Last Wednesday I spent some time at Future Human‘s “Immersion Drama” event at The Book Club in Shoreditch, London. The attending crowd was a fashionable herd consisting of more of the local Old St digerati fauna than most games-related events I attend in London. It felt a little odd to recognise only a handful of the folks in the audience, but I still ended up being asked about RPS, so the basal-level of PC nerd was still there. That was reassuring. Also, I got this sticker:
Stickers are almost always okay.
The evening kicked off with a presentation by Ben Beaumont-Thomas, in which he talked about “transmedia storytelling” and related things. This basically referenced all that alternate reality and cross-format pollination of content and marketing that seems to have proliferated massively in the past few years. His most interesting example was the Nine Inch Nails event based around Year Zero, which was beautifully spooky, with coded messages in “found” USB keys, decrypted images of a giant hand trailing from the sky, and general warnings from the future about some pseudo-Rapture horrors. It was a story told in a distributed sense, across the music itself, attendance of gigs, real-world discoveries, and lots of digging around on the internet. You will probably be familiar with this format by now, of course, thanks to it being heavily explored by some big corporations, such as Microsoft. (There was also reference to a book that was on screen briefly in Lost, and then was created as a real, essentially unrelated book by a publishing house invented and created by the lost team. Wikipedia reminds us that there are a lot of other fictional books that would have been more interesting to bring into the real world.)
Anyway, Year Zero was all fun and games for NIN obsessives, but this kind of thing is exciting stuff for the rest of us, too, because it points a way towards participatory story-telling activities that take us into a potential realm of expression and imaginative exploration that previous generations of artists and thinkers seemed to have longed for. Beaumont-Thomas’ specific example was the idea of the “4th dimension” with regards to the Cubists, which was – I am guessing – another degree of perspective, perhaps a poetic dimension, that was required to understand their work. Cubism wasn’t about technical accomplishment, so there was something else going on, something about how the general imagination of the audience dealt with this new art-form. I’m not sure I quite understood the link he was making, but I think the crucial idea to take away from it was that alternate reality projects, or “transmedia”, could potentially provide a way for us to find new perspectives on art and story-telling: making it more like an ecosystem of imaginative activities than simply the broadcast of one (or a few) mind’s vision to an audience beyond.
All of which had me stoked for the rest of the evening… which didn’t go so well. The second section was a “crowd-sourced” trans-media project, which basically had some volunteers from the audience, the audience, and the organizers trying to suggest how some kind of game-event-competition could be organised using the principles of transmedia storytelling. It was a little confusing, even if the resulting adultery project on the Titanic (entitled “Cruising”) was very funny to watch unfold.
Then came a panel section with guests Matt Wieteska, ARG designer from Six To Start, Jade Tidy, producer of episodic murder-mystery PS3 game Blue Toad Murder Files, and Tim Jones, producer at interactive theatre troupe Coney. There was a fourth panel member, too, but I don’t know who that was. This was supposedly aimed at exploring the ideas of alternate reality and transmedia, but it also arrived at the “immersion” of the evening’s title. It was at this point that things really began to come apart, as it became clear no one was quite sure what they were addressing when they were talking about immersion. Old pennies of game debate, such as the Holodeck and “what happens when we can’t tell if we’re still inside the game” began to crop up alongside questions of worth and dangers of involving people in alternate reality scenarios, and thoughts about what it means to be engaged in different types of storytelling provided through digital platforms. Quite different kinds of immersion that were indistinct in the discussion, leading to some confused answers. Yeah, I’m was feeling a bit snobby at this point, and I’m probably going to seem snarky, but in truth my own beret-wearing arthouse crowd of mainstream and indie gamers has already explored these subjects individually and thoroughly, and it was clear that the discussion was only just getting to its feet with Future Human’s panel and audience.
Ultimately, although well intended and with some fun ideas, I think Immersion Drama probably failed for thinking it had to have anything to do with “immersion”, or, in truth, any discussion whatsoever of old-fashioned on screen videogames. Beaumont-Thomas’ initial foray into discussing how many different kinds of media are creating a new palette for story-telling and involvement in artistic spectacle was a great starting point to an event of some kind, but it was one in which the attendees chased down those specific concepts: exploring whether there are additional formats and platforms these things could exploit, asking about whether we really want or need reality and fantasy to become indistinct, examining why it is that marketing has provided the motor for so much of the alternate reality invention, and looking at what the imaginative fallout could be for people who are spend time treating reality like a grand Easter Egg hunt. I’d be interested to see more discussion along these lines, and I hope Beaumont-Thomas expands his initial piece online somewhere for all to see.
Is the future of humanity a confused debate about our engagement with digital games followed by a disco? Perhaps. But we took flight to another reality in a nearby pub, just to be safe.