The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 1997

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 20 March 97 Copyright ©1997 alt.screenwriters

Deborah: The question I’m asked most frequently about Interactive —

Terry: –next to ‘how much can I make?’ —

Deborah: –is: what’s the format? Does it look like a feature screenplay, or a radio drama, or do I have to know programming?

Terry: And my answer — when I’m running late or I don’t like the questioner — is, yeah, you have to know programming. C++ preferably, and a little Cobol won’t hurt. Impress ‘em with your ActiveX and —

Deborah: You are so bad! You don’t have to know any programming at all! You just like to scare off potential competition!

Terry: Okay, you’ve caught me. But my first legitimate advice is to be very wary of anyone who talks about having the interactive format, or tells you about a one-size-fits-all method of laying out story, character, and branching elements.

Deborah: The medium’s still too immature, and besides, the most exciting aspect of Interactive is that it’s so many different things!

Terry: The format for feature screenplays got locked down when they got past two-reelers and sound was added. If you read a screenplay from the early 30s, it looks exactly like a screenplay does today: a few more camera angles written in, a little more stage description, but otherwise the same.

Deborah: So this is a format with 65 years behind it – a wee bit more than Interactive.

Terry: In film, regardless of whether it’s animated or live- action, there is one essential element: scene follows scene follows scene. The screenplay doesn’t offer alternative orders – not if it’s going to sell. There are some crucial things to be established in each scene: location, characters, scene directions, dialogue, perhaps some sound and visual effects or music cues.

Deborah: One thing you never have to describe is the interface, because there’s only one: viewer watches, scene unfolds across the screen, sound comes out of speakers, and when the scene ends another one begins. But in Interactive, you have to describe this basic stuff because this is ultimately what it’s all about: how the audience (the player) will participate and engage with the world and the experience you bring to them.

Terry: The player might become Rosencrantz (a participant whose actions may be pivotal at a given point), or Hamlet (the central participant in the experience), or Shakespeare himself (developing the experience and the themes as he traverses the Interactive world). He may have all these choices! And so you have to write “stage descriptions” for your audience —

Deborah: — indicating how they can participate, and what will happen based on that participation.

Terry: Obviously, to make it interesting, that participation has to be more than just a “proceed” click. There has to be at least two possible participatory actions and outcomes — and clearly, you’re going to want more than two choices at least sometimes (if not always), otherwise the 0 or 1 nature of it gets really boring. Remember how bored you were anytime you took a true-or-false test?

Deborah: I was always looking for the “Maybe — it depends” choice!

Terry: Okay, but what about the possibility that the player can start as Guildenstern and later hop into the role of Hamlet or Ophelia? What about the possibility that the player can get into a time machine and travel back in time and meet Hamlet’s father (when he was still alive, not a ghost) and possibly prevent Hamlet’s mother and father from meeting? What about the possibility that Hamlet gets an Uzi and starts mowing everyone down, solving his problems in a crude but effective way?

Deborah: Terminator meets Hamlet. Maybe then Hamlet starts rebuilding the kingdom —

Terry: SimHamlet.

Deborah: The point is, how are you going to describe all these possibilities, in an easy-to-follow format, on paper? Do we have “scenes” as we understand them, or only environments? Can the player interact directly with characters, or only with the environment? Which scenes or scenarios might be “canned” and which might play only once, and when might they be triggered —

Terry: If A and B play, then C, otherwise go to D…

Deborah: So this is a big subject. Before we get to the script, however, we need to talk about the first step: a design document. Which we’ll do in our next installment…

Written by tborst

March 20, 1997 at 1:54 am

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