Story+ 2014

Borges

A couple of weeks ago, the Brisbane Writers Festival held its second Story+ conference. Story+ was created to look at the intersection of narrative, design and technology. The inaugural Story+ last year was a one day event, but this year it took place over two days: Thursday 4 September and Friday 5 September. Day one was about interactivity and day two was about authoring.

Day one began very well with a keynote from Jeffrey Yohalem from Ubisoft Montreal talking about how he believes we’re in the infant stages of game design and have stalled. He says, at least in AAA terms, we’re making the same games over and over. He thinks it’s technology such as the Oculus Rift that will allow game design to progress. And he had me almost cheering as he talked about doing away with cut scenes and finding ways for players to travel through scenes rather than watch them.

Next up was Christian Fonnesbech, who has made a game called Cloud Chamber. Fonnesbech showed us a video introducing the game and the impression I took from the video was that Cloud Chamber is an alternate reality game. But later on, I realised that’s not so. ARGs have real-life footprints created for the characters and as far as I’m aware, the characters in Cloud Chamber exist only in the game. During the afternoon session, Fonnesbech described the genre as “discussion as gameplay”. You can’t progress unless you engage with others who are playing and get enough likes for your comments. Progression equals getting access to videos and data files that further reveal the story to you.

The final keynote of the morning was from Greg Broadmore from Weta Workshop in New Zealand. He talked very disarmingly about what he has created at the workshop. He is also just about to make a game with Magic Leap. He said they have a top-secret technology, and the impression he gave was that this technology is spatially based. I looked for more information on the Magic Leap website, but it seems to have a virus on it (which is not confidence-inspiring). However a recent New York Times article says that Magic Leap are developing a virtual reality technology that is different from others because it will not cause motion sickness.

The keynotes were followed by a panel discussion on interactive storytelling chaired by Simon Groth from if:book Australia. Richard Wetzel, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, talked about mixed reality games. One of the examples he gave was TimeWarp, which was a game that involved players chasing robots around past and future versions of the city of Cologne. Sue Swinburne, a documentary filmmaker, talked about her work with Brisbane studio Halfbrick, who make casual games. And Christy Dena talked about her work, particularly AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, Robot University and her latest project, DIY SPY School.

We broke for lunch then and returned for an afternoon session that was a good idea in theory. It involved a series of discussion groups and workshops with the morning speakers. But unfortunately, there were no organisers to organise these groups and as a result they didn’t flow in unison with each other and there weren’t proper opportunities to move between them. I sat with Christy Dena and Christian Fonnesbech. What I particularly appreciated out of that session was the list of books and games that Dena recommended to us.

The day ended with a keynote from Conor Linehan, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln. He talked about location-based games (of which I believe mixed reality is a subset) and the possibilities they create for audience interaction.

Day two was about authoring and began with three exceptionally strong keynotes from Richard Nash, Joanna Ellis and Mike Jones.

Nash reminded us that publishing has always been about people trying to make books that are cheap and convenient. Jeff Bezos and Amazon have now pushed that as far as it can go. Nash quoted Borges to us, who said that a book is not a static thing, it’s a series of relationships and conversations with a reader. It’s from this realisation that we’ll figure out how to go forward.

Ellis had a similar sort of message as she showed us that what we think of as new in 21st Century publishing actually has a very old history. Virgil was a keen proponent of fan fiction, using the work of Homer. The first interactive book, called a volvelle, was made by a monk in the 13th Century. Agatha Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles had plans and clues at the back of the book to help readers work out the story, this can be thought of as gamification. And the original of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland shows that it was heavily edited by both Ezra Pound and Vivienne Eliot, so it’s an example of collaboration. Ellis said that there’s always been a disconnect between the creative impulse and the ability of the creator to make money from it. And she talked about the work she does with The Literary Platform and The Writing Platform to help writers.

Mike Jones told us how in a multi-platform world of dispersed audiences, a writer cannot be defined by a medium. He took us through the six steps he said would help us adapt to this writing landscape. I thought his strongest points were about the importance of the storyworld compared to the story and the need to make a minimum viable product. Minimum viable product might sound like awful business speak, but it made absolute sense when he talked about it. What element of your storyworld can you build out first to create interest and trust? Use your minimum viable product to prove that you have an audience and that is how you can get funding to build more of that world.

The panel that followed focused on writing in the age of transformative media. The panellists were Mike Jones, along with Greg Broadmore from Weta Workshop, the novelist Lauren Beukes and Malcolm Neil of Kobo. The panel was chaired by Jason Nelson, who is the current Digital Writer in Residence at QUT’s The Cube. As I was due at the separate Jeffrey Yohalem session on Writing Videogames in the afternoon, I didn’t get to stay for this entire panel. While I was there, all the panellists spoke about their work and it was Malcolm Neil who I thought had the most interesting perspective as he has a business background in ebooks and so is well poised to give us an insider’s view. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear too much from him. He did say that he thought digital won’t reach its full potential for another 10–15 years, but he wasn’t drawn out about this and so it wasn’t clarified whether he specifically means digital books and what he thinks that potential is.

The afternoon was due to be another round of discussion groups and workshops led by the morning speakers. And the afternoon keynote was being given by Tom Uglow of Google Creative Lab. Unfortunately (though also fortunately because it was really good), I decamped to the Jeffrey Yohalem session so I missed the rest of the day.

I didn’t get as much out of Story+ this year as I did last year. A frustrating first afternoon didn’t help. But also, I think the panel discussions were too broad. And they were more about the individuals involved and their specific work rather than ideas. Panellists had different sorts of experience across different sorts of media. But what should have united them were the ideas. What are we doing? Where are we going? Jeffrey Yohalem opened the conference on the Thursday morning asking these questions. But any coherence ebbed away after that. Friday morning also began strongly with the keynote speakers looking at the past and how it reflects on the present and then plotting a way forward. But the panel that followed again meandered all over the place.

I’d like to see Story+ come back next year but I’d also like there to be more coherence across the conference. It was a good idea this year to have a focus around interactivity and another around authoring, but those themes were too broad to stand by themselves. The organisers need to break down those central ideas into a series of questions and then brief the speakers. The panels can then be planned around what those questions are. That way, when we hear panellists speak about their work it’s within the context of the ideas that are being discussed. I don’t want to be too prescriptive. But having a plan keeps you focused on what the point is. I’m also all for taking detours from the plan. I think you can do that once you understand what you’re doing. But elements of this year’s conference felt like detours from the whole point of why we were there.

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