Monday, January 30, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Human-Centered Design Principles

The human-centered design approach emphasizes an approach that focuses on designing information systems that enhance the “activity and dominance of the user” (Cooley, 2000, p. 66) and complement the human user’s skills rather than ignoring or actively rejecting them. This aligns nicely with the goal of most transmedia narratives to foster user participation in and interaction with the transmedia system.

The human-centered design approach has nine key principles that can be applied to the design of transmedia narratives.
Coherence in a transmedia narrative ensures that the meaning of information embedded in it, even if it is not immediately evident, is not cloaked or obscured. Coherence includes the concepts of transparency and consistency.

The design of the entire transmedia narrative experience and the individual elements within it must provide users with enough information that they know what is happening and what is possible within the system. An effective transmedia narrative interface should make its features and functions readily apparent (transparency). However, that doesn’t mean the inner workings of the system need to be on display to users. For example, a button that says “Move to Next Page” makes its function clear without explaining to the user how the move to the next page is handled programmatically.

The design of the transmedia narrative should also be consistent throughout, although that doesn’t mean it must be the same across every element. The kinds of interface elements for which a high level of consistency is important include:
  • Interpretation of user actions: Menu items, links, shortcut keys, and other elements involving interpretation of user actions should maintain a consistent meaning throughout the transmedia narrative. It is also important to ensure consistency with the interface of the platform on which the transmedia narrative is presented (Tognazzini, n.d.). For example, a pinch open should zoom in, while a pinch close zooms out. Reversing these gestures would certainly confuse and frustrate an experienced user.
  • Invisible structures: Objects that cannot be sensed by the user are invisible structures. Because the user can’t sense them, it is impossible to tell whether these objects are present or not (Tognazzini, n.d.). While generally they should be avoided in designing a transmedia narrative, there may be sound narrative reasons to include an occasional invisible structure. If invisible structures are used, it is very important that they behave in a consistent manner to avoid confusing or frustrating the user.
  • Camouflaged visible structures: Objects that can be sensed but don’t appear to be a user control are camouflaged visible structures. In some types of computer games, for example, active objects may be placed in a setting with numerous inactive objects. As a result, users may not discover that these objects can be manipulated. Again, consistency in design and function is important. 
  • Small visible structures: Icons, size boxes, scroll arrows, and other navigational objects are examples of small visible structures (Tognazzini, n.d.). The appearance and function of these objects needs to be very consistent throughout the transmedia narrative. The location of these objects is only just slightly less important than appearance and function, making a standardize location, highly desirable.

Consistency is also desirable across the user interaction and narrative design aspects of a transmedia narrative (see the appropriate section of this thesis for more detail). However, sometimes inconsistency is necessary within a transmedia narrative. Paradoxically, inconsistencies should be consistent so that when there is a response to a user action, it is consistent with what has happened before. For example, if two different icons are used to jump to a particular page within the transmedia narrative, the way the system handles the jump should be consistent.


Making the “rules” of a system visible and encouraging users to learn and change them can increase the responsiveness of a transmedia narrative to users’ individual needs, wants, and ways to doing things. The system should offer a “path of least resistance” rather than forcing users to take a single path through the system (Tognazzini, n.d.). Tognazzini uses the analogy of an open landscape, in which users can move as they want, providing an opportunity to explore for those who want to do so while creating and marking a more direct path for users who want to get to an objective quickly or who are new to the system (Tognazzini, n.d.).

The transmedia narrative’s design should be forgiving of user actions and errors. A responsive design also gives users a graceful way to undo an action or back out of the path that was selected. It is frustrating to click on a link, only to find it takes you to a place you didn’t want to go. Even more frustrating is not being able to go back to where you were.


A system with a high level of malleability can mold itself to suit the users, allowing them to modify the environment to suit their individual aesthetics, skills, and needs. The concept of malleability is closely related to responsiveness. Malleability can be as simple as allowing the user to change the color scheme and font styles of a website to giving users the ability to select the kind of content they want shown via RSS feeds, customized search queries, and so on.


An inclusive system welcomes users in and makes them feel like they are a part of a community of familiar and friendly activities and individuals. The concept of inclusiveness is closely linked to both responsiveness and malleability. The inclusiveness of a transmedia narrative can be accomplished by adding relatively simple features that recognize and respond to the individual characteristics of the user (i.e. geographic location, age, gender, specific interests, etc.). More complex features like user access to social networking systems linked to the transmedia narrative can also be included. Facebook, for example, provides templates and online instructions on how to create fan pages. 

These capabilities must be used carefully however as they can have a huge impact on the overall design of the transmedia narrative. (The section in this thesis on user agency discusses the issues involved in this more thoroughly.)


The transmedia narrative should be able to respond to the purpose users have in mind and encouraging them to go beyond it. For example, the transmedia narrative system might recognize that the user’s purpose for using the system is entertainment but encourages the user to delve more deeply into a particular aspect of the narrative for the purpose of learning something that can be applied in the user’s everyday life.


A transmedia narrative that fosters a sense of engagement gives the user a feeling of being invited not just to look, but to participate in the process of experiencing the narrative. The challenge of fostering user engagement is the subject of this entire section of this thesis.


Fostering a sense of ownership can give users a sense of belonging and having an investment of time, effort, or money in the transmedia narrative. A sense of ownership can be developed by enabling users to create something within the storyworld of the narrative. Social networking applications (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, etc.) linked to the transmedia narrative can provide that sense of ownership.


A panoramic system provides “windows” or “apertures” through which a user can take a wider or more panoramic view of what is happening both inside and outside of the narrative. This panoramic perspective encourages the acquisition of “boundary knowledge” and allows users to act more effectively and competently by providing them with an understanding of the wider context of the narrative. This principle is related to the principle of transcendence.


A system that is transcendent encourages, entices, or provokes users to transcend the immediate requirements of the narrative and gain a broader understanding of the narrative’s meaning. One of the inherent strengths of the concept of transmedia narratives is giving users the ability to expand their knowledge of characters, settings, and events beyond the primarily narrative. This inherent quality of transcendence in a transmedia narrative should be used to full advantage so the user has an opportunity to develop a broader understanding of the narrative’s meaning.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Engagement, Interaction & Narrative Design for Transmedia Storytelling (PowerPoint Presentation)

I've uploaded a brief (20 slide) PowerPoint presentation that provides a quick overview to processes for engagement, interaction and narrative design for transmedia narratives.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - User Control of Characters & Role in Narrative

User Control of Characters 
While it may be tempting to design a transmedia narrative so that users can play the role of a major character, research has shown that the audience response to that approach is generally negative. A study of the British television series Spooks and its associated transmedia gaming elements found that fans of the series did not want to step into the roles of the fictional characters seen on television (Evans, 2008).

Dena also notes that allowing game players take the roles of a limited number of major characters in a narrative is impractical if a multi-player role-playing game is part of the storyworld (Dena, 2009, pp. 208-209). A better strategy is to create classes of characters that allow potential transmedia game players to role-play a member of a certain class of players (Dena, 2009, pp. 208-209). For example, players might take on the role of a hobbit or dwarf from Lord of the Rings or a “field agent” in a game based on the Spooks program.

User Role in Narrative

Determining whether the user’s role is internal (projected into the narrative through an avatar or first person perspective) or external (situated outside the narrative) will have a significant impact on the nature of the transmedia project. If an internal user role is selected, the user is projected into the narrative either in a first person perspective or through an avatar. If the external mode, the user is situated outside the narrative as an observer able to see everything that happens within the narrative – in effect, like a god looking in from above. The user role, when linked to the degree of user agency, determines the fundamental structure of the transmedia project.

When the dimensions of user role and user agency are combined, four general categories for structuring transmedia narratives emerge (Ryan, Beyond Myth and Metaphor - The Case of Narrative in Digital Media, 2001) (see Table 1).

Table 1. User role and user agency impact on narrative structure

User Agency
User Agency
User Role (External)
Transmedia projects with low user agency and an external user role are best suited for self-referential narratives – narratives that expose their own structure to readers. Appropriate narratives for this type of structure include:
  • Classic hypertext fiction, in which the reader selects the path between chunks of the story to reveal information but the path taken does not affect the narrative’s outcome.
Transmedia projects with high user agency and an external user role are best suited for game-like situations in which the user controls one or more characters and their environment.
Decisions the user makes can send the characters towards different destinies.
Examples of games with this type of structure include:
  • Sims
User Role
Transmedia narratives with low user agency and an internal user role are best suited for narratives in which  the users takes a virtual body into the virtual world and is able to move, examine objects, view the action from different points of view, investigate, and  reconstruct events in the virtual world’s past. Appropriate narratives for this type of structure include:
  • Travel and exploration (spatial) narratives in which the user moves around the virtual world and creates the story.
  • Narratives of place that focus on the in-depth exploration of a specific location through a number of “little stories” that allow the user to discover the secrets of that virtual world.
  • Narratives focused on interpersonal relationship with the user seeing the story from the character’s points of view.
  • Narratives with parallel plots, typically resulting from a large cast of characters acting simultaneously in different locations and forcing the user to move from one place to the next in order to see every thread in the story.
  • Mystery stories with two levels of narrative – one based on the actions of the detective character, and the other story being the one the user is trying to reconstruct.
Transmedia projects with high user agency and an internal user role are best suited for games in which the user is a character in the virtual world and controls his/her own fate by acting within the time and space of that virtual world. Examples of games like this are first-person “shooter” video games like:
  • Call to Duty
  • World of Warcraft

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - User Agency (Part 2)

The decision of how tightly user actions (agency relationship) are linked to the transmedia narrative is one of the most significant decisions a transmedia narrative designer will make. User input can take a variety of forms, from the control of avatars in games to user communication via social networking in which narrative direction can be influenced by user comments. However, allowing user input “is a very tricky proposition at any time” (Dena, Authentic in All Caps: a Playful Comedy-Drama by Christy Dena, 2011).

When making the decision to include user input into a transmedia narrative, the designer needs to have very clear understanding of what this agency relationship will add to the narrative. If it adds little or nothing to the narrative, it is probably better to avoid the complications and limitations that come from having to work with user input.

Answering the question of local versus global content (agency scope) in a transmedia narrative will have a significant impact on the user’s level of control over the narrative itself. Local impact means the user has control of movement in the transmedia world and may even be able to manipulate objects. However, the user is essentially an explorer who can move and observe (i.e. perhaps like an avatar in a 3D game) but has no impact on the overall narrative. The other end of the spectrum is global impact in which the user’s actions have an effect on the direction of the narrative. It is possible for a transmedia narrative to have both local and global agency. A user’s actions, for example, might result in a local impact that begins a sequence of events that ultimately results in a global impact.

The decision on the degree of control the author and user each have in creating the meaning of the narrative will guide whether user actions are local versus global.

The actions of the user may have an immediate impact or there may be a delay in when the impact occurs. The designer must be careful in ensuring the immediacy of the response is appropriate to the context of the narrative and the user’s role in it.

A narrative that involves games or game-like elements will usually require an immediate response to the user’s action. For example, a user trying to navigate an avatar through a narrative environment will become frustrated and dissatisfied very quickly if there is a significant lag between an action and a response from the avatar.

However, a delayed response may be appropriate with a user action, for example, writing and mailing a letter within the storyworld that reveals vital secret information that is part of a spy or mystery narrative. If a delayed response is used, the designer should be sure to include an indicator that the user’s action has actually taken place. Failing to provide that kind of signal can leave the user wondering if the action was recognized by the system.

Often an immediate response is linked to local agency, while delayed response is linked to global agency.

How long the impact of a user action lasts can range from extremely brief to long-term within the context of the storyworld. In first person “shooter” games the impact of a user’s action (i.e. shooting an opponent) may last only a few seconds before that opponent is “resurrected”. Long-term impacts may last for the duration of the game or narrative. The duration of the impacts of a user’s action should be appropriate to the context of the narrative. In a game that focuses on tallying “kills” the immediate resurrection of an opponent provides additional “cannon fodder” but has not impact on the overall game or narrative. The user’s actions in games of strategy, on the other hand, must have long-term impacts or they become meaningless.

Agency duration should be consistent across the transmedia project. The resurrection of an opponent should be the same each time it happens or, if it does vary, the user should be made aware of the logic behind the variance. Short agency duration will typically is associated with local agency, while long-term agency duration is generally associated with global agency.

Changes in any aspects of user agency (dynamic agency) need to be handled very carefully to avoid confusing and frustrating the user. Having user find that they can con-trol a specific element of the narrative at one point but not another should be avoided. Design of the transmedia narrative should ensure consistent agency across the entire sys-tem. For example, if a game embedded in a transmedia narrative provides local agency scope and instantaneous agency immediacy at one point in the game, it should be the same in at all similar points throughout the game.

If it is absolutely vital that an aspect of agency be changed, it needs to be clearly communicated to the user. The logic behind the change in agency – preferably related to something in the narrative itself – as well as the nature of the change needs to be ex-plained. For example, if an avatar’s agency immediacy is slightly delayed as a certain point in the game, this might be attributed to a wizard’s “time slowing spell”.

User agency control can allow users to modify and control various aspects of the transmedia narrative’s agency relationships, scope, immediacy, and duration during run-time. Giving users control over agency can leverage the relationship between the user and system in order to create a storyworld that is meaningful and engaging to participate in (Harrell & Zhu, 2009).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - User Agency (Part 1)

Choosing to develop a transmedia narrative means giving the author all or most of the control over the narratives’ flow and meaning. Reader control is severely limited because the narrative’s coherence can be compromised by the reader’s desire to take the story in a direction that the author’s version of the narrative doesn’t support (Mulholland & Collins, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, choosing to develop a transmedia game means giving the user most of the control over narrative flow and meaning and having the narrative’s author take a supporting role. Injecting too much author control into a game reduces the quality of game play and is very likely to frustrate the user.

Simply deciding that both the author and the reader will be given control is not likely to be effective. This is because interactive narrative is a paradox (Rank & Petta, Appraisal for a Character-based Story-World, 2005, p. 496) that involves compromise between the author’s control of story flow and meaning and the user’s freedom to control the narrative. Studies of readers found that they were unhappy with stories over which they had only partial control because they might have ideas that differ from the author’s on how to create a satisfying end to a story (Murray, 1997). Providing an illusion of control is also a counterproductive strategy. The “primary pleasure of interactivity is that of control” and either thwarting that control or providing only token control causes user dissatisfaction (Graham, 1996).

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 48. The narrative-game spectrum of control 

That doesn’t mean that the solution to the author/user control issue is an all-or-nothing proposition. An audience can have a strong desire for both strong author and user control in a transmedia work (Evans, 2008). As can be seen from a number of successful alternate reality games (ARGs), sharing of control between author and audience can work. In order to make this sharing work, the author needs to clearly think the degree of control that is to be retained by the author and how much will be given to the audience.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - User Engagement

The discussion of “interactivity” in transmedia narratives covers a broad range of concepts that can confuse as much as clarify the issues of transmedia narrative design. In order to clarify the different concepts associated with “interactivity” and their relation-ships to other elements of transmedia narratives, the terms “user engagement design” and “interaction design” are used in this thesis.

The distinction between user engagement and interaction is based on the two differ-ent modes of cognitive work users engage in when using transmedia narratives (Finnemann, 1999):
  • Reading mode – viewing and processing the content of the narrative (user en-gagement)
  • Navigation mode – processing cues needed to physically navigate the narrative (interaction)
Users employ different sets of cognitive capacities and demonstrate two different types of behavior when moving from navigation mode to reading mode and vice versa (Finnemann, 1999). The term “user engagement” is used to differentiate the mental and emotional component from physical interactivity like clicking buttons or selecting objects. In this thesis, user engagement refers to “interpretive interactivity” (Evans, 2008) and the process of meaning-making (Darley, 2000).

The level of user engagement can be determined by determining how users interact with the transmedia narrative. There are five levels of engagement:
  • Attention – This is the lowest level of user engagement. The user reads or watches content from the transmedia narrative but takes no further action and has not made a commitment to continued engagement with it.
  • Evaluation – The user’s level of engagement has increased and there is a defi-nite interest in the transmedia narrative. The user is deciding whether to make a commitment to continue engaging with the transmedia narrative, including using resources (e.g. time, money, effort) to further that engagement.
  • Affection – The user has made a commitment to spend time, money, effort, and other resources to continue engaging with the transmedia narrative. En-gagement includes commenting, writing reviews, joining a community (but maybe only lurking), and posting Facebook and other “likes”.
  • Advocacy – The user’s commitment to the transmedia narrative goes beyond individual participation. The user encourages others to engage with the narra-tive through online forwards of information, embedding content, and in satis-faction polls and questionnaires.
  • Contribution – This is the highest level of engagement by a user. The user’s engagement includes making contributions to the narrative’s fan forums, events, and other activities or adding to the narrative’s storyworld through re-mixes, collaborations, or creation of entirely new stories.
As the level of user engagement increases, more sophisticated social media capabilities need to be included in the transmedia narrative’s infrastructure. Providing a user with the ability to show affection for the transmedia narrative by “liking” it requires a small addition to the infrastructure. On the other hand, enabling user contributions will require not just blogging, wiki, and similar capabilities, but the resources to monitor and respond appropriately to user contributions.
Some of your audience will engage with all of the elements across media, contribute to it, and advocate it. There is a common rule in interactive projects, and the same applies to transmedia projects: the smallest percentage of your audience/players are the most active (and often skilled); the middle percentage engage with less content but are nevertheless a larger audience size; while the largest audience size engages with the least amount of content (in the trans-media context this sometimes translates to one medium or artform only), and is often passive. Where possible and appropriate, design for these different levels of engagement and create opportunities for your audience/players to move between them. (Dena, The Process of Creating Quality Transmedia Experiences, 2011)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Storyworld Synopsis

The synopsis is a one- to two-page outline that describes how the story elements and user experience will unfold over time. It should clearly define the storyworld and concentrate on the narrative threads, introducing key characters, significant objects, settings, and events. The synopsis should be storyworld-focused, but should also be clear on how and why different media and platforms might work with different aspects of the story (Hayes G. P., 2011, p. 4).

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Settings

A setting is the backdrop within which a narrative occurs, but it goes far beyond the physical characteristics of a place in which events happen. Setting includes the historical background, cultural attitudes, and mood of the time (Bickham, 1994, p. 1). Well developed settings can (Bickham, 1994, p. 3):
  • Make reader involvement more intense
  • Enhance story unity
  • Tighten plot structure
  • Make suspense more intensive
  • Provide character motivation
Settings occur on two levels – the storyworld and individual stories. At both levels, settings consist of mythos, topos, and ethos (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004) but are differentiated by scope and the level of detail. The elements within these hierarchical structures, however, are similar at both levels and should be consistent between individual stories and between stories and the storyworld.

Mythos is the established conflicts and battles of the world, the characters of that world, its stories and rumors, and its creatures (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004). The mythos should also include the “official” history of the happenings within the storyworld. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, the mythos includes the creation of the One Ring in the year 1600 of the Second Age, the battle in the year 3434 of the Second Age in which the Dark Lord Sauron has the ring taken from him, and other events that take place well before the beginning of the first novel’s story time. This history sets out the various factions and creatures – factions like Dark Lord Sauron’s forces and those of Men, Elves, and Dwarves; creatures like the Orcs and the Hobbits – and is closely linked to the events on the storyworld’s timeline.

The topos is the setting of the storyworld or world in a specific period and geography. In addition to the physical setting, the topos deals with the physical laws that exist in the storyworld – for example, laws that govern whether faster-than-light travel is possible, or whether magic exists. The topos should tell the audience whether the story is set in a futuristic technological world, the middle ages with magical elements, or a crime-ridden underworld in the present day. In addition to the physical setting, elements of the topos also include the social, technological, economic, political, and legal systems of the story or storyworld.

Typically the topos is somewhat broader at the storyworld level than at the story level. The physical setting at the storyworld level might consist of a broad description like that used in the first of the Star Wars films with begins with the introduction “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and continues with the now iconic crawling text that says
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…. (ALL Star Wars Crawls Episodes I-VI , 2008)

The use of the text crawl was continued at the beginning of each of the subsequent Star Wars films, providing audiences with a brief overview of the setting for each story. These introductions are excellent examples of how a short piece of text can provide a great deal of information about a story’s mythos and topos.

The third element of setting is the ethos, which consists of the social values and laws, implicit and explicit ethics, and codes of behavior within the storyworld. The ethos provides the knowledge needed to “know how to behave in the world” and defines what is acceptable or inappropriate behavior (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004).

Setting can provide numerous opportunities for expansion across multiple media. These transmedia opportunities can range from relatively simple encyclopedia-style entries about particular aspects of the storyworld’s setting – articles on its flora, fauna, geography, and so on – to more detailed “travelogues” that highlight some aspect of a particular setting for the storyworld’s equivalent of the Travel Channel to “ethnographic” studies of cultures within the storyworld.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Events

Events are a change in the state of an entity such as a setting or character. External events (outside of a character in the story) may be the result of an uninitiated change (out of the control of a character in the story). An uninitiated change could be a natural disaster or a man-made disaster which is caused by someone who is outside the scope of the story.

A war story, for example, may have the war as an uninitiated change if the main characters are ordinary soldiers on the frontlines. An event may also occur as the result of an initiated change, which is the result of the actions of a character in the story. For example, if the actions of a leader that take a nation into war are part of the narrative, the war would be an example of an initiated change.

The interaction of two characters or a character and an event may result in internal events that are the changes to the character. These “mental events” are an important element of the storyworld (Ryan, Storyworlds Across Media, 2011). They involve the emotional reactions, psychological transformations, and other internal changes in the characters. Internal events are typically the result of a character’s interaction with external events, settings, or other characters.

Events, once published, become part of the “official” history of the storyworld and should not be changed except perhaps if the author intends to create an alternate storyworld.

Events have a temporal dimension; they have a start and end point and span a period of storyworld time. Events can also be nested inside other events. For example, a particular battle in a war story can take place within a broader war event. This nesting of events provides an opportunity to use a transmedia approach to expand the storyworld.

The Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell and adapted as a television series by ITV encompasses more than 25 novels and short stories that chronicle rise of Richard Sharpe, a fictional character, in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars (Cornwell, n.d.). Although not a transmedia narrative, the Sharpe series illustrates how the nesting of events can provide additional detail to a storyworld and the characters within it. The short story “Sharpe’s Christmas” published in the Sharpe’s Christmas takes place towards the end of the Peninsular War, while the short story “Sharpe’s Ransom” published in the same book occurs after the Battle of Waterloo. These two short stories fill in gaps in the timeline between individual stories – after the storytime in Sharpe’s Regiment in the case of the first short story and after Sharpe’s Waterloo in the case of the second.

The events of the storyworld can be used to extend the transmedia narrative by having encyclopedia-style articles of History Channel-style documentaries. It is also possible to use the nesting of events to create a narrative that delves more deeply into a particular event that is incidental to the story of a broader event. Although Cornwell has not done so, it would certainly be possible to nest a story of a fictional commando raid (like Sharpe’s Siege) within the storyworld time that is already occupied by another story that spans a broader period of time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Significant Objects

Significant objects are the second type of existents (Ryan, Storyworlds Across Media, 2011). To qualify as a plot-significant object, an object must have a substantial impact on the story’s plot. The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an example of a significant object. Without the ring, the plot would be entirely different. The Holy Grail is another significant object and has been used in many grail quest stories. Money, treasure, a submarine, and atomic bombs are among the significant objects that have driven the plots of a wide variety of stories.

A character-significant object has meaning to a character. It may satisfy an emotional, religious, or other need for the character.
Character-significant objects do not need to change the course of the plot, but they do need to be described in enough detail that the reader understands their value or importance to the character. (Rosenfeld, 2008, p. 48)
A significant object has a set of physical characteristics and has value – monetary, symbolic, or as a source of power – to the characters in the story. In many stories, the significant object has an extensive history. The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, for example, was forged “in the year 1600 of the Second Age to gain power over other rings held by the leaders of Men, Elves and Dwarves” (Wikipedia, 2011) and has a history that spans more than 4500 years of The Lord of the Rings storyworld time. In the movie The Hunt for Red October the significant object is the Soviet Union’s newest and most powerful submarine. In the novel and movie The Da Vinci Code the significant object is both an object and, in an interesting plot twist, a person. In each case, the significant object has a back-story that is directly relevant to the story’s plot and/or one of its characters.

This back-story can provide an opportunity to develop one or more transmedia narrative extensions that delve more deeply in the significant object. These extensions can be relatively simple works that are the equivalent of an article in an encyclopedia or as complex as a narrative with the significant object at the center of a previous or subsequent story. The history of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings has it come into the possession of several characters, only to be lost again. Each of those situations could be expanded into a separate story with the One Ring at the center of it.

Similarly, the submarine in Hunt for Red October could be the significant object at the center of a sequel in which it is used, perhaps, to penetrate Soviet territory on an ultra-secret, highly dangerous mission.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creating Transmedia Narratives: The Structure & Design of Stories Told Across Multiple Media

The posts in this blog are based on portions of my thesis "Creating Transmedia Narratives: The Structure and Design of Stories Told Across Multiple Media". I have posted a PDF of the full version of the thesis on SlideShare. You can download it from there.

Now that I've finished my M.S. in Information Design & Technology, I'm beginning work on a project that will use the theories, concepts, and techniques covered in my thesis in building a transmedia narrative of my own.  The thesis and these blog posts are a starting point for my work in this exciting new field. Over the next few months, I will be continuing to add information and insights based on research I began but couldn't include in my thesis because of time or space limitations.

Stay tuned for additional material (including some online presentations) as I develop them over the next few months.

Here's the full URL in case you need it to download the thesis...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Characters

One category of existents is the characters (Ryan, Storyworlds Across Media, 2011) – human or otherwise – which are sentient beings with the ability to feel, perceive, or to have subjective experiences. In science fiction and fantasy non-human characters described as "sentient" typically have similar abilities, qualities and rights as human beings.

The true nature of a character is “revealed in the choices [made] under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature” (McKee, 1997, p. 101).

“Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.” (McKee, 1997, p. 101)

A character’s motivations, values, desires, and fears may change as the story progresses. This process of change is exemplified by the “hero’s journey” that a protagonist undertakes in an epic narrative.

Exploring the roots of a character’s desires and fears provides opportunities to use a different medium to flashback to a particular time and situation that resulted in a specific desire or fear. These could be short vignettes that provide depth to a character while allowing the overall process of the protagonist’s change to continue.

The use of archetypal characters can help an audience quickly move into a story. If the protagonist and antagonist in a story are broad archetypes they are immediately recognizable (Jenkins, 2006, p. 120).

Archetypes are found in the themes of myths (e.g. death and rebirth), characters in literature (e.g. hero and villain), and imagery in dreams (e.g. eyes and teeth). They are believed to be the product of unconscious biases and dispositions that have been ‘hardwired’ into the brain over the course of human evolution. (Lidwell, Holden, & Butler, 2010, p. 28)

The Matrix used character archetypes from a variety of sources to help the audience quickly understand the story. This use of archetypal characters is particularly important in games where there is little time for exposition before users “grab the controller and try to navigate the world” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 120). From an information design perspective, “identifying and aligning appropriate archetypes with a design will increase the probability of success” (Lidwell, Holden, & Butler, 2010, p. 28).
Consider archetypal themes and forms in all aspects of a design – from form and function to name and brand. Since archetypes influence perception on an unconscious and primarily affective level, they are especially useful when traditional modes of communication (e.g. language) cannot be used. (Lidwell, Holden, & Butler, 2010, p. 28)
Engaging the audience on the unconscious and affective level can increase the incentive to migrate to another platform or medium in a transmedia narrative. An audience that is emotionally engaged with a character or set of characters is more likely to cross media in order to follow what is happening. Archetypes also reduce the friction associated with audience migration by making it easier to quickly recognize the characters on the new platform or medium. The list of possible character archetypes is long and varied. For example, the website Listology has 140 archetypes listed (Diaskeaus, 2006); 65 archetypes are listed on the TV Tropes site (TV Tropes, n.d.); and 47 archetypes are identified at the Unofficial White Wolf Wiki (White Wolf, n.d.). In 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, Schmidt identifies 45 archetypal characters and provides broad character descriptions for each.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Fictional, Non-fictional, and Hybrid Storyworlds

Determining whether a transmedia narrative is fiction, non-fiction, or a hybrid that includes both will have wide-ranging impacts on that narrative. Creating a fully fictional story will give the author a blank page to start with and allows all aspects of the characters, objects, events, and settings to be created by the author. The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are examples of fully fictional stories that have no links into the real world.

At the other end of the spectrum is a non-fiction story in which the storyworld contains real characters, objects, events, and settings. In this case, the author is responsible for faithfully portraying all of those elements. Journalistic works ranging from newspaper articles to television news programs are (ideally) fully non-fictional and can range in length from short pieces to novel-sized books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Between the two ends of this spectrum lies a vast range of territory populated with hybrid stories. Some of these stories may lie closer to the non-fiction end of the spectrum where, for example, fictional characters are injected into actual events or settings. Historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series places a fictional character into meticulously researched events and settings during the Napoleonic Wars. Other stories lie closer to the fiction end of the spectrum. Star Trek, for example, has a vast fictional storyworld but retains some ties to Earth and a history that includes actual people, events, and settings.

If a hybrid story is planned, the author needs to determine which end of the spectrum will be dominant so the focus of the narrative detail is appropriate. No matter where on the fiction/non-fiction spectrum the story falls, information on real events, settings, and people needs to be accurate in order to preserve the narrative illusion created by the fictional components.

Alternative histories, in which the author creates a story that branches off of historical events (e.g. what if the South won the American Civil War or Germany won World War 2) appear to contradict the principle of historical accuracy. However, the logic of alternative histories maintains historical accuracy up to the point at which the story branches from non-fiction to fiction.

The rise of reality television over the past decade illustrates how the distinction between fiction and non-fiction has been blurred in mainstream entertainment (Fetveit, 1999; Mendelson & Papacharissi, 2007). Authors should consider how the mass audience’s perception of fiction and reality can be used in the design of transmedia narratives.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Storyworld Level Design Tasks - Taglines & Genres

Storyworld Tagline

The storyworld tagline, like the transmedia project tagline, is a single sentence that hooks potential users into the storyworld. The storyworld tagline should be closely related to the transmedia project tagline and, in the case of a project with a single storyworld, may be the same. Transmedia projects in which more than one storyworld exists (e.g. multiple storyworlds that serve as “alternate universes”) should have a separate but related tagline for each storyworld.

Storyworld Genre

The genre selected for the storyworld will define the similar settings, content and subject matter, themes, plots, central narrative events, styles, structures, recurring icons, situations, and characters (Dirks, 2011) for all stories within that storyworld. It will also define the expectations of your audience and will have a significant role in defining who your audience will be. Examples of genres include action/adventure, comedy, crime and gangster, drama, epic and historical, horror, science fiction, musical or dance, war/anti-war, and westerns. Within these genres are a numerous sub-genres and hybrid story types. There is no single “official” list of genres; rather, a number of different lists from a variety of sources exist. While there may be differences across media, the main genre types have many similarities.

Understanding a genre and its conventions is important for the author of a transmedia narrative as each genre has a unique set of conventions that shape the story design, and the audience for a particular genre has a set of expectations based on those conventions (McKee, 1997, p. 89).

Genre study is best done in this fashion: First, list all those works you feel are like yours, both successes and failures…Next, rent the films on video and purchase the screenplays if possible. Then study the films stop and go, turning pages with the screen, breaking each film down into elements of setting, role, event, and value. Lastly, stack, so to speak, these analyses one atop the other and look down through them all asking: What do the stories in my genre always do? What are is conventions of time, place, character, and action? (McKee, 1997, p. 89)

McKee was referring specifically to genres for film, but the approach for studying genres for novels, comic books, and other media would be similar.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Storyworlds - Part 3

A variety of story structures are possible with this storyworld framework. For example, Freytag’s Triangle (with or without flashbacks) (see Figure 1) can be represented with this storyworld framework. Selecting existents, events, and settings from some point in the story time’s past makes it possible to create flashbacks and flash forwards are created by taking elements from the future in story time. A vertical story structure in which a main storyline connects a series of threads that explore more deeply the states of particular characters, events, or settings at specific points in storyworld time can also be mapped out on a storyworld timeline.

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 1: A variety of story structures -- for example, Freytag's Triangle (with or without flashbacks and flash forwards) -- can be represented with this storyworld structure.

A storyworld timeline can be used to map out how different media are used to present a story in the storyworld. Moving horizontally along the timeline, for example, the main storyline could be created as a television program, while sub-plots or sub-stories are presented on a website/blog and in a comic book (see Figure 2).

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 2: A variety of media can be used for different stories or sub-stories, creating a transmedia narrative.

A detailed perspective on individual elements of the storyworld (e.g. a setting) could also be presented by moving horizontally along the timeline (see Figure 3). Working vertically on the timeline, it is possible to use a variety of media to create a series of “mini-stories” that can be linked to a main storyline or can stand on their own (see Figure 4).

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 3: Individual elements of the storyworld can be explored in detail -- "tourist guides" for fictional settings for example.

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 4: The storyworld can be expanded by using different media to provide more detail on different existents, events, and/or settings.

This flexibility in using the storyworld timeline approach makes it easy to map out interstitial micro stories (stories that are closely related to the main story), parallel story (stories that unfold at the same time and have a strong relationship to the main story), and peripheral stories (stories that have a weak relationship to and may not occur at the same time as the macro story). Interstitial, parallel, and peripheral stories have all been identified as ways in which storyworlds can be expanded (Scolari, 2009).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Storyworlds - Part 2

A common technique in serial television narratives is the use of layered stories or plotlines. (Porter, Larson, Harthcock, & Nellis, 2002). This multi-layered story structure can be maintained using this framework (see Figure 1). Scenes or other elements of the main story can alternate with the sub-plots or sub-stories.

The development of dynamic, multi-dimensional characters is also possible within this framework. Characters should be viewed as entities that change over time. They come into existence as some point in storyworld time, change and evolve for a period of time, and then cease to exist, at least in the “physical” sense although they may persist as the memories, dreams, or memorials of other characters or in other settings. The “lifelines” of characters can be linked to the layered story structure, the events, and the settings, creating opportunities for the characters to change and evolve (see Figure 1).

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Figure 1: This storyworld structure makes possible the "layering" of stories and the development of dynamic characters and settings.

Ryan notes that narratives “establish particular facets of the storyworld into states” (Ryan, Introduction, 2004, p. 62), which is consistent with the approach used in this framework. The evolution of a character occurs as a result of a change from one state of being to another. These points of change in the character’s state of being are illustrated by the diamonds on the characters’ “lifelines” in Figure 1.

The concept of state change can also be applied to settings. From a storytelling perspective, changes in setting can add dramatic tension and conflict, particularly when characters need to deal with those changes. These changes can range from changes in the physical environment – day to night, warm to cold, calm to stormy, and so on – to social and political changes, moral changes, and many more. Mythos, topos, and ethos should be seen as having the potential for state changes to occur. However, care must be taken when incorporating such changes into a story and storyworld to ensure that they are logical, consistent, and plausible based their prior states.