The Transmedia Storyworld of AI: Artificial Intelligence. Paper presented for the Transmedia Storytelling 1 course with Professor Renira Rampazzo Gambarato in the Crosssmedia Production MA at Tallinn University Baltic Film and Media School. Download paper as PDF or continue reading.
This is a transmedia storyworld analysis of AI: Artificial Intelligence, a movie by Steven Spielberg that was voted the best Science Fiction film of the decade by Cinematical (2009). The transmedia intellectual property (IP) consists of 2 platforms, the main feature film, and the alternate reality game (ARG) that became to be know as “The Beast” for its size; the game was played across websites, and set off by a curious title in the credits of the film, a telephone number in promotional trailers on television, and on posters. As a 2001 project, this is an early example of transmedia storytelling – and considered the first use of an alternate reality game.
In 1969 Brian Aldiss published a short story called “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” which became the inspiration behind Stanley Kubrick’s project he referred to as Pinocchio, “a tale of humanity and of the aching loneliness in an overpopulated future.” (Aldiss). It took 12 years to imagine and to develop that into a screenplay for AI that Kubrick was never able to complete. After working with a storyboard designer, pre-visualization companies and even recording voices by actors, Kubrick started to include Spielberg in the collaboration in the 1980s. As the development took place before Internet, Kubrick convinced Spielberg to install a hidden fax machine in his wardrobe to exchange messages with Kubrick and to keep it safe from anyone – a collaboration which lasted until Kubrick’s death in 1999. In comparison, the transmedia extension “The Beast” was a marketing project that only became part of AI a meager 1 year before its release and was developed by an external team at Microsoft and never imagined by the film’s creators.
AI creates a view of a futuristic society and poses a set of difficult questions for the audience to answer. Can one feel love for an artificial being who is programmed to have unconditional love for you and looks completely real? What is the true role of machines in our lives and will machines with artificial intelligence ever be accepted as our equals? How do we really treat machines that may become to supercede us? The core of the movie is the questions whether the audience (like the mother) can emotionally invest in an inhuman, robotic protagonist who seems almost human.
In the movie, David, an android boy is adopted by Monica and Henry, a couple whose son Martin lies in a coma wihout hope of recovering. When Martin nonethless recovers, he feels threathned by David and “deviously instigates David’s abandonment, setting him on a vast adventure to find the fictitious Blue Fairy so he can [fulfill his] wish for mortality and seek a new acceptance from his mother” (Bertke, 2011). As the Film Quarterly article puts it, what makes AI Steven Spielberg’s “strangest, most interesting, [...] most mature work is that, whether by accident or design, it’s the first of his movies to be both a “children’s” film, ingratiating and manipulative, and a film for adults—complex, ambiguous, brutal and cold. Or, to put it another way, both a Steven Spielberg film and a Stanley Kubrick film” (Kreider, 2002). While Kubrick had been working on AI for decades, he convinced Spielberg to direct it because he believed Spielberg was better suited for its theme and had a grasp of the emotions that the film would need to convey to make it work; and after his death Spielberg had little choice. “While it may seem odd for a single work to result from two creators—especially two directors so distinct in style and temperament—this combination of minds actually reflects the themes and motifs of the film” (Sampson).
AI was a technically ambitious project. It was the “first film to use computer animated Pre-Vis” (IMDB) and also pioneered “the virtual studio, a technique which allowed Steven Spielberg to walk through a virtual version of Rouge City with his camera and select shots [used later] on “The Lord of the Rings” films” (IMDB). As an entertainment property its fundamental purpose was of course to entertain but it also superceded that function and succeeded in making the audience think about fundamental philosphical questions about humanity and identity and where one really belongs and can one come to love a machine that is programmed to love you. It is a story that Kubrick loved and wanted to tell and perhaps the culminatuon of his thinking about the future of machines.
I started out very doubtful with the idea that an alternate reality game could really contribute much anything to a transmedia storyworld; it seemed just trivial compared to the movie itself. From a marketing perspective, alternate reality gaming is a niche activity engaged in by small numbers of people. They are not profit generating activities and need an alternative revenue source or must be part of a marketing budget.
But as I researched on, reading clue after clue, I got pulled in into the storyworld. The Puppetmasters succeed in crafting characters who were not the same I had met in the movie, and that really were interesting enough to explore further – and whose actions represented deeper philosophical questions that I had thought about when watching the film, and that for me were integral to the same storyworld imagined by Kubrick and Spielberg. And as the example suggests, game can create significant amounts of buzz by mediated stories about those people who do play.
Players must construct meaningful experience and answer meaningful questions, which is why the community created around a particular forum – that was not preconceived by the Puppetmasters – was instrumental in the success of the game. Games without a good story won’t work. In the AI rich storyworld one can be part of an epic struggle between good and evil; a fight for robot rights. The quality of the characters, and the quality of the story are crucial to the success of the storyworld. There should always be a sense of depth and size – a world that is out there and we only have glimpses of it but we’ve clues to explore and find out more about that world. As Spielberg says about stories, “[a] lot more is happening that we’re not showing the audience” (Schickel, 2007).