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Storytelling is as old as civilization itself. Before we had formalized language, there were stories in pictures. Our picture stories these days are much more than actors on a screen — they transport us to new places in virtual reality and enable us to transform virtual worlds, maybe even changing ourselves in the process.
In “From Storytelling to Storyliving in the Metaverse” during GamesBeat’s Into The Metaverse in partnership with Facebook, Hexagram CEO Jamil Moledina chatted with Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge at ILMxLAB Lucasfilm; and Siobhan Reddy, the studio director at Media Molecule, about what the metaverse means for storytelling and the evolution into “storyliving.”
As gaming and interactive media moves away from the traditional one-way communication of storytelling, there are better opportunities to enable people to tell their own versions of these tales without compromising the integrity of the story itself. Dobbs Beck calls that “storyliving.”
“We realized that these [new Star Wars] experiences are not a film, not a game, and not an attraction, but we can actually learn from all of those as we’re developing these experiences,” Dobbs Beck said. “You’re in a world, making meaningful choices, and you’re driving the narrative forward.”
In creating Tales From Galaxy’s Edge, the latest in Star Wars VR from ILMxLAB, Dobbs Beck and the team were looking to do more than just tell a story that was an extension of Blackspire Outpost at the Disney parks.
“We could actually take people beyond those places, perhaps places that would be physically impossible to create,” Dobbs Beck continued. “But then we had this notion of ‘adventures’ versus ‘legends.’ ‘Adventures’ was more open exploration and mission-type structure, and ‘legends’ really emanated from a hub, which is Seezeslak’s Cantina. Through Seezeslak, you get to participate in curated ‘legends.'”
The team at Media Molecule came from diverse backgrounds, Reddy said, and many have a wide range of interests. They all know that the kinds of experiences that they want to make shouldn’t be limited to “traditional games.” Even the name Media Molecule was created with that in mind — “to not be limited” to only games. As Reddy and her team at Media Molecule continue to move toward redefining digital spaces and game creation, Reddy herself looks back in order to look ahead.
“When I think back to the earliest ways that we talk about games,” Reddy began, “things like emulating those experiences when you’re having a jam with your friends in your garage or your bedroom; or playing Lego; or these communal moments where you would make up the story, or you would make up the song, but you’d riff on what was going on [around you].”
It was the interweaving of your experiences with others, that “riffing” and improvisation, that Reddy has been most interested in exploring in larger capacities through her work at Media Molecule. It’s those “human stories” and “campfire moments” that Reddy noticed that fans of LittleBigPlanet loved the most. As Media Molecule began exploring what would become Dreams, they drew upon more than just video game design as inspiration.
“I was really into the Punchdrunk productions,” Reddy explained. “I was very into secret cinema. I did this dance class where I would walk through this dance studio and every room had a completely different dance culture going on in it. These sorts of experiences, they really showed me what it’s like to be somebody else. I think the Punchdrunk experiences, in particular, I think they, for me, were the most like being in a game that I could imagine. I was in charge of the narrative, in what I would follow.”
Punchdrunk, the masterminds behind the wildly successful Sleep No More production at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City, pushes the boundaries of what theater is and how we, as an audience, experience stories. Punchdrunk’s productions are the physical embodiment of storyliving.
“[Media Molecule is] actually very interested in art, music, theatre, tech, and fashion and how all of these things intersect and not be limited by just choosing one of those,” Reddy continued. “Games are culture and culture, to us, is this thing that binds us together.”
At the heart of culture, we’re constantly exploring how to interpret and communicate what culture means to each of us. Part of that exploration is in delving deeper into what the metaverse is — the entire crux of this event. For Dobbs Beck and her team at ILMxLAB, “the metaverse is more of a creative construct, or framework, than it is a particular place.”
ILMxLAB builds its worlds broadly in order to create experiences that can speak to each of the pillars that both Dobbs Beck and Reddy have been talking about, including “curated stories, perhaps divergent stories, emergent stories, live events, places where you can personalize, places where you can come together and share.”
“One of the great strengths of Lucasfilm is that we have a story group who actually is responsible for the master narrative and the understanding how to take advantage of different opportunities that different platforms offer inside this greater whole,” Dobbs Beck said. “I view [our work] a bit like a mosaic — each tile of a mosaic can stand on its and you would design to the strengths of the particular platform. if you pull back and look at all the tiles together in the mosaic, then a much bigger, richer design reveals itself. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.”
For Media Molecule and Reddy, Dreams offered a new perspective on what a metaverse could become, but only if it made sense to the player jumping in for the first time. For Reddy, she knew that she wanted to get players into the creative aspect of Dreams as quickly as possible. “Individual expression” is at the core of what Reddy envisions for Dreams and its community, so removing pain points and streamlining onboarding was very important.
“We spent a lot of time figuring out the right onboarding path for those creators who really wanted to make their own games and music experiences,” Reddy said. “It’s difficult because we are a small studio, so really we had to make a choice of where we spend our time and Create was a pretty hefty amount of work.”
In order to do that testing along the way, Reddy got into the concept of in-studio “jam sessions” and how Media Molecule handles adding new features to the Dreams experience.
“Every time that we made something new, we would do a jam and we would see what people within the studio would do with [the thing we had made],” Reddy noted. Reddy went on to mention that while Media Molecule is, of course, composed of game makers who “wanted to be hand-hold-y,” it’s just not what their audience wanted. They wanted to be given light instruction and robust tools to create stories and “campfire moments.”
Moledina made an excellent point about how Dreams is “moving the play space to a different place.”
A piece of play in modern gaming is the capability for players to create their own assets as user-generated content, to bring that level of “personalization” with them into the games that they love. We see this in games like Minecraft, Roblox, and even Fortnite’s Creative mode. When Reddy was at LittleBigPlanet’s creative helm, UGC wasn’t really a thing yet. There were mods, of course, but mods are not UGC. Since 2008, there’s been an explosion of UGC in games.
“What we see [is] people really excited to express themselves and share experiences,” Reddy said. “There’s so much content out there, people are finding different ways to express their own individual thing. I love the wild creativity of people. You get these very raw, individual experiences. I love that about what we make and I love that about user generated content as a whole; being able to see the magnificence of the human imagination is just fabulous.”
Moledina encouraged both Dobbs Beck and Reddy to dig a little deeper into how the metaverse either broadens or focuses the experiences that they work on. For Dobbs Beck, who doesn’t consider herself a gamer, immersive storytelling and the metaverse offer rich opportunities for broadening Lucasfilm’s audience.
“By addressing those things that are at the core — the desire to engage, create, share — VR offered us a means of stepping inside of Star Wars that never existed before,” Dobbs Beck explained. “When we were creating Vader Immortal, one of the keys to that was [that] it had to be your journey. Even though Darth Vader was the central figure in this story, it was your journey and your unfolding relationship with Vader. The key was that you actually had to connect with Darth Vader.”
And then, we have the question of how the creator economy fits into the metaverse. For Reddy and Dobbs Beck, however they approach implementing this in their games, it has to be done “right.”
“We have a lot of thoughts and designs in discussion about [the role of the creator economy in the metaverse],” Reddy said. “It’s really important to get it right. You’ve got to approach it very carefully and how you choose to achieve these things.”
Dobbs Beck’s job is a bit more complex, since she needs to consider the broader implications for IP within Lucasfilm, which is owned by Disney.
“It’s really important to do it right and in our case we have to do it right as it relates to a big IP like Star Wars,” Dobbs Beck offered. “I think it will be an important part of the future, but it’s something that we’ll probably ease into.”
The metaverse is still this esoteric thing that both defies definition and requires it. For Dobbs Beck and Reddy, by redefining storytelling as storyliving, the player remains at the center of whatever that experience ends up being expressed as. While ILMxLAB may approach the metaverse in a completely different way than Media Molecule would, the ethos is still holistic: Let the player lead.
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