As a kid, I loved “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, which (for anyone too young to remember the series and ignorant of its recent, ho-hum revival) offered fantastical tales that branched out in different directions depending on decisions you made during the story. If you wanted to enter the haunted mansion, you turned to page 15, and if you instead wanted to go into the cave, you went to page 25. Of course, despite supposedly having a say over the action, the books offered readers only the illusion of control — every “choice” was obviously already written and thus preordained.
As such, the interactivity of “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels isn’t all that removed from that provided by video games, which let you steer a main character, and in some cases give you the chance to alter a tale’s final outcome, but — since everything has been coded and programmed beforehand — can’t give you true power over the proceedings. You may be able to travel down this path rather than that path, or finish with a “good” rather than “bad” ending, but such influence is at best minor, and largely a mirage.
This isn’t a negative thing — you could definitely make a convincing argument that art (whether it be games, TV, theater, or film) functions far better when its creators maintain overriding control. Not to mention that it’s up for debate whether consumers really want to shape the nature and development of their entertainment. Don’t, however, tell that to the Syfy network, which has announced plans to go forward with a cross-medium venture tentatively known as “One Earth” that will involve an ongoing TV show and a complementary MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game).
The hook of “One Earth” is that events on the show will be reflected in the game, and events that take place in the game will have direct consequences for the show’s storyline. It’s a hybrid project that aims to combine two things popular with the network’s fanbase — fantasy TV series and video games — in ways that not only make opportunities for cross-promotion, but also offer the possibility of new and unique interactive storytelling paradigms.
At least in theory. For now, “One Earth” remains mostly a mystery — its title was only revealed earlier this month by Syfy Channel parent company General Electric during a shareholders’ report, and details continue to be sketchy about how the show/game will actually operate. What we do know is this: Syfy will be developing the project with Trion gaming studio, it was originally planned to be an offshoot of “Battlestar Galactica” but will now take place in a wholly original universe, and repercussions from things that happen in the show will be felt in the game and vice versa. Even the promotional video found on the GE Reports’ website provides little more than generalized talk about the upside of melding these two different art forms into something supposedly revolutionary.
There’s no denying the upside to the “One Earth” concept — the popularity of the “Battlestar Galactica” and “Stargate” series, as well as that of blockbuster MMORPGs like “World of Warcraft,” make it seem that there’s a sizable overlapping audience to be enticed by the notion of two-as-one entertainments. With a compelling narrative that players could sway with their own behavior, the game/show might in theory deliver the type of consuming immersion that even “Warcraft” can only dream of, providing a wholly realized sci-fi world in which viewers/players would feel like genuine members.
Hypothetical business benefits aside, “One Earth” seems like the first real attempt to fashion a 21st century mode of storytelling, one that embraces at-our-fingertips digital culture while still allowing its creators to retain a level of control over their inventions. To develop a TV show that, for example, hints at conflicts that are then played out in an online game console/PC realm, and to have the outcomes of those conflicts reflected in a subsequent episode of the program, is to take steps toward a fairly bold new frontier in which authorial control is more evenly divided between artists and users.
That said, even if Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal (which owns Syfy) doesn’t derail the project, there remain serious questions about cross-medium integration like this can properly function. Will the scripted show air every week, or less frequently (so writers can integrate gaming-world events into the plot)? Will gamers play as show protagonists, or random nobodies? And will gamers’ actions really have significant impact on the show, or will online battles and plot twists be merely high-tech versions of “Choose Your Own Adventure” style phony-control gimmickry?
It’s hard not to believe the latter will wind up being closest to the truth — if there’s one thing a conglomerate like NBC Universal is determined to maintain, it’s power over high-profile properties it’s spent years and millions developing. Yet hope springs eternal, and at this early stage, it’s still possible to believe that “One Earth” could create something new and groundbreaking out of its marriage of TV and gaming, even with these myriad unanswered questions. And if not, there’s always Simon Fuller’s upcoming reality/social media hybrid “If I Can Dream,” which combines a “Real World”-esque scenario with webcam/chat elements. If gaming isn’t going to lead the interactive show charge, maybe the chance to Facebook message an aspiring model/actress will.
[Additional photos: “World of Warcraft,” Blizzard, 2004; “If I Can Dream,” Hulu, 2010]