Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Non Linear Cross Platform Transmedia Storytelling

This essay is an excerpt from a longer article on Story/Message Theory, originally published November 14, 2010. To read the original article in full, click the link. Links to other excerpts follow at the conclusion of this entry.


Image By wooleywonderworks
So what of digital narratology and non linear story telling?

First, what do we mean by non linear when we apply it to Story theory?
Is Non Linear synonymous with interactivity?

Many people indicate it as such, but Non linearity traditionally suggests absurdity, whereby one thing does not follow the other logically. However, in practical terms, there is very little if anything illogical or non linear about the human experience, much less most stories told, regardless how many platforms or plots are in play, or that we may or may not enjoy its direction or the conclusions drawn upon by measuring any activities therein, or values we assign to such things.

And try as we might, absurdity requires a linear framework in order to feel its effect. Thus, while we are all familiar with art we might describe as absurd, we are also familiar with the experience of making sense out of the nonsensical. Present two unrelated ideas or points in space to a healthy human mind and they will draw a connection. In this sense, absurdity evaporates upon detection.

American advertisers rarely attempt to present the illogical; they generally strive for clarity. So, it may be that what brand strategists and advertisers are really doing is better defined as an attempt to insert themselves into a person's own narrative, and that this is better conceived as 'Experience Shaping'. It might even be manipulation of a kind, but only if we want people to think of us first, which is true in all facets of human relationships. In the meantime, Time Shifted, Non Linear formatting and Branched Choices have simply become synonymous with Non Linear Storytelling

Whether they are or not, however, is another story.

Better I think to dispense with the notion that we are composing Non Linear stories and simply understand that hyperlinks don't fracture Story experience; they enrich it. This becomes perfectly evident when we consider games.

In speaking to an audience at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virgina, business author Dan Pink has described Storytelling as "putting facts in context and delivering them with emotional impact". This is arguably true of narrative, but I think it is an incomplete as a definitive statement regarding stories, especially stories that lend themselves to trans linear experiences. What's missing in Mr. Pink's observation is any notion of game theory.

In so far as there are goals, rules and challenges to overcome, a traditional story frames a narrative within the game of life, and its players are the characters that inhabit and interact within the fiction, –especially exemplified by the dynamic between the protagonist and antagonist and the obstacles our hero faces. However, in a trans linear story, the game is played by the audience/users, for they are the one following rules, attempting to accomplish goals and overcoming challenges.

If in addition we add the notion that someone might learn something, then we also fulfill the measure provided by Story/Message Theory.

As for non linearity, in the case of popular electronic games, any notion of non linearity is held by the story builders alone, but it's not shared by players. Players may be given a wide and complex array of choices to navigate a game by choosing one Story branch over another, but their experience is transparent, seamless and feeds back as  linear experience. In this sense, any multi choice branching video game is as non linear as a game of Tic Tac Toe or Chess.

Indeed, a game of HALO (or any video game) actually provides a linear Story Experience whose potentially unique outcome at any given moment of game play is sourced from a Choice Array. On the other hand, we might experience a multi linear film, such as PULP FICTION, as wildly non linear when if fact it simply features a non sequential narrative experience.

In the case of digital narratology, Stories are often subject to a 'Platform Cut', as we cease action on one screen and begin on another. But practically speaking, it bears little difference from a film or video edit, except that the former is also Time Shifted.

Non linearity in electronic games or marketing assets appear to describe the back-end properties inherent with the provision of a Choice Array rather than any actual non linear experience produced on screen, or across multiple screens.

Thus, CHOICE alone does not necessarily describe Non Linearity.

Image By Arenamontanus
So, it may be more practical that rather than describe Time Shifted Cross Platform communications as Non Linear Stories (though some may be), that we define them as 'Constructal' compositions (or insert your own nifty neologism here). Constructal Theory describes a natural evolutionary tendency inherent in flow systems over time.

Alternately, we can describe each Message opportunity as an anchor point (also, plot point or brand touchpoint). A set of anchor points in and of themselves does not describe a story, for the same reason Navigation does not necessarily indicate Narrative. But if one can influence an audience to connect the dots, and provide them with a purpose for doing so, then one at least has the chance of playing a significant role in each individual's own narrative. This is a model that feeds back flow systems to the audience, but is built on a backend branched choice system similar in construction to a Constellation or Conceptual Asterism.

In the Story/Message Theory model, a Conceptual Asterism is represented by Transmedia Storytelling, whereby several experiences unfold across several platforms in order to promote a film, product, service or brand.

That said, Transmedia vehicles in practice do not always deliver a Story experience. As often they represent what might be better described as supplemental non narrative theatrical exposition that employ the mainstream application of techniques that used to be more commonly called 'Experimental Art', i.e. A series of individual non narrative, immersive experiences that share a common idea or theme, and though entertaining in and of themselves, do not necessarily constitute a Story experience, although they may very well serve as enhancements to one. A score for instance, is not a Story, although it certainly enhances dramatic action and contributes to our experience of a given movie.

In any event, the very best Transmedia employs a masterful combination of multimedia design and exposition, such that one is tempted to define Transmedia professionals less as Storytellers and perhaps more as User Experience Designers whose medium is the Real World.

Wikipedia defines User Experience Design (UXD) as: "...a broad term used to explain all aspects of a person’s experience with the system including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. It also refers to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience."

Does the label fit? I think it does. 

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Articles in this series:

Story/Message Theory (Original full length article)
What is a Story?
The Parable/Fable Framework as Story Algorithm
The Story/Message Theory Construct
So It Goes: Vonnegut's Law
The Power of Effective Messaging
Create Engagement with Compelling Signification
Elevator Pitch: Speed Dating Signification
Static Symbolic Accentuating Triggers
Story is Dead
Leading with Message Signification
Non Linear Cross Platform Transmedia Storytelling
Mythology and Messaging

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