Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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On storyworlds, immersive media, narrative and museums – an interview with Mike Jones

October 2nd, 2012 by Seb Chan

Back when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum, Mike Jones worked in the SoundHouse VectorLab (now called Thinkspace) teaching young people and adults, alike, how to tell stories with digital media. After a few years, Mike left to pursue a role at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), and a deep study of video games.

As I’ve been thinking about cross-media storytelling and the ways in which museum experiences and exhibitions are becoming more ‘theatrical’, I thought it made sense to get Mike’s thoughts on the matter.

F&N – You’ve worked in a museum for a while so you know the scene. It must be of interest, and perhaps mirth, that museums seem to have cottoned on the idea that ‘story’ matters. But it is obviously more complicated than that. What have you been doing since?

Since leaving the museum world I’ve been a bit of a multi-headed hydra working in lots of different ways on different things, and yet at the same time very focused and consistent in what I bring to all these projects. In simple terms, I’ve been writing for Screen-Based Media – screenplays for feature and TV projects, novels, multi-platform and interactive forms. Sometimes they are my own projects, more often it’s script editing, developing or contributing to other peoples’ babies. At the same time I’ve been teaching as a lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and this is a particularly vibrant and interesting gig as I teach across all disciplines – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, designers and so on. And with my colleague Karen Pearlman I’m teaching creative development processes for forms and formats outside of the scope of the traditional ‘film school’ – WebTV and Webseries, Online Documentary, Multi-Platform and Transmedia, Interactive Experiences. Its given me a great sort of vantage point to see the lay of the land – to be researching while I’m teaching and applying those discoveries back into my own work.

I’m now working with a newly formed company in the UK called Portal Entertainment that produces Immersive and Interactive Thriller and Horror experiences for touch-screen and mobile devices. Think Interactive Horror Movie on your iPad! My role with them is as Head of story and in effect this means my job is to ensure that the projects we produce have intrinsically strong narratives – engaging, dramatic, transformative, compelling. And we do this in a kind of platform and technology agnostic way.

The stories are not driven by the technology, the technologies are selected and constructed to best serve that story and the role we want to the audience play in that storyworld.

But I confess I get very frustrated with the word ‘story’ as its become the hot buzzword of recent years. On one hand we hold the word up like it’s some holy relic and sacred cow that must be revered, and yet at the same time (and perhaps because of this word-status) we often fail to really interrogate the word and understand what it means. We simply declare that ‘story is king’ without defining what that means or in particular, what it means in the particular context you want to ‘tell a story’.

In my work with Portal – which functions much like a TV series Writers-Table where a number of writers bring ideas forward that are workshopped, discussed, and brutalised into shape as a group – one of the first things we did was attempt to define not just what makes a ‘good story’ for an interactive touch-screen Horror/Thriller experience but also ‘how do we identify a story that is suitable to that format and environment’?

Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad.

So we focus on things like ‘Can the story be told in the First-person or Present-tense?’ and ‘Is there an Active, Meaningful and Motivated role for the audience to play in that story?’. If the story idea possesses these kind of qualities, or naturally lends itself to them, then they are the ideas we pursue and develop further.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with a lot of the baby-out-with-the-bathwater thinking that goes with technology and story thinking; that somehow it’s a ‘Whole New Form of Storytelling’, or that Storytelling on new technologies is somehow ‘All Different, all New’, that the rules don’t apply.

I think what we have to recognise is that technology has never actually changed what a story is. No story-telling technology is near so huge in impact as Radio was to a previously Theatrical and Literary culture. And yet a Radio Play conforms to all the same principles of character, tension, action, catharsis and transformation as a book, play or movie for that matter.

The technology changed what mechanics you had at your disposal to tell that story but it didn’t change what a story was or why people wanted them, what engaged and satisfied them. Just as there’s no precedent for any new media deleting an ‘old’ media (we still have TV, movies and plays in the age of video games and the internet), so to should we avoid gross assumptions of what technology does to the idea of a story. In simple terms, I work across new and old media everyday – from a feature films script to a WebSeries to online and touch-screen interactive, and the skill-set I bring to all of them as a writer and shaper of story experiences is the same – just the canvas changes.

Having said all that, not everything is a ‘story’. That’s the bit that really gets up my nose. A corporate brand logo and their social media adverts are not a bloody ‘story’!

Nor is every museum gallery or exhibition a ‘Story’.’ A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

This is where I wonder about museums and the idea of story telling.

In factual and documentary storytelling (which is obviously analogous to storytelling in the museum context), the topic or subject is never what the story is actually ‘about’. Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor, subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.

So, for example, if a museum does an exhibition on fashion, there is a fundamental story-telling problem if the curator believes the exhibition is actually about fashion. If such an exhibition is going to embrace storytelling then it will no longer be about fashion – fashion will simply be a metaphor for something else and the curators and design team better have a very clear understanding of what that ‘something’ is if they want to create an effective story experience.

This obviously isn’t rocket science and I imagine many curators would agree, yet I see very few museum exhibitions that enact this idea – I see a lot of exhibitions that seem to hint at the idea of storytelling, yet ultimately the exhibition is only about the subject. This is the equivalent of a movie that is all plot and no subtext, all dialogue and no transformation of character.

In this context perhaps we might argue that storytelling is only suitable for ‘some’ exhibitions but not all? What do you think? Is story intrinsic to the museum exhibition? or is it a tool that some exhibitions might use? Is it being used well? Is it being used poorly?

F&N – A number of us in museums have been thinking about exhibition design as ‘storytelling with physical space’. At the same time we know that people in the screen industries are attempting storytelling across both multiple screens and other media. Perhaps there is a potential intersection here? What are some of the key lessons from screen-based media’s attempts to ‘branch out’ that have been learned recently? Certainly with all their experience with audio tours and mobile tours, museums might have some good ‘second screen’ ideas to contribute?

I think the idea of Spatial Narrative is a really important idea and also a vibrant one with lots of good precedents. The obvious connection is with 3D video gaming and ideas by scholar Norman Klein whose book ‘From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects‘ deals specifically with the idea of narrative architecture.

My particular take on this is the idea of Player (or in the case of the museum, the Visitor) as Cinematographer; how can the space itself coerce, prompt, dictate or shape the movement and experience of the camera/visitor through the space. Klein calls this ‘gentle repression posing as free-will’. Shopping centres have been doing this to us for decades.

I wrote an article and a video essay specifically on this idea of ‘Player as Cinematographer‘ and I think the implications for the museum space are very acutely connected.

But that does bring us back to where we started with the notion of what a story ‘really’ is – Plot + Narration, point-of-view, dramatic questions, character transformation, catharsis and metaphor. Without these things the spatial coercion and construction may well be shaping your visit but it wont necessarily be the Spatial Narrator of a Story.

F&N – When I wrote about Punchdrunk’s digital efforts I emphasised their idea of a ‘parallel story’ that they were trying with Sleep No More deploying online interactivity to select performances. Parallel in the sense that the online audience experienced an entirely different narrative but using the same set and temporal space as the ‘in theatre’ audience’ with some crossover moments. Is this happening elsewhere?

Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool.

The idea of a Storyworld is not particular to digital multi-platform and is absolutely applicable in traditional television series. It’s the idea of articulating the holistic world in which the stories are set – not just What, Where and When but also defining the Rules and Pressures of that world, the forces in conflict and opposition, the social frameworks and contexts that make that world not just unique but definitively pressurised with narrative potential.

The principle I use is the mantra ‘World First, Then Plot’.

I recently was involved in judging an international Storyworld Writing competition for the Immersive Writing Lab project in the UK and this is what we were looking for in the submissions – a Storyworld that had strong potential to spawn numerous plots rather than a discreetly defined plot. Thus it’s the defining and shaping of the Storyworld that must come first before the articulation of a discreet plot. Increasingly writers working in screen media, both traditional and new, are starting to view their central creative IP as not ‘a’ Plot or ‘a’ Character but rather as the Storyworld from which numerous plots and characters across numerous media may spawn.

I wonder if this idea of defining the parameters of a Museum exhibtions’ Storyworld as a set of oppositional forces, rules and pressures, contexts, settings, characters and themes is a useful developing system for museum exhibitions?

F&N – Now, audience. Early ‘transmedia’ stuff seemed to have really low participation rates and reached only the hardcore fans. Has anything changed? Does the ‘second screen’ stuff broaden this or is it a bit like ‘casual games’ vs ‘hardcore games’?

Its certainly true that for all the cool stuff thats been developed for interactive transmedia multi-platform projects, the audiences are small and moreover, the awareness of the work is very low.

Audiences are growing and these experiences are being normalised as mainstream entertainment rather than a fringe for the hardcore ‘early adopters’. But at the same time creators of these kinds of forms are maturing and realising they don’t need everything and the kitchen sink – that the story isn’t ‘better’ just because they’ve got a Facebook page and buttons you can click.

The best projects I’m seeing are those that are very focused, very specific, not offering platforms for platforms sake, but a clearly defined experience. And in this way genre is crucially important. genre speaks to how the audience expects to ‘feel’, and they engage to satisfy those expectations. In a maelstrom of new media scattered-ness and inconsistency and variation, Genre gives you a really solid narrative handle for the audience to hold on to.

What role is there for Genre in the Museum and Gallery space? Do museums have recognisable genres? can they employ or engage with traditional literary or cinematic genres? I might be more inclined to engage with an exhibition if I knew what feeling-state it was going to satisfy before I stepped inside.

F&N – Obviously sandbox video games are the Storyworlds that a lot of us are familiar with. These environments accrete immersion over time – and it strikes me that although museums might wish to emulate these worlds, the ‘average visit length’ (<1 hr) isn't conducive to it happening. Even when I go to Disneyland or a theme-park it is a day long commitment - and perhaps that's why Tasmania's MONA is so successful - the tourist really commits to a multi-hour journey through it.

When I left Sydney I'd been thinking about how to turn museum experiences into 'lifelong' journeys. I'd been considering how Days of Our Lives and those daytime soap operas work. They don't require sequential viewing and you can not 'visit' their worlds for years but then immediately feel 'at home' inside them when you do reconnect. How do you think serialised entertainment can contribute to how museums consider their own 'experiences'? Do you think that immersion in Storyworlds can be achieved in the short period of time of an average museum visit?

Time is obviously a big factor in immersion but there is a different ways of thinking about time. It might mean a long duration of a single immersion (ie. in the gallery for a long period of time) or, it might mean short periods of immersion but numerous of them for a cumulative effect. And this speaks to the importance of episodic narrative and the way we are cognitively engaged by episodic structures. Episodic stories have a long history in print and on screen – from Chaucer and Dickens to The Wire and Mad Men. And also on to sandbox video games which are, by nature, ‘episodic’ narrative experiences. They are not designed or intended (or even practical) to experience in one sitting, instead levels, spaces, missions, the natural rise and fall of tension and release through completion of stages makes for a distinctly episodic experience.

What’s important to recognise about the very rich legacy of episodic storytelling is that its not the duration of a single viewing (or visit) that is as important as the cumulative effect of both ‘returnability’ (what compels us to come back) and the gaps between ‘sessions’ that are the conscious and subconscious processing of the relationships we form with events, ideas and characters. In other words immersion happens as much between sessions, viewings and visits as it does in them.

So, to answer the question of can immersion be achieved in a short period of time, I think the answer lies in thinking of time in terms of episodes and episodic patterns. How do episodes link, how can we be compelled from one episode to another and how does the space and time between episodes build the immersion. One way to understand or inform how this is constructed in TV and games, which might applicable to museum spaces, is consider the idea of Closure as a pattern of dramatic questions. An episode poses one or more dramatic questions that the viewer is compelled to find the answer to. In this it’s important to understand that a Dramatic Question is not just any question, rather its a question with something at stake, something at risk, a question that has an ‘or else’. It’s this element that motivates us within an ‘episode’. Dramatic questions become an episodic pattern through closure; when the question is answered, the episode is ended but a new question or extended question, drives the audience forward into the next episode.

Another way to think of this is the ‘But, So…’ sequence;

“X had to do Y but when they did, they realised Z…
So then they had to A before B,
But when they did, they encountered C.
So…. etc etc.”

This opening and closing of dramatic questions is an episodic pattern and it is the heart of long-form and immersive storytelling. And it works not only for hour long TV episodes or 3 hour gaming sessions but also for short form WebTV series as well.

F&N – Extending that idea a bit … now that a lot of people ‘binge watch’ a series on download or DVD/BluRay – doing an entire season in a single sitting, what does this do to sequential narratives? The viewer’s desire to have deep immersion over a binge session trumps a longer spaced out viewing cycle which might have been how the narrative was originally constructed. Does this suggest that we might be finding that media consumers might be tending towards more one-off deep consumption?

The ‘binge-viewing’ is an interesting phenomena. And there are certainly some writers of long-form series that are adamant that this is not the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to view the series – that the immersion requires the ‘gap’ between episodes.

I don’t really have a hard answer on this other than to refer to what I mentioned earlier; that immersion can come either in duration or episodic pattern (or both). A viewer can become immersed by spending a huge amount of time in a single stretch (bingeing) or they can become immersed through an episodic experience. Both work. And yet there’s nothing new about binging. Pride and Prejudice is a long episodic book but Im sure there are many people who’ve read it almost in one sitting and we wouldn’t say they were less immersed than those who read a chapter a night or even that they had a lesser experience.

In terms of long-form TV series the increasingly normalised mainstream way to consume is actually not so much binge viewing as it is 1-2 episodes per night each night. Which is a step away from the episode per week broadcast mode and obviously facilitated by on-demand technologies, but is still very much in line with the ‘gap time’ between episodes that fulfils the cognitive processing that immersion relies upon.

What I think is important to engage with in the ideas of episodic narrative experiences is that the principles apply not just within mediums but across mediums. So the same thing that compels me to come back for a new episode might also be the same thing that compels me across platforms (or from a gallery space to an online experience). The idea that the gallery represents one ‘episode’ that poses certain dramatic questions which are answered by exhibition’s end but which trigger new dramatic questions, the answers to which I have ‘get’ on a different platform.

This is an idea I would suggests drives many good multi-platform and transmedia projects – recognising that Transmedia Storytelling is Episodic Storytelling – questions posed on one platform compel us to answers on a different platform.

In this way we can actively motivate the audience between platforms rather than simply expect them to go there of their own volition. I think the mistake many multi-platform projects make (and many museum projects too) is to assume the audience are motivated, assume they are already interested and so they neglect to light a fire under their arse, they forget to give the audience really good, motivated, compelling reasons to engage.

Catch up with Mike on Twitter (@mikejonestv) or read his copious articles at www.mikejones.tv.

Tags:   · · 13 Comments

  • Eithne

    As one whose job it is to develop
    narratives for museums I found this discussion timely and
    thought-provoking. I think one
    area where museum practitioners trip up is that we’re trying to create
    scenarios where a visitor (who may have little or no familiarity with the plot)
    is thrust into the role of narrator i.e. s/he is the one who has to pull
    everything into a story. Although
    I don’t think this is a bad thing in and of itself (and if someone finally manages
    to pull off a successful ‘choose
    your own adventure’ exhibition I’ll be delighted) I think it’s linked to a less
    positive idea that the author or voice of an exhibition should be objective and
    impartial in tone – at the expense of story. I’m all for introducing more ‘character’: different points
    of view, ideas that may be subjective, complicated and even messy.

    The question of what ‘Story’, ‘story’ and
    ‘stories’ means for museums is – a bit like the ongoing tug-of-war re.
    curator/curation – going to be kicked around for a long time to come. But if it brings the importance of
    narrative and storytelling front and centre, I’m not complaining …

  • Mike Jones

    You make a great point, Eithne re Audience as Narrator. When Im working on developing interactive narratives the key consideration is role-play – what ‘role’ are we asking the audience to play and thereby form the Interactivity. In this there are 3 elements that are useful to define what this interactivity is – Motivation, Action and Reward. How are the audience Motivated and compelled to interact, what is the specific set of Actions they have to undertake and what is the Reward they receive for their efforts (in a traditional game scenario this is ‘points’ but this has long since faded in favour of narrative continuation, advancement, progression and levelling-up)

    Once we have this Motivation-Action-Reward system established we have the mechanics to define Role-Play. Is the role of the audience to Fight, Chase, Solve, Puzzle, Construct, Detect etc? And this is where ‘Narrator’ can be a very powerful Role for an audience to play. In an interactive form it’s what my colleague Dr Karen Pearlman has described as ‘Voyeuristic Agency’ – that the audience is a Voyeur, outside of the narrative diegesis but that they are empowered with Agency to effect that diegesis and discourse. In other words the audience gets to play a part in the Telling of the Story.

    A good example of this might be seen in the interactive children’s book for ipad, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore”. Each part of the story calls upon the reader to perform actions – those actions dont change the causality or ‘plot’ of the story but they do effect the Story’s telling and the role for the reader is clearly to become a part of how the story is told – ie to play the role of the Narrator.

    I think these ideas of Voyeuristic Agency and Role-Play as Narrator may have some merit in conceptualising the narrative/interactive experience of a museum space. But importantly such mechanics are not – or should not be – outside of traditional narrative expectations. Audiences engage stories because we like to Worry – this is the fundamental of any ‘story’ ever told; the audience positioned to be locked within a swinging state between Hope and Fear – Hoping for one outcome whilst Fearing another. I think if museums truly want to engage with ‘Story’ in the gallery space, they cant simply conceive of story as a causality linked series of events – thats just plot – they need to consider how an exhibition can pose Dramatic Questions and make the viewer ‘worry’, to speculate on possible outcomes and for the exhibition questions to have Stakes and things at risk. Not all exhibitions can or even should do this. But I would suggest that unless an exhibition is generating such ‘Hope and Fear’ in the audiences, its not ‘Storytelling’, it simply creating plot and the two things are not the same.

    Just as an aside, I am involved in a project called the Immersive Writing Lab in London which is looking at the idea of immersive and interactive narratives specifically through the prism of Role-Play. The speakers at this event are a wide spread including stand-up comedians, theatre performers, magicians as well as writers and directors in advertising, Tv and film. It strikes me as I read your post that the ideas we’re exploring would be just as applicable in the museum and gallery sector.

    http://dmic.org.uk/event/immersive-writing-lab/

    Cheers
    Mike
    http://www.mikejones.tv

    • Eithne

      At the risk of hijacking this comment thread, just wanted to say thanks for this … I’m currently pulling together thinking on the benefits of narrative and story/ies for museum audiences and this has given me lots of ideas for things I should be looking at (especially how do and should museums define stories.)

  • suse cairns

    I have read this post at least six times now, and even copied it into a new document and scrawled comments and notes all over it. There is so much to think about and dwell on. Just wanted to say thanks for the provocative and interesting discussion, which I am sure I will continue to come back to.

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  • rocombo

    This is so interesting. Thanks so much for the interview – definitely worth re-reading. One quick thought – in response to the comment about viewers immersing themselves in an entire season of Mad Men, The Wire, etc., rather than watching one episode at a time. I think we do it that way now because daily life is so full of interruptions and fragmentation, bombardments of messages from all sides….

    I think museum galleries have always been places where people could immerse themselves in other worlds, making up their own narratives as they strolled through the Greek and Roman galleries. Now we expect a more active engagement.

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