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.

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