Cyberpunk: Past and Future

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This Friday, Geoff Long and I will run a collaborative storytelling workshop during Cyberpunk: Past and Future, a special event at USC Visions & Voices co-curated by professors Henry Jenkins, Scott Fisher, and Howard Rodman. Later, we’ll be publishing some of the material created by our participants (a stellar group including seminal cyberpunk figures Rudy Rucker, Nalo Hopkinson, and Bruce Sterling) as a special “Cyberpunk 2.0 Story Sparks Kit.” Stay tuned — and please join us if you can!

The literary and cultural movement known as cyberpunk began in the early 1980s when a confluence of speculative-fiction writers remapped and reinvigorated their genre—and much more. Inspired by a rapidly changing present—the beginnings of the World Wide Web; the proliferation of man/machine interfaces; the global spread of Japanese culture—these writers integrated technology, politics, literature and cultural theory to create a genre that not only predicted the future but also helped shape it.

A day-long event will bring together seminal figures of the cyberpunk movement, including Rudy Rucker (the Ware Tetralogy), Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) and Bruce Sterling (Bicycle Repairman, Taklamakan, Mirrorshades), along with figures from the worlds of film, music, technology, architecture and cultural theory, to discuss the cultural moment cyberpunk incited.

The afternoon will be devoted to “Cyberpunk 2.0”: small-group world-building and storytelling sessions in which USC students can collaborate with cyberpunk’s founding figures. Teams will [construct] a story and decide on a means of presenting that story to the conference participants. Led by Jeff Watson (School of Cinematic Arts) and Geoff Long (Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism). Participants will include the morning’s panelists, plus Stacey Robinson (Black Kirby Project). (USC Visions & Voices)

Additional information and background, courtesy Henry Jenkins, here.

Worldbuilding at Berlinale Talents 2015

As entertainment properties become increasingly spatialized and nonlinear, spreading across diverse platforms, contexts, and modes, how might they benefit if the ways in which they are developed were to undergo similar changes? What alternative approaches exist to the traditionally linear and “siloed” processes of conceptualizing and iterating narrative storyworlds? Is it always appropriate that an entertainment property should begin with a book, script, bible, or treatment and only proceed into design and visualization once preproduction is underway? Or could story material be developed in concert with the kinds of research, visualization, fabrication, and contextual exploration typically associated with production design? In short, how can production itself be a part of development? How can design fiction and visual/conceptual “worldbuilding” create the context for story, rather than the other way around?

These and other questions were at the heart of “Imaginary Worlds: Exploring the Unknown,” a panel and two day studio workshop held at Berlinale Talents, the annual summit and networking platform of the Berlin International Film Festival. Using a modified and extended version of the creative process framework developed for the 2015 Science of Fiction conference, our panel and workshop sessions explored new ways of structuring collaborations across media arts disciplines so as to imagine and visualize a fictional storyworld. Over the course of two intensive 4-5 hour sessions, our team, consisting of production designer Alex McDowell, educator and process architect Bruno Setola, transmedia artist Juan Diaz, and myself, led 25 designers, writers, directors, and other invited talents through a creative process exploring and developing the storyworld of Rilao, a fictional island nation in the South Pacific.

The result of this collaboration was five “deep dives” into various eras of Rilao, each illustrated with dozens of designed artifacts, images, place descriptions, characters, and story elements. Each deep dive coalesced around a “central disruptor,” or “story magnet” — a place or situation that participants identified as being especially rich in narrative potential — and radiated outward, bringing together elements of the world’s imagined histories, presents, and futures. Participants developed these elements through the play of an imagination game and the engagement in a secondary process that focused on elaborating upon and finding the connective strands among the diverse ideas generated by the game. As the whirlwind of creation drew to a close, the materials produced by participants were gathered together into an archive which will be integrated into the broader Rilao world-build.

For more on the philosophies behind this process, and how it might relate to emerging methodologies in domains ranging from entertainment development to education and social innovation, please watch our panel, here:

Special thanks to Romke Faber, Florian Weghorn, Andrea Rieder, and all the Talents, without whom none of this could have happened.

Kalmykia’s Alien Chessmaster’s Chess City

Games don’t need to be linked to an existing IP or storyworld to generate enthusiasm, excitement, and narrative. Indeed, they don’t need to start off with any kind of storyworld at all for players to engage with them, obsess about them, and tell stories about them. If they’re good enough, entire industries can pop up, theme parks will be built, and players will dwell on them even more than they will the latest theories about characters from Game of Thrones. Consider the contemporary world of chess, which includes things like a Russian dissident famous for representing humanity against the forces of artificial intelligence, a Kalmykian billionaire with ties to the Nazis who claims to have been abducted by aliens, and an international rivalry between superpowers. It even has its own city, the appropriately named Chess City:

Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans, this is what people might have called a mirage – a huge glass dome, surrounded by a California-style housing development, rising from the parched brown steppe. That shimmering vision has been brought to life here in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City. Like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars, the four-story dome encloses a cool, fresh world of carpets and comfort, of whispers and intense concentration, where the most brilliant minds of chess compete for diamond crowns. For miles around – in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia – 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter. (New York Times)

Chess City is one expression of how chess seeds the construction of its own strange world simply by being an interesting game to play. Like a sport, chess offers no storyworld to begin with; rather, it is through the play of the game and the accrual of narrative over time that it tells its tales and builds its monuments. This generative capacity is some of the most intriguing (and sometimes dangerous) black magic of game design.