Blog Post

PlanetFall - A Narrative Experience

A few years ago, I became a part of the OverClocked Remix forums. The site is dedicated to the remixing and proliferation of video game music in all its forms. And while that is a worthwhile mission with which I have become very involved over the years (more on that some other time), an even greater benefit is the network of artists, musicians, and creatives I have gotten to know as a result. In this post, I will share a work by one of them with you.

John "The Wingless" Burnett is an Interaction Designer within the video game industry, having worked on several titles for companies like Id Software and Midway. As it turns out, he also produces work outside his professional environment, on his own time and for free. Since I only recently reconnected with him, I only discovered PlanetFall a few days ago, though it has been finished for two or three years. The upside of having discovered it now is that I am now a member of HASTAC, so I can share it with all of you.

I will refrain from any major plot spoilers here in the thread, though I will discuss the multimedia experience at length. I highly, highly encourage you to click the link above and experience this - in my humble opinion, it is better organized than many so-called "professional" stories I have seen recently. I would reserve about an hour to go through everything.

PlanetFall tells the story of a spaceship crew, which is presented with a choice few crews ever are. As that happens, the relationship between crew members quickly deteriorates, and before you know it chaos abounds. But that's just the plot.

PlanetFall's story is unusual in that it is told entirely through messages. You will cycle through a series of messages sent between two characters - there is no third-person omniscient description of action per se. Furthermore, the messages are split into nine blocks, or chapters, which help to demarcate the different message groups, and thereby the stories. I know there have been narratives told this way before, but I cannot remember any by name off the top of my head. The writing is also very tight - the author was clearly not afraid of employing technical terms and details, which in a Science Fiction story can skirt the difference between hackneyed and believeable.

But what I believe makes PlanetFall unique is the visual design component. You are not just reading transcriptions of messages. You are at a terminal. Photo profiles of the characters are available to you, and light up depending on whose message you are reading. There are charts and graphs used as part of the story. The interface is simple, but truly gives you the impression you are discovering the story, not simply reading it. Though these visual components may sound secondary, they in fact contribute to the state of the narrative and render it in an entirely different context.

Also unusual is that the author, in the "options" sections (click the ? button), provides a lengthy set of background material. Some of it is the explanation of his creative process, some serves as a "director's cut," which reveals information he devised about PlanetFall's world but did not explicitly make it into the story. Perhaps my favorite is his account of how he wrote PlanetFall, and which details changed over the course of its development.

I have never seen anything quite like PlanetFall before. It's not a book, it's not a movie, it's not even a comic book. I don't have a name for it, but I do believe this is a solid step forward in the evolution of digital storytelling. Note that I called PlanetFall a narrative experience - it's not something you just read. There is so much more going on here than just text.

This is the only beginning-to-end story on John's site, but I encourage you to check out the rest of his site for his other work.

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