Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Storytelling: the changing game

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 29, 2011

I.

Traditionally journalism, publishing, film-making, music, photography & broadcasting are one-way processes. We create some content and a mainstream platform of some kind pumps it out for the masses to consume.

They passively receive stories and information, a concept best explained by Peter Horrocks’ End of Fortress Journalism.¬†Attempts to make all this interactive in some way have never got past the “send us your photos” or “you decide!” appeals from our TV sets.

But something extraordinary and unexpected is happening. Audiences are getting involved in our stories – but not how you’d expect. If an audience feel involved in a story, whether it’s The Wire, Mad Men, a movie, they are starting to find their own ways to dive deeper into the world of the story. They set up their own twitter accounts, or start wikis, and develop a story far beyond the control of the author.

This is very new. And journalists shouldn’t think their stories are immune either.

II.

I have, until recently, ignored this trend. I produce online video – an inherently passive medium that cannot really foster interactive engagement. On a selfish level, I don’t want anyone else to get involved in my storytelling, thank you very much. Surely the fun is producing something exceptional and then sharing it for others to enjoy?

Well, my view on this, is shifting a little bit.

A few weeks back I discovered Awkward Silence, the website of a UCLAN multimedia student, who goes by the name of Beans. He’s produced a couple of 90s style platform games (think Commander Keen or Prince of Persia) which you can play online for free.

In One Chance, you become a scientist who’s cure for cancer is threatening to wipe out every living cell on earth. Over the course of six days (15 minutes gameplay time) you must find a cure.

Yes, the graphics (and gameplay) don’t add up to much by our modern Xbox standards, but bear with me. As simple as it looks, it is a very adult game, with a sophisticated story – and it’s the story that sucks you in.¬†¬†Inevitably, my less than sensible decisions made throughout the game resulted in everyone dying and me sitting alone with my daughter on a park bench, waiting for the end.

Beans also produced another game recently – except, it’s not really a game. The Body takes four minutes and you basically press and hold left in order to complete it. Beans himself describes it as:

“…short, confusing and isn’t technically fun. It’s not a game I’m not particularly proud of. Infact, The body is barely a game at all.”

But beyond the gameplay, The Body offers more. In it, you become a man trying to dispose of a body. Who is the body? How did they die? The backstory is (sort of) revealed in flashbacks – a convention more at home on TV or in the cinema. And despite it being not ‘technically fun’ I engaged with the story.

Beans hasn’t created a game – he’s told a story. And because I was participating in the story I was hooked.

III.

I recently mentioned Frank Rose’s new book on how the internet is changing storytelling. As he sees it, these new ways of telling stories are letting us get more immersed – and therefore more engaged.

“Conventional narratives – books, movies, TV shows – are emotionally engaging, but they engage us as spectators. Games are engaging in a different way. They put us at the centre of the action…Combine the emotional impact of stories with the first person involvement of games and you can create an extremely powerful experience.”

If I’m honest, I’m not sure exactly how this will change factual storytelling and multimedia journalism yet – but I’m almost certain it will. I’ve got some early ideas which I’m chewing over and if they amount to anything I will try and share them. But as content creators we have a responsibility to tell stories which grab people by the collar. All but the very best online video out there right now fails on that first test.

The idea of ‘games journalism’ has also grown in popularity in only the last year: this is very new and the ideas are still quite basic.

I’ll be talking more about connected storytelling and journalism at News:Rewired Connected Journalism on October 6th. Click here to get tickets.