The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

July 1997

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 24 June 97 Copyright ©1997 alt.screenwriters
Deborah: Whaddya feel like tonight? A little arcade action, a little role playing, a little simulation, or another episode in the online soap?

Terry: This is what the audience for interactive media — the gameplayer, the Websurfer — has to ask himself. And if you as a writer are looking to expand into the interactive marketplace, you need a good grasp of what genres are currently in vogue, and what are some titles within each.

Deborah: It seems like human nature to categorize our entertainment choices. We want an entertainment experience to suit our mood. Most of us love surprises, but we hate not getting our expectations met! Audiences want to know whether they’re getting a horror movie or a film noir —

Terry: And with rare exceptions, they’re usually put out if you mix and match genres much. (Though personally, I love it when someone tries to mish-mash genres.)

Deborah: Yeah, but that’s because you’re one of those writer types. Sales and marketing types love genres, big time. They want to know which aisle to place that little video or CD-ROM box, and it helps them target specific demographic groups for the property.

Terry: The Interactive world wants to pin its little butterflies to their specimen boards as well, but guess what? The butterflies wriggle out sometimes. Though Interactive is very much genre-driven, it’s not unusual for a title to span several genres. Because interactive media is still inventing itself, it refuses to play completely by “the rules”, despite the best efforts of sales and marketing types.

Deborah: This month, we look at some online entertainment genres that offer some potential to professional writers. Next month, we stalk the Wild CD-ROM in its native habitat, and try to slap a genre on everything we find…

(NOTE: This is anything but an exhaustive look at Web genres. If you have examples or favorites of your own, or are actually working on one, let us know!)

Online serial/soap opera.
An inevitable genre for The Web, especially given its bandwidth constraints (i.e., Text and photos are still the media elements best suited for The Web because they occupy the fewest number of “bytes.” Audio and short animations now work pretty well, but video is still more fantasy than reality). Online soaps can be just like a book: click here to turn to the next page. But the exciting possibilities here are in making a soap that’s more like Slaughterhouse Five: where the audience can slip around timelines and experience something deep but fragmented, rather than shallow and the typical linear structure. The most famous online soap was the first: The Spot. But alas, the production company has gone belly-up (the whys of which are the subject of a future column). One of the longer running soaps is at — lives and loves in New York’s arty East Village, as the web address suggests. One predictable challenge that online production companies are now facing (and this is good news for professional writers): how do you write a compelling serial day in and day out for a mass audience? Checking out the writing in most of the online soaps should give you an even greater appreciation for how consistently good the writing is on One Life to Live, General Hospital, and other Guild-written serials.
“Game Shows”
Many producers of online content believe that the best online entertainment experiences are short and sweet: plenty of audience interactivity and reward ’em so they’ll come back for more. The most successful example in the world of TV game shows transmuted into Web-entertainment is You Don’t Know Jack, which started as a CD-ROM title. It’s funny, it’s got attitude, but strip away its trappings and you’re really looking at Jeopardy-on-Speed. Everything old is new again. Trivia games and scavenger hunts seem to lend themselves to The Web. Look for more examples on MSN and AOL.
Episodic TV “Add-Ons”
Is this a genre? Hard to say, but it certainly is a comer. More and more TV shows are adding actual entertainment content to their promotional websites. Homicide has “Homicide Night Shift”: stories involving completely different characters, but still working within the universe of Homicide. Nash Bridges has offered prequels to many of its episodes. For now, these stories are primarily text — but how long before they become episodes all their own, involving the use of video, sets, actors, etc.?
Virtual Worlds
These are primarily “chatroom” experiences, but now taking place in rich graphical environments. The Palace, a prime purveyor of this genre, now offers a Laugh Factory-type environment — an “auditorium” where one or more comedians performs his act, and gets his laughs or risks insults and/or brickbats from the audience. How far away is Saturday Night
Live On The Web?
Simulations, Strategy Games, MUDS
Big. Some of this ground overlaps CD-ROMS, and we’ll take a look at that next month

Written by tborst

June 24, 1997 at 6:02 am

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