema has embraced 3D technology so quickly that it has actually become detrimental to them at this point, focussing on the 3D event rather than the story. But when cinema gets it right, it immerses the audience in the story world like never before. Look at Avatar and the remake of Clash of the Titans. One created an experience that truly changed many people; the other just pissed people off. I'll let you work out which one was which. 3D television is already here along with 3D video games, it's just a matter of time before they become affordable for the average punter. Then there's augmented reality...

Back to Wikipedia for a definition...

"Augmented reality (AR) is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data."

Holy crap, it's nearly a holodeck on your computer, phone or tablet! Imagine incorporating it into your glasses or goggles or whatever. Well they already are, look it up. If you take the world immersion of 3D technology and augmented reality, the active involvement of ARG's, the up-close and personal experience of theatre and add the development of interactive story telling you eventually and inevitably get a holodeck in some shape or form.

Traditional forms of storytelling will always have their place but they will become a niche market, like theatre is today, in fact I think cinema is already on its way there. Some so called story artists will fight against embracing this form of storytelling, they already are. Many don't take it seriously preferring to ridicule or stick their head in the sand about what they don't understand, but guess what? They did exactly the same thing to cinema and television and look what happened there. Those who haven't embraced it are quickly becoming the minority. The audience wants what the audience wants and you can't stop the evolution of technology. Hollywood is embracing it, why shouldn't you?

                            The Aesthetics of Video Games

 
by Ash Shields
 

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently held an exhibition entitled “The Art of Video Games” – an exhibition exploring the “forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium”[1]. In no way is the thought of regarding video games as art a new one, but this is certainly the first time it has been awarded such publicity. For decades the gaming community, both developers and players, have accepted video games as a form of art, but the concept has been largely ignored by aestheticians and society as a whole – by these, video games have been regarded simply as entertainment, a way to spend time.

At first glance, this view on games seems rather reasonable, no? After all, they are the mass-produced fodder of basement-dwellers, aren’t they? Not so. Take a closer look and think – even on the simplest, most inarguable level, video games are at least a container for art – in them we see all forms of traditional art - visual artworks, aural works, and narrative pieces, for example. These we all regard on their own as art forms, but when combined into the medium of video games, we seem to disregard that.

But it goes further than games being simply a container for traditional forms of art. The aesthetics of video games is becoming more and more a common topic for debate and discussion amongst aesthetic philosophers. The arguments range from the simplistic, hosted on blogs and published by gamers proud of their medium, to the complicated and literary PhD theses penned by professors at various universities. The gamers argue in terms of the combination of graphics, sound, and storyline, whereas the philosophers argue in terms of advanced aesthetic and philosophical theories. Both ends of the scale present valid and interesting points while aiming at different readerships.

Dylan Woodbury, of the former group, begins by defining the “main criteria (sic) of an art form – it must interact with a person’s deep self, including both senses and emotions, in a way specific to that medium”[2]. He goes on to argue that while most games do not achieve this criterion, a few do, referencing the arcade classic, Missile Command, in which the player is defending cities from nuclear attack. At first glance, I personally would not have considered Missile Command a game worthy of art status, but upon deeper inspection, I agree with Woodbury’s point. The game is simplistic, but poses a moral dilemma that most players seem to be unaware of – the player is given three bases and must defend six cities. The player is left to decide how to play – do they value one base, needed to protect the cities, over a city and the lives contained therein? Do they try to save everyone – a much harder challenge – or choose to protect a one or a few cities? He claims Missile Command “has a lot to say about the destruction of war and inevitability of death, all though play, not graphics, sound, or story”. In this way, the game transcends the traditional art forms contained within and has a message created by the game-play itself – which links to the personal definition of art that I hold – a piece of art is something that is either created with the intent to have some meaning or message or has the ability to be imbued with meaning and has the potential to elicit a response from the viewer, be it emotional, mental, spiritual, or visceral.

Most of the philosophical end of the argument is not based on whether or not the games have meaning or whether they elicit responses from players, but on the technicalities and aesthetic theories regarding traditional art – specifically, regarding passivity versus interaction and authorial intent.

Traditionally, viewers of artworks have been passive and have no control over the piece, maintaining authorial control. Roger Ebert, film critic, in 2005 stated that “video games by nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”[3]. However, in the post-modernist, post-structuralist world we live in, authorial control is no longer as much of an issue – the viewer’s interpretation and derived meaning is equally important, if not more important than the meaning intended by the author, if such a meaning even exists.

 

If we are to examine video games as a form of art, we cannot simply adapt an existing aesthetic. When asked if video games would ever have their Moby Dick or Citizen Kane, Henry Jenkins, a prominent game theorist at MIT, responded “My first response is to ask whether the analogy is the right one. If the question is, ‘Will video games become a serious art form in its own right?’ I think the answer is inevitably yes.  Whether the analogy is to literature or to dance or to cinema or to theater or any number of other media, it’s hard to know what the right approximation is. In a way, to ask the question that way is like asking ‘Will cinema become theater?’”[4]. As such, the answer is to develop an aesthetic that relates to and pays attention to the intrinsic qualities of the medium. One of these qualities is interactivity. Games are not created for the spectatorial element, they are created to be played. Therefore, there is no way we can approach the topic of video games as art with an aesthetic that focuses primarily on spectatorship and passivity – it must make interactivity central to the theory.

Interactivity is, by definition, essential to video games – it is a very part of the medium itself. A player interacts physically with the game via some form of controller, be it a keyboard and mouse, joystick, multi-buttoned controller, or even a camera or remote requiring the player to simulate the way they want their character to move, and the game responds in some way – most commonly, the player’s avatar or character moving. In a similar way, the game interacts with the player – a character in-game gets injured, and the controller vibrates, in some cases simulating a heartbeat. The interaction is beyond the physical, though. It is not an uncommon sight to see gamers playing a game involving driving or racing emulating the movement of their vehicle by rotating or tilting their controller – an action prevalent even before developers included technology to enable this as a legitimate form of control. Whilst playing horror-based games, players may lean in toward the screen in intense focus, and jump back in legitimate fright when something pops out at them. This back-and-forth between player and game – or viewer and art – is simply an interesting observation until one links it to John Dewey’s philosophical theories. Dewey, a naturalist, philosophised that there is no breach between self and world  - “The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon in further experience. In their physical occurrence, things and events pass and are gone. But something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self. Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world. It becomes a home and the home is always part of our every experience”[5]. Philip Deen explains this relevance better than I ever could: “Novels allow access to the inner lives of characters in a way that other media do not. Music and dance evince a specific bodily response”[6]. Deen goes on to reference John Lanchester and his opinion that video games surpass other forms of media: “The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is”[7].

According to Dewey, experience is both precarious and stable. Deen states that “Absent either, growth is not possible. Rather, growth occurs only in dynamic equilibrium as old habits are found inadequate to novel situations and new ones must be developed. Interaction is marked by periods of disharmony and re-harmonization where we fall out of habitual relation with the world and have to develop new ways of fruitfully transacting with it”[8]. The interactivity in games exhibits this rhythm of experience being precarious and stable, and it is in this way that the interactivity allows for authorial intent. The author of a game will write a major plot-line, the story itself, and in doing so, they constrict the player to a specific series of events, but it is a series of events that is interactive – quests or missions may be optional, there may be multiple plot-lines or side-plots that a player can choose between. Ultimately, a game is, as Deen puts it, a “structured interaction”.

 

This directly refutes Ebert’s claim that video games may not be considered art due to a lack of authorial control. It is evident that while the player’s interaction may influence the game, the author still has the control and intent, be it in perhaps a less traditional form.

Dewey’s theory of the lack between self and world is also relevant to the consideration of video games as art in relation to aesthetic distance – the concept of the gap between the viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality contained within a piece of art. It is arguable that, due to the back-and-forth of interaction between game and player and the responses elicited by the game and, indeed, the player, that video games have the highest potential for a close aesthetic distance. Aesthetic distance is integral to the aesthetic of video games not only because of this potential, but because it, in return, assists in interactivity. The more a player is engrossed in a game – i.e.: the closer aesthetic distance a game has – the more likely the player is to respond to events within the game. If a game as achieved a close aesthetic distance, a player is more likely to, for example, jump in response to events on screen, or feel an emotional attachment to a character.

However, currently, many games fall flat when it comes to achieving aesthetic distance due to a concept called “ludo-narrative dissonance”. The term, coined by Clint Hocking in reference to the game Bioshock[9], refers to conflicting concepts, or dissonance, between game-play and the narrative within a game. This dissonance violates the aesthetic distance, pulling the player out of the reality of the game. Since Hocking’s article coining the term, many other bloggers have written similar articles, pointing out the ludo-narrative dissonance in other games such as the Mass Effect series and Max Payne.

According to Hocking, and undoubtedly other, non-philosopher gamers, ludo-narrative dissonance is the last barrier between games and art status. Hocking claims that while Bioshock is not the video game medium’s Citizen Kane, it shows us “how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall. It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful (sic) marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole”[10].

It is clear that interaction is integral to the aesthetic of video games, and there is no way that can change; it is their nature. But passivity and authorial control is no longer an issue – and not only in terms of post-modernism – while games are interactive, an author is still able to have their control; in fact, it is just as integral as the interactivity itself. As Jonathan Wilson, yet another blogger, points out, a game that has infinite capacity for interaction and freedom, in the current gaming world, would be an impossibility – “how would you frame or sell a game without any story framing, with no showing of who the bad guys and good guys are? Being able to create a story that does not contradict itself when placed into the hands of someone who could play the same section as everyone else yet experience something different?”[11]

Video games without interactivity is an impossibility – and, ironically, without interactivity and the resulting aesthetic distance, video games would probably not have come this far in terms of artistic status. As Aaron Smuts, philosopher, puts it, “video games are possibly the first concreative, mechanically reproduced form of art: they are mass artworks shaped by audience input”[12].


[1] http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/

[2] Woodbury, Dylan. (2011) “Defining the Art of Video Games”, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DylanWoodbury/20110308/89112/Defining_the_Art_of_Video_Games.php

[3] Ebert, Roger. (2005) “Answer Man” Chicago Sun Times. November 27, 2005. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=ANSWERMAN&date=20051127 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

Ebert, Roger. (2007) “Games as Art: Ebert vs. Barker” Chicago Sun Times Online. July 21, 2007. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

[4] Vitka, William. (2006) “Will Video Games Ever Have Their ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Citizen Kane’?” CBS News Online, March 23, 2006.

[5] Dewey, John. (1934) Art as Experience from The Collected Works of John Dewey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

[6] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[7] Lanchester, John. (2009) “Is it Art?” London Review of Books. 31.1 (January 1, 2009): 18-20.

[8] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[9] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[10] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[11] Wilson, Jonathan. (2012) “Why the Ludonarrative Dissonance is Video Games Biggest Challenge”. The Play Vault, http://theplayvault.com/wp/2012/04/30/why-the-ludonarrative-of-dissonance-is-video-games-biggest-challenge/

[12] Smuts, Aaron. (2005) “Video Games and the Philosophy of Art”. Aesthetics Online, http://aesthetics-online.org/articles/index.php?articles_id=26

 
 

 

 
Where's the "Citizen Kane" of interactive storytelling?
 
BY TIM WILDE
 

When Billy Marshall Stoneking asked me to write articles focusing on the drama of interactive storytelling I got very excited. My first writing class ever was with him, then I was lucky enough to go on studying under Billy, John Lonie and Jackie Turnure for several years. I was there when they tried to revolutionize the way screen stories are developed at AFTRS. I was also present when Billy's time there controversially ended. AFTRS is still an internationally renowned film school, but I can only shake my head when I think about what could have been.

I do what I do today because of what I learned from Billy Marshall Stoneking, so it's fitting that my first article for his website is inspired by a conversation we recently had.  Billy and I were drinking tea and coffee in Glebe. After catching up and the usual frustrations vented, we moved onto transmedia and interactive storytelling. Billy asked "Where's the Citizen Kane of interactive drama?" It's an interesting question; where the hell is it?

I've been writing transmedia and interactive stories since 2006. I've been lecturing in the writing of it at Metro Screen for the last few years, and have been involved in the development of more projects than I can remember. I've written award-winning transmedia experiences for internationally popular television series, and I've written games and play them on console (PS3), laptop and my Iphone; in fact I've been playing computer games since my parents bought a Commodore 64 back in 1987. Actually no, earlier than that, arcade games at the local bowling alley sometime in the 80s was where it started (Double Dragon ftw!) Then there's the years I've devoted to table-top gaming, constructing stories as a game master or player/character with a band of like-minded geeks for Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade and All Flesh Must Be Eaten, to name a few. I've been involved in creating interactive experiences for quite a while, I've been the audience even longer, and I can confidently state that there is no Citizen Kane of interactive storytelling, not yet anyway.

Before I get into the why's and how's of this situation, allow me to first explain why Citizen Kane is singled out for comparison. It's simple; Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. You disagree? Of course you do, as do I but it revolutionized cinema and the way screen stories are told in the western world. The film was full of innovation, but what Orson Welles did with the camera, the lights, the edit and pretty much everything else had already been done in Germany and other non Hollywood places. Lucky for him, those aren't the reasons Citizen Kane became the icon it is. It's the story and you can't have a dramatic story without dramatic characters. It's the characters, stupid!

That is why we have no "Citizen Kane" of interactive drama yet, where's the freakin' drama and the dramatic characters that are going to drive it? We are so caught up in technological innovation that we are forgetting to tell stories and if you don't know what a dramatic story is or how to tell one, simply check out the rest of this website.

We can't be blamed for this obsession with innovation; its fun! The rate at which technology advances means that every other day there's something new to play with, but with so much focus on innovation, the art of storytelling is lost. Producers are looking to amaze with how cool the concept or technology is that they have developed; and in that excitement, they rush through the writing process - if they even have one -  so that they can expeditiously apply for financing in an already overcrowded market full of undramatic experiences clawing for money from funding bodies who prefer to stick with established workers of mediocrity that they seem only too happy to fund over and over again because they are "safe". I can imagine a one-dimensional, gun-packing operative stepping out of one of these games, taking a bead on a project officer and saying "you people... you people have a lot to answer for." Only they aren't programmed for that sort of complexity. More's the pity. 

There is nothing safe about drama; it is always a risk. Citizen Kane failed to make its budget back initially, but it changed the world because Hollywood took a risk on an unproven director with a talent for great storytelling in the most visual medium ever devised: radio!  Funding projects high on innovation (some of them actually lack that as well) but with no dramatic story result in bland or predictable scenarios that keep the audience's emotions and involvement at bay, a kind of approxmination of interactive conducted on the most rudimentary level, which ensures that the audience will remain laregly estranged from the powerful emotional experiences and discoveries that characterise the best dramatic stories. 

I'm happy to sell my soul but not to those devils, the devils after my soul are the characters in my life and work. Each new technology is fun for a moment, but the technology will never transcend its status as a tool or toy unless and until it incorporates and is fueled by the kind of dramatic energy that forces surprising change and transformation into the play.

So for any of you talented producers and writers out there looking to get involved in interactive story telling (It IS the inevitable future, but that is another article) my advice is... Let go of the shackles of technological innovation and allow your story to find you, which means letting it write the game, and the software. Technology will takes care of itself, it doesn't need your focus, it will happen anyway but no one can tell your story except you. I think you'll be surprised when the necessity of the story inspires something technologically innovative, and I promise you it will happen if you let it. Stop being digital innovators and start being digital story tellers. The current state of play in this country means you probably won't get funded so either go overseas or stick it out here and change the industry. Eventually someone in some position of power will be dramatic and take a risk.   :    TIM WILDE

  BROTHERS - AN INTERACTIVE CHARACTER-DRIVEN GAME

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is refreshing to play because it is absent of many well-worn video-game tropes: enemy hordes, collectible items, upgradable gear, skill trees, magic powers. It is absent of these tropes because it was not directed by a traditional game designer, but by the Swedish film director Josef Fares. As a self-described, ‘hardcore’ gamer that plays ‘every game’, Fares jumped at the opportunity to design a game when a Swedish university invited him to participate in a prototype development program with some students. During the program, Fares’ developed the idea that eventually became Brothers, and after shopping it around, he began working with Starbreeze studios full time as the project’s creative director. When Brothers was publicly announced in the fall of 2012, I was astounded by the novelty of its mechanics. When I finally played it after its release at the end of the summer of 2013, I was stunned by what Starbreeze and Fares had accomplished with that novelty.

The story of Brothers is about two brothers’ quest to retrieve a cure for their dying father. Brothers, as a whole, is about two brothers’ adventure, how that adventure bonds the brothers together, and how parts of each are reflected in the other even after that bond is broken. The story itself of Brothers is not what is significant about the game, and, wisely, it is not emphasized. The story is minimally conveyed though character gestures and gibberish. The characters don’t even have names; in fact, there is no text or speech in the game at all.

I cannot bear holding it back any longer (Not very long at all!) so I will get straight to the point: Brothers is a truly unique video game because, while playing it, you control two characters at the same time! When I learned of this mechanic with the game’s announcement, I could barely believe that it had never been done before, just as all revelations of genius seem to impact us. It was so simple and elegant and immediately entertained imaginations of its implementation. I immediately decided I was going to play this game no matter how its bold idea was executed or how it was reviewed.

At first, this dual-avatar mechanic is appreciable for its shear novelty; after so many third-person adventure games, controlling an additional avatar is a welcome alteration to the formula. With Big Brother on the left stick and Little Brother on the right stick (Modern game-console controllers have two raised, spring-loaded, circular pedestals called ‘joysticks’ that can be independently rocked with each thumb to point in any direction around a circular casing and return to center position when not engaged, which are most often used to facilitate player movement through and perspective of virtual, three-dimensional spaces, and which I am just now realizing, in the act of describing them, just how absurd they really are, as far as real-life objects go.)—even to a seasoned console-controller user—moving both brothers through the world simultaneously in a way that does not make them appear to be raving alcoholics is a bit like that rub-your-belly, pat-your-head game—it requires a small amount of constant focus, but inevitably, you will eventually relax your concentration and quickly turn two young boys into drunks for a short time. However, Starbreeze smartly designed most of the world to be basically hazard free, and navigation through the areas that are not is eased by intelligently programmed avatar behavior and restrictions, so realizing your error in control is comical rather than frustrating.

Plus, it’s hard to get frustrated with a world that is so aesthetically playful. The majesty and vibrancy of the fantastical worlds that Starbreeze has created for Brothers is staggering. However, you spend a majority of the game staring down at the brothers from above with a somewhat limited view of the gorgeous world. To remedy this necessary evil, Starbreeze placed benches throughout the game before particularly eye-catching vistas that, when you sit the brothers down on them for a well-deserved rest from their stressful journey, trigger a repositioning of the perspective of the world that allows the scale and presence of distinctive features to be taken in peacefully. It’s nice.

The brothers’ journey takes them through village, mine, graveyard, cliff, canyon, battlefield, temple, lake, mountain, cave, and grove; there and back again. Along the way, their path is consistently obstructed by puzzling contraptions and environmental elements that they must solve, open, move, trick, or destroy before continuing. These puzzles take many different forms because they are so expertly integrated into each of the varied, lively environments. One particularly memorable sequence requires the brothers to traverse a still battlefield, the dead bodies of literal giants scattered as obstructions, each requiring a more clever shifting from their place of rest than the one before. The puzzles are extremely well-rounded, constantly new, and the action of solving them is simple to perform: refining Fares’ brilliant, dual-avatar control idea, Starbreeze simplified all interaction between a brother and any actionable object to be contextually controlled by one button—Big Brother with the left trigger and Little Brother with the right trigger. (Controllers also have buttons called ‘triggers’ located on their tops that are actuated with the index finger, as opposed to ‘face buttons’ that are pressed with the thumb.) In this way, your left hand becomes Big Brother, your right hand—Little Brother.

Considering it’s dual-avatar control, exciting, breathtaking environments, engaging puzzle-solving, and minimalistic storytelling, the novelty of Brothers never seems to end. And it doesn’t, but probably not in the way you imagine. You see, there comes a moment near the end of Brothers that you don’t want to be novel. You want more of the same. You would prefer the brothers tag-team puzzle-solve their hearts out all the way back home to sick dad with the magical cure strapped to their belts. But Fares refuses to give you more of the same. He doesn’t simply end it; that wouldn’t be affecting. He forces you to play the opposite of more of the same. At first it seems cruel and unusual and, yes, novel. But then you pull a trigger, and you finally understand.

 

 DRAMA, POETRY & the DIGITAL EMBRACE

In its infancy, cinematic storytelling was inclined to appropriate theatre models when devising ways in which drama could be constructed and produced. In the early magic theatre of cinema, sets had three walls and the audience peered through the proscenium screen into another world. As the art of dramatic filmic storytelling became more sophisticated and the technology allowed for

greater versatility in the ways in which images were captured and reproduced, the theatrical paradigm became less and less relevant. 

 

At present, digital media – particularly in terms of the short, dramatic film – borrows, or rather appropriates, forms and styles relevant to more traditional manifestations of linear dramatic storytelling. This has not been without its successes, as witnessed by films like Birthday Boy. The Saviour and Omnibus. (see short films in "The Screening Room") The artistic and critical success of such films is usually ascribed to their effectiveness in terms of HOW well they comply with the conventional elements of style and dramatic grammar. However, the appropriation and utilisation of conventional story modes does not guarantee the fullest or even most satisfying exploration of the dramatic possibilities of digital media. 

Digital media can and does make use of traditional storytelling forms and it can do so quite effectively. However, the creation of short digital dramas that make use of traditional templates will not necessarily take the new media any further than theatre could take cinema. In fact, one cannot effectively explore the novel narrative opportunities digital storytelling offers unless one employs novel and equally radical approaches to the conception and scripting of the stories whose realisation and ultimate potency depends upon the digital embrace. Here, as with the short-form drama, the guiding principle is CONTEXT. 

To fully explore and exploit the properties and possibilities offered by digital media, story visualizers will need to invent a new dialogic that takes context seriously, and recognises its fundamental role in the discovery and development of new forms of dramatic action and story/audience involvement. Indeed, the new story visualizers will have to invent a new kind of drama. 

What does this new form look like? It’s diverse and language- and image-rich, and thoroughly revolutionary in the way it approaches and handles ideas. It employs contextual- and re-contextualisation in the dramatisation of the ideas it explores. And it lures its audience into an interactive relationship with its subject matter in a way that transforms the heretofore passive spectator of drama into a co-creator of a new kind of storytelling. The work of poets like ΠO (pronounced "pie - oh") and Amanda Stewart provide analogous examples of the form as scripted documents, particularly ΠO's Number Poems

The language – indeed, the entire species of thought that these word/images present us with – operates simultaneously on many different levels. The way the text handles its facts, their de-contextualisation and then re-contextualisation in relation to other de-contextualised facts; the anxiety of meaningless seeking a point of view that tantalises us with apparent contradictions, the implicit conflict; all these conspire to heighten the underlying tension that feeds the emotional projections the language both encourages and frustrates. The frustration is, indeed, part of the story the language itself is enacting. In ΠO's "Abortion" section of his legendary EVERYTHING POEM, the grammar of the text appears to be promoting a dramatic premise that is pro-choice - and the syntax seems compelling, and yet the images that the “script” actually employs to characterise abortion serve only to make one’s feelings of abhorrence even more acute. It reminds one of Eisenstein's early observations concerning the use of sound in cinema, not as a captioning or underlining of the action, but as a counterpoint to it - the example he used was the image of a rushing, powerful locomotive and the sound of a baby crying. 

Stylistically, this new form of dramatic expression is largely implicit, and operating through a proactive engagement on the part of the audience, so that audience itself becomes a character in the drama that is being continually discovered and stimulated. ΠO offers the following insights concerning his revolutionary attack on poetic meaning, which is also, by implication an attack on film meaning - or at least the film sense: 

The "facts" in my poem are in essence "meaningless",

as Bahktin would say, since they do not have a context i.e. a speaker
with a predetermined target. What my poem does is take these
meaningless facts (and it makes them meaningless by taking them
out of their found contexts in the first place) and re-contextualize them
within the parameters of the poem’s "content"/"meaning". So that the facts
don't talk about what they are suppose to be talking about
but about something totally different... This re-contextualizing
is done within the language nexus --- within its viscosity!

The dramatic impetus that drives the short dramatic film – CONTEXT – is also at work here, but in the new narrative we must allow that the action is driven not merely by identifiable characters inside the story/script but by an interactive relationship that places audience, tribe AND storyteller at the centre of the emotional/intellectual nexus of the idea that is being evoked and explored. 

As spectator and efficient cause, the audience is actively engaged in observing and enacting the evolving transmutation of meaninglessness into meaning, whilst undergoing – as a complicit character - the sorts of emotional and intellectual changes that occasion all forms of dramatic expression. Themes collide and re-form, text and subtext keep the arguments moving on several different levels, but the conflict inherent in both the text and the images are the work of the contextualising and re-contextualising agent which is the dialogic of idea, script/image, tribe and audience. Through this dialogic, there is a transforming of the audience’s relationship to the subject, making of the audience itself, at turns, both protagonist and antagonist as well as spectator. It does the same for the storyteller in the process of "finding" the story. 

How would a digital artist, working in concert with the writer conceive and digitally materialise scripts such as these? What sort of creative negotiations and choices go into the realisation of the dramatic potential such texts? 

An entirely different way of thinking is required to meet the challenges of language that is employed in this way, and digital media is uniquely placed to respond to these challenges. The drama of the digital embrace resides in an ever-evolving, utterly fresh and clever transformation of ideas and images as these are affected by the imposition of other ideas and images, within the context and re-context of a guiding dramatic )read: emotional) idea or issue. 

The scriptwriters of this “new” form of expression come from unlikely and unexpected quarters – from the ranks (I use the word ironically) of those poets for whom language is not merely black squiggles on a mute page but a living, spoken language that has more to do with aurality than literacy. In short, the innovative and more exciting place to look for this new form of story – story that combines digital media with drama – is among a half-a-dozen Australian performance poets whose language and sense of storytelling has not been constrained by formula or formulaic dramatic method. 

                                                        -  Billy Marshall Stoneking

 

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