To hear Troy Hewitt, a writer and community event manager, tell it, The Matrix Online, Warner Bros.’ ill-fated attempt at an MMOG, wasn’t just some movie spin-off. Like so many of the other Matrix projects, it told an integral part of the Matrix storyline, supported around the clock by actors and writers.
The players had a purpose in that world. The Matrix Online picked up after the third film in the trilogy, and if a fourth movie were ever to be made (and that’s a big “if”), it would reflect everything that happened in the online game. And the die-hards who collaborated with Morpheus and ran missions for Seraph would be remembered. As he said in 2005, “Our intention is that players who play a really big role, or make a key decision, become part of the Matrix canon, and they become part of the story.” It was a long shot, but it was a breakthrough. And when you think it through, it was all but inevitable.
Today, our pop culture spawns transmedia properties. Films expand into books, comics and games – and the other way around. Unlike in the old days, when a tie-in meant a cheap lunchbox or a cheaper videogame, every new medium adds to the story. Transmedia critics such as Henry Jenkins detail the ways fans can take part in these worlds: They can swap tapes, wiki the subplots, speculate on discussion boards and share fan fiction. Videogames let us act out scenes from the films or slouch around J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and break into Tom Bombadil‘s house.
But at some point, if you keep inviting people into your world, you have to give them a stake in it. When consumers stop consuming and start creating, the energy and ideas they feed into these worlds have to change it. All geeks get the concept of “the canon,” which defines the history and rules of a fictional world. But to take advantage of the new media landscape, we have to start talking about open source canons. The fans who bring the best ideas, the most energy and the sharpest sense of where the world should go will win the ears of the producers back in Hollywood.
And games are a great way to get things started.
On a small scale, you can find plenty of examples of this kind of collaboration. In MUDs, players can graduate to “immortals,” designers or administrators. On a larger scale, alternate reality games (ARGs) put their puppet masters in direct contact with the players, in real time – which means the players have a chance to screw up the story. For example, 42 Entertainment’s Elan Lee recalled to the ARG Netcast the “Sleeping Princess” betrayal in I Love Bees: “We had a good guy hiding from a bad guy, and the players knew the location of the good guy, and the bad guy asks the players, ‘Where is this little sleeping princess, so that I may go and kill her?’ – and the players said, ‘Oh, she’s right over there. Go for it.'”
You can also bring players into the development cycle from the beginning. The ARG World Without Oil was defined as a collaborative storytelling exercise; the writers laid out a scenario, and the players had to write about how they’d handle it. And Terra Drive Live, a massively-multiplayer offline game that will debut at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo, has set up a wiki where players can design weapons, name planets, and suggest themes and stories. The game is a work in progress, and instead of being play-testers, the early adopters become legit co-authors.
In MMOGs, this proves much harder. You can copy The Matrix Online and hire full-time event implementers- but that’s an expensive way to make most of your players feel like they’ll never really get a chance to meet Morpheus. Of course, it’s also fair to say that in a large-scale game, players should make their own fun, regardless of whether or not the developers pay attention. Whether it’s the roleplaying guilds of City of Heroes/Villains or the completely player-driven drama of EVE Online, MMOG players don’t need a story from the home office to keep themselves entertained. But that’s not the same as sharing authorship. In the vast majority of MMOGs, players are tourists, not participants. And this is even more common when a well-defined property defines the game.
So let’s take a hypothetical. Imagine if LucasArts had followed Star Wars: Attack of the Clones with a massively-multiplayer strategy game that invited the fans to fight the Clone Wars. Players could take any side and make their way up the ranks depending on participation, creativity and skill. Aside from setting up the scenario, the folks at LucasArts would stand back and watch. The players’ clashes would decide which planets saw the worst fighting and which battles became the turning points. The top-ranking players would enjoy meet-and-greets with the primary characters; maybe they could even kill a couple of them. Everything in the game would dictate the script of the next film. Revenge of the Sith would be the same at its core, but everything else would follow the game. Hey, it couldn’t have been any worse than the real RotS.
The game would serve several purposes: a marketing exercise, a test to gauge which themes and characters drew the most attention, and a collaborative storytelling outlet that would reward creative players. Whether you spent half an hour a week or every waking moment in the game, you’d be a test subject, the co-author of a blockbuster Hollywood film and one of the most committed Star Wars geeks in history.
There are also plenty of challenges to this new form of collaborative storytelling. Gaming is not usually a creative act; we usually do as we’re told with very few avenues of personal expression, and the skills and habits that drive, say, the leader of a major World of Warcraft guild don’t necessarily include writing or even roleplaying. And legendary stories – Dark Phoenix committing suicide, Gollum chomping Frodo’s finger, etc. – usually come from one author, not a crowd of players. But stories are also full of non-key moments, and third-tier characters sometimes turn out to be the most engaging members of the cast. The whole point of transmedia storytelling is to build a world full of stories, instead of rehashing the same key plots.
The real problem is professional writers aren’t ready to share authorship, or even carve out areas where players can add something meaningful – and permanent. In all of the talk about how consumers are becoming participants, there’s still a stark line between the decisions that shape the story and all those fans who have to wait for what happens next. Sure, the little people can write their fan fiction, wear their costumes, send their Mary Sues to Hogwarts or roll their Frodo clones in Lord of the Rings Online. But their contributions don’t count; they’re still sitting at the kids’ table. But in the next generation of interactive, transmedia properties, it’s hard to believe they’ll stay there.
Chris Dahlen also writes about technology and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, where he is games editor.