"The Internet is trying very, very hard to tell us." That quote is from Elan Lee, one of the early pioneers of Alternate Reality Games. Lee created I Love Bees to promote the Xbox game Halo 2, and was part of the 42 Entertainment team (along with Alex Lieu and Susan Bonds) behind Year Zero, which engaged thousands of Nine Inch Nails fans in the creation of a story around the album of the same name.
The quote above quote appears in Frank Rose's new book, The Art of Immersion, due out in February 2011. Rose, a long time contributing editor at Wired, where he's covered everything from the fall of the music industry to the impact of digital technology on television, offers an assessment of where story-telling is going in an age when narratives are no longer linear and more often than not are told, or at least informed, by the participation of a consumer community.
Rose labels this "deep media." Story-telling that offers an immersive experience. It refers to everything from the online audiences that gathered on their own to decipher the convoluted plot line of Lost, to the MadMen fans who hijacked the show's characters in the form of Twitter personas, playing Don and Betty true to their `60s personas.
To his credit, Rose doesn't simply regurgitate examples of current entertainment and gaming industry campaigns like Avatar or Grand Theft Auto. He frames the challenges and emerging formulas in light of all the story telling changes that have come before, from the serialized novels of Dickens, to the early breakthroughs created by D.W. Griffith that gave film its own identity as a medium, to the trans-media narratives about which Henry Jenkins writes so intelligently.
Multiple themes emerge in Rose's book. The first is that conventional entertainment doesn't work they way it used to. We know that just from looking at the numbers. Box office sales, DVD sales, music sales have all plummeted in recent years.
Secondly, the command and control world of the author (or auteur in the film world) is over. As soon as the audience can step in, create content and direct, the old model crumbles.
Three, stories and games have become more inextricably linked than ever. A game may never be able to offer the full "sensory wallop" of a motion picture, but they certainly allow the viewer to insert himself directly into the experience. Given the desire to participate, games become a magical way to connect and influence.
And four, it's normal for there to be confusion and even resistance as a new definition of story telling develops and movie makers, publishers and ad agencies all struggle to figure it out.
One of my favorite quotes in the book, memorable to any film student of the 70s or 80s, is from Jean Luc Godard, the French New Wave director whose approach to story telling challenged Hollywood and even French convention. Asked if a story shouldn't have a beginning, middle and end, he answered, "Of course, just not necessarily in that order."
Today's question might be, "Shouldn't every story have an author?" The answer might be, "Of course, but why limit it to one."