Mez Breeze on Transmedia and Gaming Narratives

Sophie Overett

What was the initial appeal of digital narratives for you?
When starting to work with digital narratives in 1995, the allure was based around: 1) the ease and excitement of collaboration and 2) the novelty and newness of using the internet to create networked and interactive fiction. My first attempts to create digital narratives were often spontaneous and created with fellow newbie internet users: as I’ve said recently in this Cordite article: “In 1995, I spot-hunkered in a series of interchangeable computer labs and proceeded to create text…These texts would nowadays be known as flash fiction, interactive fiction, and/or labelled as ‘Alternate Reality Game-like Play’. In this period, we gang of fabulists construction-toyed with what would soon be recognised as electronic literature, code poetry, literary games, and the nature of online collaboration.”

 

What comes first, the story or the medium you tell it in?
For me it’s most often a combination of both. For transmedia projects elongated across multiple forms and including true intertextuality, there’s such an elaborate interplay between the platforms and the actual narrative/story. In these types of projects, attempting to work out which came first becomes an almost chicken and egg scenario. For instance, in a current transmedia project I’m developing with Andy Campbell called “Pluto”, the initial story emerged directly from a gaming platform.

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You’ve worked on such a diverse range of projects. Which one is your favourite? Or which one are you most proud of?
It’s extremely hard to pin down favourites after working in this field for so long – it means I’ve had a hand in creating so many projects I’ve felt very passionate about! Some of my most memorable projects include Virologic conditioning 1.1, 2008/2009’s Augmentology Project, and co-writing New Media Scotland’s Alternate Reality Game “Cryptic Nights/Alt.win.ning”. If I had to pin down my current favourite, it would be #PRISOM, an anti-surveillance game co-created with Dreaming Methods.

#PRISOM was designed for Wearable Augmented Reality Displays and commissioned for The International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality 2013. It makes my fave list for a few reasons, one of which is how it dystopically explores the concept of social change. I’m incredibly passionate about highlighting the dangers of covert surveillance and the dangers inherent in sacrificing privacy for convenience’s sake, and I think #PRISOM comes close to exploring that.

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I’m also really pleased with the way certain #PRISOM game variables add up to develop the narrative (such as the “Tips” screen actually doubling as life tips as well as actual concrete game tips, and working the narrative to include real-life scenarios as templates for the “#WhatDoYouDo?” in-game scenarios).

 

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One of the works I’m most proud of is a project I created as part of the first Australia Digital Writing and New Media Residency that I was lucky enough to complete at Wollongong City Gallery way back in 2001. This Residency involved a year-long use of a studio set-up and an end of Residency exhibition of a large screen interactive/networked installation of my project called “_][ad][Dressed in a Skin C.ode_”. Not only am I proud of the fact that I was the first Australian Digital Writer to have the opportunity to participate in such an amazing opportunity, but also the reception of the work itself was really heartening, with The Center for Digital Discourse and Culture at Virginia Tech offering to host the work in perpetuity.  I’m also very proud of the fact that the work – as well as an additional work created as part of this residency – was examined/discussed at the 2002 Electronic Literature Organization’s State of the Arts Symposium (Kate Hayles), and by Rita Raley in her Conference Presentation “Interfacing Knowledge” (warning: this audio is very poor) and her corresponding paper “Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework”.

 

Would you recommend writers interested in transmedia storytelling learn to write or to code first, or both at the same time? Does it make a difference?
It depends entirely on the project and aims of the writer/creator. If someone wants to take on the backend of the project as well as the writing, design, and project management (logistics) all at once, then sure, but it’s a hard way to go.  And before doing any of that: just play. Play the feck out of a huge amount and range of games, and ferret-work your way through a frackload of deliciously engaging transmedia projects.

 

On that note, how could a writer with little digital experience step into gaming or transmedia?
I’d suggest they first absolutely immerse themselves in games and/or transmedia projects. As a creator, if you first come at either medium academically – or through a traditional teaching route *without* having heavy participation in either form from the inside out – in my opinion, you’re gonna have a hard time. If, for instance, you think you’ll be able write excellent games or interactive projects without any prolonged exposure or familiarity/deep immersion in the very mediums in which you’re creating, or without focused participation in any of the cultural ecospheres that transmedia and gaming span, you’ll most likely find it a hard slog. The same applies if you’re attempting to cram transmedia/games into rigid frameworks designed along filmic or literary lines. I’ve unfortunately witnessed many a transmedia project/game formulated completely in line with cinematic conventions, or traditional literary standards, or solely via a “visual novel” angle: the resulting projects were largely disappointing.

This is where writers with little digital experience – but who have a boatful of actual transmedia engagement and/or sustained gaming experience under their belt – have a distinct advantage. If you’re a gamer or transmedia lover, one that dives in deep and has experienced Story Universes obsessively (say, who has followed every transmedia branch in The Matrix franchise), have played games until you see them in your sleep (anything from D&D to Ingress to Cards Against Humanity, to Quake or Minecraft or LoL etc) *this* is what will give you such an authentic boost when starting to write your own transmedia/game based projects.

 

Transmedia and games are often talked about in very different breaths, but there seems to be quite a few similarities in the forms. What do you think are the key differences between them? Do they require different approaches narratively speaking?
Again this depends on the scope and form of the project that’s being created. In a generalised sense, transmedia storytelling works through the creation of overarching story cohesion. This cohesion occurs when the narrative fragments that span several platforms and/or forms work in a fluid and interrelated fashion. Gaming is often (but not always) a more contained and mono-channelled affair. Both transmedia and games are interactive by nature, and are considered active entertainment forms (think ARGs as opposed to passive entertainment such as TV-watching or book reading). In terms of key differences, a transmedia creator needs to be happy to deal with a highly-coordinated narrative/storyline that is parcelled through different formats and bundled into multiple absorption streams. Game developers, writers, and designers (again, this depends on what style or genre of game is being referenced) are often, but not always, centred on more directed – and less platform-fragmented – narrative building.

 

What kind of gaming writing is the industry looking for / are there any significant holes to fill?
That’s an extremely interesting question given the current state of game-related industries. It always interests me how the definition of a “game” is constantly expanding and evolving, and as a result this definition is less tied to more traditional video game industry expectations. For instance, last week I was told the fantastic news that I had been shortlisted in the “Games Development” Category of the 2015 MCV Pacific Women In Games List, which profiles the:  “…most influential women across all facets of the Australian and New Zealand Games Industries.” My first reaction to this was to think “Wow, really?!”: I suspect this reaction is hardwired into many a game writer, designer and developer who doesn’t slot easily into pre-set categories defined by industry standards.

In terms of AAA games, the structure and format of the writing still seems mostly geared along a blockbuster-type ethos: hero journeys, fps goal progressions and MMO quest-grinding narratives are expected (if not mandated). In terms of Indie or Pervasive Games, writing expectations can be looser, more fluid, less tied to a stereotypical platform/template; these types of games can also incorporate different delivery methods (think: the recent resurgence of “Escape the Room” Games, board games, subversive games, and Social Games). And now with the emergence of the “Altgame” label and associated game art/literary game categories, there’s even more scope for a game writer to strut their individualistic stuff, with ease of use platforms like Twine becoming increasingly popular.

 

Is there a particular genre or type of story you think works best for transmedia narratives?
The best types of transmedia narratives are those that are comprehensive and rich, integrated and nuanced – just like any “stand-alone” mediums (my preferred term for a mono-channelled story that is told through one platform only). Just like in a novel, film, or game, if you aren’t able to create a layered and cohesive experience (whether it’s narrative or non-narrative driven) you’ll simply lose the interest of a reader/user. If you can craft an experience that successfully engages an audience and pushes them into valid Willing Suspension of Disbelief territory, in my opinion any genre or story type works just fine.

 

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What do you think the future of transmedia narratives holds?
The future for transmedia narratives will hopefully involve less of a reliance on the almost-outmoded term itself. By this I’m indicating how modern transmedia fans may not even consciously view the act of “Active Narrative Gathering” (a phrase I coined back in 2003 to describe the meaning-jigsawing that’s necessary with transmedia story components) as a set of conceptually distinct actions/behaviours required to experience a complete Story Universe.  The author Alisa Riveria has an interesting article about this called “Transmedia is a word for old people” where she says: “My friend’s daughter explained that young people don’t need a word to describe transmedia because this is how they live every day. The narrative of their own lives unfolds across different social media platforms and they consciously create identities for themselves depending on where, what, how and with whom they share information”.

As transmedia creators, absorbers, and readers, the more we embrace Wearables and VR/AR platforms, the less we’ll be reliant on segmenting out various story variables across a range of media, and more intent on integrating them into a cohesive and seamless delivery system that exists beyond the concepts of multiple channelling or trailheads or portals. Imagine the possibilities of rewiring transmedia narratives through Wearable and Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality tech (think: a combination of the Virtuix Omni, HoloLens and/or VR Gear)!

 

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Any final words of advice for aspiring or emerging digital writers?
Firstly: play. Then delve and absorb and participate. Write. Experiment. Read. Find a hinge. Rewrite (and don’t be afraid to discard). Build (characters, plot, structure, mechanics). Branch. Try using a platform, or a writing mechanic, that’s never been angled in a certain way before. Play some more. Iterate. Revise. Fork. Test. Build some more. Craft a trailhead to nowhere and see if your QAers even notice. Bug-hunt. And write. And play some more. And re-write. Repeat. And repeat. And practice. And then do it all again: and hopefully you’ll end up construction-honing a work that makes a player’s breath hitch, and propel them to continue feverishly playing and plot-piecing. ♦

Since 1995, Mez Breeze’s award-winning digital writing/games have been influential in shaping interactive genres and held in Collections at The World Bank and National Library of Australia. Mez runs @MezBreezeDesign, is a Senior Research Affiliate with The Humanities Critical Code Studies Lab, and Advisor to The Mixed/Augmented Reality Art Research Organisation.”

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