Across artforms, the norms of narrative design are soaking in ideas that hold up a monoculture and deny the personal. The two work hand in hand. Processes encourage the idea of one way of making, one structure, as being better than all, and that way of making is always defined by someone else. This is echoed in the siloing of elements of a project and roles. One part of a project is more important than the rest. So what are the ways we can intervene with these big cultural ideas in our everyday processes? What are the ways we can encourage multiplicity and the self in our narrative design? Today I’ll share a method I’ve found helpful: the Design Cross-Section. It has a background in the Journey Chart.
The Journey Chart
The Journey Chart is to me an overview of the different elements of a project juxtaposed to show how they work together over the duration of the player/audience/reader experience. I’m sharing the Journey Chart Method because I’ve found it to be a nifty way to externalise, discover, inspire, unify, direct, and communicate the various elements of a project and how they are all connected. You probably already do it.
Indeed, you may not know it as a Journey Chart. It has been called a Tension Chart. (I personally don’t like the emphasis on the player/audience feeling tense). It has been called a Game Progression document. (I personally want a term that can work in games and films, books, etc, and try to avoid invoking ideas of “progress” which has it’s own serious problems). In marketing and product design it as been called a Customer Journey. (But I’m avoiding all framing of people as customers.) But you call it what works for you.
Personally I came to this method through the cross-media context. It is something I have been doing to depict what my player or audience all along the way before and after the game/website/book/film/etc. For me it started I think with ARGs (alternate reality games), including the chart Michael Monello shared for The Legend of the Sacred Urn, made 2003/4. The employment of this chart, which they called “The Unified Theory Chart,” was a promotional campaign. I mention this because the method has been most popular in service design and marketing. Indeed, in their literature review of “customer journeys,” which is what they’re called now, Asbjørn Følstad and Knut Kvale propose a few historical beginnings.
They point to Parker and Heapy’s 2006 pamphlet The Journey to the Interfaceas sparking interest in the field of design. In service management, they point to studies by Zomerdijk and Voss in 2007, 2010, 2010. And in marketing they point to various sources, including Buttle in 2003, Court in 2009, and Lee in 2010. For myself, I had the documentation of branded ARG context, and working with “user journeys” when I mentored at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School lab in 2005 onwards. But as I said, these are the journey across media, or touch-points.
What I’m talking about today is depicting the elements within the work. It is less about the story of one person travelling through, as has been criticised as the limits of the “journey chart” in design. It is more about the elements that make up part of the design.
The earliest example of this approach I’ve found so far is from the 1954 animated feature film Animal Farm. It was called a “tension chart” and is stored in The Halas & Batchelor Collection, BFI Special Collections. It is a chart that shows the emotional journey of the story (the tension), along with some of the elements that contribute to the overall experience. Placing them side-by-side (horizontally), the visualisation gives us an insight into how they work together and change.
In the section of the yellow paper chart below, from this page, the main story beats are typed in the first top row. Then the tension depicted as marks and a line indicating less and higher tension as the scenes progress. Then there are the associated Moods, Music, Colour, Time of Day, and Time of Year rows. More parts to the chart are on this page. So with this chart there are the narrative beats, the emotional journey, and what everyone will be aiming for in terms of mood, and how the music and colours will assist with that. What I like is that is gives really quickly and easily, with some words and scribbles on a page, an idea of how the experience will move, and how all the elements will work together to do it.
Zip along to a relatively recently with the 2009 Journey videogame, and Jenova Chen’s “game progression” chart. From the images Chen shared in this GDC talk, we can see the rows are written out with the three-act structure on the top row, the stages of the monomyth (hero’s journey) on the second, then stages of life, numbers to indicate emotional intensity (-1,0,1,0,2,-2), and the next row(s) are cut off from view.
What I like about this is the layering of two dramatic structure rows: the underlying structure, and then the monomyth structure. The Hero’s Journey is unsurprising, as it is the most well-known narrative structure beyond the Three Act Structure (which is often attributed to Aristotle, who is quite light touch and actually had four acts). Then there are Stages of Life, listed as Birth, Exploring, focusing & Working, Excelling… I am unfamiliar with these, and so if you know this specific structure let me know. But the point is, the creatives involved, I presume mainly Chen, is layering in what he thinks is important. Just like the Animal Farm chart discussed previously included time of day and seasons, you can include whatever is part of your creative mix. The section on Emotional Intensity is once again a guide to want we’re aiming for regarding the player/audience.
The team also developed illustrated versions. Below is an illustration that has the game avatars moving in relation to objects on the top row. This is the gameplay visually represented. Then emotional intensity is depicted with orange bars moving up and down (with the gameplay figures moving up and down with them). The next row has the monomyth/hero’s journey is depicted with small illustrations. The next row after that depicts the landscape as a silhouette; and underneath are labels for the environments/levels, such as “Graveyard” and “Desert”. So what players do, the settings, the emotional journey, and narrative logic of the situations are depicted together.
Another chart depicts character growth on the top row with the avatar shape and colours changing. Then mood and palette is communicated with saturated colours over the bottom of the landscape silhouette again with more detail.
What these documentation methods are doing is bringing various elements together, and including whatever the creatives find helpful as guiding structures and elements.
What To Include In Design Cross-Section?
As you’ve seen with these two examples, you can include what has been a part of your mix. What I do and encourage others to do, to help normalise multiplicity and the self, are these things:
Include multiple narrative structures. As anyone who has worked in storytelling for a while knows, you don’t just employ one structure (example: the three-act structure).
You’ve got your underlying dramatic structure. That may be the three-act structure, five-act structure, eight-act structure, etc.
You’ve got further structures like the monomyth, such as the heroine’s journey, the virgin’s journey, and more.
You’ve got your genre structures. Each narrative genre has a structure, or at least conventions, obligatory scenes, or elements.
You’ve got your subgenres, and maybe internal genres too.
Include Actual World structures and elements. Perhaps you’re drawing on the Stages of Grief for instance?
Include structures and elements from your own Lived Experience. What was your journey like for yourself? What have you observed in yourself and in others? Your lived experience and observations are just as valid as any other elements.
Include sound design, music, art, time, fonts, whatever you damn well please!
So it’s not ONE STRUCTURE, it’s not ONE ELEMENT, it’s not ONE DEPARTMENT, and it also INCLUDES YOU.
I offered the Design Cross-Section as an optional method with my interactive storytelling students this year and the ones that came back were so fascinating. Some included images and music links as references, sprite changes, and more. For many, they suddenly saw how the various roles on the team were coming together. It became a spreadsheet they all referenced and added to.
So this, and the fact that the method enables multiplicity and including the self, is what inspired me to share this method. I’ve found it helps some others and so it may be interesting for you.
Enjoy! And please do share any of your own examples or experiences or ideas you have about this!
Buttle, F. (2003), Customer Relationship Management: Concepts and Tools, Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA.
Court, D., Elzinga, D., Mulder, S. and Vetvik, O.J. (2009), “The consumer decision journey”, McMinsey Quarterly, June, available at: www.mckinsey.com/insights/marketing_sales/the_consumer_ decision_journey (accessed November 1, 2014).
Følstad, A. and K. Kvale. “Customer journeys: a systematic literature review.” Journal of Service Theory and Practice 28 (2018): 196-227.
Lee, G. (2010), “Death of ‘last click wins’: media attribution and the expanding use of media data”, Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 16-26.
Zomerdijk, L. and Voss, C. (2007), “Innovation in experiential services – an empirical view”, in DTI (Ed.), Innovation in Services, DTI, London, pp. 97-134.
Zomerdijk, L.G. and Voss, C.A. (2010), “Service design for experience-centric services”, Journal of Service Research, Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 67-82.
Zomerdijk, L.G. and Voss, C.A. (2011), “NSD processes and practices in experiential services”, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 63-80.
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.
The website “see what happens.com” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 , 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.
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.
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 in how we were making these projects, and over time was able to contrast these patterns against existing ones from elsewhere. I did this for instance by adding ARG Social Mechanics to Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design book (and wiki).
Indeed, drawing on existing mechanics helps us understand and work with games. Working with existing mechanics 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 that players find appealing, 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.
This selection from existing mechanics often to align with a specific genre, and as I’ve said 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
Another approach is to draw on reference materials to inspire mechanics. I find this approach to be big in tabletop 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 describes it in his book Triadic Game Design. 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. Indeed, the standard approach is to draw on other mainstream games and common understanding of the status quo real world, and not necessarily marginalised realities, and other artforms.
But the references do not need to be interactive, they can be other disciplines, too. 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 under the table. 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 key mechanic for the work. Actions are everywhere to draw on.
Some designers 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, the heart of the story. So the choices of the mechanics are informed by what your project is about.
For instance, my spider and fly game 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.
Standard videogame processes involve thinking what the experience of the project is (fun!). But thinking about what you’re saying with your game is not. And so 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 and responsible of what you say things with your creative projects is part of the process of moving away from complicity.
Generation: Mechanics from Personal Actions
You can also generate mechanics by drawing on your own experiences, your own actions. 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 this 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 maintain no connection to self and others.
So 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 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 personal 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. For instance, if your team is doing a project about greed, and no-one seems to think of personal stories, then try approaching it via personal emotion. So I ask: what does greed/X feel like when you experience it? That often opens up personal truths.
Screenshot from “The Thin Black Line”
Generation & Selection: Ideology Incarnated as Mechanics
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.