By Lance Weiler, March 20th, 2009

Christopher Rice reports – Here at Culture Hacker, we’ve touched on the ARG (Alternate Reality Gaming) world, the creative side of cross-media storytelling, and a lot of what’s new to the collective tech & story scene, but I think now’s a good time to let it all collide – KABOOM!

As a story analyst and writer working primarily in the film platform, I’m more interested in the creative process behind the creation of ARGs, cross-media stories, and stories in general. It only made sense that I talk to one of the most influential and innovative minds for the inside scoop regarding what the creative process is like, and how it compares to, say, screenwriting.

Here to help us delve beyond the tech and discover the creative aspects of the story creation of his latest ARG, Breathe, is Yomi Ayeni, Creative Director at Expanding Universe.

CH – Every story starts with an idea ­– what was your initial inspiration for your latest project, Breathe?

YA – Breathe came from one of the darker parts of my imagination. It was inspired by a couple of clubs that I had attended in previous years. They were extreme, but tame in other respects. I wanted more of an experience, and decided to let my imagination run wild. I love the idea of letting yourself go, being at the mercy of the surroundings, not knowing what will happen next, but embracing everything with an open heart.

Breathe isn’t just a hedonistic jaunt, it is lot more than that. It’s putting your faith and your life in the hands of friends, knowing that whatever happens they will take care of you. It’s more like a new set of rules or a creed, something even family would never understand. A true friend would never judge you for being a freak, more often than not it is these quirks that endear ourselves to each other.

CH – Following your heart and imagination as a storyteller is definitely one of the most important things when it comes to creating something original; how do you balance this openness with your audience during the actual launch of the project while maintaining control of the story? Or will you as the storyteller step back and let the audience control the story completely?

YA – The story is always mapped out to a degree, with all the narrative elements in place prior to launch. We try as much as possible to take the audience on a journey, one that leads them to discover new aspects of the story, or characters or plot. They do have a considerable amount of control over their experience, but… Every once in a while, we may have to nudge them towards the right direction. Interactive games benefit from being places in the real world, this also means messages, prompts and clues can also be mistaken for a ‘real world’ event, and not part of the narrative, this means we can’t fully disengage, and in some cases secondary prompts are used to guide.

CH – As a multi-media storyteller, what’s your writing process like? Do you get the idea for a project, write a story treatment, and distribute portions of the story to the various media platforms, or do you work in the opposite by reverse engineering the project? What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

YA – I normally work from the idea. I flesh it out a bit, play with the respective elements or facets, and the whole story develops. Sometimes I hit a brick wall and need something else to spur along the creative flow, then I start playing with images, mocking up a graphic of what I want to say, or I listen to music that encapsulates the mood of the project, then the ideas come alive.

Once I have the story, then the process kicks into gear, which parts do I want the audience to interact with, and how can they get a rewarding and unique experience from the project. All of this gets put in a large spreadsheet, and split into sections for characters, call to action, assets needed, and the questions we’ll be asking the audience / players.

Then I go through and work out how I want the audience to interact with the plot, this is usually online, at a live event, by solving a puzzle or finding a clue. Though I don’t create the puzzles, I need to give the puzzle creators an idea of what I want and how that relates to the overall narrative. Then we sit back and have a good look to make sure everything is seamless – well we try to.

CH – Is there a particular puzzle, clue, or trigger that you’re most excited about? Can you give us a hint of what it might be?

YA – We will be playing with audio, and perception in Breathe… I have just spent a week at a residential brainstorming retreat with a psychologist, and we have come up with some interesting ideas.

CH – 3. Exciting! Screenwriters, novelists, and other writers usually create a story using specific guidelines regarding structure, is there a prominent structure when it comes to writing the multi-media project?

YA – I am a bit unconventional, structure depends on a myriad of external influences, but the end product has to be immersive, compelling, and entertaining. When dealing with an interactive project, the key is to work out where the narrative and interaction takes place. Breathe flows from the real world, into the nightclub, then to film. We’re working in a fluid creative space, and there are no guidelines as such, other then to engage.

CH – Do you consider the points of audience interaction turning points & twists in the story, much like a television show opening teaser or cliffhanger at the end of each chapter in a book? And when planning these points of interaction, do you aim to increase the pace with each puzzle solved? Or is something entirely different?

YA – Not always, in some cases players wont know they are interacting with characters till afterwards, and only then will they raise the pace of their respective interactions to match developments within the narrative. Puzzles in Breathe will be less obvious, we expect people to base choices / reactions / decisions on how and when they perceive developments in our world.

CH – Creating compelling characters for one story platform is hard – how do you approach the character creation aspect of your work in the multiple platform arena? Do the multiple story platforms make it harder … make it more interesting? How do you use each platform to it’s fullest potential when expressing your characters?

YA – Characters are a hard one to crack, especially as they often interact with people in the real world. I remember a friend telling me that he used to wear a dress when responding to emails sent to a female character in an interactive drama. I try to make them as multi-dimensional as possible. They eat, sleep, and have bad hair days, each of these things has an impact on how they respond to people who interact with them in the make believe world we’ve created for the drama.

Though some of our narrative lives online, a character could be a technophobe, but have to use email, IM or any other tech to communicate. In a conventional film this would be scripted, but we have no control over how our audience engages our characters.

CH – When telling a story colored with multiple characters, do you have a system you find helpful when it comes to keeping track of your character’s memberships, accounts, passwords, and overall ID in the social-media realm?

YA – We use a bespoke system. The most important thing for us is the content we have out there, how to access it and more importantly what it is doing. Things usually start out on a spreadsheet, then move to a shared system.

CH – Is the audience a character?

YA – Yes. In Breathe the audience is integral to certain aspects of the narrative, plot and conclusion. They will be surrounded by many triggers, all they need to is find each one, and pull. There are a few surprises, things no one have tried before.

CH – Awesome! For those of us reading, can you give us a little insight as to what a trigger might consist of in Breathe? What should a newbie player look for?

YA – Listen to the radio….

CH – Theme is one of the most mysterious aspects of storytelling; how would you describe the process of thematic expression, exploration, or definition from a multi-media storytelling point of view? Like character, how do you use your multiple story platforms to express it?

YA – They offer a great way of spreading the narrative. I like my stories to breathe, and give each one the space it requires. If someone is traveling from London to New York, I’ll put them on a plane, and make sure that the audience / players know the planes arrival time. That way they also realize the character may have jetlag, be a little uncooperative, etc. Breathe is a full length drama, played out over a 5 week period. Some elements of the narrative have already started, and this is February. The project launches in September!

Multiple platforms also means that the audience follow you on the journey, by jumping from one delivery platform to another. I like to call it “kicking people out of the passive mode!” In some cases the audience finds things before the character does, and pass share their discoveries with the character.

Our last project was Violette’s Dream, and there are still videos, puzzles and other parts of the game that haven’t been found yet. All these items relate to the story, and more importantly the characters. There’s always a sub-plot waiting to be uncovered, and this will always shed a new light on things.

CH: Once you launch a story and the audience finds the triggers and begins to solve the puzzles, is there a point when you build more triggers and puzzles – customizing them as you go to progress the story, – or do you tend to release everything all at once?

YA – We will have most puzzles or triggers set up, but the later part of the narrative may need some extra prompts – all depends on how ravenous players are for stimulus. On Violette’s Dream, we set some up a week before they went live – we placed ‘Public Announcements’ in the Times newspaper. They take listings 7-days in advance.

CH – What excites you most about Breathe?

YA – The way the audience will react, what they will find, how deep they get, and how far we go to keep them hooked.

CH – I’m hooked! Thanks so much for sharing Breathe and a glimpse into its making with us. What advice would you give the aspiring multi-platform storytellers out there?

YA – Most importantly believe in your story! The industry has changed to a point that term “platform” means anything from the delivery of your story to the device that is used to display the content. Even the world is a platform…

Before testing your skills on your own story, start out with a known bit of fiction, pull it apart and spread the story across several platforms targeting your target. Create narrative paths for players to explore. Reward each action with something the audience didn’t know about the adventure – players love making progress.

Thanks again Yomi for shedding light on the creative process of creating an ARG. We all look forward to your work!

Before you check out Yomi’s latest project, Breathe, read the official summary below.

Set over a four-week period, viewers watch (four 15) minute shorts, and try to help Detective (John) Franks solve the case by working through puzzles, infiltrating the underground club scene, trying to locate the venue, and save the next victim from running out of air. Using blogs, YouTube, GPS, telephone, secret meetings, IM, auditions, immersive role-play, cinema, and music, Breathe stands to be one of the most audacious multi-media experiences to leap from a cinema screen–’all you have to do is breathe…

Yomi Ayeni, Creative Director of Expanding Universe, generates ideas and concepts that engage and connect audiences in the area of social entertainment.

With almost two decades of broadcasting experience, he has worked for BBC, ITV and Now TV. Yomi created the first interactive-reality TV programm, Global Emissions which won the Broadcast “Best Use New Media” award in 2002. Yomi has also set up interactive TV concepts in several countries, as well as working on the first broadband TV channel in 2001 with NOW TV. In 1998, he produced a consultation document for the BBC on how to incorporate the Internet into news research and has made several films on the emerging digital culture. (CH)

Christopher Rice is a professional story analyst, writer, and aspiring director in Los Angeles. His experience includes reading screenplays, manuscripts, TV pilots, treatments, and books for such companies as Gold Circle Films, Josephson Entertainment, Parkway Productions, The Harry Winer Company, ScriptShark, and more.

He explores the traditional & new screenwriting ideas through articles & discussion at www.scriptxray.com.

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Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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