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Immersive Writing Lab at the London Transmedia Festival

On Friday the 26th of October, I attended Portal Entertainment‘s Immersive Writing Lab at Ravensbourne College in Greenwich. Part of the London Transmedia Festival, this event was split over two days – a conference on Friday and a more hands-on workshop on Saturday. This is the second year of the event, which also marks the launch of a three-month writing competition.

Transmedia can be a controversial word, but it was embraced by the Lab, which explored the value of ‘immersive entertainment’ – stories told across more than one medium, playing with the boundaries of the real world, and often requiring participation from the audience. The hows and whys of interactive storytelling is certainly a hot topic, and unsurprisingly, the room was full.

As we’ve discussed on this site at length, participation in itself is not a new idea, but original ideas and techniques are being catalysed by technology. However, much more than technology, Friday was about audiences – even psychology. Participatory new story experiences must start with an audience willing to embrace their new role and responsibility. Former consumers are being empowered as creators.

Mike Jones, Portal’s “Head of Story”, delivered a talk from Sydney. Despite the tortuous Skype connection and numerous false starts, the value of what he had to say was undiminished. Practical advice on writing ‘transmedia’ experiences is still thin on the ground, and (when we were able to hear him) the room eagerly devoured his tips.

Mike explained that writing for multimedia is difficult because there is no discipline or convention yet, because of the convolution of structures and forms the media bring, and because the writing process often feels messy, incoherent & unsatisfying compared to more conventional writing. However, audience expectations are changing, Mike said. They expect the story to be bigger than the platform, with multiple points of entry. For those familiar with writing and reading stories in digital ways, interaction is increasingly the norm.

Mike has devised some key principles of writing for transmedia:

1: World first, then plot. “Create a vibrant pressure-cooker world, full of natural dramatic oppositional forces,” said Mike.

2: Everything that mattered, still matters. Action, tension, drama, etc. It is all relevant for new platforms.

3: First person, present tense. Test the immersiveness of your story by putting it into present tense.

4. Role-play. Give your audience an active and meaningful role in the story. A good interactive role has motivation, action and reward. Compel your audience to interact, don’t assume they want to.

5. Interactive, online & multiplatform is episodic storytelling. Think about when dramatic questions are asked and when & where (on which platform) are they answered? (I liked Mike’s observation here that “We are creatures of worry” – in stories, we enjoy these anxieties and dilemmas.)

Mike emphasised the need to build on the similar, and discover the different and new – don’t focus or start from the aspects which make your story different from a traditional one.

Portal’s writing competition is about roleplay this year, but last year it was themed on storyworld building. Interestingly, Portal strongly believe that storytelling begins with a world, rather than a character or scenario. Get the world right, set up its ‘rules and pressures’ and multiple stories will evolve naturally out of it – and onto other platforms. The basics of storytelling are unchanged here, of course. Pressures push characters into conflict with the world’s rules – and the conflict is still the exciting thing. Determine the nature and power of the forces, and the plot(s) can be crafted. Mike recommended writing short-form pieces to create installments helps keep the forces consistent and under control – to stay away from runaway “castles in the sky”.

The other talks were just as interesting, although, particularly given the good gender balance of the audience, the all-male line-up was unfortunately very noticeable.

Pete Higgins is immersive theatre group Punchdrunk‘s “enrichment director” (which he describes as an outreach position, ‘but we all do a bit of everything’), and his presentation was another highlight of the day. Punchdrunk are known for their use of found sites, deliberately – and often unsettlingly – blurring the boundaries between the real world and the performance. Pete said Punchdrunk are keen to preserve the sense you are in control of your story experience, as an audience member. You are the “master of your own destiny” as you walk around, able to enter the show at any point in the story, and quickly become drawn in.

Punchdrunk work with brands like Louis Vuitton and Stella Artois but are best known for choreographing exploded stories in unusual spaces (warehouses, schools, etc), integrating their audience members as the performance takes place around them, and getting incredibly affecting results.

Pete talked about “filmic reality “– as an audience woven into the set, “you become the camera”. For maximum impact, audience members are often subjected to a “divide and conquer” approach, and The Masque of the Red Death was a case in point, as each member of the audience was given a mask to wear. Pete explained that theatre-goers seek reassurance in their companions, but that’s impossible when you can’t see their face. Masks help us to abandon our inhibitions, too.

Punchdrunk is as much about working the audience’s psychology as it is about performance. In fact it sounds like a near-hypnotic experience. “It has to be unnerving. We need them to stay really open and aware, feeling like anything could happen at any moment,” Pete said. “We like keeping our audience on a knife-edge between fear and joy, so they never, ever feel comfortable.”

When a story has finished, it loops around and start again, a moment Pete describes as “a bit groundhog day”, with dead actors picking themselves up and starting again like newly-wound toys. “We’re always trying to take the audience on a journey from the real world into the story world, and back into the real world again. We decompress them in and out of the story.”

Other talks I enjoyed included an interesting demo from BBC R+D and the low-down on using audience volunteers from famously participatory stand-up comedian Adam Riches. Watch this space for more on the speakers and themes from the event!

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