Let’s build a constitutional monarchy of storytelling

By Jim Thacker

Power to the Pixel’s sixth annual Cross-Media Forum began by probing the possibilities and pitfalls of democratising narrative – and ended by putting its own theories into practice

Over 350 people gathered on London’s National Film Theatre this week in search of the answers to the big problems of the world’s fifth age of storytelling.

Power to the Pixel’s sixth annual Cross-Media Forum, held from 16-19 October, brought together an eclectic mixture of artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs to investigate ways of regenerating the relationship between storytellers and their audiences, wrestle with the idea of a ‘constitutional monarchy’ of creativity – and discover why the end of humanity will be brought about by a time-travelling kangaroo called Jeff.

But of Jeff, more later.

From Homer to crowdsourcing
The conceptual framework for the first-day Conference was provided by keynote speaker Sean Stewart, the mind behind Emmy-nominated web TV series Dirty Work. Stewart proposed the idea of five eras of human storytelling, from “old blind guys like Homer who you had to install physically in your home” to an era in which an online audience can be co-opted as “crowd-sourced bards”.

But while such participatory storytelling techniques widen the potential audience of a story from one to billions, they bring their own problems.

“[The online public] are bastards, basically,” said Stewart. “They want to show you that they won’t do what you want them to do.”

Stewart was discussing the ‘sniper pitch’: a general proposal he uses to introduce potential backers to the idea of interactive storytelling. Imagine you’re watching online footage of a stranger, framed through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. It’s up to you, the spectator, to warn him of his fate.

According to Stewart, rather than advancing the plot in the way you might expect, three in ten viewers simply tell the victim to stay right there.

Branching narratives, such as those of PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain, enable viewers to advance the plot – but creators must provide ‘fail states’ for when they do not do so in the way predicted.

Couple this need to provide ‘fail states’ for stories with the sheer volume of extra content that has to be created for a branching narrative – not to mention the way in which such structures “attack something fundamental about the nature of storytelling”, notably, the power to suggest that plot events have indelible consequences for the characters – and you have a tricky set of problems for modern connected storytellers.

Stewart explored a range of possible responses – from the ‘narrative assembly’ model of Inception The App, in which users’ actions progressively unlock chunks of content, to the ‘narrative sandbox’ approach of start-anywhere online experiences such as The HBO Voyeur Project.

Experiences which enable users to begin viewing anywhere, like The HBO Voyeur Project, offer creative freedom, but demand a higher degree of audience commitment than conventional media.

Ultimately, Stewart believes, the most fertile approaches restrict audience control in ways that foster a coherent narrative, but do so in ways that viewers don’t feel cheated if their ‘suggestions’ are ignored – for example, by inviting them to bet on the outcome of a plot fork, rather than directing it.

“None of us grew up democrats when it comes to storytelling,” he reflected. “We grew up in an era of tyranny – and to be honest, I liked it that way. [But if authors can’t be tyrants any more], let’s move to a constitutional monarchy.”

From fiction to fact
If participatory storytelling is a constitutional monarchy, the rest of the Cross-Media Forum introduced some of its more prominent parliamentarians.

The afternoon sessions showcased a diverse range of transmedia projects, from Egmont Press’ War Horse e-book, which blends the text of Michael Morpurgo’s classic children’s story with documentary video, to the National Film Board of Canada’s elegant online documentaries.

Each one demonstrated the painstaking, time-consuming work involved in creating a compelling transmedia experience: a double bind for a medium often thought of as ephemeral.

Blending fiction with documentary material, as BoomGen Studios has done with Operation Ajax, offers transmedia projects a valuable second life as teaching aids in schools and colleges.

This point was succinctly made by Mahyad Tousi, CEO of multi-platform incubator BoomGen Studios, who called for a move towards ‘sustainable storytelling’.

“The problem with much transmedia I’ve seen is that it has a very short life cycle,” he said. “Our own projects take five to six years to come to fruition.”

One strategy for fighting historical obsolescence is to co-opt history itself, as BoomGen has done for Operation Ajax, an interactive graphic novel, game and movie that explore US involvement in 1950’s Iran: often thought to be the first case of CIA-backed regime change.

The iOS app comes with an educational edition, already in use in US schools. “Imagine: eighth-grade students are debating a coup in Iran in 1953,” says Tousi. “That’s unheard of. But that’s the power of storytelling.”

Tousi believes that transmedia projects that blend fiction and documentary material have an important social role. “We should no longer settle scores through creating content: we should embrace our role to heal,” he said. “This is an experiment that has gotten so much lovelier in the last few years. The environment for storytelling has gotten bigger.”

From theory to practice

If most of The Cross-Media Forum introduced the theories surrounding transmedia content creation, the day’s final session provided the opportunity to put theory into practice.

As part of his Wish For The Future project, transmedia pioneer Lance Weiler asked conference goers to identify a problem that faces society, prototype a solution, and construct a narrative around it. The results will be sealed in a real-world time capsule for future generations to see.

Spurning such trivia as world peace and a cure for cancer, the audience voted to create a working time machine.

The supporting narrative invoked a genetically engineered kangaroo named Jeff, who will try to seize control of the machine in future Australia, in order to travel back in time and exterminate his human oppressors.

(More practically, the brainstorming process also suggested that services like Facebook hold the key to a real kind of time travel. By identifying other users with similar social relationships, it would be possible to project oneself back into the archived life experiences of an online ‘doppelganger’.)

The session illustrated principles that Weiler believes are key to successful participatory storytelling: that good ideas spring from a mixture of the whimsical and the deadly serious; and that creativity often rests at the edge of failure.

And perhaps as importantly, it enabled the audience to move from merely talking about the future to actively shaping it. As Power to the Pixel founder Liz Rosenthal commented: “Each year, I thank you all for coming. This is the first year I’ve been able to thank you for practising what we preach.”