The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

November 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 15 September 01 Copyright ©2002 alt.screenwriters

The mystery has been an enduring narrative genre for almost two centuries, and has evolved from the whodunnits of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of James Ellroy and The X-Files‘ Chris Carter. Traditionally, audiences have enjoyed the armchair intrigues and dangers provided by the genre, so that their pulses quicken even as their minds (and in the very best tales, their hearts) remain engaged.

However, an entire generation has now grown up enjoying a more hands-on and immediate involvement in much of its entertainment. While that generation’s leisure time may shrink with the acquisition of jobs, families, and other responsibilities, its thirst for narrative immersion is likely to remain, even when its hand-eye coordination begins to diminish.

Entertainment creators are now asking if there is a way to create immersive entertainment that doesn’t require a “twitch” factor. Can interactivity truly engage us on multiple levels, and even reach out to an audience that doesn’t normally have the time or the inclination to play computer games?

Media giant Electronic Arts is betting that this is possible, with a new type of entertainment genre that we don’t really have a name for yet. The title of this experiment, however, is Majestic — and the easiest way to describe it is as a cross between The X-Files and the film The Game, which starred Michael Douglas a couple of years back.

Now, imagine that you’re in the Michael Douglas role. Or that you’re Fox Mulder. You have to piece together the conspiracies and then unravel them. And as you do so, you become ever more enmeshed in the storyworld of Majestic.

Electronic Arts has always been on the cutting edge of creating this kind of convergent entertainment, and has never hesitated to tap Hollywood talent for its “movie magic.”

Which explains why veteran episodic and feature film writer Amy Spies got a call one day from film producer Ralph Guggenheim, who had signed on to executive produce Majestic. As Spies tells it, “[Ralph] was looking for an experienced tv/feature film writer and thought I might be a good addition to the Majestic development team. I met with John Danza, the Director of the project and with Kira Snyder, Game Designer/Writer on the project. They explained the amazing premise of Majestic and how the story was progressing. We hit it off right away.”

Before she knew it, Spies was working on something quite new: “Majestic is an Internet-based interactive episodic drama and much more. It’s a story with ongoing characters. The player becomes one of the characters. Each episode takes place over a few weeks. Each day, the player is sent, discovers, researches, hears or sees something, or does an activity that develops the drama and hopefully envelops the player. But Majestic is much more than that: while it is an Internet entertainment experience, it also goes beyond the Internet, using other interactive means to reach and involve the player in the ongoing story.”

These interactive means include the reception and exchange of emails, faxes, phone calls and instant messages — some of them from real people who are also playing the episode/game, some of them from “bots” (automated voices and software that simulate a real human presence).

In other words, the episode/game is experienced via all the technological devices we take for granted and already use every day. Majestic actually insinuates itself into our daily patterns — with surprising results.

Players who have worked through the pilot episode report an increasing feeling of “spookiness”, as every fax or phone call they receive now carries the potential to find out something dreadful or intriguing — in an experience they have become “sucked into.”

Which is exactly the sort of suspension of disbelief that all of us as screenwriters hope to achieve.

So how is this done, from the vantage point of the writer? “In this interactive medium, the story is presented as ‘assets’ — video (webcams, documentary type footage, ‘scenes’), audio (phone calls, taped recordings), photos, documents, activities, puzzles, events, fictional news, fictional websites, faxes, emails. [The asset] might even be an instant message ‘chat’ with a character.”

Spies says she “came aboard when the general concept had been formulated and some of the characters had been created. I have worked with the creative team to develop the characters, to create the overall story arc, and give emotional depth to the drama… [We’re] structuring the big story like it’s a screenplay with the plot points falling at specific points in specific episodes. That’s fun, intellectually challenging, and feels like we’re creating a new entertainment genre. I use my writing and story editing skills all over the place: in writing dramatic scenes but also in writing other ‘assets’ that help build the story: documents, faxes, transcripts, etc.”

One of the primary goals for the creative team is “to find ways to build the drama without always relying on video. We use video and audio when it’s interesting (i.e., webcams, surveillance videos). But we often say, ‘Okay, if it was a screenplay, here’s what the scene would be. Now, what’s the best and most original way to do it in this medium?'”

While Spies certainly draws from her professional writing experience, she has found that there are significant differences in working on this project from any other she has in the past.

“In scripting a linear TV/film narrative, I either do an outline or a beat sheet. I think about the characters’ bios and about the tone I want. Then I write to the end of the script … and rewrite!” Similarly, she says, “in Majestic, we first sketch out the beats of the story. Then we put up our version of index cards: white board cards. [But] the difference is that we put up ‘assets’ rather than scenes. Some of the assets are scenes, [but] some are documents, faxes, activities.”

Each episode is intended to take up 15-20 minutes a day, spanning a couple of weeks, “So we divide the assets the player receives into days. We also have to budget the assets. This has a counterpart in traditional TV/film production—i.e., being limited on locations, etc.”

She notes, “In terms of all the writing staff being in a room ‘beating out’ the story, our process is very similar to what I experienced in television. However, in Majestic, each of the audio-visual scenes needs some dramatic justification for being there beyond the normal screenplay justification of ‘does this move the story along?’ In Majestic, the player is receiving or finding these video and audio assets. So, in this way, it’s not like a traditional movie or TV show — it’s more like a scene within a scene. For instance, if a character in a traditional dramatic TV show or movie sees a video, it has to have had a reason for being filmed. Our videos need justification for existing: perhaps one character filmed another, perhaps it’s a webcam, etc.”

Perhaps the largest challenge for a storyteller is that “we have to be careful to make sure the interactivity doesn’t break the dramatic flow of the story.”

A nice bonus for Spies is that “This project has re-ignited my enjoyment of writing feature screenplays. It’s nice to do both: the interactive storytelling and the more traditional sitting at your computer at home and creating your own 110-page screenplay. Truth is, I like doing both — and working at Majestic has given me a new feeling of freedom in writing my screenplays … i.e., forget the formulas!!”

However, she does feel that this project signals something larger in the development of 21st-century screen entertainment: “It’s clear that the computer and the TV screen will blend together more and more. We’ve seen reality shows and game shows flourish. Well, Majestic is a dramatic episodic experience with elements that exist in reality and game shows.”

Electronic Arts reports that more than 100,000 people have signed up for Majestic‘s free pilot episode. Continuing participation requires a monthly subscription fee. The Internet has produced several blockbuster subscription-only online games (Ultima Online, and Everquest are two) — and when successful, these franchises are “cash cows” for the media conglomerates that offer them. Majestic is an experiment in reaching out beyond the core gamer market, and if it can develop the broader demographic of a hit TV show, we can expect more of its ilk to follow — and narrative, episodic entertainment may never be the same.

For Amy Spies, the real excitement is in helping to launch something that may just change the rules of the screenwriting game, while reminding us what this was once all about.

“This is something that screenwriters face all the time, in fact in each scene they write, with each blank page. It’s a wonderful, scary, but exhilarating freedom and one that nourishes creativity and originality. Working on a project like Majestic reinforces that creative daredevil instinct.”

Written by tborst

September 15, 2001 at 10:34 pm

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