The StoryHack crowd prepares to watch team presentations in the Amphitheater. Photo by Wildman.

The future of entertainment was cooking at Film Society of Lincoln Center last weekend (April 28 & 29).  Over the course of 36 hours the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center played host to an interdisciplinary group of game designers, filmmakers, programmers, and playwrights engaged in a first of its kind event: StoryHack Beta.  A little bit think tank, a little bit mad scientist’s laboratory, and yes even a little bit rock and roll, StoryHack was the brainchild of StoryCode founders Aina Abiodun and Mike Knowlton and presented in collaboration with the Film Society as part of its the immersive storytelling initiative Convergence.

Hackathons have been used in the technology industry for the better part of a decade as a way of generating new ideas by soliciting creative solutions to specific problems, often in the form of a timed competition.  The concept is simple: present a team of programmers with a piece of technology, a specific set of goals or a problem that must be solved using that technology, and a limit on time—a day, a week, a month—in which they have to do their best to come up with solutions to the problem at hand.  The time limit creates a pressure cooker, forcing teams to improvise in imaginative ways in order achieve success.  While they are competitions, one might argue that failure, at least in the traditional sense, isn’t as much of a concern in a Hackathon.  Your technology might not work, your concept might have been too broad to execute, you may have lacked a needed skill set, but learning from these mistakes are all part of the process.  The other given benefit of the model are the people involved.  Spending twenty-four hours joined at the hip with a team of creatives gives a participant to broaden professional networks and learn from each other.  In recent years the Hack model has become a popular way for organizations as varied as city governments and arts nonprofits to workshop solutions to difficult problems specific to their areas of expertise.  

While Storyhack wasn’t overtly created to solve a pressing social or tech-driven issue, it may be the key to unlocking certain problems often faced by the transmedia community.  The first is outward-facing, one of public awareness.  Transmedia communities have grown up in cities with established technological and filmmaking industries or at conferences geared specifically at immersive storytellers.  In either case, these events are frequently insiders talking shop to other insiders.  These gatherings are for makers, not their audiences, the programs consisting of shop talk about transmedia, not actual projects.  StoryHack offered creators a rare opportunity to have their work viewed by the general public.  During the Film Center event a steady stream of regular movie-going customers entered the studio to investigate the goings-on, chatting with Hackers, organizers, and each other.  Some of these passers-by popped in for a minute, still others engaged with participants and mentors at length.  For some, this was the first time they heard the terms “transmedia” or “immersive storytelling.”  What better situation to learn about an art than one that puts the curious in the same room as the artists creating it?  While some of these unexpected guests were in and out after a polite word of explanation, others listened thoughtfully, asked thoughtful questions and inquired how they could take part.

The StoryHack teams hard at work in the Film Center Studio. Photo by Matt Bolish.

“For this kind of storytelling to take its place in the mainstream,” said StoryCode’s Knowlton, “we needed to create it deliberately, not accidentally or as a side product of something more ‘important.’”  It’s true.  Much of what a mainstream audience knows of transmedia comes in the form of brand extensions of massive studio-built projects, with The Dark Knight’s “Why So Serious” alternate reality game or the popular “The Lost Experience” that allowed fans to explore the trippy world of everyone’s favorite island-bound castaways.  At StoryHack, independent story-makers without the resources of a major production house were able to work in a laboratory-like setting, forced by the nature of the competition to take risks and experiment.  In this way the event became the ultimate learn-by-doing exercise.

The seven teams participating have been tasked with forging a story that must be told across three different platforms (film, web, mobile phones, the sky really is the limit as to what those mediums could be).   Each team represents a mix of old hands and first timers and comes from a multitude of backgrounds.  The diversity of backgrounds found working on a given team underscores the importance of collaboration in creating each of these unique works of art.  A squad of mentors and technologists are also on hand throughout the day to lend their support to the teams, doing everything from helping with code to spit-balling storypoints.

As a form, immersive storytelling lends itself to complexity.  We are, after all, talking about building what amounts to fictional ecosystems filled with characters, artifacts, fictitious histories, maybe even new laws of physics spanning any number of mediums.  All of that creation takes immense amounts of time to execute and leads us to a sort of transmedia scarcity.  When compared to the number of studio-produced feature films, or major video game releases, the total number of newly launched transmedia projects year to year is very small.  While the projects in the Hack will not be fully executed, they will produce seven new potential immersive worlds and that is seven more then we had before the starting gun fired.

After 36 hours of nonstop work, a StoryHack team presents their immersive narrative. Photo by Wildman.

For those not able to participate in the Demo Day event last Sunday, projects will be hosted online thanks to sponsor Logicworks and the full video of the event will be on soon.  Those able to squeeze into the Amphitheater were infected by virus-spreading bed bugs, asked to help guide a troubled astronaut home, transformed into a mother searching for her daughter, attacked by “Nightwalkers,” prompted to share our best failures, and introduced to a new platform that would turn a first date into an immersive adventure.  All in all, the projects explored a wide range of ideas and showed the incredible strength and creativity of those who conceived them.  Perhaps these specific projects will find a life beyond the Hack, but the relationships forged over the day and a half exercise will most certainly come into play within a community so dependant on collaboration.  While the event was certainly a success in terms of fostering the creative power of the competitors, time will tell if StoryHacks will play a key role in bringing transmedia to a wider audience.  To that end we repeat the sentiment of audience members and players, one summed up best by Ruth, an elderly movie-goer that explored the Hack-space before an evening screening, “Now that is interesting, will we be able to buy tickets to the next one?”

We sure hope so, Ruth.  We sure hope so.

Watch full video of the StoryHack Beta team presentations below: