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Writing for Multimedia: Entertainment, Education, Training, Advertising, and the World Wide Web

Author: Timothy Garrand
Publisher: Boston: MA: Focal Press, 1997
Review Published: April 1999

 REVIEW 1: Ira Nayman

On the shelves of my local Chapters are several books on using computers in business, such as The Project Management Paradigm, by Ken Burnett, Webomania: Nine Essential Principles for Growing Your Business on the World Wide Web, by Evan Schwartz, and Computer Supported Co-operative Work, by Michel Beaudoun-Lafont. There are books which can help you find work in the computer industry, such as High Tech Careers, by Leslie Hamilton, and Hoover's Guide to Computer Companies. There are books which are about the computer industry, such as Enterprise.com, by Jeff Papows, and Direct from Dell, by Michael Dell.

And, of course, there are at least half a dozen books on the problems the year 2000 will create for business.

In this rush to exploit computer-mediated communications networks for commercial gain, one fundamental question seems to go begging: what, precisely, is going to be on these networks that everybody seems so eager to exploit? Vague promises of on-demand programming and home shopping have little appeal for the general public; trials of such services have generally failed, and surveys of people who use existing online services show that the majority of people don't want them.

Occasionally, you will find ads in the back of tech magazines for books which explore the esthetics of emerging, computer-based art forms. The fact that such books are sparse and difficult to find is a testament to this society's priorities, I suppose. However, as Timothy Garrand's Writing for Multimedia, a book and CD, attests, some people are giving serious thought to how multi-media can enhance artistic expression.

Writing for Multimedia begins with a relatively brief introduction to general principles. The bulk of the book is made up of 10 case studies which detail the production process and esthetic values of various multimedia works. The case studies, which are divided equally among fiction and non-fiction works, were smartly chosen to illustrate a wide variety of challenges which multimedia poses. The book contains many illustrations and substantial script excerpts, which greatly help the reader understand the points Garrand is making.

One of the most important aspects of non-linear media is the fact that they offer (and, indeed, demand) the possibility for new structures to tell stories. Garrand enumerates some of the possibilities in Writing for Multimedia, including hierarchical branching (where each decision point offers different choices, whose branches reach another decision point, and so on), parallel branching (where two or more variations of, or points of view on, a story are interconnected at various points) and string of pearls structure (a series of interconnected explorable worlds).These structures are more or less consistent with previous attempts to list different non-linear story structures (see, for instance, Nayman 1996 and Wimberley & Samsel 1995).

Garrand follows his description of each structure with some thoughts on what the best use of the structure would be, producing a collection of ideas which many new writers will likely find helpful. However, he divides his discussion of interactive story structure into two parts: one in the general introductory section of the book, the other in the introduction to fictional narratives. There may be some logic to this, since some non-linear structures seem more appropriate to fiction rather than to non-fiction works. Nonetheless, it requires some repetition, and putting all the structures in one place would have made them easier for the reader to compare and consult.

While reading these sections, it is important to keep in mind that interactive media are a relatively new phenomenon. Garrand, using a method which goes back to Aristotle, looks at the work which existed in the medium and tries to create a list of forms; his work could be considered descriptive. Some may feel that his list is actually the only way to create a work in this medium (the dreaded Syd Field Effect), that it is proscriptive, which could have the effect of stifling the search for creative solutions to the esthetic challenges which the new medium poses. After all, most writers on this subject agree that form must follow function; that is, the way you allow an auditor to interact with your story must develop naturally out of the kind of story you are trying to tell. Case studies can inspire by showing how other people have solved the creative problems which arose with the kind of story they wanted to tell, but that doesn't mean their solutions will apply perfectly to your story's creative challenges. Proscription does not seem to be Garrand's intention; still, reading Writing for Multimedia requires an open-minded approach by readers.

As the name implies, multimedia involves a variety of media, usually brought together in digital form. Garrand correctly points out that this will require creators to acquire new skill sets: "The necessity of writing for many media in the same production is as demanding on the multimedia writer as is dealing with interactivity. Unlike a print writer who can focus on honing skills with the written word, or the screenwriter who can specialize in communicating with images, the writer of multimedia must be expert in a variety of techniques: writing to be read (journalism, poetry, copywriting), writing to be heard (radio, narration), and writing to be seen (presentations, film/video)" (15).

In the opening section, Garrand does his best to give an overview of how to approach each of the different media. Unfortunately, his sections are far too brief; a description of the different roles required to create multimedia works, for example, was handled in much more depth in Multimedia Demystified (Apple, 1994). Worse, in trying to be all things to all people, Garrand occasionally makes mistakes in descriptions of individual media. He suggests, for instance, that since interactive screenplays usually take a form similar to traditional screenplays, writers should be familiar with the screenplay form. The example he gives uses a dissolve as a transition between scenes (32). However, screenwriters have for many years been discouraged from indicating how transitions between scenes should occur; this is now considered the sole prerogative of the director.

A more egregious example occurs later in the book. Garrand, discussing how characters should be developed in interactive stories, points out that "In most stories, the character changes or travels a character arc" (174). The example he uses from an existing medium is the pilot for the television series Murphy Brown. This is an unfortunate choice, because, unlike film, where character arcs are the norm, the vast majority of episodic television series do not allow for character arcs; by the end of each episode, the characters must return to the conditions they were in when the episode began.

There are other problems with Writing for Multimedia. Throughout the book, Garrand uses the terminology of gaming, as when he writes, "It is the designer who determines what the player will be able to do and how the interactions will work" (20). Games are only one form of multimedia production, however, and the author's insistence on using terms such as "game" and "player" tends to be limiting, if not confusing, as when he writes: "Aaron Conners, whose interactive movies, Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive, are among the most complex being written, uses an outline in the early stages of writing a game" (27). Here, it appears that the author cannot decide whether Conners' works are games or interactive movies (which, I would argue, are not the same thing).

This is not mere quibbling. There is a perception that interactive works are nothing more than games; those who are trying to create interactive fictions (whether in prose or film) are hampered by this perception. Garrand seems to be aware of this problem. Towards the end of the book, he says that "Voyeur was a major step toward moving multimedia entertainment away from video games for kids and into interactive narratives for adults. It was one of the first programs to use adult themes and subject matter, star actors, and a sophisticated, literate script" (234). Since he clearly understands the situation, one would think he would be more careful about his terms, especially since neutral terms (work for game and auditor for player) do exist.

Perhaps more important are the subjects Garrand avoids writing about. Multimedia games get the most attention from the public, but, as Garrand points out, they are not the primary genres of multimedia: "Most people think of film and TV as primarily fictional stories. Most people think of multimedia as primarily video games. Most people are wrong. The majority of film, TV, and multimedia produced is designed to communicate information" (53). Far more educational titles are produced for multimedia than games, one of the reasons half the case studies in the book are devoted to non-fiction multimedia productions.

However, educational multimedia brings up a host of social issues which Garrand skirts around and doesn't actually address. In the book, he discusses how entertainment values often make educational works more engaging for students, the assumption being that if they pay closer attention to the work, they will necessarily learn more (62). In fact, there is a great debate currently going on in the educational community as to whether this is true, or whether students pay attention to the entertaining aspects of multimedia works without absorbing the information they are supposed to be learning. Unfortunately, Garrand writes as if this controversy does not exist; these sorts of discussions would greatly enrich his work.

Another issue which demands an in-depth discussion, or at least some acknowledgment, is the replacement of professional teachers by multimedia information packages. "Once the [multimedia] program is completed," Garrand writes, "major training costs are over until the program has to be updated. This is far cheaper than hiring teachers for every new group of students. Studies have documented that multimedia cost an average of 64 percent less to develop, maintain, and deliver than traditional training" (126). One of the issues of a strike of professors at York University in Toronto in 1997 was how teachers could control their curricula (and keep their jobs); it will likely be controversial for many years to come. Given this, some comment by Garrand on the issue seems to be warranted, but none is forthcoming.

The foregoing is not to suggest that Writing for Multimedia is without any strengths; in fact, the case studies, which make up the bulk of the book, are fascinating, and offer some creators' solutions to important esthetic problems which multimedia poses. For instance, in a fictional story in which the auditor can choose from different paths in the story, how can the creator be sure that the auditor experiences all of the plot points necessary to make sense of the story? The obvious answer is to build a certain amount of redundancy into your story; that is, to repeat information at different points in order to ensure that the auditor will experience it at least once no matter what path he or she chooses. The problem with this is that if the auditor chooses a path which takes her or him across all of the different iterations of the plot point, the she or he could become easily bored. The solution hit upon by the creators of Voyeur was to have different characters give the same information (each with a different point of view), and to vary the level of the repeated information (for example, whether it was in the foreground of the conversation, or a secondary part of it). As the script excerpts in the book show, this approach to redundant information can be highly effective (252-257).

Another example of a creative way to develop multimedia arises out of the question of how to allow the auditor to interact with the work. A common method is to have the auditor represent a character, giving the auditor a choice of actions or lines in response to the actions or dialogue of other characters (as happens in the case study for Dust: A Tale of the Wired West). The creators of The Pandora Directive found a different solution to this problem: "One of the more innovative elements of Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive is the degree of interactivity that is allowed at the dialogue level. In an interactive dialogue scene, the viewer is given a list of three Response Attitudes for Tex's dialogue. Clicking on one of these attitudes causes Tex to respond in a certain way. If the player does nothing, there is a default path" (271). One of the advantages of choosing attitudes is that the actual lines of dialogue which emanate from the auditor's character can still be a surprise to him or her.

More importantly, though, is the fact that, by choosing from three attitudes, the auditor is unknowingly directing the story. By choosing predominantly straight arrowattitudes, the auditor's choices lead to a Hollywoodish happy ending. Choosing darker, more combative attitudes leads to more noirish endings, including one in which the main character is killed. This makes sense within the story; the harsher the choices you make for the main character, the less cooperative the other characters are likely to be, leading to a different resolution of the story.

Another noteworthy development in multimedia narrative is the persistence of characters. In traditional interactive stories, other characters exist only to the extent that they interact with the character representing the auditor; when they are not interacting with the auditor's character, they are in some kind of limbo. By way of contrast, in Dust and The Pandora Directive, characters move through the fictional setting whether or not they are in plain view of the main character, the auditor's representative. This means that the auditor must choose to experience one of a variety of events going on at the same time; and that interaction between characters not currently on the screen may affect the story at a later point when they reappear. Given the complexity and sophistication of interactions between characters in these works, one might come to the conclusion that the general theme of all interactive narratives is the role choice and chance plays in our lives.

The CD which comes with the book includes extended script samples (although there is little additional analysis of them), color screen captures (those in the book are in black and white) and additional graphics, demonstrations of multimedia authoring tools, and a video on The Making of the 11th Hour, one of the case studies. Moving from the book to the CD is awkward; it would make more sense to put the book itself on the CD and simply expand the text or link to other sections as needed. Of course, given the economics of publishing, this isn't likely to become the main method of publishing for another few years.

The CD also contains a number of links to sites on the Web, mostly to the companies whose work is the basis of the case studies, but also to places such as the author's "Resources for the Interactive Writer Page." Because of the volatile nature of the Web, using a permanent storage medium such as a book or CD to list links to sites is a hazardous undertaking; indeed, some of the links no longer function. The most logical solution to this problem would be to put the whole project on the Web itself, where inactive links could be changed with a simple edit of html. Of course, given the economics of the Web, this, like books on CD, isn't likely to become the main method of publishing for a very long time.

The CD also contains background information on issues in multimedia which authors will need to be familiar with, such as copyright and fair use, as well as interesting articles on accessibility for the disabled and a syllabus for a course based on Writing for Multimedia. The material on copyright is fairly basic, and doesn't really do justice to the subject. This would be a perfect place for links to Web sites which go into greater depth on the subject (since there are many), but the author hasn't supplied them.

People in the multimedia industry often lament the fact that, so far, there is no Aristotle or Eisenstein who can develop an esthetic theory for the medium. It may be that such a theory is not possible. As communication forms, works in theater or film have pronounced features in common which can be the basis of esthetic theories; with rare exceptions, for instance, all films use scene transitions such as cuts and dissolves, shots of varying focal and temporal lengths, etc. Multimedia, on the other hand, combines every medium (print, audio, video, graphic, et al), every form (fiction and non-fiction), a variety of delivery systems (kiosk, CD-ROM, the Web, etc.), and a variety of genres (games, dramas, adventures, etc.). A theory of multimedia would have to be a general theory of the esthetics of all art forms, something which would be difficult to contain in one volume.

Timothy Garrand is not that ambitious. Writing for Multimedia is a good introduction to the basics of its subject, a good place to start for people who do not have a background in multimedia. Those who have experience may find useful information in the case studies, but are likely to find more immediately useful information in other works.

Apple Computer. Multimedia Demystified. New York: Random House, 1994.

Nayman, Ira. Tell Me a Story I Can Live: Electronic Interactive Narrative and the Effacement of the Author. Masters Thesis: The New School for Social Research, 1996.

Wimberley, Darryl and Jon Samsel. Interactive Writer's Handbook. Los Angeles: The Carronade Group, 1995.

Ira Nayman:
Ira Nayman is currently writing his PhD dissertation on the subject of fiction writing on the World Wide Web. His Masters thesis was about how interactive media changes the nature of storytelling. He has written comedy for every medium which exists, and one or two which barely exist (including a couple of short interactive stories). He is currently at work on his 12th feature length screenplay, Practice to Perceive.  <inayma@po-box.mcgill.ca>

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