Serial illustration

Speech: “Transmedia and the Pluriverse,” at SERIAIS – Seminário Narrativas Seriadas, Salvador, Brazil, July, 2019

Here are the slides and my speech for the opening keynote I gave at SERIAS in Salvador, Brazil, on the 2nd July, 2019.

[Introductory comments & “keyword bio” not in this script]

This brings me to what I offer you today as an idea: and that is “Transmedia and the Pluriverse,” through the lens of seriality, the focus on your event. 

Transmedia did not begin with “Transmedia” for me. It emerged through my practice, before it became popularised by Henry Jenkins. What transmedia was, and still is, to me, is different to the way it has been conceptualised by those in the popular transmedia school of thought. There are many overlaps, I am not saying here that a new field is needed! But the way it has been conceptualised, also the way I conceptualised it at the beginning, does not represent the world I live in now, and is not, I argue, going to see us through the world we all live in. It will not see us through the changes needed to address the environmental and social crises we find ourselves in. So today I will be attempting to lift transmedia from it’s neoliberalist roots to a pluriverse way of seeing. 

First, where transmedia with a lower-case “t” began for me. It didn’t begin by chasing an idea already out there. Instead, it began as an inner realisation. I was struggling with the problem of trying to take my career seriously. I kept shifting from artform to artform, from theatre acting to digital effects producing, to CD-Rom producing to screen acting. I thought I won’t get anywhere unless I choose one profession. I had internalised the relatively recent, socially-defined goal of specialisation, where we believe the only way to master something is to do that one thing repeatedly.

But my realisation didn’t adhere to this dogma. I innocently thought: what if I could do more than one thing? What if I didn’t have to choose between one or the other? Between one artform or another? What if instead I chose which artforms to focus on? What if I chose to develop my skills in employing multiple artforms? And so started my journey. One in which I experimented with ways to include books and websites, and films and games. 

Seriality came into play immediately. I was writing a story that started in a book and continued at the end of each chapter on a website, and then returned to the book. It was a spiral structure, which has since become a great fascination for me. But at the time, the creative problem I faced was this: what is it that motivates one to cross media from the book to the website and then back again? The technique I used, unthinkingly, immediately, was that of “delayed closure”. That is “what happens next?”

I remember seeing this play out in Mitsubishi’s ‘See What Happens’ commercial that was broadcast during the SuperBowl in 2004. Let’s have a look. 

Video source:

The website “see what” received over 31 million visits during the Super Bowl. Notice how it made you feel too. Your heart-rate may have gone up, there is a moment of anxiety, or suspense, and the desire to get closure.

“Serial” structure illustration

Indeed, what we’re doing with this technique, this structure, is withholding closure. But note, it is a spreading of events that are interesting to our audience. It is not necessarily interesting to wait until the next episode to find out if our character put pepper or tomato sauce on their dinner. So it is more than simply withholding closure, it is a closure we care about. So, interesting questions are posed. For instance, what happens now that our character has done this? Or what will they choose to do? The cliff-hanger approach is used over and over again, to good effect, across episodes.

But to nuance this a bit further, these questions are about what we care about and what we care about is related to genre. There are possible paths for our character, but our interest is tied to the paths we prefer our characters (or ourselves) to take. Film development consultant Stephen Cleary introduced this concept to me, explaining how audiences consider possible outcomes, but ultimately desire a single one. For instance:

So when we say the technique is about withholding closure, we’re talking about a closure the audience cares about, as framed by the genre we’re working in. But ultimately connected to what the audience wants to see happen, I believe, in their own lives. In our Mitsubishi commercial, we wanted to see the “good” person, the driver, succeed and live. 

Key events like these listed are not necessarily always what we see in our cliff-hanger moments. That is, a cliff-hanger isn’t always something we’ve been building up to for a while. Cliff-hangers are often the consequences of a decision, a new situation to be addressed. They are the point in which a new question is posed straight after a previous question has been concluded. This is how dramatic structures often work: each character action opens up new consequences. 

In this kind of episodic, which we’ll call a serial structure, the storyline is rarely self-contained, it is dispersed across episodes, and media. Examples include Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Bloodline, Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, and the Lord of the Rings films.

“Recap” illustration

One technique that is used to assist the returning audience is that of the “recap”. That is, a summary at the beginning of an episode that tells us what happened before. If we didn’t see the previous episode, it tells us what we need to know. If we had seen the episode before, it reminds us of pertinent points. This raises the issue of making it interesting for those that have seen the previous episode.

I have seen some interesting approaches to the recap that give insights for both audience points-of-entry. One example is the use of different camera angles of the same scene. So the same scene is shown, to give us the necessary plot point, but we’re seeing it from a different camera angle so it is providing a slightly new perspective. I’ve seen this used in The Good Wife repeatedly and Ray Donovan.

I have also seen recaps addressed well across media. I remember when I first came across this technique when watching the Canadian TV series ReGenesis and the accompanying parallel interactive experience. The team provided a podcast recap of the players actions in the interactive experience. So we have a recap of works across media, and including player actions.

But another structure of episodic, one that has a longer history, doesn’t need a recap. And that is the series structure. 

“Series” structure illustration

This is when each episode is self-contained. You begin your audience questions and resolve them within the same episode. For instance, police procedurals introduce a victim and by the end of the episode we’ve solved the crime and brought the villain to justice. The CSI series is an example. Why use this technique? With this technique you make sure each episode makes sense for people who may read or watch them out of order. So if we’ve missed episodes we can still jump in easily anytime. Indeed, it is more common for procedurals as they are appealing because we can be assured of a predictable set of questions and desired outcomes being attained. If the narrative is not resolved in that viewing session, then it won’t supply the psychological closure the audience desires from the procedural at that time.

Henry Jenkins said many times over the years that because audiences cannot be expected to experience every episode across media, this self-contained technique should always be used in transmedia. This has meant Transmedia consultants and researchers around the world have advocated for this single technique approach. I consulted on the Nokia alternate reality game Conspiracy for Good, and I recall a criticism of that work saying dispersing the narrative across the online and live experiences was a mistake and can’t ever work. The issue is the implementation, not the technique. 

Indeed, I have never understood these rules around specific techniques. I’m aware of the role of Patriarchy, and how the ideas of an older white male automatically have more weight than any others. But I think there is another factor leading to the blind following of a certain technique to the exclusion of others: it is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as “skin in the game”. Taleb explains that so many problems in the world are due to decision-makers not having skin in the game. To quote: “If you give an opinion, and someone follows it, you are morally obligated to be, yourself, exposed to its consequences” (Taleb, 2018, 4).

If you don’t feel the consequences, whether that is being exposed to audiences responses, having your income affected by the success of a project, being accountable to those you consult to, or some other factor, then how can your ideas be tested? I think if more people who were in position of leading discussions about design actually felt the effects of their designs, we’d have more understanding of the role of context and execution. 

Indeed, the serial and series structural approaches, along with the recap, are techniques that emerged in a particular context. The series structure was particularly important, for instance, when multiple television episodes were not available to be viewed at once with binge viewing. Not too long ago, all television episodes were for scheduled viewing, with territory rights and their associated costs controlling when audiences in different countries could view them.

“Hybrid” structure illustration

This created the problem of trying to address audiences missing a scheduled episode, while at the same time giving a reason to come back and catch the next episode. TV theorist Robin Nelson observed a technique used in 1970s that addressed the point-of-entry problem with the audience-interest problem, a technique he called “flexi-narrative” (Nelson, 1997, 34). Nelson studied TV shows like Hills Street Blues, and found that the hit TV shows mixed both series and serial techniques. I quote: 

“The blurring of distinction between the series and serial affords schedulers the joint advantage of an unresolved narrative strand — a cliff-hanger to draw the audience to watch the next episode — and a new group of characters and self-contained stories in each episode.”

So we have another approach we can use in our episodic design, one which was employed in The Matrix franchise as well, across films, comics, and games for instance. With DVDs, and now streaming, this approach is not needed to solve the missed episode problem anymore. But it is still invoked. Indeed, in many series there is a mix of storylines that are completed within an episode, and then longer storylines that can continue over the season, over a few episodes, or just two, and others make character journeys happen over the entire lifetime of the series too.

“Anthology” structure illustration

We also have another structure, and that is the Anthology. This is when we have an overarching thematic connection, and multiple episodes that begin and end within an episode or chapter. Each episode can have different characters, settings, and situations. But they’re connected by some overarching thematic point, usually using the contrast in stories to comment about society. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror are examples of this structure. 

But even if the storylines are not directly connected, there is more than a thematic continuity. Black Mirror, for instance, has objects reappear in multiple episodes, inferring the characters inhabit a common storyworld. The final episode of season four, “Black Museum,” has a collection of artefacts of dark work, that features objects from multiple episodes over the seasons. 

This is a technique I call a “continuity kiss”. This is after James Swallow, who has worked on properties such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who (Swallow in Bateman, 2007, 172). Swallow talks about the importance of your characters staying in-character across media. But he takes it further and talks about something variously described as “kisses with continuity” or continuity kisses. An example he gives was the “Star Trek Invasion” game he was working on. At first they created these planets and gave them names, and then they realised they could use the planet names actually referenced in the TV series. 

It is something we can easily do a creators when we have all these storyworld elements logged. But just doing it because it is a storyworld element is not enough. To be a technique we need to have design reasons for its use, and acknowledge there are different ways it manifests. So I describe continuity kisses as the conceptual, aural, visual, or haptic references to the original or previous work that help promote a cumulative experience. For the audience, continuity kisses facilitate recognition of the world of the project, engage a familiarity experience, and inform interpretation.

I particularly notice it when I’m experiencing works across artforms. These continuity kisses become studs across media, helping overtly connect my current experience to my past experience. I have a moment of “I recognise this,” “I know what this is,” and it opens up a new interpretation of the past and present. I had this when I experienced Ryan Trecartin’s “I-BEA Area” installation of his art film. I recognised the same poster from the film in the museum setting. 

This brings me to another related technique, that aids the audience moving across media: Joiners. Joiners are the overlapping elements at the edges of a project that help audiences recognise the relationship to another work. They’re like continuity kisses, but their function is to enable the audience to recognise and remember a previous work as they enter the current one. They activate a framed reading. 

I have found this to be essential in the context of cross-media experiences where the audience may not be aware of how the work they’re experiencing now is related to another one. This happened for me when I ran an event at a film festival [ED: “Extended Experiences Lab”], where we made installations to accompany the films, but the films were a collection of short films. So I needed a way for audiences to know which installation matched which film, without the use of a poster. 

Joiners are helpful for: 

  • Recognition of your project amidst other projects (a collective installation for example)
  • As a form of recap if time elapsed between the sessions
  • Activating a cumulative reading (which means I experience this new work in light of a previous work)

I noticed the effect of not having a joiner when I experienced the campaign for the Amazon TV series adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. As I wrote in my Medium post (Dena, 2017), the interactive experience involved listening to a rebel radio station who are working to counter the Nazi world they’ve found themselves in. This rebellion narrative drew me in, and I excitedly signed up to Amazon and started watching the new TV season the campaign was promoting. The problem was that the rebellion storyline wasn’t part of the TV series. It had been developed independently by Campfire, and hadn’t been integrated into the TV storyline yet. I found one episode, but overall I found the entry experience (both in user-interface and storyline) didn’t acknowledge where I was coming from, there was nothing joining the two. 

So with series, serial, hybrid, anthology structures, recaps, continuity kisses,and joiners, we have a range of techniques to draw on to address our episodic design challenges. These are not the only ones of course. There are some more techniques I have looked at, that keep our audience with us. 

Frank Daniels outlined many interest design techniques in his work on screenplays (Daniels in Gulino, 2016 [2004]). He cites for example “telegraphing,” which is when we tell the audience what will happen in the future of the story. An example is the Sesame Street book by Jon Stone, called The Monster at the End of this Book. [ED: See a recent game book version with John Scott Tynes’ The Game at the End of This PDF]

Related to this is the “dangling cause,” where an inciting event is created but not followed up immediately. The cause dangles…

We can also have time-limits, where our characters have a limited time to conquer the situation, like the 24 series that continues 24 hours over months. Or the time limit could be for us the audience, or players. It is about a finite and impending time constraint, with consequences we know we want to avoid. 

There is “dramatic irony” as a key example of maintaining interest, and Stephen Cleary has more recently extended it as the “understanding gap” – based on how much we as an audience know in relation to the characters (Cleary, 2015):

Cleary argues we need to shift between these points-of-view to keep the story interesting. If we stay in Concerned Sympathy for too long, for instance, we may think less of the character, get annoyed by them not knowing. If we stay too long with Curious Sympathy, we may spend more time analysing than caring about the character. And just staying with empathy, while easy, can become boring. The same principles can apply across episodes and across media. 

Indeed, variation and surprise keep us interested in a work over time. The TV series How To Get Away With Murder does a great job of jumping across time to reveal information that continually changes our view on the situation. At the beginning of each season, we usually begin with a preview of a key scene or sequence that is just before the ending. The cuts show us a certain scenario that sees certain characters in a bad light. We might be lead to think: “how could they do that?” Or “why did they do that?” Or “how will they get away with that?” Each episode then reveals more parts of the same scenes and the scenes preceding it, and these change our questions. We’re led down a continually shifting set of questions and reframings until we discover that the ending we thought we saw at the beginning is actually the reverse, and we have very different questions we want to see answered now. Season four, for instance, (spoiler) begins with a scene at a hospital implicating Annalise in Laurel’s baby going missing. By the end we know that Annalise actually saved the baby.

Gulino also lists the power of suspense, and how this raises tension. Like our discussion earlier about possible outcomes and desired outcomes, suspense operates with a particular result in mind. I quote

“Tension is created when the audience hopes for one outcome of a situation and is afraid of another. The audience is held in suspense between the two outcomes. Tension needs to be set up (the audience given salient information,  for example, two detectives seek to apprehend a suspect) and resolved (the suspect gets away). In between, the suspect is chased, and the two outcomes — they get him or they don’t — are suspended in the minds of the audience.”

Let’s look at how all these interest design techniques come together, in the BBC Planet Earth II documentary sequence, known as “Iguana versus snakes”. 

Sourced from:

Did you feel your pulse increase? Your palms sweat by any chance? Or just felt anxious about the Iguana? We want the Iguana to live. This brings us to an important point. It is no accident that I’ve drawn on a documentary about planet earth. All these techniques of increasing tension by withholding closure about things we care about have a different meaning in the context we find ourselves in. To explain this further, let me juxtapose events ahead for us.

Disney’s announcement of the franchise films they have planned for release over the next few years (Disney. 2019), alongside the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which have announced that we have 12 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C (IPCC, 2019). What does seriality mean in this context? What do unending fictional worlds and the desire to stay with them mean? What does withholding closure about things we care about mean in this context? 

Will the revolution be televised? Will James Cameron’s Avatar films help us? Will Star Wars? Indeed, there will be many rebellions and worlds saved…on the screen. Does this mean we need to switch off our TVs to save our world? For me, no. There is no one way to save the world. There is no single hero, no uniform needed, no intergalactic battle. It can be saved, it needs to be saved, or more accurately, it needs to be transformed. Irrespective of how our environmental concerns play out, we have a social crisis that needs to be transformed. And for this to happen it needs to occur in every aspect of our lives. The revolution will be on the streets, in our shampoo, and on our screens. It means moving away from seeing our creative projects, and the techniques and processes we use to create them, as being separate from ourselves and the world. 

How can we do this? How did we do this?

One thing I have observed over the last couple of decades, is that the differences between artforms, between media, are not the media. They’re also not necessarily the differences in pipelines either, for instance: films move from development to production, and games develop all the way through. What I’ve found is that filmmakers can have a good understanding of thinking about the experience of the audience, like a game designer; and a game designer can have a terrible understanding of the experience of a player, or may have a great understanding of narrative techniques that work in all artforms. It isn’t the artforms that is different, it is instead cultures of practice. And these cultures of practice are media and artform-agnostic. What are these cultures of practice? 

“Artefact-Oriented” illustration

First, the most common culture of practice is the one concerned with the artefact, the object. The Artefact-oriented approach is seen in the focus on mechanical techniques. Anything that is concerned with the details of the object we’re creating. This culture of practice sees an object as something separate from everything. It is exterior to us. It is no coincidence that in a world where so many parts of society have divorced what we create from who we are and our environment, that the Artefact-oriented approach is pervasive. We create a thing, and it’s not connected to anything. There is no relational perspective in this thinking. 

“Audience-Oriented” illustration

The next culture of practice is Audience-oriented. This is when practitioners think about the experience of the audience. The creative’s techniques and processes are geared towards understanding and facilitating the audience experience. Like the techniques around interest design we spoke about. Not all creatives are concerned with the audience experience, even those creatives that deal with interactivity for a living. They’re often concerned with character transformation and not player transformation. This is because of the alluring power of the object, and the idea that we can keep refining an object without regard for how it is experienced and how it affects people. 

“Artist-Oriented” illustration

The next culture of practice is Artist-oriented. This is when the creative sees themselves (and their team) as part of the techniques and processes. This approach is concerned with questions about personal expression and the experience of those involved in the making, and how their world is part of the creative project and meaning. In many commercially-oriented productions, there is the belief that putting yourself in your project will make it less successful…when actually the reverse is true.

Transmedia began for me as an Artist- and Artefact-oriented practice, where I was concerned with my expression and with the techniques involved with the making of Transmedia artefacts. Later I understood how an audience-oriented approach strengthens understanding and effect. [ED: See my talk at GDC on “cross-media promises”]

The Artefact-, Audience-, and Artist-oriented approaches are the most common viewpoints of creation. But there is something else that has been emerging and needed: an Earth-oriented approach. 

“Earth-Oriented” illustration

The Earth-oriented approach considers the World, the environment, our climate, our animals, in the creative techniques and processes employed. It is more than making the environment the subject-matter of a project, it is also about the choices of materials we use to create, the ways we weave connection the world into the work, and acknowledge and take responsibility for the consequences of what we produce.

So how does seriality as it is understood, and Transmedia, stand up to these cultures of practice, and specifically the Earth-oriented culture of practice? 

Let’s look at Transmedia with a capital “T”. 

Firstly, the well-known principles of Transmedia, that are still referred to by academics and practitioners alike, are observably concerned with an Artefact-oriented approach. The concepts such as spreadability, drillability, continuity, multiplicity, immersion, extractability, worldbuilding, seriality, subjectivity, and performance, are concerned with the specifics of techniques about how to do transmedia as an object. We could say that they’re Audience-Oriented as well, because the concepts talk about fans and how they want to take things with them, and how fans produce performances. But there are also the anti-audience viewpoints strangely invoked in the name of fan interest, where fans are painted as people who only want a series structure and no adaptations, despite actual audience behaviours saying the opposite. [ED: See my chapter on “Revisiting the No-Adaptation Rule”.] There is no Artist-oriented approach in the writings, as transmedia is not conceptualised as an expressive activity. It is an object that one strategises and executes, not something that comes from people. The lack of the individual, the personal, in the processes and techniques perpetuates a dissociation between who creates and what they create. 

When it comes to an Earth-oriented perspective, Transmedia concepts do also reveal unchecked colonialist thinking. 

We have the desirable qualities of “drillability”…

As well as “extractability”…

As well as the desire to capture, catalogue, and collect. 

Highlighting these terms may seem pedantic, but I have become hyper aware of the language we use regarding our Earth as much as the language used to describe genders, employees and immigrants. 

“Money Bags” illustration

The language of Transmedia is about techniques to increase the financial success of projects. When creatives assess what they’re doing, they’re asking “how can I make more money?”, “how will this process, technique, format make me more money?” The idea is this: if you continue your story across media, using a series structure, never use adaptation, and encourage collecting, then you’ll make money. I find this thinking aligns with what has been described as a neoliberalist perspective. 

What do I mean by neoliberalism? David Harvey explains that “neoliberalism”  (I quote) “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” (Harvey, 2007, 2)

Harvey explains how the early champions of this view include Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. A neoliberalist view supports the privatization of education and prisons for instance, as the idea is they will be better if they compete commercially without government involvement. [ED: I have since read Noam Chomsky’s work on neoliberalism being neither new or liberal.] The alluring proposition of neoliberalism is that if people are liberated from institutional frameworks, anyone can compete and flourish. Economics historian Diedre McCloskey argues that this perspective is actually in line with Adam Smith’s view of economics as he outlined in his 1776 work The Wealth of the Nations. That is, a system of economics that allows, I quote, “every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice” (Smith in McCloskey, 2016).

But the neoliberalist idea of freedom to pursue your own interests misses some critical points. Some people don’t have the freedom to pursue their own interests, some don’t seriously understand there is a choice in what they pursue, and our institutions and social structures are geared towards benefitting certain people. Our economics do not exist outside Patriarchy, outside whiteness, outside a pre-defined hierarchy of worth. Humanity is not actually embedded in the system as Adam Smith dreamed it would be. Humanity, and Earth, are not embedded in the system. As Professor Will Steffen explains:

“The neoliberal economic system we’ve bought into is completely at odds with how the Earth works […] We have to change this value system that we operate under. We need a social tipping point that flips our thinking, before we reach a tipping point in the climate system.” (Steffen in Carvan, 2019)

“Monoverse” illustration

Our work as creatives contributes to this social tipping. Not just the subject of what we talk about in creative projects, but the techniques and processes we use. We need to shift away from the dominant monoverse we’ve created in this world. The idea that there is a single way of being that is better than all others. A way of seeing the world that privileges the interests of cis-gender heterosexual white men above everyone else, and above the interests of the world. It is one where there is no sense of Self, just prescribed roles. It is a world where we focus on the object and don’t see a connection between our creative work and ourselves, between our creative work and others, our creative work and the world. It is a view that claims there is a single great way to be, there isn’t really a choice at all, there is just whether you succeed at doing right or not.

“Pluriverse” illustration

Instead we need to move to a pluriverse perspective. Arturo Escobar explains how in a pluriverse approach to our social reality, difference can be “normalized” and “nourished” (Escobar, YEAR, XVI) He cites the Zapatista, and their clear embodiment of the concept of the pluriverse with the phrase: “a world where many worlds fit” (XVI). There is no hierarchy, no dualist split of one better way of being and lesser ways of being. Instead, there are multiple ways of being. The pluriverse demands that you know yourself, that see how we’re connected, and how we’re different. There is no one-size-fits-all, and there never was. It means moving beyond seeing projects as objects too, ensuring we’re connected as artists, with our audience, and with Earth. 

What does this mean in terms of seriality and transmedia? 

It means the multiplicity of our lives is evidenced in the multiplicity of our artforms. That there is no single way of creating and experiencing, and that creatives can choose to express in any artform they desire, and audiences can choose to connect through any artform they desire. So you’re not deciding on artforms based on some externally-defined right platform to use, and you’re not using techniques that others impose on you. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow and happiness is relevant here. 

“When we are fully expressing our strengths, whether the strength is creating a thing of beauty or a moral strength or a physical strength, somehow we are able to say ‘yes this is who we are’. This is what I am and this is what I can do. When you are able to do that, you experience something that makes life suddenly matter and to feel that yes, this is what I’m supposed to do. This is who I am.” (Csíkszentmihályi, 2014)

What if seriality was not about lack, was not about needing closure, needing fulfilment, needing a single desired outcome? What if seriality, the urge to continue with something, was driven instead by the desire to connect, to be with for longer…out of choice, out of feeling fullness? As Michael Mateus has helpfulling explained about the design of choices in games: 

“If the Choices are greater than our Desires, then we feel overwhelmed.

If the Choices are lesser than our Desires, then we feel frustrated.

If the Choices equal our Desires, then we have a feeling of freedom and fulfilment.”

It means creating works with structures that show we do have choices. That we do have liberty of existence, and that there are choices and multiple paths ahead for us. We need to see hope, and we need to see that our life, our daily lives, our planet, is not prescribed. Our narrative structures are part of this. 

Currently our structures are designed towards a single desired outcome, a single outcome for everyone. This single outcome reminds us every day that there isn’t a range of possibilities ahead for us and that there is one way of being. We learn through each narrative we experience that there is either a good or bad outcome. What we’re told over and over again is that it is simply and often literally black and white. 

So we need structures that open up our minds to more possibilities, to more worlds. I’d like to introduce here another structural technique from the work of Nitzan Ben Shaul, and his book on “optional thinking in movies”. The premise of the book is described as follows

“Standard Hollywood narrative movies prescribe linear narratives that cue the viewer to expect predictable outcomes and adopt a closed state of mind. There are, however, a small number of movies that, through the presentation of alternate narrative paths, open the mind to thoughts of choice and possibility. […] This book examines the methods by which standard narrative movies close down thinking processes and deliver easy pleasures to the viewer whilst demonstrating that this is not the only possibility and that optional thinking can be both stimulating and rewarding.”

So what is this “optional thinking”? Optional thinking is “the cognitive ability to generate, perceive, or compare and assess alternative hypotheses that offer explanations for real or lifelike events” (Shaul, 2015 [2012], 2). Most of our narratives are designed around a closed ending. We experience possibilities at the beginning, but they narrow progressively as the narrative progresses until there is just one plausible ending. All narrative threads lead to one outcome.

Shaul gives examples of different kinds of structures that encourage optional thinking, which includes seeing multiple paths, with all outcomes being possible. He cites Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run as examples. He includes the importance of counter-factual histories, where new ways of viewing our past and present are created, such as Inglorius Bastards. And Shaul speaks of perspective shifting, and how taking on different perspectives opens up possibilities for new ways of thinking. He cites Rashamon as an example. 

What does a world with multiple perspectives look like? What is existence like when we recognise that there are many of us, experiencing the world in different ways? David O’Reilly’s game Everything shows us an example. Let’s have a look. 

Sourced from:

But we know what it looks like because it is around us everywhere. It is our reality. We need to do the work of peeling back the constructions we’ve made as humans, to awkwardly fit everything into one size, and one time. 

We’ve been moving towards this, so it isn’t a surprise. It does require making the decision to move away from the beauty of the reality we’ve constructed for ourselves. I know it isn’t easy. I have many times thought about how fine it would be to just enjoy my time here eating, sleeping, watching TV, having sex, getting a great new outfit, swimming, and laughing with friends. These are all good and worthy activities. But I know it won’t fill me for long. There is a choice just like the pills in the The Matrix, but with one key difference: we cannot forget. Once awake, there is no return. Netflix isn’t as fun when you know that we may be bingeing to the end of humanity. I couldn’t look myself in the eye. 

The end of the world will not be televised, but it’s transformation will be.

[Commissioned illustrations by Marigold “Goldie” Bartlett]


[ED: See also some recent posts about Narrative Design Testing, and Making Mechanics, that look at ways we’re complicit in our design processes]

Illustration of figure with world and hammer

Making Mechanics

An exploration of some of the ways we can make mechanics, with some thoughts about their relationship with complicit design (upholding oppressive systems and destroying the planet).

Selection: Standardised Existing Mechanics

The most common approach to making mechanics is to select from existing mechanics used in other games. So, externally-sourced and validated mechanics. This is the way designers often start, but it wasn’t my path. I came into games creation through pervasive games: games in the streets and using everyday technologies like email, websites, and documents. I saw patterns, and over time was able to contrast these patterns against existing ones. I did this for instance by adding ARG Social Mechanics to Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design book (and wiki). It helped me to have existing lists of patterns to frame what I was observing in games. 

Indeed, drawing on existing mechanics helps with understanding and working with games. It also has a big role in facilitating a satisfying relationship with your players. Part of the standardisation of game design involves the emergence of game genres, and the mechanics associated with those. The idea is we’re matching player expectation by adhering to the mechanics of the genre.  So often we either begin with a game genre in mind, or figure out which one our project is matching one as we go (common practice is the former). 

There are mechanics you learn as a player, but sometimes this can be confused with player strategies. But there are tons of articles and books to assist with sourcing mechanics (and finding the name for things you’re already doing), such as: summaries in every game design textbook, and specialty books like Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans’ Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design, Ernest Adams’ booklets on specific genres, Greg Trefry’s Casual Game Design, Richard Bartle’s Designing Virtual Worlds, Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, Nordiclarp wiki, Christopher Allen & Shannon Appelcline’s Meeples Together: How and Why Cooperative Board Game Work, and more (tell me your favourites!).

This selection from existing mechanics, often to align with a specific genre, is the most common way games are made. It is a focus on making as a craft, where the designer is artefact-oriented. They’re making a thing, and so the reference point is mechanisms from other things. “Innovation” is not automatically facilitated with this approach, unless successful hybrids are created through what Arthur Koestler termed bisociation. And even if it does move into innovation, the designs are still upholding oppressive systems — they’re not thwarting complicit design. Why? Because the unthinking default of mechanics are complicit. So how can we make mechanics outside of the box?

Selection & Generation: Mechanics from Reference Actions

This is when you draw on reference materials to inspire mechanics. I find this approach to be big in tabletop design, and known but not always invoked in videogame design. If you’re making a tourism game for instance, you draw on what actions are common in tourism to make your game. You draw on the “reality” reference as Casper Harteveld explains in his Triadic Game Design book. This is often what is considered “theme” in tabletop. Unthinking reproduction of “reality” references can mean replicating the same power dynamics that do harm in the world, in your game. The standard approach is to draw on other games and common understanding of the status quo real world, and not necessarily marginalised realities, and other artforms.

The references do not need to be interactive, and can be other artforms, and other disciplines, etc. As I’ve taught in my Extended Experiences and VR Writing Labs, you can find lots of mechanics within non-interactive works. For instance, when I binge of a TV show I love, I often find there are repeated actions that I now associate with the work. With Sopranos I made an (unpublished) tabletop game that involved clinking glasses of scotch over ice, and passing envelopes of money to each other. For Suits, it was the passing of legal folders to each other. For a VR documentary I recently co-wrote, a few of the witness testimonials mentioned a secret door knock and so that became a mechanic for the work. Actions are everywhere to draw on.

With all of these you’re of course not just gathering mechanics, but also making sure they’re embedded with meaning. So they may seem straightforward actions, but you’re drawing on existing associations people have and then also encoding your own meaning. One of my backburner projects is a short film and companion game about a spider and fly. So I’ve been researching spiders and flies and what they do, and thinking about how I can frame these actions to facilitate the experience. 

Selection: Theme, Experience Informing Existing Mechanics Choices 

There are some that make choices about their mechanics not just through the filter of genre, or by reference materials, but also theme. Unlike the way theme is discussed in tabletop, I am referring to the concept used in writing: theme as overarching idea, message. So the choices of the mechanics you employ can be informed by what your project is about. For instance, my spider and fly games is about friendship, about partners. I won’t go into the specifics of my theme statement right now (it keeps changing), but the idea of friendship is informing my choices. I’m drawing on multiplayer, cooperative mechanics therefore. For a live game I made a few years ago, Bakers of Anarchy, I wanted to give the players the experience of being anarchic in the face of reality TV rules. So I drew on mechanics that supported this such as hidden agenda, asymmetrical information, and group rewards. One of the card games I’m playtesting now, DIYSPY, aims to facilitate the experience of ingenuity, of feeling ingenious. Thinking about what the experience of the project is, is encouraged in standard videogame processes I find. But thinking about what you’re saying with your game is not. And when a theme is employed, it is often an existing theme that is vague and impersonal (example: good triumphs over evil). As I mentioned in a previous post, we’re seeing development with approaches like Values at Play, and I find designing with messages stronger with indie indie designers. Being aware that you say things with your creative projects, and so being responsible about that, is part of the process of moving away from complicity.

Generation: Mechanics from Personal Actions

You can generate mechanics by drawing on your own experiences, your own actions, to employ in your work. This is distinct to the drawing on actions from reference materials because the practice of drawing on yourself is not standard in videogame and tabletop development. Complicit design is connected to the lack of the personal. I have found that designers who avoid drawing on themselves in the construction of narrative and interaction systems have internalised status quo beliefs about the world. Given, some have learned they need to create “personal stories” to draw in the empathic crowd. So the subject matter does come from their lives in bits, but the mechanics and structures used to design them will be from existing ones or generated by other people on the team. They avoid the self-awareness needed to do that kind of generative activity. Anything that is drawn on will be invoked to elicit empathy, and perhaps even fear; anything but vulnerability. A way out of invoking the personal too, is to claim that they aren’t real mechanics. Real mechanics are real because they make the world go around and maintain no connection to self and others.

How do you draw on the personal for mechanics? A big part of the process of making meaningful mechanics is making mechanics that are meaningful to you. I’d love to hear how you do it. For now I’ll share how I do it. I do exercises that draw on memories of related events and see what I can observe as actions there. I brainstorm associations I have. And as I’ve done in my workshops, I encourage diverse brainstorming by having everyone individually write their personal memories to offer to a designer. I find it is easier to write memories from concepts and then find the actions, rather than brainstorm actions straight away. For instance, brainstorming memories of missing a loved one and discussing the actions mentioned in the story or actions inspired by the story. Understanding we all have unique stories, and recognising them, helps move us away from complicit design.

Generation: Concepts Incarnated as Mechanics

Sometimes you can draw on concepts and figure out how they can be incarnated as mechanics, as actions. For instance, a couple of years ago I consulted on a VR documentary project looking at their narrative design. There was a story, but the actions weren’t connected to the meaning. I spent time with the testimonies of those involved in the actual events of the story, and the directors. I saw an emerging theme that could be transposed to mechanical form: “holding on, and letting go”.  From that, I was able to come up with a gesture that could be repeated throughout the piece: holding on and letting go of your doll (which was pertinent to the story). To help develop these skills, a brief I used to give my studio game designers was to design a game around the experience of trust. They had to research what trust is and then transpose that to mechanics. And it wasn’t about the experience of distrust or betrayal of trust either, they are standard game mechanics. One thing I have found over the years too, is that if we’re ever lost about just what a concept is…if our outside knowledge is failing us…then drawing on the personal helps. So I ask: what does X feel like when you experience it? That opens up personal truths.

Screenshot from “The Thin Black Line”

Generation & Selection: Ideology Incarnated as Mechanics

You can take it further and select and generate mechanics according your ideology. For instance, you may believe in a certain about of chaos in the world, and so you may select “Uncertainty Mechanisms” Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, and research Greg Costikyan’s Uncertainty in Games. And you may generate ones that work with your own ideology. In my projects, I’ve been experimenting with (among other things) progression mechanics that are not externally-measured, because I believe this is a crucial system that needs to be normalised in the world. Seeing your mechanics and your processes as something that can be redesigned according to your way of seeing the world is not standard game design practice. It needs to be though, and so that is what I’m focusing on with my redesigning of game design practices.

Commissioned illustration by Marigold (Goldie) Bartlett.

Illustration of a bottle with "plot avoidance scrub" written on it.

Narrative Design Testing

A month ago I did a quick Twitter post about a couple of situations in which testing with the same players is helpful. It got me thinking about what I look for when testing.

Some context: along with testing my own interactive projects (whether they be installations, Apps, live games, or card games), and consulting and the mentoring at industry labs around the world, for the last four years or so I have been overseeing the conception and production of 100-200 interactive projects every year. These projects have varied from 2 hour jams, half-day jams, 2-day labs, 1 week labs, 2 week, 6 week, 1 year, 3 year projects. They’ve been school-setting, client projects, industry labs, commissions, crowdfunded, self-funded, no budget, small budget, medium-budget (what is this?), and multi-million dollar budget projects. They’ve been videogames, interactive fiction, VR, installations, Apps, live games, ARGs, tabletop games, transmedia (film, TV, books, theatre, docos & interactive), projections, websites, playful books and more. Technologies have included proprietary systems, industry tools, indie tools, CD-Roms, actors, paper, chalk, Lego, lollies, and more.

Rather than share a general list of insights over the years, I want to share some of the patterns I’ve observed in what I look for when I’m testing other peoples’ and my own projects regarding narrative design.

Tests & Passes

I will alternate in my use of the terms “tests” and “passes” as I see them as interchangeable, but don’t always suit each word combination. For instance, a “Complicity Pass” has a different meaning than intended! “Passes” helps as these are particular things we look for during testing but don’t necessarily create a separate test for. And they’re things we don’t necessarily see all at once, and so we have to look for them. I love “passes” too, because some people still see testing as something that happens at the end of project and one that is conducted purely with the “final form”. Whereas “passes” makes it clear that it is something we’re doing along the way, especially earlier. It also helps unclamp the belief some people have that a professional creative work comes out fully-formed. They think in terms of false leads, dead ends, and wasted time, and don’t see how these actions are additive not subtractive. Or they think if it works for them at a moment in time, it will work for everyone across time. Both don’t realise that creation is an interactive process, not a static product. Jack Epps’ book Screenwriting is Rewriting provides a helpful intervention: “If there is one skill that separates the professional from the amateur, it is the ability to rewrite successfully.” It isn’t about being so good you don’t need to rewrite, you’re good because you rewrite with purpose. Epps uses the term “passes” throughout his book.

The following are some of the things you can look for in narrative design testing or passes, and of course don’t include the questions that are specific to project iteration. But these are the ones that stand out in my mind right now.

  • Avoiding Testing
  • Theme-Action Alignment
  • Promise Test
  • Agency — Mental Model Test
  • Agency — Freedom Affect Test
  • Doing, Not Telling
  • Emotion Design Pass
  • Bestseller Test
  • Complicity Test

Avoiding Testing

The Avoiding-Testing Test! There are those who avoid testing in the first place. When I see this happening, I look at two factors: the person and the environment. On the latter: I have entered environments where there isn’t a testing culture and I so far have found it has been matched with an antagonistic environment. In other words, people are scared of testing because they think they will be subject to scathing criticism. And they will. I have seen this in companies and universities alike. Cynics and critics do not make projects better, projects happen in spite of them.

Why do I do this? While I’ve been working professionally on creative projects for 25+ years, it has only been the last decade that I’ve realised the beauty of testing. I avoided it too. My works are better now because I let the world breathe on them. My goal then is to facilitate this happening. But not force it on them. Some are happily making by themselves.

What do I do? Regarding environments, I create spaces of reciprocal vulnerability. I find whenever there are people issuing vile feedback and fear-based settings, they’re not personally putting themselves into positions of vulnerability. That is the point, isn’t it? So reciprocal vulnerability is important. If those people creating a critical environment have nothing to test (which is unsurprisingly often the case), then I try to make sure those testing see role models for vulnerability (including testing my own projects with them), and know how to interpret antagonistic feedback and attitudes (the “skin in the game” argument that Nassim Nicholas Taleb put forward is helpful: “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will benefit, and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them.“) I have also actively made addressing problems fun and fulfilling, as opposed to terrifying to notice. This helps associate pleasure and growth with testing, as opposed to associating testing with pain and shame. As for personally, I try to make discussions about the obstacles we face in getting to testing part of the process. And I refer to Brené Brown’s super helpful insights into fear-based leadership in Dare to Lead, and how we can shift out of “perfectionism” (which is a common obstacle), “cynicism,” and “avoidance” to name a few. One of mine has been “numbing”!

Theme-Action Alignment Pass

This refers to checking what the project is about aligns with the logics of the narrative and mechanical (all interactions) systems employed. This includes dramatic structure choices, genre choices, mechanics, all interactions, even artforms employed, and how they align with what the work is about at a thematic level: the core message, “universal” concern, argument or area of exploration. Unlike in literature and screenwriting, games are still relatively new to the idea of a theme (premise). Cliff Blesinski’s 2007 “Ludonarrative Dissonance” helped move the concept forward with the notion of a story clashing with the mechanics. But there are many, particularly in tabletop games (and VR) that look only as far as checking the logic of the setting and/or topic and align the actions from there. Mary Flanaghan and Helen Nissenbaum’s 2005+ work on Values in games has helped many developers move deeper. But there aren’t necessarily checks against the dramatic structures and mechanical choices involved. So for me, a Theme-Action Alignment check includes these setting, story, and action elements as well as, and importantly including, the structural choices against the deeper message of the work.

Why do I do this? I didn’t consciously do this, I don’t think, until I read filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies in the early 2000s. Lumet, who directed movies such as Network, 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, talks about how there are “no unimportant decisions.” The sets, costumes, lighting, and lens choices are all part of the meaning-making:

“Making a move has always been about telling a story. Some movies tell a story and leave you with a feeling. Some tell a story and leaving you with a feeling and give you an idea. Some tell a story, leave you with a feeling, give you an idea, and reveal something about yourself and others. And surely the way you tell that story should relate somehow to what that story is. [NP] Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story. After the first critical decision (“What’s this story about?”) comes the second most important decision: “Now that I know what it’s about, how shall I tell it?” And this decision will affect every department involved in the movie that is about to be made.” (original emphasis)

Sidney Lumet (1995) Making Movies

As part of my PhD, I wrote about how the choices of artforms we employ are part of thematic meaning too. That is: even the choice of a making it as a film as opposed to a play or interactive experience relates to what your work is about. In the last five years or so I now also include all the processes involved in making a work: the dramatic structure that is employed, the mechanics, team, collaborative design, and so on. It all affects the end product and therefore the experience. Our processes for making, particularly in games, are often theme-repellant (deluded about their apparently apolitical creations). The most known related concept is the notion of a narrative wrapper. This isn’t an issue for all creators though, some have this deeply as part of their practice and so don’t need to overtly look for it.

What do I do? So when checking for a theme-action alignment, I need to know what the theme is. I don’t need to know before I test other peoples’ works, as it is super helpful to see what I and other players come up with based on what you/we offer in our projects. If the designers don’t have a theme they’re exploring yet, then I talk about what the project is saying with the choices they’ve made so far. We go through ways to explore what they would like theme to be, and how their expressive choices can align with it. We look at possible alternatives to dramatic and action structures. At the beginning themes change though, as the creator’s understanding and the context changes. So I find having an overt process to check what it is helps progress insight. One thing I’ve found too from analysing lots of works, is that every element doesn’t necessarily have to be right on theme. It isn’t about quantity, it is about decisions.

Promise Test

What promises does the work make to the audience/players with the title, description, other promotional materials, and opening experience, and does the work meet those promises? I find there is sometimes a big gap between what is being signalled and what is being offered. This can include promises about genre, topic, emotional journey, experience goals.

Why do I do this? This is something that took me longer than it should have for me to recognise. But it is a critical aspect of our relationship with our audience/players. How is it that these promises can be missed? It is in large part due to a lack of consideration of the audience and player experience: what is going through their mind, what do they think is happening, what they expect and want to be happening? Promises are super helpful in providing guidance to the creators if we’re/they’re unsure what structures to use. You’re signalling a crime story? Okay, which kind of crime story, and what are the existing dramatic and mechanics that audiences and players have come to expect with them? But it isn’t about doing exactly what people want. It is about being aware of how your signals are part of a conversation that will be thought about and acted upon. That is part of the canvas you’re working with.

What do I do? Documentation, pitch decks, and promotional materials help creators clarify and communicate what their promises are. What genre? What format? What is the synopsis? What does the imagery (if applicable), depict? Then I check that against what is actually being provided. When I have the time, my favourite way to playtest a project — whether it is in script, design document, low-fidelity or medium-fidelity prototype — is the Think Aloud method. That is, I either say (or write down) my thoughts as I go through the work. I find it is one of the most insightful methods to get that insight into what we’re thinking and feeling and expecting as we move through a work on a moment-by-moment basis. I find it can provide more insight than a few questions at the end of the experience. Indeed, I was taught the counter-intuitive method by a professional UX Tester years ago that interrupting a user to ask questions was often more informative than asking questions at the end.

Ashley Brown, Assistant professor at EAE, University of Utah, shares Think-Alouds on Twitch.

Agency – Mental Model Test

Does the mental model I have created of the creative project world correlate with the way the creative world works? In other words, do I have a strong idea of the logic of the world you’ve created, and my interactions with it increasingly confirm this. This kind of “agency” is in the realm that Janet Murray and Daniel Cooke talk about. For me, it doesn’t matter what degree of “interactivity” there is. An interactive project may just allow you to click through one pre-written hyperlink, but this does not mean the feeling of agency is non existent. Where that hyperlink is placed, what that word is, what we think it means and what happens in response to that action is what makes up the pleasurable experience of mental model agency.

Agency results when the interactor’s expectations are aroused by the design of the environment, causing them to act in a way that results in an appropriate response by the well-designed computational system. This matching of the interactor’s participatory expectations and actions to the procedural scriptings of the machine creates the pleasurable experience of agency. Bad design frustrates the interactor by creating confusing or unsatisfiable expectations, or by failing to anticipate actions by scripting the machine with appropriate responses.

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium

And Cook talks about the actual process as “loops”:

  • The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to…
  • Apply an action to…
  • The game system and in return…
  • Receives feedback that…
  • Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again.  Or kicks off a new loop. 

Loops are very good at building ‘wisdom’, a holistic understanding of a complex system.  The player ends up with a mental model that contains a thousand branches, successes, failures and nuances that lets them approach new situations with confidence.

Daniel Cook, “Loops and Arcs

Why do I do this? The Loop Test is trying to address the same problems as the Promise Test. It is exacerbated in the interactive context, and is a common issue to address. It is common in part because of creators not thinking about the audience/player thought processes in response to their work, and also because we can’t possibly know all the ways people experience our work. So we have to test for it. A big one for me are games in which the mental model is constructed around the player playing a game, not the player relocating their imagination to the setting of that game. They are anti-deicetic-shifts. This thrusts me out of diegetic immersion. I personally see the positioning of the player as a powerful outsider as an Imperialist and Externalist impulse.

What do I do? All interactions and instructions need to be checked, with different people. Especially “fresh eyes” and people who are quite different from the creator’s sensibilities. We want to find out how that word is interpreted to different people, and how a situation encourages a course of action that is not offered. Once again, the Think Aloud method works well (either verbal or written), to highlight what is happening with choices. This includes what I expect when I choose something, when I select a dialogue option (this is compounded when there is a verb-based UI, as the possible meanings increase). There are a whole lot of choice design and dialogue checks you can do as well, such as Karen and Theresa Tanenbaum’s “commitment to meaning” approach to agency with speech acts (thanks Leena for the reminder about this paper!); and Tracey Fulleton’s “Decision Scale” in Game Design Workshop. And lastly, I notice it quickly when my transported mental model doesn’t match with the actions and responses offered. The testers just need to care to find out, and signal what kind of play, what mind of mental model they’re operating in.

Agency – Freedom Affect Test

Am I affecting the world at all? In the previous kind of agency I spoke about a person having the feeling of agency when there is a pleasurable match between what we think is happening and it being confirmed as happening, between what we act on and that action making sense in the world. As I mentioned, this does not mean we can do anything we want in the world or can affect it. So this other kind of agency is emphasising the freedom affect. It is what game designer Tynan Sylvester describes in Designing Games as follows: “Agency is the ability to make decisions and take meaningful actions that affect the game world.”

Why do I do this? I don’t apply this element to all projects. Not all are designed to facilitate this. But I am interested in creative works that facilitate a co-creative mindset, a mindset that sees the actual world as able to be co-constructed, as optional, and changeable.

How do I do this? I check to see if the work is actually facilitating an optional thinking mindset, and facilitates hope and the generation of ideas, and co-creation, rather than perpetuating power systems.

Do, Don’t Tell

“Show, Don’t Tell” is a common guideline for screenwriting. I don’t know where it originated yet, but in rereading early screenwriting instruction manuals there is an emphasis on using action to communicate. The idea is this: avoiding explaining to your audience/players what is happening or what they need to do explicitly. Instead, communicate visually. In interactive projects, we take it another step: Do, Don’t Tell.

Why do I do his? It isn’t about making EVERYTHING about doing, but we certainly don’t want everything explained to us. We want the player to figure things out through their actions. This is linked to psychologist Albert Bandura’s “Social Learning Theory” and how we learn through social modelling and through direct experience. For me, the difference is less about the mechanism of expression (telling, showing, doing) and more about what we’re doing as an audience or players. We could be being told by a narrator something, but that speech is written in such as a way that we need to decode what is being said and we apply to our own lives. So it is about receiving instruction, interpreting or figuring things out, or realising what it is about from our own actions. So it is more Realise, Don’t Tell. Being told what is happening/what it is about/what to do is incredibly boring, talks down to the audience/player, and leaves no space for change. It perpetuates domination, authoritarian thinking.

What do I do? I note the times I feel I’m being told, the times I’m being trained to not think and instead just action the commands of the system, and we work through ways we can change the learning device.

Narrative Design Debugging

Narrative Design debugging is needed when you make changes and don’t realise that they now break some linked event, justification, or order. We all do it. We think something will make it better or solve a problem, and we end up unbalancing the rest of the experience. People are more familiar with “debugging” in software, where it can sometimes be easier to spot a problem because the system will glitch or crash. But with narrative, there is not necessarily an obvious effect. So it has to be sought.

Why do I do this? Although I think through system changes, we don’t always see the consequences of our changes, and so we need to test with others to help reveal them. It often happens when we make a change just prior to testing, and haven’t thought through the consequences.

What do I do? I usually notice it when I do a test, especially if I’ve experienced the work before. But that is often because I can put myself into a frame of mind where I respond to exactly what is in front of mea as opposed to running on scripts from prior playthroughs (ala the peanut butter and jam sandwich rules test). I think it is best to test immediately after the change, with someone who is familiar with the work. As they’re perhaps more likely to see the effect. Or fresh eyes. Whatever works. But we just know that every change, no matter how much we’ve though through the consequences, are likely to affect things we haven’t anticipated. The players may not identify what is wrong of course, so you need to look for the clues in the way they’re behaving and interpreting.

Emotion Design Pass

Do I care about the characters, including my own player-character if applicable? Am I feeling the intended attitudes towards characters and other players? Are the emotion points hitting what they need to with enough audience members/players? How do I feel about myself in the watching or playing of the work?

Why do I do this? It wasn’t until I was teaching games that I discovered the need to overtly look for this and give feedback on it. I see it more in films now too, especially mainstream American cinema. In both cases there is a presumption of caring about characters that I find actually quite hollow. They’re either underdrawn, or they have traits that are meant to be appealing but which aren’t to me. For instance, nationalism.

What do I do? I have found Karl Iglesias’ techniques for character appeal and empathy from his book Writing for Emotional Impact helpful in analysing and designing character connections. I’m expanding and rewriting them to include how we feel about player-characters, negative personality traits, and ourselves.

Replayability Test

Does my audience or players want to watch, read or play it again? This isn’t a goal for all works, especially ones that don’t use interest design techniques that thwart your memory of plot events.

Why do I do this? I am interested in transformation design. And transformation isn’t a one-shot thing. It involves continuous commitment. This means creating works that can help with developing that new habit, new way of thinking. I like the creative challenge of creating something people want to experience again, especially with others.

What do I do? A little thing I ask afterwards is whether people would want to play again. This gives you some insight, but is not conclusive. So I test with various levels of interest: whether they want to sign-up to be notified for it; whether they are interested in signing up to test again & whether they do when invited; and whether they’ll pre-buy. I also check to see what ideas they come up with for how they’d like to play it (or view it) next time, and who they think would like to be involved. Importantly it is how it makes people feel at the time that is a big factor, along with how they feel about it later. Self-testing has been a big factor for me. I’m really honest with myself about whether I want to play/read my creations again. If I don’t, then I explore why and then I design to resolve that. My misgivings are signposts for me. I didn’t used to listen to them.

Bestseller Test

Does the work possibility have the qualities of a bestseller? Well that is the question! Formulas for potential success can include considering the people involved (actors, directors, writers, etc.), spectacle, popular genres, and marketing budget. But we don’t always have access to these elements (especially budget), these don’t guarantee “success”, and I personally am not interested in upholding the social context that makes these key factors in the first place. So I look to the method Kathy Sierra talks about in her book Badass: Making Users Awesome. Sierra talks about how bestsellers are made from word-of-mouth, and that a particular kind of design facilitates the strongest word-of-mouth. That design isn’t about having your users/players/audience talking about how great the project is, or the people involved, or the company, it is about how the project makes them feel and be awesome. It is for instance players talking about how they’re assholes in Untitled Goose Game.

Kathy Sierra presentation at XOXO Festival 2015

Why do I do this? I do this because I’m fascinated with what excites lots of people in authentic ways, not through manipulation.

What do I do? I personally haven’t found and don’t think there is a way to test whether it will be a bestseller before-hand. There are so many forces involved that it may only resonate with some despite great elements being in place. And of course you have to make something that is good in the first place. But I treat this as a design goal that I check against while I’m making and when testing other works that have such goals (including educational ones). It comes down to how it makes us feel, think, and what we do with this afterwards and in consequence over time. So I look at the language people use when describing the experience, their physicality when watching or playing (when possible), and may ask questions that give an insight into how they see themselves, and of course see how testers engage long-term, and how they describe it to others.

Complicity Tests

How are the settings, characters, dialogue, events, mechanical & structural logic, processes, and business models of the work upholding oppressive and environmentally-destructive systems? This isn’t a question for everyone. It’s definitely for those of us with the most privilege. Some think that having issue-based storylines does the job, or diverse characters addresses these issues. But it goes further, to the dramatic structures and mechanical choices we make. Just as I spoke about in the theme-action alignment. How does the work uphold systems of power? How does it uphold patriarchy? How does it uphold domination? Imperialism? Capitalism? White supremacy? Fascism? Transphobia? Racism? Ableism? Toxic masculinity? Rape culture? Hierarchies? Anti-semitism? Islamophobia? Fat phobia? Homophobia? Biphobia? Extractivism? … And what I find is a key issue: Externalism? You don’t need to make extreme hateful works for these to be in effect, they are actually the default output of our standard creative processes, methods and techniques.

Why do I do this? People are dying. The best people in the world are dying, living in pain, fear, struggling, not thriving, and not being heard. Animals are being tortured and dying. Our planet is being irretrievably damaged. Complicity checks are rare, and need to be normalised so all testing (and the whole creative process) involves looking for complicity. Because the default is not neutral or apolitical works, but works that are complicit. And, speaking as someone who has identified as the black sheep, the underdog, as marginalised, I’m a white woman and there is so much damage I’ve already done. I want to keep looking for the ways I and others are complicit, and keep doing things to change this in a big way.

What do I do? I started with finding tools to reveal and action problems, such as the perhaps the most well-known earliest Bechdel Test, checking how nonhuman experiences are presented, checking the game accessibility scorecard, checking for misappropriation, checking who is telling whose story to whom and why?, checking for negative collateral (!), checking if your fonts are racist, guidelines for inclusive surveys, checking the model of disability being employed, checking the principles of climate visualisation, checking leave-no-trace guidelines for locations, checking for ethical use of AI, checking for responsible portrayal of vaccination, and so on. These are helpful, but they’re just the beginning. Another approach is to hire sensitivity consultants, so they’re checking what you’re making on behalf of marginalised communities. But ultimately we also need to learn to SEE complicity for ourselves, and in ourselves. This takes lots of internal work, research, listening, and action. I won’t go into detail about my own processes now. See Sandrine Micossé-Aikins’ great summary. And then when we SEE complicity, we can act by employing processes that thwart these representations entering your work. Such as nothing about us, without us. And making new processes. Like I’m doing, and will be sharing in my book about how we make new processes. And testing with a range of testers. And telling others what you see in their work. I’ve noticed I haven’t been doing this everyone. I’ve done it with students because I feel a moral obligation in a position of authority. I haven’t always been as diligent in industry environments with strangers. I have to if I want this normalised, to be part of everyday narrative design testing. It’s hard because often their entire project is soaked in complicity. They’d have to change things, they’d have to redesign, rewrite the whole thing. But that is the point. What is the tipping point for me? To get me to speak up in every situation? Firstly there is the moral obligation. I have more privilege, so I can speak and not be attacked with the same level of violence as others. I’ve also come to this: make it not about the act of informing others, or policing others. It is about presence. It is about me being myself in every situation — which for others may feel like policing, but what feels to me like peace.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”

Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

I’m delving further into adrienne maree-brown’s “pleasure activism” to ensure the experience is regenerative and joyful: “a politics of healing and happiness that explodes the dour myth that changing the world is just another form of work.”

…And you?

These are not all the narrative design elements I look at when I test. But they are ones that are front-of-mind for me at the moment. What about you? Do you have some stories and approaches to share of these mentioned, or others you’ve done?

Image Credit: “ACME Plot Avoidance Scrub” — commissioned illustration by Marigold (Goldie) Bartlett.

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