Archive for the 'Blogroll' Category

YouTube: The Victorian Edition

Slate.com has a new Slide Show piece up today: What the First Movie Goers Saw.

The piece is an essay that includes 10 short films from the first years of the 20th century.

You can link directly to one of the slide show videos here.

These early films are hard to categorize: Often less than a minute long, they are experimental without being avant-garde (except in one case, which I’ll get to). Perhaps they look oddly modern because of the recent rise of Web video: YouTube has fostered our patience for short clips that would probably look insipid on the big screen, and the spirit of improvisation that thrives on the Web seems alive n the Victorian films, as well.

She writes later:

The novelty of these earliest films, most of which simply offered glimpses of the real world in motion, lasted for about a decade. By 1907, more fictional narratives than documentary scenes were being shot; and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power.

I believe the same will hold true of Internet: we will have a period of the “real world” and the documentary, but in time “star power” of one kind or another will take hold.

Go down and look again at the video from Britain’s Got Talent I posted. Notice something: people know when something is better than something else. We actually know when something is really well done — and we respond with approval. (I notice this as a child reading comic books. There was no doubt that the work of Neal Adams, Gen Colan, and Jack Kirby (to name a few of my favorites) was superior to the art of other artists in the field — and I responded with favor to the titles they drew.)

Amateur Hour can only last so long. While I believe that the current “folk art” period of YouTube will always be with us, ultimately the novelty of the new medium and delivery will wear off and people will respond to more professional work.

I think and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power.” Chaplin didn’t generate that star-power, the audience did. It was a big thank you for making movies even better than they had been before.

Thus my warning to all the executives around Los Angeles excited about making a killing on “user generated content” (read: “We don’t have to pay actors and writers!”) — This too shall pass.

Some folks are going to come along and make what I call “content-on-purpose.” The same shift that Chaplin created when he took a medium that had been very casual and awkward and brought professionalism, emotion and artistry to bear upon it.

The same thing will happen in a dozen different ways with the Internet.

And at that point the buzz phrase won’t be, “How do you monetize it?” but “Get me the next Chaplin!”

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A Perfect YouTube Moment

What would a web blog be without random moments of strange sparkle that could never happen without the Internet?

From Britain’s Got Talent. (The across the pond version of American Idol.)

Did this clip tell a little story? You bet.

(I actually thought it was a fake mash-edit at first!)

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A New Chance for the Short Form

In the second half of the 20th-century — especially in the United States — the long form of story telling has ruled.

If you were a writer of any ambition, you were a novelist. If you were a filmmaker, you made features. On Television, sitcoms were only thirty minutes, but a “drama” was a full hour.

Many writers who were essayists by temperament (Don DeLillo, for example), often seemed to writing novels because that’s what you did, shoehorning their ideas into the shape of a long form line of action with many characters carrying the water for the ideas at hand. (Raymond Carver notably bucked the trend against all advice that the novel was “real” writer’s work, continuing to ply his trade with the short story.)

Especially with the visual work of Film and Television, the short form really had no means of distribution or a chance to be seen. (Other than repeats of Warner Bros. cartoons on syndicated kids shows!)

But the Internet is about short and punchy — for now, at least. And I’m thrilled by that. I’m an idea guy — but often the thought of having to find the right way to “stretch” a notion into feature length gives me the trembles. Sometimes I just want to dump an idea out, have the audience enjoy it, and move on.

The form for that hasn’t really been viable for a while. But the Internet wants short. People arrive for a quick break. I think we can move beyond “cat playing piano.” But I think it’s important to realize that for a while short pieces can rule — and rule well. It means re-thinking and re-examining what makes “good” story and good structure.

Currently a lot of the more professional work on the Internet is just a long form story divided into smaller pieces. But suspect this is more out of habit of training and experience than purposeful choice.

As I try to sort out what will work best for the Internet, I’m moving more and more to self-contained, short form work. And in the last couple of weeks I started thinking about the writing off the astounding Jorge Luis Borges.

His short works are packed with amazing ideas… But he never stretches them out to full length form. He will write a review of a book that never existed, or discuss an encyclopedia entry of a nation he invented, tell quickly the life story of a man that reveals one fierce spark of an idea or revelation.

In each of these, he takes a concept that might be stretched out into an overblown piece of writing or film-making, padded with plot and subplot, and instead gets it down and out the door.

He wrote:

“It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”

“…related orally in five minutes…”

That, right there, my friends, is Internet gold. Because what is so much of YouTube, whether it is lonelygirl15 or Woody Allen now finding an afterlife in small clips.

When you bring in the strange or the weird, as Borges does in his short pieces, you also create something that catches the viewer’s eye. And such a piece would give viewers as a group something to mull over, discuss and argue about (always good for the Internet.)

Since I believe that for a while it will be actors’ faces and words that will carry the day on the Internet (the screens are I think to small for visual detail to carry too much weight), I’m delighted by the fact Borges points they way by speaking about “orally” telling the tale in five minutes.

This, anyway, is the direction I’m going as I prepare material for Disney and other companies that are looking for Internet specific content. I’m looking at the works of Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and other masters of the short form for inspiration.

I think they have a lot to teach us right now.

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The Habit of Fun

The New York Times ran a piece on girls dressing up their dolls online called, “Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play.”

Here’s the opening of the article:

Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

“With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money,” she said. “You can do it on the Internet for free.”

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls.

Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web.

Most of the Web chatter was about whether or not girls should be doing this at all, encouraging girls to have play dates and general hand-wringing. In general it was decided this was A Bad Thing ™ *.

But the point is this: It’s happening. If you had told someone a hundred years ago that most people in the country would have their eyeballs glued to images on a small box broadcasting game shows and soap operas for 2 to 6 hours a day, they would have called you nuts.

Is humanity worse for Television? Are we doomed? I have no idea. I do know most people seem to like to distract themselves, don’t like to think too much about matters at hand, and enjoy shiny pictures.

The Internet only provides new means of doing this.

As the rating slide continues at the networks, as cable stations continue to get ratings that bottom-tier network shows would love, as kids move from expecting to get their entertainment from Club Penguin, I think everyone should take a breath and realize that The Habit of Fun is changing.

The Habit of Fun is what I call what people think is fun. There are a million ways to have fun. But we can only have fun so many ways. There are only so many hours in the day. And novelty inspires us to drop one kind of fun and migrate to another.

It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time people had to get used to watching Television. It took time for the networks to develop effective programming. It took time for people to buy TVs. It took time for people to get in the habit of showing up to watch TV. It took time for a critical mass of audience to make talking about one show or another at the water-cooler a given part of the day.

Now, there will always be Theater. And there will always be Movies. And there will always be Television. But I think it’s important to look at what’s happening with kids, because they are the audience that in 15 to 25 years will be defining what the future of entertainment is going to be about.

And I think it’s clear that what kids are doing is finding their entertainment on the internet. There’s more stuff. It’s on 24/7. It’s social.

I was talking about all this with a friend, and she said, “No, not really. Because parents have a big influence on those habits.” I thought to myself, “No, not really. Kids influence kids on this stuff much more than parents.”

And then in the New York Times article I came across this:

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity, and they are doing so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets.”

Kids will migrate to the Internet because that’s what other kids are doing. It’s that simple.

I know many adults will view this as sad, strange or unfortunate. A horrible denigration of attention span. Or whatever. But it is going to happen. And as they get older I don’t think they’re suddenly going to say, “Well, now it’s time to start watching TV or go to Movies.” They’re going to say, “Well, what else is here that I want to look at?”

Children simply will get used to the idea of going to their computers first before turning on a TV or going to a movie. (This doesn’t mean people will stop going to large, face-to-face social events. More on that in another post. But in short: people like people.)

What’s particularly interesting to me is that what we consider “entertainment” will most likely change, too. The verse play vanished with the arrival of the printing press (we moved from verse to pros — and there was no going back). The sitcom arrived with the roller-mounted video camera.

We are so used to seeing “storytelling” these days through fourth-wall, actors on a sound stage that we forget that once upon a time theater ruled the earth, and later the novel. Each of these forms of storytelling had very rich traditions and techniques very different from the “make it as real as possible” traditions we no expect from TV and Film.

As we mine the Internet for new ways of engaging an audience, I expect we’ll find fascinating methods of engagement that don’t look at all like TV and Film. Entertainments like World of Warcraft and Disney’s new “Pirates of the Caribbean Online,” a new massively multiplayer online game based on the “Pirates” movie franchise might confuse older folks, but it won’t confuse a generation of kids growing up on it.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live depends on this. And in a bold move (or maybe not so bold!) FASA Studio’s new Shadowrun game is being release only as a multiplayer online game–there will be no single player version of the game you can play alone.

I believe audiences will expect this kind of entertainment in the future. There will be plenty of variations on this idea, but I think a couple of people interviewed in the Times article have it right:

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the social aspects of technology, said that the participants on these sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily than their parents or older siblings.

“For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and virtual world, and they can easily pass through it,” she said.

For some children, the allure of these sites is the chance to participate and guide the action on screen, something that is not possible with movies and television.

“The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial generation,” said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world that started in South Korea and now attracts a million users a month in the United States, according to comScore, a research firm. “This audience wants to be on stage. They want to have a say in the script.”

(*A side note here: It always amazes me how naive most Americans are about the variety of ways of life that exist in their own nation. Some people commenting on the article said essentially, “Of course you get the neighborhood kids to play together face to face.” It took some folks who live in both rough urban areas and low-density rural areas to point out that life for some folks is not as simple as that.

The fact that kids can play safely inside with other kids without having to let them wander out into high traffic areas or without negotiating long drives seems to have escaped folks who live in the suburbs as A Good Thing.)

Is an online-ad firm really worth $6 billion?

Slate.com has terrific article on on-line advertising today.

Here, I think, is the key quote:

Television, magazines, and newspapers may be hanging on because they are more powerful media for reaching the consumers companies most want to reach. But I suspect they’re hanging on for another demographic reason. Advertising is supposed to be a with-it, hot, trendy, tomorrow-based industry. But at root, the business of advertising is one of allocating capital, not cooking up clever jingles. And the people who make the decisions about how to allocate that $300-odd billion in capital each year—CEOs of consumer products companies, Fortune 500 executive vice presidents, media buyers, brand managers, agency heads—well, they’re old. It takes time to climb the corporate ladders to get to the rungs where really important decisions are made. Of course, these people, most of whom came of age as consumers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, use the Internet, spend a lot of time on it, and buy stuff on it. But they don’t understand it intuitively the way the younger crowd does. Do you think the CEOs of Ford, Citigroup, or Procter & Gamble are uploading photos to their MySpace pages, downloading music, and blogging.

I find this a lot with advertisers and studio executives I talk to.

It’s like there’s this huge infrastructure. This infrastructure is composed of a physical infrastructure (like buildings and avids and a high end production pipeline) and mental-infrastructure, which is all the work people have invested into thinking a certain way to succeed. And this huge infrastructure is the size of a huge oil tanker. And you say to people, “Really. You need to turn the direction of the boat.”

But they can’t or they won’t. Because they’ve already invested so much in this huge thing and the direction it’s going.

Complicated, Engaging and Interactive

Those three words are often conflated in Internet ideas and products. But they are really three separate things. And I think we have to keep our heads straight about them if we’re going to make content that really works for audience.

The big bugaboo word for the Internet is “interactive.” Everybody in the content provider sector wants “interactive” — if only because they’ve heard the word. Well, okay, and also because the Internet is a very interactive environment. You press buttons, you make choices. You do interact with it.

But we interact with our Television, too. We change channels. We change the volume. We also interact with our DVRs — we set up season passes and choose what content to record and so on.

But you know what we don’t interact with? The content. When we watch a show, we’re sitting there watching a show. We not moving around widgets or pressing buttons. If the show is engaging enough we’re just sitting there watching it. (Mind you, if it’s engaging enough, we’re actually interacting with it on some level — thematically, emotionally or whatever. But we’re not physically manipulating anything to get to the fun.)

I’m not being facile about this. This is a vital distinction. Because for all the bells and whistles New Media can provide, there’s a really vital question here:

“What do people actually want?”

James Surowiecki’s “Financial Page” has an interesting piece in The New Yorker magazine this week. He talks about how designers of new technology often put in lots of bells and whistles into gadgets because they can. And marketing and sales departments love having lots of bells and whistles on gizmos because it gives them more to sell. And consumers love buying products with lots of bells and whistles because it makes them feel like they are getting more.

“But,” Surowiecki writes:

…once we actually have a product, our patience with all those features runs out very quickly. Elke den Ouden found, for instance, that Americans who returned a product that was too complicated for them had spent, on average, just twenty minutes with it before giving up.

The fact that buyers want bells and whistles but users want something clear and simple creates a peculiar problem for companies. A product that doesn’t have enough features may fail to catch our eye in the store. (A cell phone that doesn’t offer a Bluetooth connection, for instance, may be dismissed as underpowered, even though relatively few Americans use Bluetooth headsets.) But a product with too many features is likely to annoy consumers and generate bad word of mouth, as BMW’s original iDrive system did.

Okay. New Media. We can make choose your own path video content. We can make really elaborate Alternate Reality Games. We can make websites so thick in content you’ll never finish sorting through it all.

But at the end of the day, what do people want?

I offer this: Many of the models above are going to be just too complicated. People want engagement, but they don’t want complicated. The fact that our technology allows us to make things complicated doesn’t mean that people want things that are complicated. For that to have happened we would have needed a shift in the way most human beings want to engage with stories — and I don’t think that’s happened. Most people will want a person, or many people working together, to have built something they can sit down and read or watch or whatever.

Cable came along and gave us 500 channels. Too complicated! The DVR exists to save us from that complication.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are really cool. And there will always be an audience for them. And I’ll say again, they are really cool. Here’s a sample webpage from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, an ARG that’s part of their concept album built in collaboration with 42 Entertainment.

avott_index.jpg

If you click on the sample webpage you’ll got to anotherversionofthetruth.com. You’ll see a pretty image of an Americana landscape. If, however, you hold down your control button and slide the cursor over the image, you’ll start “peeling back” the colorful, life-affirming image and find a bleak landscape revealed underneath. Once you wipe away all of it, you’ll discover the image is now a link. If you click on it, you are then linked to chat board where members of a future resistance movement to an authoritarian United States government.

Click on more pages, and you’ll end up on a mailing list where people from the resistance movement email back. Scour web-pages for clues and you’ll find new links to lead you deeper into one web page, email, phone number, audio file after another…

Here’s a wiki page detailing the Another Version of the Truth page, here’s the Forum where characters from the bad future discuss many issues, and here’s a Forum at unFiction.com where many of the players/audience gather to sort out clues and find the next web page or phone number as part of their journey into the world Nine Inch Nails and 42 Entertainment have created.

To move deeper into the “narrative artifacts” that the ARG makers have produced, it is assumed that the players will work together to find and solve puzzles. A certain number of hatch-marks found by one person on a web-page will in turn be revealed to be a fax number by three people working to solve the puzzle together on a chat forum. It’s very interactive, very social, very Internet and very cool.

And when I tell people about these amazing creations and show them the web pages they’re always blown away by the concepts and the specifics. But then I always ask, “Now, in a week’s time will you have pursued any deeper the mysteries of these web pages?” And they look at the cool web pages on their screen and always say, “No.”

(This example was driven home to me one night over dinner. I was having dinner with the development executive of a video-content driven web-site and we were talking about the word “complicated.” And he said, “Do you know about the Nine Inch Nails ARG?”

And I said, “Yeah, I think I know where you’re going with this…”

And he cut me off and said, “It’s really cool, right?”

And I said, “Yes, and…”

And he cut me off again and said, “And when I show it to people, they all think it’s cool…”

“Dude,” I said. “I think you’re stealing my talking point…”

But he drove on, saying exactly what I said, even reaching the point where, after he shows people the cool pages he asks, “And will you be involved in this a week from now?” And everyone says, “No.”)

I think ARGs are great puzzles. But I’m not sure if the emotional and thematic content of storytelling is best served by puzzles. (And that’s a whole ‘nother issue — the tension between game and story.)

I will say that while ARGs (and especially 42 Entertainment) have a well-deserved fan base, I’m not sure if it will ever spread to be a dominant form. The ARG form is engaging and interactive… But it’s also very complicated. For thousands of years audience members have been content to sit around a fire and let someone tell them a story, or watch TV or read a book or whatever.

I have never considered these activities “passive.” They’re utilizing portions of us — emotion, thematic content, moral arguments – that don’t makes us very busy, but are engaging all the same. And I don’t think human beings have changed very much, though our technology has.

So, when thinking about online narrative content, ask, “Yes, we can have a lot of bells and whistles. But as a guy or gal hopping onto the internet to engage those part of me that loves a good story, how much complication do I really need, how much interactivity do I really need, and with or without a lot of complication or interaction, how engaging can I be?”

45% of European Broadband Users Watch TV Shows on Computers

This Motorola study surprised me. (And I’m not often surprised by this stuff.) I had always thought that long form content would not work that well on the Internet. How we watch TV or a movie — relaxed, leaning back, settled — seemed perfect for settling in for a while. Computers had more of the feel of jumping around and being busy.

Not so! As the article notes:

The results further strengthen the business models of startups such as Joost, that seek to target a massive potential audience through the use of streamed content over a P2P network, but with the safeguards of DRM and imposed advertising delivery built in.

Just the other day I was at a Kinkos doing some work and I saw a woman waiting for her husband at one of the computer work station cubicles. She had her laptop out and was watching The Scorpian King.

Now, again, I don’t exactly get this. I was watching over her shoulder for a few minutes (I always like to try to guess a movie in as few number of images as possible), and the panoramic shots of the city being sieged lack all sense of scope. At first I couldn’t exactly tell what was happening!

Now, clearly people make the same arguments of moving Film down to the scale of TV. A shot of a horizon in a John Ford western is going to be much more effective in a movie theater than on TV. But you can still see what’s happening.

What happens when you move that down to a streaming video player? Or this: I saw a kid watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an iPod. Could he even see the details of the movie? What did an establishing shot of a ship sailing the horizon at night look like to him? Was he watching it for the first time (where a lot of details would have to be lost), or was he watching it again — an on this reviewing certain shots “triggered” memories and facts he knew from previous viewings? (My guess is the latter.)

Clearly, no matter what, I’m an old fogy on this issue. I’ve watched episodes of Heroes on the NBC site that I had missed — but only so I would be up to date to watch the next episode with friends. But I wouldn’t make it a habit. But it will become a habit.

The question on my mind is only this: what sort of content will work best on a computer screen. TV didn’t just port the cinematic style of Film and shrink it down. It built it’s own “language” of storytelling, which depended far more on close-ups and dialogue than Film. The three-camera sit-com is a wonderful invention for TV, but would be dull in a movie.

I expect while people will continue to watch TV and movies via broadband — and in greater numbers — content that is designed to work well and specifically for computer screens will grow alongside it and become dominant. What that dominant content will be — first person video storytelling, Alternate Reality Games, Massive Multiplayer Online games, things we haven’t even thought of yet — who knows?

Notes of Excitment and Congratulations

I co-host a New Media Lab for my Alumni Association. (The Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance.) My co-host is Jeff Shuter, and we meet at his offices at Gain Enterprises.

In the first half of each meeting, we bring in a guest speaker, who does a talk on anything from video piracy issues to pitching new concepts to MTV. Then the speaker answers questions.

And then someone in the group puts a project he or she is working on “on the table” and we all give notes and suggestions, from both the creative and the business end of things.

Inspired by the first meeting, Shana Krochmal came with a pitch for a Twitter Soap Opera and sold it to OurChart.com. The project was featured in an NPR piece this week.

I love this project because it grabs a new media by the horns and finds a way to tell a story with it. Sure, it’s still an experiment. But it’s an exciting experiment.

And Paul Jury introduced his comedy site pandasmash.com to the group. I’m impressed with the site. First, it has a great catalogue of videos. There’s no way to see it all in one visit — which means if you like it you’ll go back again and again.

Second, it’s a strong site.

By that I mean, instead of being a weird amalgamation of all sorts of video slapped together, pandasmash.com has a specific editorial content. If I want what pandasmash has, I’ll go there — because it will deliver what I want. I don’t have to hunt and peck like a lot of web sites. It’s right there.

I believe that these kind of specific content sites are the future of web-publishing. Right now we have what I think of as the TV network model as the most popular model — one site with a shot gun approach to content. However, with networks they stagger different kinds of content through the time of day, so you’re not having to sift through all of it all the time. On a website that’s overstuffed, like YouTube, it’s your job to sort through all the crap to maybe find something you like. While that can be fun, I don’t think ultimately it’s a sustainable model.

I prefer what I refer to as the “magazine model,” with a strong editorial focus for a web-site. Whether it’s comedy, horror, political, focused on teenage boys or moms, a given site delivers a variety of content along an editorial focus — like O Magazine, or The New Yorker, or The Atlantic, or Maxim or whatever.

This way, surfing through videos and text is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine — but with the increased odds that I’m actually going to like what I see because I’ve already decided I want to see the type of stuff the website has posted. (The very successful heavy.com already does this with content slanted toward the Maxim crowd. In my view the teen-age boy market is already well catered to. Other demographics surf the web in great numbers as well… Time to go after them!)

The New Media Lab is going really well. I’m proud of it and looking to see what members create as we continue.

Stories, Moral Choice, and Resource Management

In a game there are choices.

A player playing a game of Chess can choose to sacrifice a pawn to take a queen, or lose a bishop to protect a rook.

All good games are like this: Whether it’s Monopoly or Tag or Baseball (do I take this pitch or not? Do I run, or not?)

A well-designed video game has choices as well. If I’m playing a First Person Shooter, and I see a health back under a machine gun nest that might save my character during a gun battle, I could choose to go to get it despite the bullets, or I can stick it out and keep shooting, hoping I take out the bad guys before I do. It’s a resource management choice, because those are the sorts of choices that matter for a game.

Now, stories have choices, too. The characters make moral and emotional choices. Take a look at the first minute of this YouTube video. Tony Soprano answers his daughter Meadow when she asks him if he’s in the mob. (After the first minute it becomes a YouTube Soprano’s Highlight Mashup!)

Clearly he’s embarassed by the question. And just as clearly he’s trying to protect her from the very thing that pays for their home and is going to let her go to college. (They’re driving to a college campus for an interview for Meadow.)

King Oedipus has to choose whether to pursue the truth even if it will cost him his comfortable life, Hamlet must decide to pursue murder at the word of a supernatural spirit, Ripley in Aliens must decide if she will risk her life for a little girl she only recently met, and so on.

By the way, I’m not saying all audience members are paying attention to this in an intellectual manner. I am saying that people respond to stories where characters make emotionally and morally engaging choices. The audience doesn’t have to be thinking about this stuff — but they do respond.

Here’s the thing: a game can be designed so that it is only about resource management. But it can also be designed to be about moral choices.

The kind of game where this is most explicit is in MMOs… because there is no “story” the players must follow. Thus, the choices are live choices. What a player does is open-ended and will affect other, actual human beings.

Let’s say that a game is set up where you can choose to have your character be very loyal to the state. You get certain bonuses for serving the state of one kind or another. (And let us say you could have your character be an enemy of the state — and get bonuses in turn for being a rebel. But that’s not how you chose to build your character.)

And let us assume further your character is very loyal to his family. This is a world with extended families, and there are mechanical and practical bonuses to having strong ties to your family.

And let us say finally that the game world shifts and your character’s father is declared a traitor by the state. Suddenly your character has a choice: to defend his father, or side with state against him. That’s an engaging choice because it taps all sorts of moral and emotional buttons in all of us.

An MMO could be rigged with a large matrix set of options about where to put one’s alliances and loyalties. And over time alliances between players and between players and NPCs could shift back and forth. As the player made choice for his or her character, more and more dramatic moments would arise — moments that would be strongly remembered by the player.

Now, one would have to make sure you didn’t derail the MMO with too many options. But it seems to me that this kind of design would allow players to plug directly into the stuff of dramatic action and epic tales. Certainly it seems possible to take the stuff of dramatic narrative and plug it into mechanics of resource management to offer up more color, drama and meaning.

“Pen & Paper” RPGs, MMOs and Distribution of Narrative Authority

I’ve spent time writing, designing and playing “pen & paper” role-playing games. I learned a lot working on them, both about story and games. (This is where I began focusing on how some things that work in one medium might not work in another medium! A play is not a novel is not an RPG is not a movie!)

Delving deep into MMOs, I’ve discovered they’ve shed a lot of the assumptions that many paper RPG publishers and players had, and break free of some of the “culture” of RPGs:

For such a fun, innovative way of building a narrative through group effort, the players usually don’t have much input.

In traditional games the Players make the “characters” and the GM makes the “story”. The trick is this: the whole point of a character in a story is to make decisions. That’s what drives a story and that’s how real character is revealed — what does a person choose to do.

Now, often in role-playing circles (and other circles as well), people confuse characteristics with character. Character is the choices a person (or character) makes. That’s what we used to mean by the word “character” when talking about people, and it’s still a standard wrench in a writer’s tool-kit.

But most RPGs didn’t know what to do with that because the GM had already built the “story.” (Scare quote on purpose, but with apologies… For reasons to be revealed.)

If the GM already knows that a series of events might lead a character to one specific end, the Players really have little control over the choices their character can make.

If we’re playing a Space Opera and my PC is a farm-boy from a backwater world battling a horrible Villain, and the GM whips out the reveal at the table that the Villain is actually my characters’ father — it’s a thrilling moment, because WHO KNOWS WHICH WAY MY CHARACCTER IS GOING TO JUMP?

But if the GM has already decided that my character and the badguy will be fighting side by side against the rest of the Player Characters there CAN’T be a choice. More importantly, the GM will sort of shoehorn me with subtle signals (often involving unspoken rewards or punishments) to have my guy side with the Villain — because that’s the cool scene he had in his head. But it might not be what I consider a cool scene.

So, what do we consider “role playing” in such a game? Basically, people play the CHARACTERISTICS of the PC. The GM says, “Here’s such and such a situation, and basically I know how it’s going to lead into the next scene, but what you’re going to do is play out the behaviors of your characters,” (not real, meaningful choices that can drive the narrative in unexpected directions, but simply the behaviors.)

This is where we get the focus on “talking in character,” the funny voices, only knowing what you know in character — because it limits the Player’s input into what actually change the shape of the tale.

But, again, if the Players are playing the characters they’re being robbed of one of the most important elements of creating a character — “What does the character do when the hammer comes down? When the tough choices have to be made, does Sheriff Brody cave to the will of the townspeople in Jaws, or does he take action to go public? Does Ripley flee when the space marines are getting chewed up, or does she put herself in harm’s way to save them?” And so on.

Note that the GM’s attitude often is, “Of course the player will put her character in harm’s way to save the space marines” when “plotting” and RPG adventure.

But what about when the character doesn’t want to? We all seen it happen a gazillion times. The responses vary — but they contain:

  • The GM’s brain shutting down for five minutes as he tries to re-jigger the plot;
  • the GM politely asking the Player to play along;
  • the GM sort of bullies the Player with back-handed logic (“Well, your character would go save them, you know”)
  • the GM has the aliens attack the PC anyway, no matter what ridiculous lengths the Player has the PC go through to get away;
  • anger sometimes erupts at the table;
  • sometimes there’s hours of post-game angst over the phone and emails.

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[Please do check out Shamus Young’s fabulous DM of the Rings.]

Note that the key issue her is all about the Player simply not being allowed to make a vital choice for the character for fear it will ruin the game or the story. After all, we know what a character “should” do — right?

Well, no. Again, what a character chooses to do is what reveals the character. Should Michael Carleone have become a crime lord in his father’s footsteps? Should Ripley have stopped Dallas from bringing an infected Kane onto the Nostromo? And so on.

Characters make decisions, flip flop. There are consequences to their actions and then, in light of those consequences, they make new choices..

In this way, a role-playing game session would be more of a lively game of “what the hell is going to happen next?” The Players make choices for the PCs. The GM tosses out the next set of hard decisions on the fly. And when it’s all over we have a story we could not have guessed at.

Of course this blows “The Party” model of play right out of the water. But why should the party have to stay together. Only one person at the table can ever speak at one time anyway! Whether their fictional characters are in the same imagined space or not doesn’t change that. You still have to rotate around the table.

In fact, a whole bunch of assumptions have to get shattered — the key one being: “This wouldn’t work.”

The questions show up fast, “How can there be a story if the GM doesn’t have a story?” “What if one of the Players has her PC run off to China?” “You could do this, but you would need ‘advanced’ Players.”

The truth is, No.

It works just fine. It works fine for beginners. The games are a blast. Here’s a list of some small games that have been thought through packed with rules and techniques to do exactly what we’re talking about:

Sorcerer
Dogs in the Vineyard
The Mountain Witch
The Burning Wheel

InSpectres
The Riddle of Steel
HeroQuest

There are more.

There’s no way to summarize all these games, of course. So I’ll just say this:

The players in these games write down what is important to THEM. The GM still creates the world and backstory and the PCs with secrets. But the GM is also responsible for utilizing the narrative elements the Players create during character creation. For example, in Sorcerer, there’s a thing called a Kicker. If I’m creating a Player Character I might say, “My character kicked my son out of the house 20 years ago when he suspect my character murdered my wife (which, in fact, he did). On the day the story starts, my son comes home asking forgiveness.”

The first question to be asked is, “Does my guy let the son into the house?”

But after that there are more questions: Does the son have an agenda? Is he really he for forgiveness or vengeance? Is my wife’s ghost going to start talking to my son if he comes in the house? Given the genre and the other back story information created by the players and the GM, the GM gets to make up LOTS of stuff. He just isn’t making up the plot.

He’s simply making up material to let the Players make tough choices with emotional and thematic impact. You know, like a story.

But, of course, this means a new distribution of power among the players. The GM isn’t building a channel to dive the characters through toward a certain kind of ending. For all we know, in the Space Opera, Luke does end up fighting his friends because of his desperate love for his father. (In this kind of game play these kinds of choices are valued. It’s not a betrayal of the party. It’s a love of the story.)

The GM can’t give little clues about what is supposed to happen, because he has NO IDEA of where the story will be in three hours.

There’s a tradition of RPGs that says you simply don’t play that way. And that’s great for folks who want it. But other people are very excited about pushing more power amongst the players and having a great time doing it.

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Now, back to MMOs…

In a game like World of Warcraft, the game’s designers have established “quests” for your character, but a lot of how you go about doing it is your business. You can try it alone, you can gather a party, you can be loyal all the way through the quest, you can abandon your fellow adventurers along the way. You can retreat when you want, turn down a quest if you want. You can set your own goals if you want.

This is a lot more freedom than a lot of players got when they sat down the a GM to “play a story.” In fact, a lot of RPG sessions play pretty much like the story in a First Person Shooter or Survival Game and many RPG games: the player is led from one cut scene to the next, needing to defeat a bunch of bad guys, and then watching the next cut-scene. In this way, the players are being told a story, but they’re not really participating in it since they have no impact on it.

Not so in an MMO, where the players pick their actions and goals without needing to please anyone but themselves. They don’t have to stay in a group, they don’t have to follow “the story.” They don’t have to do anything, really. But… because they are interacting with other, real people, their choices carry consequences. Doing a good deed might be rewarded later. Being an ass-hat might mean trouble later.

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Eve Online carries this even further. Set in a future world of space travel, commerce, mercenaries and exploration, the players are let loose without any preplanned agendas at all. There is an environment (computer controlled characters, asteroids to mine, planet-sized economies to run or ruin) and there are the other players. What a player decides to in Eve is his or her own business.

Unlike World of Warcraft, there are no pre-planned quests for the characters to pursue. Players are absolutely left to their own devices to figure out what to accomplish and how to go about doing it. This can take a toll on new players, who are left without any guidance. But it also means almost unparalleled freedom when it comes to the player choosing what actions his character will take, and so what kind of story the player will “tell” with the character.

A couple of notes for creating characters for Dramatic Narrative

A good character is a character whose behavior causes a lot of his or her own problems. How does who the character cause trouble for himself or herself? That’s a question the writer must ask.

Even if you have a straight-as-nails character who is only trying to do the “right thing” — the fact that the character keeps choosing to try to do the right thing should provide more complications. In “The Fugitive” (1993), Dr. Richard Kimble choose one time after another to pursue his wife’s killer. He’s doing the right thing — but always, to the point of danger. He helps people at a hospital while the police are looking for him; he refuses to surrender and instead tosses him self off the wall of a damn because he must do the right thing.

There are three reasons why working this way is important.

First, without this, the character is just a victim: all the bad things that happen in the script simply “attack” the character. There is a dishonesty in creating a character whose only problems in life come from other people. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to respond in an infinite number of ways. How a character chooses to respond makes the character interesting. And if the character is only being run down by others and never through an flaw of himself or herself, that means the character is perfect — and therefore not human.

Second, if a character makes distinctive, trouble making choices, the character is specific. The character, in other words, has character. He or she is not like other characters. We know this character on the screen through their choices. And if the character makes a different and contrary choice, we know that something important and significant has occurred. A specific character is a memorable character — and a memorable character is a character that both actors and audiences respond to.

Finally, this is an organizing principle for a screenplay. It’s like picking a limited pallet for a painting. By choosing specific behaviors for a character, the writer is focusing the work and narrowing down options. By the same token, the writer is making decisions about which behaviors to explore more deeply. In “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), Sonny constantly wants to make people happy. It’s why he decides to rob a bank to begin with, and the same behavior is what gets him trapped in the bank when he could have gotten out safely.

These lines of behavior are tools of construction, just like hard edges or soft edges serve to help build a painting. By being away of them, by making an active choice, the writer creates something as artful and well constructed as a great painting.

First Person Storytelling — Now With Pictures!

So, in my view part of the engine driving the Internet as a form is the First Person form of storytelling. Whether it’s a fictional blog or a person speaking into a webcam, or a mini-documentary made by someone walking you through the incidents of a story with a hand-held camera, what we’re talking about is First Person storytelling.

Now, there’s nothing new about First Person Narrative. All it means is that the teller of the tale is involved in the story somehow. We use this method in daily life all the time: “I went to the store, and there was only one line open at checkout, and you would not believe how this checkout clerk kept chatting with every customer…!”

But we can also tell fictional stories in the First Person. Daniel Dafoe did this with Robinson Caruso, which was written as the journal of a man stranded on a desert island. Dante tells his fantastical journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven as if he really had been on the journey and was now relating it to us. And, of course, soliloquies from Shakespeare’s plays all depend on the character directly addressing the audience or reader in one way or another.

What is new is that we are not used to seeing this form in Television, Video and Film, which have become our dominant forms of storytelling in recent decades. Where once characters in a play could break the “Fourth Wall” of the story and speak directly to the audience, the traditions and techniques of the 20th Century film and TV demand that, as much as possible, the illusion is created that the characters on the screen are being recorded “objectively.” The idea is that the events on the screen are “really” happening, the characters are really involved in the circumstances and the camera is an invisible presence recording it all passively.

While we are used to seeing people talking directly to the camera in documentaries, it was the rare narrative that used these techniques to build a fictional story.

Some precursors that suggest the possibility of this technique are, for example, This is Spinal Tap.

But notice that the characters are not talking to the camera. The camera is still a somewhat passive observer, and the characters are still going about the business without telling a story or relating directly to the audience. (As characters have done for centuries in plays and novels.)

A closer example of the current Internet style might be The Blair Witch Project. (I couldn’t track down a good clip from the movie, but check out the little bit of footage at the end of the trailer…)

But to find the really perfect YouTube-like moment from film and TV we have to go all the way back to 1987’s Annie Hall:

The piece seems ready made for YouTube!

Of course, Woody Allen’s work in that minute and a half is better than most of the stuff on the internet right now. The form will not save you. But the point is, simply, it can be done, and it can be done well.

There is no reason that we can’t start finding new ways of bringing First Person storytelling to video and film. It might not be dramatic narrative, but it will be narrative.

And while we’re busy figuring out how to “fake” cell phone cameras and characters who happen to be toting around video cameras while they go out on adventures, my guess is we’ll soon be coming up with way ways to incorporate First Person narrative into video and film work in the much more playful and “reality-breaking” methods employed by the theater in centuries past. There’s no reason we can’t find even more compelling and playful ways to have someone tell us a tale intimately — even in a medium like TV and Film.

The Internet is about Intimacy…

… even if it’s fake.

The Internet grew out of direct communication between people. Emails and web pages designed to say, “Hey, I’m here! Hello! Talking to you!”

There’s a reason that YouTube videos are all about people talking directly into the camera. Part of it is about being “interactive.” But part of it is simply the environment of the Internet. It’s place where people gather to say, “Hello. I’d like to talk. From YouTube to MySpace to Twitter, people like to connect to other people. It’s what the Internet does.

As you’re thinking about storytelling on the Internet, keep this in mind. When I watch videos online that are framed and shot like a standard TV show I always am taken aback. It’s like someone has put “quotes” around the image.

The form of the Internet is not objective. We’re not standing outside looking in. We’re in it, and I believe that for next 5 to 7 years what works best on the Internet is what feels like someone talking to us.

Whether it’s a text on a blog or a video shot in lonelygirl15’s bedroom, the material should be intimate, personal and voyeuristic.

This doesn’t mean it has to be true. And it doesn’t guarantee quality. But it’s a point of entry to keep in mind when thinking about the form you want your content to have when designing narrative for cell phones and the Internet.