A fanboy with a strange device

So my two best things ever of the past fortnight are Punchdrunk’s Doctor Who adventure the Crash of the Elysium and SVK, a comic from Warren Ellis, Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker and BERG.

The former is a live performance for six to 12-year-olds, so if you’re a grown-up you may have to borrow a child to see it. The latter is an adult comic, so if you’re a child you’ll just have to grow up; it’s worth the wait, honest.

But the reason for this rather vague, dancing-around-the-plotlines-to-avoid-spoilers post is to mention one thing they both do really well: integrating a new device with conviction and coherence.

In SVK’s case it really is a device, an ultra-violet light source that reveals extra features of the story when beamed at the pages. It could so easily have tipped into gimmickry, but in Warren Ellis’ hands SVK becomes integral to the plot. It’s intricately woven into the world of the hero, Thomas Woodwind. The device shines a light on some characters’ innermost thoughts, but, even as the story unfolds, the intentions of some others remain a closed book. This is a necessary and consistent feature of the technology as imagined.

What Punchdrunk do on a vacant building plot next to the new BBC building in Salford is something else. There the novel device is the integration of the audience into the story. I won’t tell you how, but the children really do save the day. The genius of it is that only the audience, only the children, can save the Doctor – because of their knowledge of the Doctor Who universe. The audience are elevated because they arrive with special information not available to the story’s other protagonists. That, to an eight-year-old, is incredibly exciting and empowering.

The common thread: masterful restraint in the way the new device is integrated. I think there’s a lesson here for a lot of transmedia, augmented reality, and other buzzword-based story-telling forms: it’s not what you do with the technology, it’s what you leave to the imagination.

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