The Internet is trying very hard to tell us the future of stories

Story telling innovators: Charles Dickens, Jean Luc Godard, Elan Lee

“The Internet is trying very, very hard to tell us.” That quote is from Elan Lee, one of the early pioneers of Alternate Reality Games. Lee created I Love Bees to promote the Xbox game Halo 2, and was part of the 42 Entertainment team (along with Alex Lieu and Susan Bonds) behind Year Zero, which engaged thousands of Nine Inch Nails fans in the creation of a story around the album of the same name.

The quote above quote appears in Frank Rose’s new book, The Art of Immersion, due out in February 2011. Rose, a long time contributing editor at Wired, where he’s covered everything from the fall of the music industry to the impact of digital technology on television, offers an assessment of where story-telling is going in an age when narratives are no longer linear and more often than not are told, or at least informed, by the participation of a consumer community.

Rose labels this “deep media.” Story-telling that offers an immersive experience. It refers to everything from the online audiences that gathered on their own to decipher the convoluted plot line of Lost, to the MadMen fans who hijacked the show’s characters in the form of Twitter personas, playing Don and Betty true to their ‘60s personas.

The Art of Immersion is out in February 2011

To his credit, Rose doesn’t simply regurgitate examples of current entertainment and gaming industry campaigns like Avatar or Grand Theft Auto. He frames the challenges and emerging formulas in light of all the story telling changes that have come before, from the serialized novels of Dickens, to the early breakthroughs created by D.W. Griffith that gave film its own identity as a medium, to the trans-media narratives about which Henry Jenkins writes so intelligently.

Multiple themes emerge in Rose’s book. The first is that conventional entertainment doesn’t work they way it used to.  We know that just from looking at the numbers.  Box office sales, DVD sales, music sales have all plummeted in recent years.

Secondly, the command and control world of the author (or auteur in the film world) is over.  As soon as the audience can step in, create content and direct, the old model crumbles.

Three, stories and games have become more inextricably linked than ever.  A game may never be able to offer the full “sensory wallop” of a motion picture, but they certainly allow the viewer to insert himself directly into the experience. Given the desire to participate, games become a magical way to connect and influence.

And four, it’s normal for there to be confusion and even resistance as a new definition of story telling develops and movie makers, publishers and ad agencies all struggle to figure it out.

One of my favorite quotes in the book, memorable to any film student of the 70s or 80s, is from Jean Luc Godard, the French New Wave director whose approach to story telling challenged Hollywood and even French convention. Asked if a story shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end, he answered, “Of course, just not necessarily in that order.”

Today’s question might be, “Shouldn’t every story have an author?”  The answer might be, “Of course, but why limit it to one.”

3 comments
RobynMc
RobynMc

Yes, when one person tells a story many have variations to add from their own stories. Helps to give a bigger picture and brings much more novelty to the voices. Thanks for your brilliant conclusion, Edward!

joshklein
joshklein

What fascinates me is less the cultural implications - I take those as a given as someone who grew up with an interest in interactive entertainment that far surpassed my interest in media - but rather the business implications. Look at Blizzard selling 3.3 million copies of a World of Warcraft expansion at $40 a pop in 24-hours as an UPSELL, and you begin to grasp the dollar value of helping individuals craft a personal world of entertainment they have a vested interest in continuing.

While some industries are in a race-to-the-bottom - whether from the economy, changes in consumer behavior, cost structures, or anything else - some people are seeing that stories are valuable. Multiplayer online games. Local food. Honest political leaders (maybe).

Transparency + good stories = the good guys win. This has always been true, but now there's a dollar value attached, a financial incentive to be BETTER. You don't have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to think that's a good thing!

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@joshklein It's all a good thing. But there's even more to it. Learn from the Pixar's and the entertainment industry, when they get it right. Three components: the core story-teller and idea, the technology (gaming dynamics, digital platforms, etc.) that enable it to live trans media and invite participation, and the consumer/user who plays a bigger and bigger role. Of course to understand and take advantage or connect all three takes a new mindset and way of thinking. 42 Entertainment and Campfire are the new kinds of companies that tend to get this. The rest of us are learning.