Interview with Anthony Mullins

I’m sorry for the delay in the release of Limerence. It is ALMOST definitely going to be ready by tomorrow. We’re just having some programming issues.

To fob everyone off, (I mean, to build the anticipation of Limerence) here’s an interview I did with the wonderful Anthony Mullins, the former Creative Director of Hoodlum, a Brisbane-based multi-platform studio. He’s worked on several award-winning interactive projects for major film and television productions including Lost, Spooks, Primeval, Salt and The Bourne Legacy.

Me: What comes first: story or media?

Anthony: Depends. Some ideas come from new possibilities inspired by technology. Others just happen and are inspired by whatever the writer is interested in. Sometimes these ideas that just “happen” sit around for a while not doing much until a new technology comes along and the writer thinks “This new tech would be awesome for that idea where etc…” Bottom line – in any worthwhile project both story and tech have been thought about equally to ensure that they amplify each other. Otherwise the tech usually comes off feeling intrusive and/or gimmicky or the story feels like a distraction from the cool tech stuff.

Me: Even though transmedia talks about equally distributing story between different platforms, do you think this is reflective in current practice? (or do we still rely on one media such as film or game to carry the bulk of the narrative)

Anthony: A lot of project I’ve seen (and also made) don’t distributed story evenly and are very patchy in how it’s executed. Usually there is a “mothership” for the property (a film, a game, a book, etc) and everything extends from that execution. Budgets only stretch so far, so the quality of storytelling is often superficial, uneven or marginal. It’s very hard to “equally distribute” content when one of the platforms cost 200 million dollars. Everything next to it is going to seem like its been done on a budget (which it usually has been). And if the creators haven’t been involved, then the story content will often seem peripheral (which is also often the case). Big transmedia executions are usually funded by marketing well established franchises that already have games, toys, theme parks etc. The term transmedia draws those commercial strategies together and tries to call it storytelling when really, in most instances, it’s a perfectly legitimate commercial strategy with more interest in selling tickets, toys, collectibles than telling a coherent story.

Me: At present, it seems a lot of transmedia works are skewed towards gamer interactions. How do you think writers can design transmedia stories to engage readers?

Anthony: It’s a tricky question that I continue to wrestle with. Not all stories are right for an interactive / transmedia execution so a first stop would be how to recognise if your story has this potential. If not, then best concentrate on making the story in your book, film, whatever the best it can be. A standard novel can make an average reader buy the book, attend a book club, pay for a literary festival to hear the author speak, and probably even see the movie / DVD / etc. That’s an amazingly rich experience from ink printed on paper – and it’s one that is often underestimated probably because it seems so everyday but it’s still pretty special I reckon.

Me: Writers often talk about having an ideal reader – someone who is the perfect receiver of their work.  Do you think there is an ideal ‘digital’ reader we need to keep in mind when creating digital stories?

Anthony: The concept of an “ideal reader” is great for both traditional and digital mediums. It’s when the writer spends most of their time doing market research rather than writing that I worry. Digital mediums can make us believe we can become experts in marketing, publishing, distribution etc but it’s not writing and won’t make you a better writer. And it almost certainly wasn’t what attracted you to writing. Only writing can make you a better writing and you have to do a LOT of it. The better you get and the more you read the more refined your taste becomes and the more instinct you get for the “ideal reader”.

Me: In your opinion, what are some stand out interactive stories (can be games, transmedia, whatever you want to call it)?

Anthony: There are some transmedia cliches when it comes to form – see the “Writers Platform article I wrote. These sorts of cliches infect interactive storytelling too probably because a imperative to interact pushes writers / designers towards stories where the “doing stuff” happens naturally – solving mysteries, murders, treasure hunts, etc. The stories that deal with this are a bit less obvious about what they’re doing or they hide the tropes under unexpected storytelling devices or execution – eg; Device 6, Thomas was Alone, Monument Valley and Sword and Sorcery are all superb interactive stories that use an “escape the room” structure to the interaction. But they create very different worlds and atmospheres and the story and execution are organically linked in ways that amplify each other. We’ve seen many of the ideas in these games before BUT they have concentrated on one or two areas and been innovative with them and created some really distinctive. Experiences like these are really inspiring and get past the hype to something memorable. And I wouldn’t consider any of them “transmedia” – they’re just games or maybe interactive stories.

Me: What are you working on at the moment?

Anthony: Actually working in TV development at the moment – so old school!

Me: Any advice you can give to book writers wanting to experiment with writing in the digital space? Are there any new tools they need to pick up?

Anthony: If you want to write in the digital or interactive spaces, you’re probably already hanging out in those spaces anyway because you’re attracted to them. You’ve probably very active on social media and play casual games while waiting for the bus and go looking for new innovative games and maybe collect interactive stories and probably played “choose your own adventure” or D and D as a kid etc. If all of that is completely foreign to you then that’s fine – you’re probably a novelist, a screenwriter or a playwright and that’s absolutely awesome. Concentrate on being better at what you love – find the very best writers that do what you love and try and be as good as them. Don’t try to be a different sort of writer because you think it’s expected of you. A lot of things people say will be the “future of storytelling” will be gone before you know it and the people evangelising for this stuff are usually not storytellers.

Thank you Anthony for the insightful advice! For those interested, here is the link to the article Anthony referred to for The Writing Platform


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