First, let me be clear I don’t mean participating in immersive theme parks, fighting, and/or copulating with AIs is the next step in entertainment (or ever will be.) Instead, as coauthor of the new book, Own the A.I. Revolution: Unlock Your Artificial Intelligence Strategy to Disrupt Your Competition, written with Neil Sahota, subject matter expert on artificial intelligence for the United Nations, I wish to draw your attention to what I am calling Screenwriting 2.0, brought to you by advances in AI.
To understand what's coming, it's helpful to consider the role Simon Quarterman plays as Lee Sizemore, the narrative director responsible for creating the storylines that both the guests and their robot hosts play out as part of the Westworld experience. Though Sizemore's contribution to the series could be described as the in-show “screenwriter,” what he does vastly differ from traditional screenwriting. When we think of this profession, marquee names like William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) come to mind. Goldman, along with impresarios such as Billy Wilder, Quentin Tarantino, and Diablo Cody, write passive stories — or what may be thought of as Screenwriting 1.0.
This is not to say their work doesn’t move audiences to tears or laughter. Rather, the basis of their creative model is more akin to a one-way conversation. Goldman’s screenplays tell us what will happen onscreen. In a sense, they reflect a top-down approach to entertainment: A screenwriter (coupled with a production crew) creates a story for us to consume as passive audience members.
On the flip side, Sizemore's approach to storytelling is active in the way video game designers world-build scenarios replete with rich backstories for us to engage with. In Westworld, rather than passively watch a static story unfold, guests are afforded the opportunity to make choices within the confines Sizemore establishes as a narrative director. Or as the website Fandom explains, “[Sizemore's] narratives are sweeping, elaborately-conceived storylines that define the behavior of hosts and drive the guest experience within the park. A narrative embodies an enormous range of complexity, from the high-level meta-narrative describing the collective story arc that establishes the entire park's milieu, down to the detailed specification of an individual host's dialogue and motivations.”
Essentially, these narratives play out on two levels. The first pertains to the external; a story unfolds as entertainment for the guests. Any adventure may contain a number of components, including a battle, train robbery, even romance. The second level, however, relates to the internal experience. Guests are afforded the opportunity to pursue their own story arcs within the wider narrative based on their choices.
Though Westworld is, of course, a fictional realm set in the future, generated for a TV program, its approach to how we consume entertainment is not far off from developments occurring today. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the sci-fi choose-your-own-adventure film released by Netflix in 2018, offers a glimpse into the potential for more interactive fare. Benefiting from advancements in broadband, coupled with smart-television technology, including Roku sticks, the show demonstrates what’s interactively possible.
For those unfamiliar with the structure of Bandersnatch, it works like this, according to Adam Chitwood, writing for Collider: “A brief tutorial, specific to the device being streamed on, explains to the viewer how to make choices. They have 10 seconds to make choices, or a default decision is made. Once a playthrough ends, the viewer is given an option of going back and making a different choice.”
Similar to real life, the selections a viewer makes in Bandersnatch help shape the story's outcome. For instance, though the average viewing time is 90 minutes, it is possible to drastically reduce or expand how long the main character (i.e., the viewer's avatar) stays alive. Since there are approximately 150 minutes of footage, it's possible to have a 40-minute experience or a significantly longer one based on your choices. “Producer Russell McLean said there are between ten and twelve endings, some of which are vaguer as endings compared to others, and according to director David Slade, there are a few ‘golden eggs' endings that may take a long time before viewers figure out how to achieve them,” writes Chitwood.
Anyone who has had the experience of playing a video game through multiple lives and deaths of an avatar understands the fun — and frustration — of redoing your choices. Take a longer running leap, and you might make it across the chasm. Successfully blow up the aliens this time around, and you may proceed to the next level. The same logic applies to Bandersnatch and more interactive content on the horizon. The appeal of such entertainment can be found in its plasticity. Unconstrained by one predetermined ending, you are free to explore a range of existential options — providing a richer experience. Again, much like real life.
Both Bandersnatch and Westworld are opening the door to Screenwriting 2.0., a future in which there is greater collaboration between the creators and the viewing audience. To this end, the University of California, Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts is pioneering this kind of change, blurring the line between creator and participant. According to UCI Professor John Crawford, director of the Emergent Media + Design Initiative, “Emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, 360-degree cameras, artificial intelligence, and networked performance are opening up exciting new possibilities for interactive entertainment and immersive experience design.” To embrace these new paradigms, Crawford suggests tomorrow’s screenwriters need new techniques and collaborative methods to transcend the limitations of traditional approaches based on screenwriting for 2D screens and static timelines.
So, what might near-future entertainment be like in practice should our current model evolve as Crawford suggests? For one thing, it would become an emergent phenomenon in which both parties generate adventures together. When this happens, screenwriting will evolve from a top-down narrative to a bottom-up collaboration in which the plot and outcome go from a static given to dynamic potentialities. It will be possible to create virtual worlds in which a computing interface fosters changes to storylines based on data received. After all, the third wave of computing’s advantage over the previous two computing epochs pertains to AI’s ability to make predictions based on input — in a sense, learning from users based on the choices they make.
All of this is not to say today’s screenwriters must throw in the towel when it comes to creating tomorrow’s entertainment. Undoubtedly, there will continue to be a need for the types of movies and television we know and love. Just as video gaming experiences co-exist with these extant forms of entertainment, and actually complement them to some extent, so, too, can we expect Screenwriting 2.0 to open up exciting new opportunities for creative expression. Still, it’s thrilling to imagine a future in which technology brings us closer to realizing the richest, most far-out possibilities of our imagination.
Perhaps one day soon I won’t just see you at the movies, I will see you in the movies.
Michael Ashley, contributor, and fascinated with the artificial intelligence revolution, is currently co-authoring the ultimate guide for businesses on the subject of AI with Neil Sahota, worldwide business development leader and master inventor for the IBM Watson Group. Part author, part screenwriter, Michael Ashley’s treatment was turned into the hit Disney film, Girl Versus Monster. A 4-time Best-Selling author, he has ghostwritten both fiction and non-fiction books. It’s Saturday Morning, his debut traditionally published book (becker&meyer!), will hit bookstores in Q3 with a foreword by Howie Mandel. Michael was commissioned to screenwrite a TV pilot for Brandon Fayette, Lead Visual Effects artist for JJ Abrams (Star Wars, Lost). Prior to establishing Ink Wordsmiths, his own creative content company, he worked in many literary positions, including as a professional reader for the Head of the Literary Department of Creative Artists Agency.
Michael’s ghost-written blogs have appeared in the Huffington Post and OpEdNews. He has worked as a beat reporter for the Columbia Missourian and as a columnist for Newsbase, an online journal specializing in the energy sector. Author of This Works Marketing (2018), Evolution by God (2017), Fiction in A Weekend (2017) and The Six-Figure Writer (2015) Michael holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting from Chapman University and teaches online writing courses. Thought leaders, including Michael Gerber, David Oreck, and Montel Williams have endorsed his work and his clients have appeared on Inside Edition and prestigious publications, including the Orange County Business Journal and Pelican Hill Magazine.