Month: July 2008

PPWB: June

Digital Storytelling: Writers and the Digital Frontier, with Carolyn Handler Miller.

Ms. Miller’s talk made me jealous. While I can’t help but think anything but writing novels not-for-hire is less than optimal, I’ve done some freelancing work that was just a blast. So the idea of writing for online, interactive markets? When can I quit my day job?

Ms. Miller talked about the evolution of storytelling, from rock art (unk!) to screenplays, the point being that each form has its requirements and tricks. The main difference between digital media and more traditional forms is the opportunity for more interactivity.

Some digital storytelling forms

E-Literature. Electronic literature, “serious” literature. Mostly poetry and stories. Much better known in Europe.

Screen-based. If movies are the “first screen” and TV is the “second screen,” then stories written for the web, iTV, interactive cinema, cell phones, and electronic kiosks are “third screen.”

Immersive environments. Virtual reality. In games, museums, training material, and for treating phobias. In venues varying from Disney World (Bug’s Life) to the Lincoln Museum (Civil War Battlefield).

Interacting with physical devices. Interactive toys. Disney’s Dolphin Robotic Unit. Smart toys.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Span across multiple media, tie real/digital world together (fictional characters send e-mails, make calls, attend staged events). Worldwide scavenger hunts. Entering an ARG is called “going down the rabbit hole.” A lot are sponsored by corporations. Some ARGs: The Beast (ties to AI movie), The Q Game: City of Riddles (set all over Albuquerque), I Love Bees.

Digital material for teaching/training. Both kids and working professionals use the training techniques. An overarching story or goal for the training is supported by mini-games. Military simulations. Psychotherapists. iCinema. Examples: The Meatrix.

Common features

  • Each person has to be treated as an individual user, not as a faceless “audience.”
  • Users have “agency” or the ability to directly impact their course through the story.
  • Users are “inside” the story for an immersive experience.

The fourth wall tends to disappear; the users can become characters, and the character can perform as though they were users. Fictional characters can communicate in a lifelike way. Digital story is part networking, part storytelling, and part just having fun.

Game elements are a common way to keep users interested and involved in the story, with competition/conflict as a basis for the story. Providing the users with clear-cut goals and obstacles to overcome helps keep them focused even when the story is not linear.

Stories are experienced as play.

Role of writers

Writers can originate digital storytelling, collaborate, or work for hire. Tasks involve:

  • Creating characters
  • Dialogue
  • Clues (Puzzlemasters)
  • Fictional websites/blogs
  • Shaping the world
  • Suggesting interactive elements/games
  • Incorporating educational points in the storyline

However, the writer no longer has godlike control.

Different models have been formed to handle the multiple possible outcomes of a plot, but the story still has to follow a Beginning-Middle-Ending structure throughout all possibilities. The structures tend to be organized by level or chapter (from game design).

The writer has to make it clear how the user should interact with the narrative, how the user knows how well she’s doing, how the user progresses through the story, and how the user moves around in the world.

Writers interested in digital storytelling have to stay on top of developments in digital media (like Wii) to be able to write for them effectively.

Old story models (like serial stories for newspapers–Charles Dickens and Dumas wrote for them) can be reinvented — for example, lonelygirl15 is a serialization in a different media.


What’s the best way to break into writing for video games? Use an engine like XNA to design a few levels of a game. Work as a beta tester.

How sophisticated are AI characters getting? ELIZA, at MIT, will psychoanalyze you. The military is developing AI. New kinds of AIs can understand speech (Chatterbots).

How are ARGs set up on a practical level? Often have a producer, project manager, visuals director, graphic artist, writer, programmers, game designer, and SMEs, but of course it varies.

Are game producers in the WGA? No, but the WGA is trying to get designers to be members based on video game credits.

Further Links

Digital Media Wire
Game Daily
Alternate Reality Gaming Network
…A lot more links. To tired to post all of them. Maybe later.

Musical Interlude: Space Lord

Sorry, sorry — I miss things. I just heard this the other day.

Space Lord by Monster Magnet. All the calories of heavy metal, none of the taste? Sounds like Morphine, without the sax, with a sense of humor. I checked. “Good” (or Buena) is 1992; Space Lord is 1998.

Writerly Ramble: South Dakota

I was having trouble figuring out what to write that was set in South Dakota. –I mean, I write fables and fairy tales and fantasies, even if I throw in aliens, multiverses, or string theory from time to time.

What are the myths behind South Dakota? –Children of the Corn captures parts of Iowa/Kansas perfectly, but doesn’t quite capture what I think about South Dakota.

So I thinking about ghost stories the other day, and I went !!! Ghost Stories !!!. –And then I thought, what about ghost hunters? Who would be my ghost hunters?

Some of my Knippling uncles, of course. I’m not sure which ones; they’re all pretty interesting, so I’ll probably take pieces and parts and mix them up.

Hmm de hmmm….

I decided one of them had to be called Aloysius, another one called Theodore, and I’m trying to talk myself out of calling the third one Simon. Eoin, maybe. And they have great big dogs and drive around in pickup trucks…

I threw together a bunch of story ideas. One of them is about what happens when the Army Corps of Engineers lets the water level in one of the dams fall too low — a mysterious golden city appears, and the people who go inside to check it out all disappear. And I’m trying to figure out something to mess around with for rabies, but I’m already doing something with prairie dogs*, so it has to be something else. Ooh! And there has to be a church cookbook in there somewhere, too. But I’ll stop now, because I don’t want to talk my best ideas to death…

Man, I’ll be glad to be done with the current book.

How do you know when your manuscript is finished?
When you can’t stand not working on something else.

*And that parade in Gann Valley that was longer than the entire town.


An ice cream truck drives by our house on a daily basis.

First, it drives down other streets, and the tinny carousel music echoes off the houses so much you can’t tell which direction it’s coming from.

Then the truck drives up our street, the music sounding even more frail than it had when it was further away, and my daughter stands on the edge of our property line and waves her hands over her head for a minute straight, to make sure she isn’t missed.

The “truck” is a converted mail truck covered with stickers depicting all kinds of ice cream treats.

Including Sonic the Hedgehog, now with gumdrop eyes.

When did I move to Pleasantville?

Mensch and Ubermensch.

The Nietzsche Family Circus.

Chocolate Review

Mo’s Bacon Bar, by Vosges. Applewood smoked bacon, smoked salt, and deep milk chocolate. Unfortunately, the bacon and the chocolate cancel each other out. The bacon had to be de-fatted for the most part (to stand up to the chocolate), so I found my teeth grinding away at the bacon, going, “This should be softer and greasier, not like bacon bits.” And the bacon damped down the chocolatiness of the chocolate, which wasn’t terribly sweet. Mixed with the salt, the difference between salty chocolate and dry bacon…meh.

Meh, meh, meh.

Lee had the same reaction, too. –It didn’t even taste like something that was bad for you. Had to be done, though.

Book Reviews

I have a lot of stuff to blog about, like the family reunion I went to last week and the June Write Brain, and some book reviews. Uh, I think I’ll go with the easy stuff first.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson.

Okay, setting aside the squick factor for a moment, read this collection of Matheson stories (mostly published in the late 1950s) to give insight on how to use various tones to pull off various effects. Stephen King? You can pretty much read a Stephen King story and know who wrote it. These stories are the writerly equivalent of Gary Oldman. “Who was that?” “Gary Oldman.” “Wasn’t he in X, too?” “Yeah.” “Doesn’t even look like the same guy.”

Insanely creative. The only trend from story to story is for the ending to throw in just one more twist–horror movies try to pull this off, but it usually ends up being cheesy. This is the guy they’re trying to copy.

The Knight, by Gene Wolfe.

I’m not smart enough to read Gene Wolfe, which is too bad, because I really like his stuff. I mean, you’re reading along, and everything makes sense. Then, suddenly, you realize something else was going on at the subconscious level, and you start to wonder what it was. It’s like your brain is being reprogrammed as you read.

Am I a different person than I was before I read this book? I think. I’ll never know.

I mean, Book of the New Sun (Shadow & Claw, Sword & Citadel) is one of my favorite series, but I have no idea what it’s about. Starts off with a torturer’s apprentice on a fantasy world, some parts of which are so fantastic it’s like watching a screensaver on acid (or sinus medication). Ends with a spaceship, breaks off in the middle of things…

Anyway, The Knight is about a normal-Earth kid who gets sucked into a fantasy world. The book continues into The Wizard. The kid has lost a lot of his memories and may have lost years between leaving earth and arriving in this new world. He decides to make himself a knight, based on an enchantment from a fae enchantress. He’s followed by one of Odin’s hounds (maybe). His older brother is either Ben, from normal-Earth, or it’s…it’s complicated.

Nobody is who they seem. Nobody is who they seem even after you figure out who they really are. Reality is set up in planes, with lower planes treating upper ones like gods, except from the perspective of the denizens of the upper planes, who don’t feel like gods.

I plan to read The Wizard, but I don’t expect to understand that, either.

The Unnameables, by Ellen Booraem.

A YA utopian/distopian book.

I have to admit that at first I hated this book. I picked it up and read through the first five pages a dozen times and said, “Meh, ” because the book starts out with a few pages of “trying too hard.”* I don’t need the prologue. I don’t need the main character’s musing from the perspective of the end of the story. I didn’t need the introduction to the story’s terminology. Once I got past my snit about that stuff, I remembered that the random passages I’d read in the middle of the book were really good, and had fun with it.

I also wish the cover were different — what I needed an introduction to was the idea that the society resembles New England around the end of the 19th century, and I get a mysterious wooden thingy instead. I went to the author’s website, and there’s a snippet of picture they should have used instead, by her partner.

But once I got going, I finished the book in a day, staying up past my bedtime to do so. Good plot, if a little heavy-handed on the moralizing about how important creativity is, but that’s offset by the addition on the necessity of discipline in pulling off one’s great ideas. Complex characters who don’t always do what you expect (but do it often enough that you’re surprised when they don’t). Good writing–once I got past the beginning, the unusual word uses flowed easily and convincingly.

Enjoyably recommended for anybody who liked The City of Ember. In fact, I liked Unnameables better; Ember was good, but so melodramatic that I didn’t bother picking up the rest of the series. –It doesn’t look like there will be sequels to Unnameables; I’m just saying.


Fruits Basket #20. I read this whole series online in fansub. Reading professional translations is so much nicer, plus you get all the bonus art…whenever a new book comes out, I reread the whole series. It’s like a new season came out on your favorite TV show. What can I say? I’m a sucker. Fruits Basket manga is like romance novels for me…

XXXHolic #12. I haven’t read this series in fansub. I don’t know why. This series started out as a fairly straightforward ghost-story series, with underpinnings. It has now gotten seriously weird. This volume addresses the question, “Is the thought of a unicorn a real thought?” I teared up at the end.

One Piece! #1-3. I found these at Poor Richard’s, which makes the second bookstore I’ve found in town that carries used copies of manga. I read the first chapter to Ray last night, and she thought it was very cool. Major theme of series: perservere. There are worse things to read to your kids, eh?

I’ve also been catching up on Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle and reading a lot of Fullmetal Alchemist. Tsubasa is the kind of thing you’ll like, if you like that kind of thing (Clamp), but FMA is plain good writing and art, and I recommend it all ’round.

*As a writer, I should take note. I probably won’t.

Where the Hell is Matt?

No, the other Matt. The guy who does the dance.

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