Netflix’ Arrested Development & The Future of Storytelling

As we countdown to Arrested Development’s launch day, May 26, I’m riveted by the potential impact of Netflix’s all-in-one season on the future of storytelling. Key is creator Mitch Hurwitz’s decision to construct the episodes as what one could call, following the experimentations of hypertext and database narratives, a recombinatory narrative system, but with a difference. As Willa Paskin notes in her feature in Wired on March 19th, 2013: “It’s something new—a collection of episodes released altogether that can be remixed and recombined and that gain something from each juxtaposition… Each episode will cover events from a different character’s point of view, like a comedic Rashomon. There will be moments and Easter eggs that will make sense only in retrospect. There will be a suggested viewing sequence, but it will be possible—even rewarding—to watch out of sequence.”

The more I think about the experimental possibilities of what Sara Thacher calls “‘Web-Native’ TV,” the richer future I see as, while the concept at play may be new for television, this model of spatial, fragmented and shifting narrative is well-established in other media, meaning there is a wealth of knowledge that can be drawn upon for this kind of experimentation. Netflix is now mainstreaming what has existed in film and literature for decades as postmodern subversive play with fragmentation, point of view, narrative in/coherence, and the spatial, distributed, and associative design that underlies much interactive/experimental cinema, and interactive documentaries – iDocs – in particular. What we’re seeing is content design responding to platform and to audience – what Paskin describes as ‘television built be binged’ based on Netflix’s knowledge of audience viewing behaviour Where Hurwitz earlier toyed with the idea of using a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ model, the exiting recombinatory model creates a new challenge for the audience as the order of episodes you choose will impact on how you view and empathize with characters through given sequences. It’s this effect that has me jumping up and down inside! Portia de Rossi (Lindsay Bluth Fünke) describes how “I did a scene with Jessica [Walter, who plays Lindsay’s mother], where she seemed to be saying the nastiest things, in my mind, because it was so sarcastic…But in her episode, you realize that she was being sincere. If you see my episode first, u’re like, ‘That fucking bitch.’ But if you see hers first, I look completely heartless.” (Paskin, Wired). What I love about this is the dilemma I am now consciously aware of – which episode will I watch first? How will my construction of a linear viewing sequence impact my understanding of the whole? What are the other variables between different POV episodes? This really is a delicious dilemma as once I’ve chosen I can’t go back & recover my narrative innocence – return to a state of ‘unknown unknowns.’ (Ah…the shadow of Rumsfeld…) Once I watch one, the rubic’s cube of known unknowns will start to take shape as the story map of scenes and interactions is revealed. In the meantime, Arrested Development Season Four looks like it will offer one of the best forms of interactivity, which I started writing about in the context of interactive narrative design watching Nolan’s Memento.Though screened as a linear-viewing experience, the complications of the interwoven time-lines and unstable status of the narrative threads made for a cognitive interaction that was extremely active, as I worked to align and realign story threads & my understanding of character status. Think Barthes’ active engagement with the writerly text now derailing TV’s more often passive medium with Netflix’ disruption of TV’s traditional serial/sequential viewing. With Arrested Development, I’m going to bet that Hurwitz has crafted a viewing experience that will drive fans back for multiple repeat views, binge viewing continued in excess over time with the aim of mentally constructing and reconstructing the narrative whole. I often find that at the end of power viewing a series over a weekend that I’ve lost track of details in the first episodes & I want to rewatch in order to recover narrative coherence. Here too, no doubt, Netflix’s data analytics can provide insights on viewer habits of rewatching fave content in Netflix’s flat fee context. That audience loyalty is about to get rewarded as layers of AD narrative complexity will be presumably revealed in multiple viewings. Let the agonizing hilarity begin. Alyssa Rosenberg also has an excellent post on “Why ‘Arrested Development Really Represents a Breakthrough for Netflix” And Randy Finch has one here: ‘Will Arrested Development on Netflix Make Storytelling News?

Fantastic day with Jon Reiss! Think Outside the Box Office Masterclass – Transmedia 101

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We had a fantastic day with Jon Reiss who shared his expertise & experiences with a great group of filmmakers from Toronto & beyond, including Jill Golick, Tiska Weiderman, & Indira Guha. The note-taking was pretty intense, as was pic-snapping of slides, & I have a feeling quite a few people will be buying his books today. Jon, we are all now waiting for your new book, the in-depth breakdown of the role & responsibilities of the PMD –  Producer of Marketing & Distribution. Thanks all who came out for a great day!

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And after a delicious dinner at Mercatto with TM101’s Anthea Foyer, Zan Chandler, Luci Lalumiere, Julie Giles, out came the hat! Will this be our signature sign-off for Transmedia 101 events?

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Carrie, Jon & Siobhan after a very fine dinner

Disney’s bought Star Wars? Buckle up! Fans will be the Wild Card!

I just realized this morning that not only has Disney acquired Star Wars, Disney has also now entered into a relationship with one of the most active, devoted & proprietorial fan communities on the planet.  As my sister (mother of two boys & wife of a 40 year old Star Wars die-hard fan) told me, ‘You out grow Sponge Bob. You don’t outgrow Star Wars.’

Now how exactly will Disney deal with the proliferation of fan-made content, remixing, rewriting & generally messing around in the Star Wars story world? Lucas’ relationship with fans & fan-made content has a long & varied history. Henry Jenkins has written about this extensively (2006), as has Lawrence Lessig (2008). In a recent essay for Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation 2nd Edition on the impact of digital media on adaptation (product & practices), I wrote about Casey Pugh’s crowdsourced remake of Star Wars, viewable on YouTube, which in our Web 2.0 era, lives happily on the web and hasn’t been locked in a vault as was the 1980s fan remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raiders: The Adaptation. I post an excerpt here as I will be watching in fascination to see how the future of Star Wars unfolds.

Given that LucasFilm had JUST announced (Oct. 23 2012) a partnership with Casey Pugh to remake The Empire Strikes Back as a fan remake again in 15 second scenes, I’m totally intrigued.

“…In July 2009, Casey Pugh invited a global audience to help remake the original Star Wars Episode IV: The New Hope in the form of 473 15-second clips to be posted to the film adaptation’s website (http://www.starwarsuncut.com/). Pugh’s project was not the first shot-by- shot remake of Star Wars: The New Hope, for Toy Wars (2002) remade the film with movie action figures (Jenkins 2006: 147). Fans from roughly 20 countries remade clips in a wide range of styles, including live action, multiple styles of animation and anime, puppets, LEGO, grindhouse, Yellow Submarine-style, stop motion, and the list goes on. There was no attempt at continuity in style, location, or actors and as multiple versions were uploaded for individual clips, fans voted on what version would make the final cut. The result is a glorious, hilarious testimony to fan devotion and enthusiasm for playing with the “original” content, and to adaptation as an act of communal ownership of a story deeply embedded in the consciousnesses of multiple generations across the globe. Pugh’s crowdsourced adaptation, “an official, perfectly imperfect shadow version of the original film” (Lloyd 2010), was posted live online as Star Wars Uncut in August 2010, and then went on to receive an Emmy for “outstanding creative achievement in interactive media” (Stelter 2010). Although restricted by an NDA, Pugh has stated that Lucasfilm supports the project and there appears to be the potential for future cinema release. The film can be viewed in full on YouTube and on the website

What the easy accessibility of Pugh and his collaborators’ adaptation demonstrates is that media conglomerates no longer own the channels of production and distribution in the way that they did in the last century. Further, control of IP and thus adaptation is no longer a straight- forward legal cease and desist affair, leading to prosecution. Instead, fans can and do mobilize in response to what they perceive as betrayals of their loyalty. Unlike Raiders: The Adaptation, Star Wars Uncut was made in the very public space of the internet; production and editing were crowdsourced, meaning that the community was interconnected throughout the process. Pugh intentionally took advantage of the connectivity of the web to create an aggregate work that is the logical extension of fan-generated content posted on YouTube since its 2005 launch. The connectivity of the net has circumvented what fifteen years ago would have been a cease and desist action against copyright infringement. What Star Wars Uncut has achieved is a middle ground between what Grant McCracken (2010) defines as the economies of scarcity and plenitude. In the first, the corporation retains complete control (he cites Disney), believing value and revenue depend on the scarcity of content, and in the second, corporations realize they “have a right to retain copyright but they have an interest in releasing it” ( McCracken 2010; quoted in Jenkins 2006: 158)….”

See  the LucasFilm announcement here

The Dark Knight Rises, The Aurora Shootings, and the Usurpation of Immersion

[no spoilers]

Last night I finally had a chance to see The Dark Knight Rises & I left the theater thinking 1: it’s a very good film and 2: how very very sad I was.

The theatre was packed and I would bet that many of us had moments when the Aurora shootings flickered through our thoughts. I didn’t think about it in the first action/fight sequence when the Aurora shooter opened fire on the audience. I started thinking about it later, as the tone of the film became darker and Gotham City became a dystopian vision of the Occupy movement taken to a radical extreme of violent and absolute class revolution. As the final act played out, I was mulling on the long list of action movies that depict the brutalization of the hero by the villain via intense torture or beating scenes played out on the body of the actor – Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, & yes, Christian Bale. I shelved the question of why? what cultural value does that scene have? until later as I know others have written about it. (Read the Iliad and you see a very different treatment of the hero). And in the final action sequence with the return of The Batman, I found myself thinking about action movies, violence and immersion.

I’ve spent the last 11 years thinking about immersion, how to tell stories in new ways, through new platforms and modes of engagement. How to design to prompt audiences to act, to interact with and now sometimes to contribute to the story and/or storyworld. I want to bypass the points of discussion being raised in the US on the impact of violent games and films, the culture of violence, around the value and sanity of current gun laws. 1. I am not American, 2. I am not an expert on gun laws, 3. I have no idea what the shooter (whom I will not name) was actually thinking or whether he played violent 1st person shooter games or whether he had ever watched The Dark Knight: Why So Serious? Many of the excellent responses since posted have jumped to the broad social points of inquiry: what are the causes of gun violence? do porous gun laws contribute to gun violence in society? (Michael Moore) does a violent media culture foster violence? what questions should we be asking about fictional representations of violence? (Henry Jenkins) should Americans be reevaluating how the 2nd Amendment is interpreted? (Jason Alexander) Why is it that it is easier to buy assault weapons & ammunition than prescription Sudafed? (Jon Stewart). Similar points of discussion are playing out in Toronto with the last week’s repeated instances of gun violence and deaths.

What strikes me still this morning is that while the broad societal questions and discussion are valuable if IF any significant knowledge or action can be drawn and acted upon, the actions of the Aurora shooter were very specific and in some ways very clear. We cannot know exactly what he was thinking over the months leading up to this massacre, but I would bet on the following.

We do know by the way the shootings unfolded that he designed and acted on a plan to insert himself into the psychic space of the film, the movie and the movie theater. That he created an immersive experience for himself and the audience that placed him as the central dominant figure, casting himself as the psychopathic villain within a fictional space that became real. That he must have planned thinking that with the first action sequence he would reenter the theater & begin his disruption of that shared immersive experience. That he did so to be remembered, to join a list of gun massacre perpetrators and sadly, he will now forever FOREVER be linked to The Dark Knight Rises and hundreds of years from now, if someone looks up this film, he will still be there.

That invasion of reality by one man’s fantasy projection of himself is deeply, profoundly disturbing as I cannot shake the sense that what he did was design an immersive experience with precisely the same logic that I often use myself. How to blur the line between reality and fiction, how to draw an audience in, how to create emotional and action triggers, calls to action, that invite, seduce, and immerse. The reports that many of the survivors initially thought that the gas & the gunfire sounds were part of a promotional stunt reinforces this conclusion. This is where discussions of fictional violence fall short to me because the shooter brought the fiction to life, created a new immersive experience of gun violence and death that functions to me like an Escher-like loop between the onscreen narrative and what was playing out in the theater. As I write this, here’s a tweet popping up ‘How to Write Powerful Content that Powerfully Connects.’ This is exactly what the shooter did.

What I am left thinking about this morning is how my relationship to the immersiveness of action films and depictions of violence has now changed. There were moments of absolute silence in The Dark Knight Rises in which I was powerfully aware of that shared physical and psychic space of 200 hundred living breathing people riveted, drawn into the narrative being played out on screen. And simultaneously, again, I was very sad that in the genre of epic action films, the hero needs an epic, psychopathic villain to overcome in order for the genre contract to play through to a ‘satisfying‘ conclusion. That psychic space is what the shooter usurped, that is the role he seems to have claimed for himself, and what he was thinking in those moments we will likely never know. I don’t have a ‘conclusion’ for this post. What I do have is a lingering sense of how profoundly disturbed this individual was and questions that can’t be easily answered that will remain with me as I move on into my work day, thinking about designing for immersion and interactive storytelling and the relation of audiences to fictional content.

Refs:

Jason Alexander, http://www.twitlonger.com/show/if2nht

Henry Jenkins, A Pedagogical Response to the Aurora Shootings: 10 Critical Questions about Fictional Representations of Violence, July 22 2012

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/07/a_pedagogical_response_to_the.html

Michael Moore, It’s not the guns, but we all know it’s really not the guns.

http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/its-guns-we-all-know-its-not-really-guns

Meanwhile, over on Minecraft The Hunger Games are running 24/7

A few weeks back, my neighbour’s 8 year old son spent almost over an hour carefully spelling out ‘Minecraft’ in foot and half high multi-coloured letters on the sidewalk in front of his house and mine. When I asked him why he liked the game, he said: ‘It’s entertaining…. And it’s really good for spatial stuff and building things.’ His eyes lit up and he started describing all the things he’d built, the CN Tower, a castle, and various objects from volcanos to dynamite. Later this week he’s going to show me what he’s made and I can’t wait.

Minecraft is huge – an online game sandbox that allows anyone to build pretty much anything, developed by Markus ‘Notch’ Persson. Not only was Notch awarded the BAFTA Special Award in March 2012 for ‘significant contribution to a sector,’ Minecraft is now the best selling XBox Live Arcade game ever, with over 2 million games sold.  So when a friend’s 14 year old son, Alex, told me he spent a ton of time playing in online versions of The Hunger Games built in Minecraft, I ever curious, immediately asked if he would show me. As he played through a number of games, he filled me in on the rules – it’s an open game world, any one can play, games usually have 8 players, though there are lots of variations.

You log in, choose an active game in the game world antechamber or lobby & then wait for a unanimous vote for the game to begin. During the interim, players can chat, form alliances & move around the environment. When it does start, following the rules of Suzanne Collin’s imagined game, you have to wait for the countdown, make a mad dash for the treasure pile to score weapons, armor, and consumables to maintain your health. Some game mods like Minecraft The Hunger Games Mod Minecraft 1.2.5  foreground details such as how ‘ Mocking-jay pins can be used to ally with characters who do not attack you. such as Peeta, or Katniss’ and the attributes of weapons:

  • The Spear (throwable)
  • The Knife (stackable and throwable)
  • Katniss’s Bow (same as normal bow)
  • Night-lock (poisons and blinds you)
  • Night-lock Sapling
  • Cornucopia block (gold and silver
  • It introduces mutts!
  • Cornucopia Pack (found in cornocopia, right click to obtain item)
  • sponsor package (given randomly)
  • And the Mocking-jay pin

Other games outline a rigorous protocol to stay faithful to the original novels: ‘ We will be following the rules laid out in the book, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins as closely as we can manage. Players will start in a lobby area; each player will enter a room, which will then be closed around them. The players will then be teleported to the arena, as soon as they arrive at the arena, the game begins. There will be chests of supplies nearby. Take whatever action you wish to ensure victory, be that fighting for the initial supplies or making a run for it and making your own gear. There are also a few chests with useful gear in them, but they are hidden throughout the level….’ <http://www.planetminecraft.com/forums/positron-servers-hunger-games-t79661.html>

      

If you know the game environment already so you know where the treasure caches are, you might choose to race to find the hidden caches so you can load up your inventory to protect yourself and begin slaying those less fortunate. Some games will have preset time restrictions (2 minutes? more? less?) before the killing can begin.

Any one can create a Hunger Game, and my guide told me about the epic game launched spring 2012, Minecraft Hunger Games ‘Free for All,’ which was built to host 150 players, with seriously extensive environments, game play, and many many hidden caches of weapons and supplies. The games I watched Alex play tended to be short, as he failed to score weapons in all but one of his games so he spent much of his game time racing away from others, repeating ‘I’m so dead, I’m so dead, I’m gonna die…’ When he did find a sword, the tables immediately flipped and he took off in pursuit of other players to kill them before he was spotted. Now, as he played he had the advantage of a tracking mod (paid for) which showed him where all of the other players were in the game world. As I watched, he confirmed that the players he was pursuing were blissfully unaware of his stalking until he killed them, unless of course, they had the same game mod.

And herein lies a beautiful lesson in the logic of fan adaptation. Where Collin’s novels are complex and layered in their politics and social critique, filled with ambivalences re. characters and the world depicted and an underlying rejection of contemporary American society, fans have taken the core of the action – kill/be killed within a specific set of rules & environment – and invested enormous amounts of time and creativity in remodelling Collin’s arena as a first-person shooter game.

Yet, if the games strip the novels down to a super simple narrative form, this phenomenon exists because of the commitment of individual modders spending hours building games to surprise and amaze others. What is really remarkable is that this explosion of creativity is possible because of the supportive stance the indie game developers Mojang (team of 2!) have taken. In a Gamasutra interview from January 2012, now lead developer Jens “Jeb” Bergensten talked at length about Minecraft’s indie process: ‘..we are such a small team that we can’t compete with the rest of the world with content. So, there’s a change in priorities, that we really need to open up the game for other developers to add mods, and share mods, and run servers more easily. So, what I mean is I will work less on features, and more on the engine part of the game.’

Numerous players are posting their game videos on YouTube, though again Alex informed me you had to buy the camera mod to record player games. These basic machinima videos – unscripted, unedited – are hysterical in their own way, particularly as you often find the disjunction between the first person pov negotiating through the virtual world with occasional, rapid fight sequences and then the parallel audio of individual players narrating their game play experience.

Not surprisingly, other properties have been rebuilt in Minecraft, most notably perhaps, Zelda Adventure, a 10 hour remake of The Legend of Zelda, which still appears to be playable online. Meaning that Nintendo, who have been ferociously guarded of their IP in the past, have chose to let this game continue. Lionsgate has resisted pushing the catch phrase ‘Let the games begin,’ and the extensive social media campaign deliberately avoids letting fans actually play the games in all aspects of their social media campaign. With 2 novels still to adapt and 3 films projected ahead, fans have gleefully bypassed  studio to play directly in The Hunger Games and have taken control of their own engagement. Given the rate of game modding underway, who knows what fans and modders will have created by the time the next film is released? May the (r)evolution of fan generated content continue…

some works cited – for a full list of YouTube links – contact me:

Gamasutra ‘Talking the Future of Minecraft’

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134994/talking_the_future_of_minecraft.php

Hunger Games Mod for Minecraft

http://www.minecraftdl.com/the-hunger-games-mod/

Positron Servers Hunger Games

http://www.planetminecraft.com/forums/positron-servers-hunger-games-t79661.html

Minecraft Hunger Games Server – YouTube

Minecraft Hunger Games Survival Captain Sparkles Part 2 – YouTube

MC Survival Games Servers – Ep3  – YouTube

Minecraft The Hunger Games Mod Showcase (And Gameplay) (Part 1)  – YouTube

Zelda Adventure –  – YouTube

http://www.minecraftforum.net/topic/180159-124ac-zelda-adventure-v097-475-582-dls/

‘Transmedia Engagement: Participatory Culture to Activism’ – The Hunger Games & Metrics of Success

The following is a talk I gave June 1 in Toronto which sprang from my ongoing interest in The Hunger Games as a transmedia campaign. I wrote an earlier blog post, ‘Why The Hunger Games is Not Harry Potter, and Why You Should Care,’ in response to finishing the novels, which were far more disturbing than I had expected. Further mulling on Geoffrey Long’s How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism and Jeff Gomez & Fabian Niciezo’s “6 Reasons Why ‘the Avengers’ is Crushing it at the Box Office” resulted in this case study on ‘Transmedia Engagement: Participatory Culture to Activism.’ Your thoughts are welcome!

[slideshare id=13211730&doc=transmediaengagement-participatoryculturetoactivism-120605134233-phpapp01]

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