The Plot Thickens

What do John Grisham, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Stephen King, Bob Dylan, and perhaps even Danielle Steele have in common?

They are master storytellers.

The art of telling a compelling story has been around for thousands of years. And like everything else, it evolves. It changes with the times.

Some theorists believe that evolution doesn’t really happen slowly over millions of years. Their theory is that periodically, cataclysmic events cause great leaps forward. So evolution becomes more of a series of huge spurts interspersed with long periods of slower change.

I believe that storytelling might be in for a huge spurt in the next decade or so, and that the people who develop games just might be in the thick of it.

Interactive TV is generating a lot of hype lately. And those of you who have been reading my articles know that I’ve fully bought into the hype. In fact, I don’t want to even call it hype, because that has such a negative connotation. The buzz is going to pan out. This is an idea whose time has finally come. It won’t be this year. Probably not even next year. But man, sometime in the next five years, it’s gonna hit — and hit big.

So that prospect gets me thinking about ad models, specs, interactivity, and all kinds of fun stuff. It also gets me thinking about what happens even further down the line. If you take interactive TV to its extreme, what do you get?

Most top-rated TV programs are, at their core, stories. The season finale of “The West Wing,” for example, was about a shocking announcement from the White House and all of the drama surrounding whether the president would seek a second term. That’s a story, right? And stories are told in many other media as well, including film.

So let’s not talk about interactive TV for the moment. Let’s talk about interactive stories and interactive storytelling.

Most stories today are told in a linear fashion. In other words, a certain sequence of events occurs as determined by the author. The author will use various storytelling techniques to build drama, suspense, humor, and so on. But it’s all linear and controlled by the author.

For example, let’s say we’re “consuming” a murder mystery story. The author may decide that in scene one, we will observe background for the story. We’ll get a sense for who the victim is, who his enemies are, and why someone might want to kill him. In scene two, we might witness the murder happening from the victim’s perspective — drama and panic building, but the murderer never revealed. In scene three, the author may show us the beginning of the police investigation and drop subtle clues for us to follow. And then we will likely spend the rest of the story following the detectives around as they chase down clues — one at a time, in the author’s predetermined order.

That’s linear storytelling.

But what if stories become both interactive and nonlinear? What if we, as viewers, have the power to control the sequence of events? For example, we might be able to select which clue to investigate first in the murder mystery. And when that clue’s path comes to an end, we could then select the next course of action. And so on, until we reach the end and (hopefully) solve the mystery.

Suddenly, it’s not a story anymore. It has become a game. Or a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Storytelling is a sophisticated art form, practiced by many and mastered by few. But do today’s masters have the skills to tell the story when it becomes nonlinear and interactive? Perhaps. But who knows? It might take an entirely different skill set. The rules for what makes an intense nonlinear story could be totally different from those for a good linear story.

Who would have the skills? Who is practicing today for what could potentially be our nonlinear future?

It just might be the folks who develop games.

Think about it. The nonlinear murder mystery pretty quickly turned into a game. That’s what these folks do all day — develop plot lines to drive a sequence of events that don’t necessarily have to happen in a particular order. The person playing the game is the one who determines the order of events.

There are good books and bad; Oscar-winning movies and direct-to-video trash; hit TV shows and those that never make it past the pilot. Similarly, there are great games and awful ones. Many factors go into making a killer game, but certainly in many cases it is the underlying story that makes it good. And it may be the artful way in which the story unfolds — under the control of the player — that makes the game a hit.

We’re even starting to see crossover. A Web promotion for the upcoming film “A.I.” involves a massive Web-based murder mystery and helps form the backdrop story to the film.

It could very well be that the relatively unknown masterminds behind today’s latest smash game will become the Hollywood stars of the future.

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