Online drama

I’ve been thinking about online drama recently.

There are traditional online video productions, which are essentially video made for the web. Good examples are Dr Horrible and The Remnants. Both high quality videos made to be distributed online, both created during the writers strike last year. (No coincidence there I think).

Then you’ve got your Alternate Reality Games. I’m going to assume you already know (or will quickly learn) about The Beast, Majestic, Starlight Travel, World Without Oil, Why So Serious, The Lost Ring etc. Three specifically interesting examples…

I Love Bees‘ (2004) was ostensibly a radio drama, but one distributed using payphones around the world which the ‘audience’ became players of a game in order to follow the story. Implausibly difficult for anyone to follow alone, it worked as a community experience with players working together to find, record and share the fragments of story being played through payphone around the world. It was commissioned as a viral campaign for the Halo 2 game.
Hear the story from start to finish here, and read more about the background from 42 Entertainment or the predictably detailed Wikipedia entry.

Perplex City‘ (2004 – 2007) was
“A city obsessed with puzzles and ciphers. A game that blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality.” An ambitious treasure-hunt ARG project, supported by the sale of collectable puzzle cards. Though not necessary to play the bigger game, the cards did provide some of the clues and integrated with the imaginary universe of Perlex City. Particularly of note is the fan-run wiki which the developers ended up relying on as the canonical record of what had happened in the story.

We Tell Stories‘ (March 2008) was ‘Digital fiction from Penguin’ built by Six To Start.
“Penguin UK is launching its most ambitious digital writing project to date. In collaboration with fêted alternate reality game designers Six to Start, Penguin has challenged some of its top authors to create new forms of story – designed specially for the internet. … But somewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way. These clues will appear online and in the real world and will direct readers to the other six stories. The secret seventh story will also offer the chance to win some wonderful prizes…”. This was most interesting

Incidentally, there’s a long history of Alternate Reality Games being used to extend and enhance TV experiences too.

Online drama using social networks are an ever growing field. Here are a few that have caught my eye:

lonelygirl15‘ (June 2006 – August 2008) was “the first of many shows within the fictional LG15 Universe, tells the ongoing story of a group of young adults fighting against a mysterious secret society called, The Order. … On the LG15 website, community members can interact with the characters and each other in the forums, chat rooms and comment boards, and can create their own community generated videos and storylines that add to the ever expanding LG15 universe.” (If you’ve always wondered what it was about, there’s a 300 word plot summary you might enjoy. Also worth knowing that in its early stages it was a perfectly believable story of a normal girl, and there was a fair bit of controversy and discussion when it was discovered that she was an actress. Easy to miss, when looking at the story now, but it was controversial at the time). LG15 also involved a small amount of product placement (sorry, product integration), though this was taken a lot further in later spin-offs…

Kate Modern‘ (July 2007 – June 2008) was “an interactive online drama which ran from July 2007 – June 2008 and was produced by the creators of lonelygirl15 – EQAL. During it’s highly successful year long run it was nominated for two TV Craft BAFTA awards, a Webby Award and won the Broadcast Press Guild Award for Innovation 2008”. A spin-off from lonelygirl15, Kate Modern ran for two seasons. (Review). Product integration apparently allowed Kate Modern to turn a healthy profit. (Season 1, 2007, was supported by MSN, Tampax, Pantene, Gillette, Orange, Paramount Pictures UK and Buena Vista International UK. Season 2, 2008, by Toyota Aygo Platinum, Cadbury Creme Egg, Warner Bros & Skittles.)

Sofia’s Diary‘ (March 2008 – June 2009) has run for three seasons on Bebo, was broadcast for about a year on ‘Fiver’ but recently dropped Sponsors have included Sure Girl and Transport for London. (More info)

The Gap Year‘ (May 2008 – August 2009) “The brand new daily reality show, from the makers of Big Brother”
(another Bebo production, this one in conjunction with Endemol. Sponsors include Sony PSP, Trident and Doritos).
Freak A Freemantle co-production with MySpace. ‘The first UK online drama from MySpace’. Launch date: 20th July. Brand partners include Tampax and Red Bull.

Hollyoaks: The Morning After the Night Before‘ (July 2009)
Is an online video drama made by Channel 4 in partnership with the Home Office to promote the Know Your Limits sensible drinking campaign. Character profiles on Bebo and episodes online at “Hollyoaks: The Morning After the Night Before is a brand new Hollyoaks drama … It’s all happening here on All of the episodes will be online, and you can find out behind the scenes gossip right here too – with exclusive interviews, spoilers, photo galleries, behind the scenes videos and more. Make sure you check out Josh , Sasha and Dave ‘s Bebo profiles, keeping you up-to-date with what the gang are getting up to in between episodes… “ (The 12 episodes will be released online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through July)

What has the BBC been up to? A couple of recent examples:

Proper Messy‘ (January 2009) A teen drama from Switch.
“Proper Messy was an exciting new interactive drama where YOU could influence the story … As well as weekly episodes on BBC Two there was loads of stuff on bebo and extra exclusive vids online each week. If you were aged 13-17 you could have also signed up to get texts EVERY DAY from the two main characters Imogen or Jake. … This is where things really got exciting – if their texts stirred you into action you could reply and your comments could have influenced the decisions they made. And, what was even better is that it was all free!” (Review)

‘The Well’ was announced just yesterday. “BBC Switch has commissioned digital production company Conker Media, part of Lime Pictures (whose credits include Hollyoaks), to create and produce an interactive, digital drama thriller for its teen audience. The Well will air in the autumn in the Switch zone on BBC Two (Saturdays 12noon-2.00pm) and extends online at where the audience can immerse themselves further in the story, exploring a spookily atmospheric recreation of the main drama location in a multi-level game.”

‘Psychoville’, exploring the possibilities of comedy on the web, have strategically dropped a few website addresses into their episodes and site, and encourage viewers to explore the web looking for answers to a weekly question.
“The mysterious stranger knows what you did: stop your secret going public by answering the messages below. Keep an eye out on TV and scour the internet for character websites you will need to visit. Answer the questions correctly to continue and come back after each episode for a new question.”
So, not quite an ARG (and actually, I notice that I’ve drifted away from Drama too. Maybe I’ll make another post about Comedy soon), but it is a great way of exploring the world of Psychoville and discovering things like Mr Jelly’s homepage. The results are every bit as darkly funny as you might expect.

Going back a bit further, CDX (2006) is an ‘interactive film experience’. (Read an article about it from DigitalArts or a review in Joystiq) hough some thinking about games from the BBC is a post I’ll save for another time.

What else? More BBC online dramas: Signs of Life from 2007 (“Buffy meets Horoscopes“), Wannabes from 2006 (” an interactive web-based soap opera“).  Torchwood did an ARG and Dr Who didn’t (even though a prominently placed phone number made many of us think they might have).

So what about the future? Only time will tell of course. I’m interested to hear of other examples though, and what you think works.

10 replies on “Online drama”

  1. I think it’s crucial to separate the use of online simply as a means of distribution for trad media and it’s use in new forms of engagement. Without this distinction the delivery of standard formats via the web becomes falsely seen as a ‘new’ genre. This is certainly a confusion the BBC have in that there is still too much emphasis on shifting product via the web and not enough on exploring new modes of engagement. (IMHO)

  2. Thanks David. One of the reasons I put this list up without too much analysis in the post was to be able to draw out that kind of distinction down here in the comments. Thanks for getting the ball rolling. I completely agree that there’s a huge difference between putting video on the web (Dr Horrible, iPlayer, Hulu, …) and forms of online drama which use the web effectively. It’s something I’m actively thinking about, and as you might expect, one of the things I believe can help here is making it social and participatory rather than a purely passive experience.

    I didn’t play ‘I love Bees’, but I’d find it hard to believe that the participants, in sharing clues and ideas and dashing around to phone boxes around the world to record and share their recordings, were not caught up in the story in a very different and much more powerful way than if they’d just been given one episode every week for a month.

    Equally, i think there’s something about putting a drama into a social space like Bebo or MySpace, together with all the expectations (and even constraints) about how you interact and what you do there, which has the potential to be much more than just a convenient way of getting people talking about it, or sharing it with their friends. I think there are norms, conventions and expectations online, especially in the way the web is used socially, that mean great opportunities for drama online. It doesn’t mean re-inventing drama or throwing away everything we know from television drama; it’s more about finding ways of using what the web is good at to do it well.

    I’m very interested in the possibilities the internet gives us to re-examine some of the theatrical elements of drama which broadcast media has to overlook. Manfred Pfister’s ‘The Theory of Drama’ and Manfred Jahn’s ‘Guide to the Theory of Drama’ are useful here. A dramatic narrative (such as a play) is different to other literature (such as a novel) because:

    • the actors work together with producers, directors, designers, choreographers, musicians etc (collaborative modes of production)
    • the performance is to an audience (collective form of reception)

    Of these two features, much of the latter is necessarily ignored by television and film. Pfister talks about how

    “the collective aspect actually increase the intensity of the reception. If you read the printed literary text of a comic scene on our own, we are generally less inclined to laugh than when we experience it with others in the theatre”

    and the feedback from the audience to the stage, improving the actor’s performance, stimulating improvisation, and more.

    I like the idea that online drama, through social and participatory use of the web, can recapture some of these theatrical elements of drama through collaborative production and collective reception.

    As you can probably tell, I’m researching on the fly here. I’m obviously going to continue to read and explore this area, so I hope people will have some pointers for me and more examples to share of what’s already working.

  3. > I like the idea that online drama, through social and participatory use of the web, can recapture some of these theatrical elements of drama through collaborative production and collective reception.

    That’s an interesting idea. I think of it as reintroducing elements of the epic form. Epic poetry was interesting because the audience were often significantly more socially important than the performer. This meant that the performer was forced to be aware of how his performance was going down with the specific King and nobles he was performing to and would tweak it to appeal most to his audiences situation and mood. Of course even though new technologies enable this kind of change, it will only happen if artists start to treat the audience with more respect than they have been used to.

    The other kind of change I’m interested in is in shaking up who is socially expected to be creative and to create works that are worth serious consideration and commitments of time to enjoy and think about. We’re still looking at professionals creating things for consumption by the plebs. This social dynamic is completely backwards for what I think is desirable (and again, backwards compared to epic poetry). I hope that the current establishment of creatives can help with a social transformation that encourages the creativity of every individual rather than trying to stop that cultural change. Some of that change will come regardless of what the current creative establishment do, but I think that some of the best of it will only come if it’s facilitated by people with vision.

  4. A nice roundup of different bits of fiction Roo, thanks.

    I’ve been thinking recently about creating online stories without having to construct the narrative or do much writing oneself. Mainly because it seemed the common thread between two things I do and they’re giving me vague ideas about things to do next. (As they’re projects I’m involved with, apologies if this comes across as self promotional; it’s just that they’re what I’ve understandably been thinking about.)

    I’ve been running The Diary of Samuel Pepys for years but it was only recently that I started putting snippets of his life on Twitter. I thought it might be kind of nice but I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well a few fragments a day works as a continual narrative over a long period of time. I really enjoy reading it. It fits in really nicely around all the other snippets of friends’ lives — you get the gist of Pepys’ story through a very small amount of text. And, even better, I didn’t have to write any of it. It’s not fiction, but it’s still an enjoyable story.

    The other thing is Pretend Office, an email list of people all pretending to work in the same company. Over time it’s evolved various narratives with no planning and no one having to write more than a single email at a time. It’s hit and miss — some ideas work, others fall flat — but watching characters and plot lines evolve out of nowhere has been fascinating and I’m wondering if this kind of idea can be used for other things.

    Pepys and Pretend Office have very different sources — one existing, one made-up as it goes — but neither requires much preparation and it feels like there’s something connecting them (even if it’s merely that they’re both text and both experienced solely online).

  5. Thanks kyb. Great points. ‘User Generated Content’ (or, if you prefer, ‘community sourced’) – whether its plot, dialogue, characters, research or something else – is definitely part of this isn’t it?

    When I watched Andrew Piller from Freemantle talking about Freak at the C21 Social Media Forum recently, one of the points he made was that although “all of our experiences are underpinned by community”, they went into it knowing that they would retain control: “We’d never let the audience decide the story but how they get there, the everyday decisions, can be affected and influenced by the audience”. I wasn’t sure if this was a nod to community involvement in a very limited way, or a justified and realistic retention of editorial control in order to tell a story. It’s clearly a tension.

    Letting go of the reigns isn’t something that dramatists do easily or naturally, with the exception of improvisation.

    It also makes me think of the puppetmasters who design and run alternate reality games. They often have to be very improvisational, responding and reacting to a community which sometimes needs steering in a particular direction and sometimes needs to be listened to and have their ideas or creations taken on board.

  6. Phil: thanks for that. As someone who knows a thing or two about both acting and the web you’re in a good position to be thinking about this stuff. Thanks for those links. (I saw them as great examples you have been thinking about rather than an evil symptom of narcissism). And speaking of improvisation (albeit comedic rather than dramatic.. so far at least), Pretend Office is a great example of a collaborative online improvisation.

  7. You might like to check out Covies. It’s Ireland’s 1st online drama and everyone who worked on it pros and amateurs alike did so for free. So it was made for very little. We have over three thousand followers on our facebook page.

    Let me know what you think.

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