April 21, 2006


- C3 retreat next week
- Jason Mittell writes on cross-media storytelling
- Pro video gaming comes to cable TV
- IBM maps out future of television
- Philips patents device that will stop ad zapping

--------------- C3 EVENT ---------------

Convergence 2006 - the first C3 retreat, will be held at MIT April 27-29. See the event schedule on http://www.convergenceculture.net/convergence06/ We're looking forward to seeing you there!

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Playing Stories Across Media
by Jason Mittell

Media convergence has triggered some notable transformations in storytelling practices. With multiple media forms typically owned by synergy-minded conglomerates, a successful story rarely stays put in a single medium for long. Yet every medium has its own distinctive storytelling norms and set of consumption practices—films tell stories quite differently than comic books, and viewers do not watch the same ways that they read. How can cross-media narratives adapt to such differences while trying to maintain some unity in a shared fictional universe?

I have been grappling with this question regarding contemporary television narratives and their forays into other media. Today’s television programming is arguably the site of the most innovative and robust storytelling to be found within popular culture—the richness in complex narrative strategies and elaborate story architecture found in programs from Deadwood to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veronica Mars to The Office, is simply unparalleled in other popular media. These programs inspire (or require) a more engaged and active viewership to decode such narrative complexity, evidenced by the thriving participation in online forums focused on the intricacies of shows like Lost and 24, and the robust sales of DVDs and iTunes episodes allowing fans to rewatch repeatedly.

If there’s one medium today that might rival television for the pinnacle of complexity and engagement it would be videogames. There is much debate among game scholars whether games are narratives or not, but storytelling is certainly relevant in the particular genre of cross-media tie-in games, often derided as “licensed games” to highlight the centrality of economic contracts over creative ambitions. Film franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix have extended their storyworlds into interactive digital environments via games of nearly every genre and playstyle, with decidedly mixed results for both fan reactions and the marketplace. How might ongoing television series adapt their storyworlds into games? And what might such adaptations tell us about the particular possibilities and pleasures of each medium?

As a case study, consider the television program Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) and its self-titled videogame tie-in released in 2004 for PC, PS2, and Xbox. Alias has been one of the most innovative and cultishly-adored (at least for the first three seasons) of all contemporary television narratives, with a fiendishly baroque conspiracy mythology overlayed with the pleasures of family melodrama, romance between two ridiculously-attractive actors, high-style butt-kicking action sequences, and tense espionage plots presented by a first-rate cast. At their best, episodes balance all of these genres and their associated pleasures, keeping fans from varying perspectives satisfied and allowing nuances to resonate between the spy plots and melodramatic relationship dramas in surprising and compelling ways.

The tie-in videogame greatly reduces the show’s scope for interactive experience. Most centrally, the Alias game offers a chance for digital costume play—one staple of fan culture for decades has been the pleasure of dressing up as your favorite characters. Tie-in games often allow players to take the avatar form of established characters, a feature typically judged by the authenticity of the voice work and rendering of the actor’s body—in the case of Alias, Jennifer Garner does her own voice but most fans found Sydney’s physique to be a poor match of Garner’s original. But digital costume play is only as good as the actions you’re allowed to do with your avatar—in the Alias game, action is quite limited to unimpressive stealthy sneaking around and repetitively fighting guards to accomplish missions in a spy plot typical of the show, but not effectively tied into greater story arcs or mythologies. Predictably, the game was considered a flop among both hardcore gamers and fans of the television show, as it failed to deliver the pleasures expected from either medium.

Does the failure of Alias’s game adaptation point to the inability of the videogame medium to deliver the pleasures of television, or an incompatibility between complex storytelling and videogames? I don’t think so—I attribute the failure of Alias and the majority of other tie-in games to misunderstanding how to adapt a property to the storytelling strengths of the game medium. For evidence of other possibilities, briefly consider two fan-created media adapting Alias into a gaming environment.

Alias ARG is an ambitious fan-created alternative reality game, a real-time interactive set of puzzles and clues scattered both on- and offline—it has since ended, but lives on in the form of a series of summaries and archived puzzles. While the story does not mimic events from the program or use the same characters, it builds on the puzzle-solving pleasures of the show’s underlying mythology, creating an air of mystery, paranoia, and intrigue utterly lacking in the official game.

The Other Alias uses videogame technology, namely The Sims, to create two new episodes of the series by editing and capturing gameplay visuals—these videos tell a violence-free but dramatically compelling story consistent with the Alias storyworld by focusing on the melodramatic and relationship pleasures typical of the program. Although these “machinima” videos offer no interactivity and thus are not truly games, we could imagine an Alias expansion for a game like The Sims mimicking this dedicated fan’s work, allowing users to play with the show’s characters in a more varied way than the official stealth action game and offering pleasures more consistent with the television series’ multiple appeals.

These examples of emergent fan-driven alternatives to licensed games suggest that fans do want to explore the narrative worlds of a television series via games, but that most options presented thus far fall short in capturing what makes a series like Alias so beloved by viewers. Contemporary television narratives like Alias and Lost seem inspired by the complexity and engagement of videogames, and thus are ripe for cross-media storytelling as long as creators can better realize and maximize the particular possibilities offered by each medium. Once they do, the derisive attitude toward licensed games may give way to a dedication to new paradigms of convergent narratives.

-- Alias ARG: http://aawiki.addlepated.net/
-- The Other Alias: http://www.md-press.com/theotherseries/alias_e.htm
Jason Mittell is Assistant Professor of American Civilization and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College.

--------------- INDUSTRY UPDATE ---------------

-- "Professional video gaming is set to debut on cable television later this year, potentially paving the way for the kings and queens of game controllers to become as familiar to American households as the faces of Johnny Chan or Annie Duke in televised poker."

-- CNet looks at the wildly popular mash-up sites that overlay Google maps with new content and wonders whether any of them will ever become profitable.

-- And CNN asks the same question about the YouTube-like video services. The good news is that "two-thirds of those who regularly viewed online video said they also watched online video ads, and 44 percent of those users said they have taken action on what they've seen, i.e. they went to an advertiser's Web site and, in some cases, even made a purchase."

-- IBM publishes a whitepaper that looks at the mid-term future of television (circa 2012). "Our analysis indicates that market evolution hinges on two key market drivers: openness of access channels and levels of consumer involvement with media. For the next 5-7 years, there will be change on both fronts but not uniformly."

-- Philips patents a device that would prevent "a viewer from switching from a channel when an advertisement is being displayed on the channel."

-- Universal Music Group will launch a new premium SMS service that will allow consumers to use text-message codes to buy ringtones, wallpapers and videos for their phones. MTV plans to use PayPal Mobile to sell basic merchandise from its Web store.

-- A study by Hitwise reveals that after web searchers type in a brand name on a search engine, 85 percent end up at that brand's Web site, while the rest are diverted to competition, comparison shopping engines and affiliates.

Compiled by Ilya, Geoff, Sam and Parmesh
Edited and signed off by Ilya (ivv@mit.edu)

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