Passive Media, Active Media, and The Five Building Blocks of Every Good Story

A key feature in any transmedia roll-out is the ability to utilize each medium’s core strengths. A campaign tries not to reiterate the same story over and over again not just because it’s boring and not just because you want to reach new fans, but because, say, a story that’s best told in film doesn’t necessarily translate well to the video game environment, or vice versa.

Sounds simple, yet you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t understand this concept.

Sounds simple, yet you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t understand this concept.

This can be intimidating to the media fledgling. A producer has to oversee an entire array of platforms and content creators in order to establish a coherent and profitable story world. That requires connections, of course, but also an often intimidating amount of knowledge of production across a wide variety of distribution points. Does he or she really need to understand how every media works in order to create a great roll-out strategy?

Thankfully for me, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”

Thankfully for me, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”

Sure, it helps if you’re a qualified game developer, script writer, social media maven, filmmaker, talent scout, and novelist, but let’s be frank: that’s near impossible. Instead, producers and fans should understand the core differences between the two main forms of media:

Active (or interactive) storytelling.

Passive (or receptive) storytelling

To understand this fundamental difference, let’s look at the structure of a traditional story:

  • A Protagonist – That is, a hero. Someone who has…
  • A Desire – Something that the protagonist needs.
  • An Obstacle – That which is preventing the main character from achieving their desire.
  • A Choice – How the character tries to surmount this obstacle.
  • A Resolution – Whether the character succeeds or not.

Those of you who are writers, producers, filmmakers, or lovers of art will no doubt recognize this basic format, even if it’s only been laying in the subconscious part of your mind. This is where Aristotelian Drama comes from. It’s the “Three-act structure” at its most basic form. It is a scene, chapter, and novel without any of the accoutrement added on top. Sometimes the basic units can be subtler than others but they are near universal in storytelling, particularly in broadcast, passive media.

Human beings need to identify with heroes in these formats because there is an abstraction. We witness others making choices that may be different from our own. The want to achieve desires and resolutions that may not jibe with those that we would enjoy. Pathos, empathy, conflict, and recognition of core needs (security, love, wealth, etc.) all help to both overcome the barrier and construct a fourth wall. With apologies to Bertoldt Brecht, people like to be engaged in their stories because they want to see themselves mirrored in art and get lost.

This is a way of getting every individual that passively watches the story to actively engage with their imagination. Human being see something that delights them, and it delights them because it reminds them of their own experience. They are being told a story but their lives are being shown onscreen.

What about active media? Surely, video games and social media narratives and ARGs and role-playing games all feature the building blocks of story, even in their abstract form. The key difference is that the user takes on the role of the protagonist. This requires a subtle change in the five elements that leads to a drastic change in its delivery:

  • An Agent – That is, the player.
  • An Achievement – Something that the player desires that will help them to express something.
  • An Obstacle – Something that is getting in the way of the agent’s success.
  • A Choice – The means by which an agent opts to overcome the obstacle.
  • An Award – The reward or punishment for the player’s success or failure.

The biggest change, of course, is that the player is taking on the role of the main character. This isn’t always the case (see my piece on Gone Home), but interactive media overwhelmingly features the user as the protagonist of the journey. Note that this does not necessarily make him/her the hero, merely the person who makes the choices and earns the accolades/scorn when reaching for the achievement. Even things as abstract as Tetris or Angry Birds feature such elements, showing that while the narrative may be tiny, the building blocks remain the same.

Note how this affects the self-identification that a player has in these stories. There is no longer as much a need to “feel” like the protagonist because the player is the protagonist. People even want to take on different roles than they would normally because this is a safe form of expression: a “game.”

What a concept.

What a concept.

Yet at the same time, if the player has radically different desires or abstract ideas, they may react even more negatively to the experience. Humans are willing to watch films like Goodfellas and Girls where the protagonists are unlikeable human beings because it is an abstraction. When we are confronted by those same choices, users must want to take that leap. They must want to be bad, or in some way subvert their own feelings. There can be outrage if those choices are not reflected.

Fans of Mass Effect 3 will remember its original ending, much as they may try to forget.

Fans of Mass Effect 3 will remember its original ending, much as they may try to forget.

A producer must be prepared for people who will and will not want to step outside their boundaries. You don’t need to understand every medium. You do need to know how people react to them. There are so many choices out there that it’s impossible not to get lost sometimes. Just make sure that you can go back to the basics if the way gets hazy.

That is this methodology’s greatest strength: if you allow for multiple entry points, people will choose their own way to engage with the story. Some people will want passive media. Others will want to engage in an interactive environment. A few will be willing to have their views subverted. Most will want to have them reflected. If you can have those building blocks already in place, you’ll be able to guide people to the platform of their choosing.

In short, you’ll have to do a few things. Trust the people who are creating the content. Trust the fans to know how to find their way. Trust that the signs your erect will point the correct direction. Trust the basics. And finally, trust in yourself.

Active, passive; in the end, it’s you that makes the difference.


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