Multiplatform Games, Part 1
When I was sitting in on the development of Tempting Fates, there was this holy grail that everyone would talk about. Someone would sit back and say the word “multiplatform” aloud, a distant look in their eyes (or were they dollar signs?). The room, otherwise busy with debates about characters and plots, would fall into a brief but reverent silence. Then we would carry on, just as before, because the word means absolutely nothing, and is unattainable.
To be multiplatform, a franchise must sustain delivery across a variety of media. Television, film, books, comics yes, but to disambiguate between spinoffs and adaptations: a truly multiplatform television show must be delivered in several ways simultaneously. Followers of Tempting Fates had to keep up with and comment on the “blogs” of the show’s several main characters, follow them on twitter, facebook, myspace, and bebo while watching the daily dramas in order to get the whole, whole experience. Those users who did only some of these things had a different, potentially lesser experience than others who did it all. Worse, if one’s franchise is designed so that missing half of the possible content it can provide does not affect the story it tells in any way, what does that say about the quality of the content?
It’s telling that the drive for multiplatform delivery, especially when it occurs on longstanding television shows — how many dramas of the last few years have advertised “webisodes” or “mobisodes” on their channel’s website? — it’s telling that these impulses seem to come from a mercenary attitude, not a creative one. Multiplatformism may not be the best thing for your story, but it does get consumers onto your website, hungry because they haven’t been fed a whole meal. That’s why multiplatform content is different from “extras.” It’s great that fans can see behind-the-scenes footage on their broadcaster’s website; content like that is truly “extra,” and by viewing the ads on, say, Syfy’s website, you are paying a little bit for that extra content. But splitting your narrative between two or more different media dilutes your story; worse, splitting your narrative splits your audience between the elite and the casual viewer.
A recent Writer’s Guild of Canada memo describes the “digital guidelines” for new work, implicitly requiring writers there to include a multiplatform strategy in their project pitches so that they can be competitive. I’m going to go ahead and cite another Canadian you may know who said, “the medium is the message.” If the medium is the message, what happens when your story spans several of them [several media]? A story — and I believe this absolutely — a story is a single message. Even if it’s episodic, it has just one heart. It should include no more and no less than what is necessary to tell it. Everything one writes should be there for a reason and contribute to the meaningfulness of the whole. By creating what I want to call “divergent media,” the whole suffers, from both an economic and a creative point of view.
Let’s look at the economic point of view. What gets creative people excited about multiplatform deployment is the idea of simultaneous, parallel narratives on facebook etc. and the idea that participants in the social network could influence the show or at least be rewarded for their involvement online. Of course there was some awareness at EYE, who did Tempting Fates, that this was a titanic amount of content: simulating the overwhelming quantity of the internet on the backs of just a few writers? Scary. There was some notion that this work could be delegated, reality-show style, but I won’t get into that. The amount of people you would have to reward, one way or another, to produce a branching narrative like that would be titanic. And what do you get for it? This is the exact same problem with branching narratives in video games. Let’s talk about that in Part 2.
Multiplatform Games, Part 2
Or: Why Video Games are not the Future
Avatar’s box office during the first week was famously only a fraction of video game contemporary Modern Warfare 2. Grand Theft Auto 4 made headlines when it similarly couped Spiderman 3’s sales. Apocryphal or not, the growth rate of the US video game industry alone is astonishing, and is being seen as competition for Hollywood. The question is: why? Can stories in video games be a substitute for stories in the cinema or on TV?
I just finished playing Dragon Age: Origins. This is a recent role-playing game that was celebrated for its cinematic, accessible approach to something that the company who created it, Bioware, does very well: world-building and storytelling. Advancing the story involves having conversations with other characters, as is often the case in games of this genre. You can guide these conversations by selecting from several responses every once in a while during a conversation. It’s the same branching principle as choosing which page to go to next in an adventure book. Role-playing games have been like this since forever.
Branching games are cursed with the same problem as multiplatform television shows. In order to create even the pretence of free will for video game players, there have to be a number of branches, each with their own consequences, that create branching choices of their own. The amount of extra content one must create for even a handful of branches (there were probably three or four in Dragon Age, and even then they branched out mainly towards the end, and at the beginning) is exponentially more than is required for a single storyline. It also distracts from any sense of single meaning to the story. The solution? Commonly, it’s to create the illusion of choice, by having branches in conversation loop back onto one another. To Bioware’s credit, they do a brilliant job of creating this illusion. Early in the game you have a conversation with someone who wants to recruit you into their army. The dialogue will always end the same way (you have to go with them), but your dialogue options all end there gracefully, even if you resist.
So far so good. Bioware is very experienced making these systems. The problem, however, is the same problem one encounters with multiplatform content. Consumers are smart. They know when they are being tricked into a particular choice, or when they are missing content because of a choice they have made. They want to experience the entire meal. Playing through the game once, making a specific set of choices, I wondered what my experience would have been like (would it have been better?) if I had played it differently. Instead of feeling motivated to play the game again (which would, thanks to Bioware’s masterful “illusion” of free will, involve a lot of repetition), I felt unsatisfied, like I had not in fact ‘finished’ the game. Add on to that Electronic Arts’ plan to sell “downloadable content” that further enriches the story and I find myself in the same situation as a multiplatform consumer: paying with both time and money to ‘collect’ the entire experience. Needless to say I just looked online to find out what I missed.
There are a couple of other reasons why video games will struggle to be meaningful as stories: first is the absence of a protagonist. As the player, you are the main character, yes, but a protagonist is someone who has a concrete goal and takes specific action to achieve it despite adversity. He must be an interesting character in his own right, because his actions and their results reflect the message of the story itself. When Griffin Mill beats up and kills the writer who’s been threatening him in The Player, the twist redefines him and forces us to reflect on his priorities and the priorities of the real-world industry he represents. It’s a meaningful moment that becomes suspenseful as we watch him seduce the writer’s then-lover. Comparatively, a video game character resists all but the most basic definition, and his actions cannot surprise us because they are our actions. The silver lining is that we get to, in some sense, imagine our own story out of the video game. But as graphics become more literal even that ability dissolves into so many repetitive dungeons. More symbolic games, such as those that operate on a map of the world or are otherwise more abstract, retain more of this magic, but that’s besides the point. The point is that branching video games cannot sustain authorial messages beyond the mundane “slavery is evil,” “self-sacrifice is good,” and other polar coordinates. Even Dragon Age, which makes a deliberate effort to foil choices based purely on good and evil, cannot escape single-minded tyrants, and the forces of darkness. Perhaps this is because the nature of the game requires that you kill a lot of people without feeling too bad about yourself. Dragon Age did as well as it could to escape these tropes, I suppose, because the empty nature of a game protagonist does not seem to support characterisations more complex than “exiled from his people,” and the complexity of a story world comes from its relationship to the protagonist.
The second gotcha, I feel, is with the platform. Video games are so transient. There are several games that provide stellar experiences: immersive if not profound. One example, Deus Ex, was made not ten years ago and is now unplayable because of changes in technology. Unlike a book — examples over a century old are within arm’s reach — or even a film, the longevity of anything that requires a fine set of complex and short-lived hardware to reproduce is going to be minute. More effort goes into the development of a AAA video game than a summer blockbuster. What is the return on investment here?
A similar problem surfaces in multiplatform content. The wonderful HBO TV show Big Love produced a trendy set of Webisodes for HBO.com called Big Love: In the Beginning. They premiered after the second series but have since disappeared. This content is gone, pulverised by the relentless tide and churn of the internet. Multiplatform content is, by design, ephemeral.
This isn’t a rant against role-playing games. I’ve tried several times to make a game, and I still love them, but for other reasons. I just think that the impulse to view them as a vehicle for meaningful narrative may be unfounded. I’d like to explore their strengths: symbolic representation, world-building, empowerment, and through those things: an access to the imagination that is more direct than any other media. But to see them, and their multiplatform cousins, as replacements for drama with a single spine ignores their fundamental dissimilarity.
Let’s Talk About You and Me
Let’s talk TV. Let’s talk genre. The writer’s strike was hard on a lot of science fiction, crushing in its wake Bionic Woman, Journeyman, The (superb) 4400, and leaving Battlestar Galactica with at least a few broken bones. It slashed at the momentum that shows like these need to complete their arcs, their legs if you want to get prosaic, and shed their more mainstream devotees. It was a bleak time for the writers and their audience, who together had the most to lose. Refreshing, then, was the season after — this last year — which was quite a healthy one in the genre. The Sarah Connor Chronicles survived for a whole season, Fringe premiered, for better or for worse, and Whedon’s latest — Dollhouse — saw light. The light of oncoming headlights, that is.
How Dollhouse averted death, given its steady trudge from 5 million viewers to half as many over the course of 12 episodes, given its negative buzz from the internet elite and general propheteering, given tiresome executive influence of the sort one has come to expect with every genre TV show in the ‘States these days; given all this, Fox has announced it will be back next year against all laws of nature (and reason – Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was not only higher rating, and considered more bullish by critics, but was also debatably a better show). One may find, when Dollhouse returns, that it eats brains.
The other major networks have chimed in like Shakespearean crones, summoning forth death and birth equally from the bones in their cauldron. This is no doubt old news to some, but NBC have announced (announced is too strong a word, perhaps regurgitated?) a new apocalyptic SF called Day One. Meanwhile, ABC have decided to apply the titular effect to their Pushing Daisies and replace it with Eastwick, which being adapted material and popular culture was a safer bet I guess, but doesn’t look as much fun. CBS has just axed Stephen Gallagher’s Eleventh Hour. It’s like the French revolution, just twice a year. Er … Let me rephrase that: it’s like the French revolution.
Dollhouse’s renewal is particularly interesting because Fox cites streaming, DVR, and DVD sales as part of their decision to keep funding the show. Could they mean it? Scripted TV in particular, but especially genre stuff, has a large online audience. Viewers of science fiction, like this one right here, are generally tech savvy enough to access most of their video using iTunes, hulu, the BBC iPlayer, or through piracy, and are therefore less likely to be accurately counted in the Neilsen Ratings. Scripted shows like Dollhouse have a significantly longer market lifespan than reality television or news, so the fact that post-broadcast “sales” (even if they are just views on hulu) are not given equal weight to overnight figures hurts them considerably. It’s how the networks move into a decision-making model that accommodates the denizens of the internet (like all of you) that will decide the future of scripted drama, and ultimately television in general. After all, that’s where their coveted 18-39 demographic spends most of their time!
The push into original Web Drama like the famous lonelygirl15 and Kate Modern seemed like the firestarter for this sort of thing, but the moment never struck. Only people like myself are willing to watch media in front of their computer for longer than a few minutes at once. I suppose TVs need to become computers, not the other way around, before the networks see the gold. And you know that always gets them running.
On the Business of Blogs
First of all, thanks to Brian for his invitation to write for the BZD blog. My name is Drew Castalia, and am an aspiring screenwriter in the UK. Brian and I bumped into one another quite by accident at the University of British Columbia, but have had enough in common to stay in touch over the years. Most importantly, we are both trying to making a living as guns for hire in an industry where there is no entrance infrastructure, only employed and active, or unemployed and depressed.
The “way up” in production is by word of mouth; so few institutional gateways exist for the aspiring writer, director, or producer: the film festival is a wild grab bag as competitive and political as the vastscape of literary magazines that writers of prose must navigate; and the academy, while useful for honing your craft, still exists in a separate conceptual sphere from the industry for which it claims to prepare its students. Perhaps the difficulty of our industry is in part due to necessity. After all, script readers are deluged by hundreds of scripts on a weekly basis, whether they work for a major studio or a modest production company. When a gateway opens, like the BBC Writer’s Room, it must withstand a torrent of submissions. The pressure on this creative industry is so great from without that it would be impossible for it to succeed as a clear-cut hierarchy.
Many aspirants (such as the inspirational Adam Davis) do still try to scavenge for a “ground level” populated by production assistants and runners at dollars a day, but their hope mainly seems to be a sort of investment: prove yourself to make friends, and expand your social network. I’m reminded of the difference, in cognitive science, between analytical processing and a neural network. In a traditional business model, one often “climbs a ladder,” entering an industry at one end and being promoted over time as one’s experience warrants it. But the creative industries resemble more closely the model of a neural net — named after the neurology of the animal brain. In computing, complex neural networks have the reputation of being adaptive and often unpredictable. Since we’re talking about the film industry, that sounds about right.
Because writers (and I’m assuming directors and producers) make a living mainly on commission (after all, how many films actually break even these days?), one could be forgiven for thinking it strange that many have of us have blogs. After all, writing for a blog is exceedingly time consuming. It’s taken me most of an hour just to put these many pixels to page. Why do writers in particular “waste time” on blogging? The answer is above: because networking (literally, growing the neural network) is our primary method of career advancement. The more connections one generates as a creative individual (such as with hits on this blog site), the more economic influence one has — because as merchants our trade is in opinions, reputation, and communication.
Blogs also help increase convergence. When a creative writer undertakes to comment, he takes on the double-role of reporter. Many of us double up again as director or producer or actor, integrating a wider range of skills in order to minimize the risk and uncertainty inherent in a social network. Because in features pure writers assume a tremendous amount of risk relative to their investment, and are almost always severed from the production process after preproduction, it’s no wonder that many are attempting to increase their influence by, for example, incorporating. An individual who is also a corporation is significant in this industry not just for legal purposes, but because it suggests an incorporation of skills. The writer as reporter, as director, as producer, as lawyer, as agent — or anything else. Convergence is an interesting process, but there’s no question, just as there’s no question as I write this and not my script du jour, that one cannot do it all. As a creative person in this field, there is nothing more valuable than a connection that you trust. Just as a social network can be used by others to define who you are, a professional network represents to others the sum of your creative potential.
(Which brings us full circle, as I reiterate my thanks to Brian for his invitation.)