Jun 28, 2011
Frank Rose’s book The Art of Immersionis ostensibly a field guide to new storytelling across the web, film and TV. Featuring explorations of landmarks from Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City to Mulholland Drive’s ink black asphalt, it’s an attempt to work out where we are and where we might go as storytellers and audiences alike.
All the same, charting this new landscape is a little like mapping sandcastles on a beach. One of the few defining characteristics of new story forms such as ARGs is their mayfly-like lifespan. Happenings such as The Dark Knight’s Why So Serious – which saw players descending on New York bakeries to pick up layer cakes as part of a recruitment drive for the Joker’s gang – are devoured by fans before the icing is even set. Even the millennia-old granite of Lost’s colossal four-toed statue quickly crumbled upon its discovery by the show’s marrow-sucking audience.
Smartly, The Art of Immersion avoids the need for FIFA or Madden-like iterations by remembering it’s a book. There’s a hero in game designer Will Wright and his brave and foolhardy war cry of ‘support the user’s story’, while Immersion’s narrative line cuts through the Dickenian morass of platforms with airport thriller gleam.
Our interview with Frank, recorded before his keynote at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this month, looked at the part he played in the tale as well as offering a chance to discuss games, stories and the places in between.
Rob Overlap: I think my first reaction to The Art of Immersion was based around the shock of reading about subjects such as transmedia, podcasts and ARGs on a page rather than a computer screen. Why a book?
Frank: Oddly enough you’re the first person to ask that question! Partly it’s because that’s what I’ve always done. And I’m as much a neophyte in terms as figuring out this new grammar of storytelling as anyone. But I do think the book is simultaneously linear and non linear. The structure of the book is pretty non-linear but print is always a linear progression. I think that’s perhaps one of its charms.
R: So is your role slightly more complicated than ‘author’?
F: I did just post a video about the book, which was a short thing in which me and a couple of people talk about why I came to write it. I’m a reporter and journalist, but as I mention in the video what I do is all about pattern recognition. All the other books that I have done have been stories. This is a meta-story. It’s really taking examples from a lot of different areas and showing how they all seem to be part of the same thing.
R: You talk to [The Sims’ designer] Will Wright and I guess I would say he was the closest to what I saw as the ‘hero’ of the book…
F: Well, I got obsessed when I was working on the book between the relationship between stories and games. The reason I got obsessed with it was because I didn’t really understand it. It wasn’t until I met Will Wright and spent a couple of hours talking with him in his studio in Berkley that I felt like I was beginning to understand it.
Games are primarily a simulation. You’re playing in this simulated world, the parameters of which are laid out by the game designer. What Wright pointed out was that stories are essentially a simulation as well. They’re maybe a kind of thought experiment in which we surrender our disbelief and imagine ourselves in a role, in a story that some author has created. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s a book or a movie or a TV show or anything.
So then I subsequently found some literary references dating back to the 19th century where Robert Louis Stevenson essentially said the same thing (‘Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate…” link). And this led me to begin to understand what was going on here.
Sargent – Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife
Because I really started out the book with the idea that games were becoming stories and stories were becoming games. One of the things that led me to start doing this book was a piece I did for Wired on Hollywood professionals who were going into web video. With the [2008-9] writers strike nobody could write for TV or movies and some of the people I interviewed had written for TV and then went to write for videogames. There’s a pretty big videogame industry in LA and a fair amount of people have moved from television to videogames and then are moving back either in to TV or web video because what they’re looking for is a way to combine the two. So that’s kind of where I started.
R: Well directors like Spielberg and Del Toro are all into their video games and it strikes me there’s tremendous opportunities to take structures from games into the movies. David Lynch, who you also interview in the book, seemed like possibly the most relevant example of a director with videogame-like sensibilities. Which was something I was really surprised by because he’s also someone you don’t imagine being sat in front of his PC playing World of Warcraft. But some of the things he talks about in your interview with him seem to completely overlap with videogames.
In particular I was reminded of an example from Morrowind – an RPG videogame full of books you can pickup and read in game. Two of them mention an ancient historical event with several very, very different representations that historians can’t reconcile. In a series of excellent blog posts by Kate S, she points out that this idea of multiple histories is quite possibly a reference to the end of the previous game where the player got to choose from several options.
It was this metaphysical representation of experience that really struck a chord with some of the stuff that Lynch does with his storytelling. In Mulholland Drive you’ve got this Möbius strip of narrative and I was really interested in this idea that someone who’s from a completely different world shares a similar interest in playing with story elements…
F: That’s why I wanted to talk to him. I’d been fascinated by his films and television shows for a very long time, but the reason I wanted to talk to him specifically was because I was doing this chapter on non-linearity and the whole idea of non-linear storytelling. Lynch, for all his avant-garde forms is essentially a very traditional filmmaker. But as with Will Wright I thought he would have some answers and I was particularly fascinated by Mulholland Drive, a film that’s told in an extremely non-linear fashion. Talking with David was the culmination of the whole process of thinking about the web and hyperlinks, which we take for granted now but which are so fundamental to the way the web works.
With Lynch he got to something else which I was not expecting at all, and which I only really understood when I put it in the context of [Marshall] McLuhan. Lynch made the point as we were talking in his dream state way of speaking. I said, “Why are non-linear stories so powerful now?” And he said, “Well, one minute we’re watching the war in Iraq and the next minute we’re on a boat and birds fly by and…” Later I’m thinking about this and I realise what he’s really talking about is television. Our experience of it is totally non-linear. The only difference is we have no control over it as a viewer.
David Lynch – Photograph by Repose
R: There’s a comparison to be made here with Lost, which you talk about in the book. Both Lynch and Lindelof/Cuse love mysteries, but they treat them in very different ways. Lynch uses them on a level of storytelling that isn’t just ‘What’s in this box?’ or ‘Who’s killed this person?’ He seems to use them on levels of structure within the story that manage to be at once mysterious, not necessarily resolved and satisfying.
There’s a million fascinating things about the way Lindelof and Cuse told their story online and one of the quotes from your interview with them is lovely. “We were looking to build a TV show but it turned out we built a community…” But they were always the authorial storytellers. On the podcasts someone would ask a question – “Is the Hurley bird this?’ And they could go, “No that’s not the case…” Whereas with Lynch, there’s no director’s commentary, but that seems to be all in service of the audience – to allow us to make what we want of the films. That does seem to completely overlap with the idea of how we experience narrative in an internet world…
F: One thing Lynch does is, as you say, he doesn’t comment on his movies apart from on a superficial level. He certainly doesn’t try to explain what anything means, which isn’t uncommon for movie directors.
I think the fact that Lindelof and [Lost executive Produce Carlton] Cuse were very clear on where the show was going was actually one of the things that kept it alive and kept it a success. And I think they were very much aware of the need to do that.
That said when I was talking with them it quickly became apparent that they were conflicted by this role. As I say in the book, one of the central issues that technology has raised in terms of storytelling is ‘Who controls the story?’ So who controls the story if you have this TV show?
[Lindelof and Cuse] said that people who came up to them or wanted to talk to them invariably had two things to say. One of them was they wanted to know what was going to happen – which as they pointed out implied they wanted the authors to take it wherever they wanted it to go, within reason. The other one was ‘Do you listen to your audience?’
Cuse and Lindelof (third and forth from left) at Comic Con 2009 Lost Panel – Photograph by Kristin Dos Santos
As they pointed out when I was interviewing them, those two impulses can seem mutually exclusive. But in fact they’re a question of balance and they went on to give me a very good example of something that happened in the show where they did listen to the audience and they killed off two characters as a result.
In order to find a proper analogy for this I actually had to go all the way back to Dickens. Dickens lived in a time when most stories – novels – were beginning to be published in a serial fashion and so almost all of his novels he wrote chapter by chapter and published them a month at a time. What that meant was that he always had time to listen to what his readers were saying because it wasn’t like he had the whole story written.
Now that’s true of many shows today. But with most of them the people who are creating the show don’t really want to know what the audience has to say. They’re not of that mindset. Look at Madmen. It’s a show that is completely about control, which is in a way appropriate, because it’s all about the ‘command and control’ version of advertising…
R: I couldn’t tell you who the showrunner is for Madmen is, but in the same way Dickens was a well known figure and public speaker in Victorian society, Lindelof and Cuse were very much public-facing curators of Lost’s story…
F: Exactly. They would appear at Comic Con and lots of other places. Charles Dickens is a perfect example because what happened with Dickens was when his story was going very well he exerted much more control over it than when it wasn’t. When he was floundering he would pay a lot more attention to what his readers wanted. With The Old Curiosity Shop there were all but riots at the idea that he might kill off Little Nell. Yet that’s what he did because he knew that’s what would make a good story and much as his readership didn’t want it that’s actually kind of what they did want.
I think that tension between control and bringing the audience in is really at the core of what people who are telling stories in any medium have to deal with today. It’s fascinating and I don’t think anyone has completely solved it. I suspect it’s something that’s going to vary from one storyteller to another. But a large part of the power of Lost – the mesmerising effect that it had – was in the fact that even though they did listen to their audience they exerted a great deal of control. The whole show was a time capsule release of information. Which is what any kind of successful story ultimately is.