Interview with Andrea Phillips

Andrea, you’ve done tremendous work in the cross-disciplinary field of transmedia, crossing the lines between writing, game design, involving the many and changing platforms of communication. In fact, you’ve written the definitive book on the topic: A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling! How did you become interested in transmedia development? Is there one key skill or experience you would recommend to others seeking a similar career? 

A: I fell into transmedia through a series of coincidences and social connections you’d never be able to replicate. I was really just in the right place at the right time. But if you’re looking to forge such a career on purpose, I’d recommend becoming a habitual dabbler. Try new technologies as they arise. Try all different kinds of writing and interaction. Make lots of little weekend projects to see how they work and how they don’t. Learn everything you can about games and media, about social psychology, about history, about science. Ideally you’ll be just about competent at a lot of different things, enough to visualize how things can and should work; and then you can recruit a team of specialists to build out the places where your vision exceeds your skill. But first you need to develop that vision of what a story might be like or feel like.

What games do you play for fun? What kinds of stories do you enjoy?

A: I try to game pretty widely; it’s important to see how the field is changing around you as conventions and technologies evolve. I’m a fan of the fantasy RPG, games like Dragon Age or even Fable. But I also love Phoenix Wright, Katamari Damacy, Candy Crush. And even board games like Blokus, or 3-D tic-tac-toe. And I try to read widely, too. Lots of science fiction and fantasy across many subgenres, of course, but also romance, mysteries, nonfiction about the history of salt or Victorian-era inventions.

It’s all about putting a lot of different kinds of things into your brain. The media you consume are inevitably the primordial soup from which your new ideas will emerge. So the more weird and different things you put into your brain, the more interesting your own ideas will be.

You’ve worked on large scale commercial Alternate Reality Games like Perplex City to interactive adventure fiction like the Lucy Smokeheart ebooks.  What are the greatest changes you've seen take place in game design and media? Are there new technologies that you are itching to take advantage of?

A: When I started making ARGs, social media as we know it today hadn’t been invented yet. The smartphone as a category barely existed, and the iPad and iPhone weren’t out yet, either. So the entire category of mobile games and social games as we know them today have sprang into existence and eaten the world in that  time. And here’s the kicker: it’s only been ten years. Ten. That’s it.

If you squint you can see the shape of the future to come, too. Apple Watch and similar wearables are going to change things, even if we’re not yet sure how. And eventually augmented reality and mixed reality will hit its stride. (I’m still not sold on virtual reality as such, though.) I desperately want to make a whole series of mixed-reality games -- I wrote a white paper on the subject several years ago, but at the time the technology didn’t really support my wild imaginings. But I think we’re getting there. I just need to persuade some nice AR company to give me a call, I guess...

Congratulations on the release of your book, Revision! You recently tweeted about how much more vulnerable writing from the heart can make you feel in comparison with game design. I find writing daunting since you must present the full narrative by yourself, instead co-creating a story with your players as you do with a game. What are your challenges with writing fiction, and what makes it worth the struggle?

A: Thank you! It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve been astonished at how well the book has been received!

So -- there are some profound differences in what you can do in various media. There are some kinds of emotional textures you can’t provide except through interactive forms. You don’t feel pride or guilt over your own complicity when you watch a movie. But there are also some kinds of artistry you can’t pursue in a game, and it’s a rare game that lets you reach the same levels of depth and abstraction as a novel does. There’s not much place for elegant metaphor in a game, you know? So I go to fiction to fulfill a different set of creative needs in myself.

But writing straight and serious fiction -- not the silly stuff like Lucy Smokeheart, not children’s media like Circus of Mirrors, but the projects where I’m trying to say something true and important to me -- it’s terrifying. And so far, nobody is counting on me or keeping a deadline over my head, so it’s more difficult to get started. And to keep started. I like deadline pressure.

And then when you finally send that kind of work into the world, it’s like stripping all your clothes off and standing in the middle of town square, where people can see who you are with no pretense or artifice. But that same vulnerability gives you an opportunity to connect with other people under starkly honest conditions. And that’s amazing and powerful, for someone to see what you normally keep locked away in your heart and have them tell you, “Hey, I like what I’ve found here.”

Your podcast The Cultures with Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman is a great listen, rich in observation and you grapple with serious and challenging topics in popular culture as well as design.  What podcasts, online communities, conventions or festivals do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of writing and design?

A: Oh, I’m so glad you like The Cultures! It’s tremendous fun to do, and I always come away from it feeling a little wiser than I started. 

My #1 favorite venue for discussion about writing and design is Twitter. It’s not deep, but it’s always there, and just knowing you’re not all alone in this game is morale-lifting. I feel sorry for writers in decades past who didn’t have that persistent social connection. Once you find a community of other writers like you on Twitter (or the social media of your choice), the gatherings they go to will present themselves. That might be something like ARGfest, a Worldcon, WisCon, a local comicon. But the important thing, to me, isn’t the programming at any given convention, it’s finding a convenient time and place to connect with your community. A lot of the programming is still 101-level stuff you can get more information on faster by Googling, but there’s no replacement for having coffee face-to-face with your peer group.

I should also say I learned a lot about writing from Absolute Write, particularly the threads run by novelist Jim MacDonald (Learn Writing with Uncle Jim.) It starts out a little bit opaque -- or it did for me -- and I had to grow into it. Looking back, it was a tremendous help to me in learning how to think about structure, pacing, and tension. Not how to write, but how to think about writing. Understanding that every word and sentence is doing a specific piece of work in your story.

I’m also a huge fan of the Ditch Diggers podcast done by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace. There’s a lot of myth swirling around the processes and business elements of writing, and Ditch Diggers talks about writing as a job, with a clear-eyed and unromantic perspective a lot of writers can benefit from. Mur’s other podcast I Should Be Writing is also great for addressing the emotional landscape of creative work.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to break away from talking and reading about writing so that you actually do the writing. All the theory in the world doesn’t help you when the page remains blank.

You’ve mentioned that in reviewing or discussing games, people rarely address the narrative aspects--such as pacing, characterization, plot. If you don’t mind, pick a game you enjoy and give us an example of how that kind of discussion could look. 

A: Right now my favorite game to deconstruct is Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a fun game, with a lot of beautifully written moments -- there’s a mission that closes the first act called In Your Heart Shall Burn that is an incredibly powerful scene, one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in a game or a film. It comes when the heroes seem at the edge of total victory, but find that instead they lose everything that they’ve built for so far and have to start over again. You find yourself stumbling alone from the ashes of your home through deep snow, trying to find the other survivors. When you finally find them, they’re arguing among themselves about what to do and where to go. And then a religious leader raises her voice in song: a religious hymn that cements you as a symbol of hope for the Inquisition to rally around. You survived, and that means all is not lost. Better: that hymn is the theme music for the game, so you get a shiver of that moment again every time you boot up the game from that day on. 

But afterward, the pacing takes a turn for the worse; the hero enjoys a slow, steady slide to victory, and there really aren’t any major setbacks after that. There’s a point very close to the end of the game where it seem briefly that you’ve come under the power of an old and tremendously powerful figure from prior games with ambiguous motivations -- someone who might be outright evil, or at least inhuman. But that twist isn’t given any time to settle in; it’s resolved in practically the next moment. So you don’t feel like the jaws of defeat are closing around you. And as a result, the latter parts of the game feel less tense. There’s no real sense that losing is possible, nor that anything is really at stake.

Some of this is down to the nature of an open world game, because pacing is always a hard problem if you don’t know what may happen next. But big-picture story missions happen in a particular order, and I kept waiting for the discovery of the Horrible Truth that it’s too late and you’ve already lost. But it never came, and so the eventual victory didn’t feel as powerful as it should have.

What’s next for you? Any dream projects you’d love to do some day?

A: Right now I’m writing a fairly straightforward YA novel about the luckiest girl in the world (literally), and a secret society of luck-eating magicians. The working title is Felicity, but you can be sure somebody will change that before it hits.

I have a Lucy Smokeheart-style Choice of Games game coming out later this year, too; it’s called Mermaid Hunter, and you play as an aspiring scholar of the Royal German Marinological Society, trying to prove the existence of mermaids. 

After that, I have a transmedia project I’d like to build named The Attachment Study. It’ll play out through emails and text messages that arrive in your inbox over the course of the story. Among other things, I want to explore the space of having a character in a story fall in love with the reader; it’s a very rich territory, and I want to see what I can find there. 

Thank you for sharing your time and experience with us, Andrea!

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. She has worked on projects such as iOS fitness games Zombies, Run! and The Walk, The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones, human rights game America 2049, and the independent commercial ARG Perplex City. Her projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a Canadian Screen Award, a BIMA, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is used to teach digital storytelling at universities around the world. 

Her independent work includes the Kickstarted serial The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account, a short story that unfolds in your email inbox.  Her debut novel Revision is out on May 5 from Fireside Fiction Co. and her short fiction has been published in Escape Pod and the Jews vs. Aliens anthology.

You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.