Over the past decade, we’ve experienced a radical shift in the way we tell stories. Web2 gave rise to social media. No-code tools removed the barriers to entry. New modes of expression became mainstream and memed. At the same time, storytelling was still largely centralized: locked into platforms and locked up by publishers.
With the emergence of web3, we’re seeing a new generation of creators flipping the script through generative storytelling. Inspired by generative art, a movement that took shape in the 1960s and accelerated in recent years with the introduction of AI, this new approach to narrative prioritizes decentralized storytelling. Co-created by the community, it’s a system designed to generate plots and possibilities that would otherwise be left up to a single individual or IP.
How can creators use NFTs to support transformative works and co-creation? What does it mean to build a universe with fans? We caught up with our Director of Story, Caitlin Burns, in order to learn more about generative narratives and their potential impact on IP. A drop is just the beginning. Generative storytelling is how we build lore and a world, hand in hand with the community.
What was your introduction to generative storytelling?
I’ve been enjoying stories as an audience member and writing stories to build strange new experiences for a very long time. The source points for generative storytelling, for me, go way back.
I think a lot about old-school bulletin boards in the 90s, where I was a teenager role-playing with other people about different characters and stories that people were making at the time.
I draw a lot of inspiration from the alternate-reality game renaissance of the late 2000s, when social media was a new technology that people were still playing with creatively. At that point, the technology wasn’t mature yet. People weren’t yet able to play games and write stories in a way that could include hundreds of people in the creative process. That type of scale was only possible inside big studio environments where everyone is working together in the same story world.
So for me, building generative storylines — including the audience in the process — all has a throughline, and it’s something that other creators and I have been waiting for decades.
Have these experiences shaped the way you view generative storytelling now, with the emergence of web3?
We’re thinking, “how can we use blockchain-based tools to co-create stories?” How can we connect audiences with the storyworlds they love, and still make sure that everyone is able to do that respectfully, legally, and consciously of everyone else who’s creating with them?
The defining elements of generative storytelling for me are that:
1) Each participant has a unique character and access point in the world.
2) Each participant is going to have a singular experience.
3) Any time that you are engaging, you’re going to be telling your own story.
That’s true for everyone. There are going to be traits and elements that help combine to customize and personalize experience, that participants are going to play and create with one another.
Now, we have the technology to co-create these larger storyworlds with fans. Whether those are based on story arcs we define in a social experience, or that tie to comic book series or cinematic universes that take months and years of studio development; we can build a world where we’re creating, sharing, and playing together.
Do you think generative storytelling on-chain can foster a new age of narratives? The value for IP seems clear, but what about emerging creators?
I think that when we’re talking about the potential for generative art, generative collections, and generative storytelling, it’s actually a lot easier for a new artist, new collection, or new storyworld to launch than ever before.
This is especially true if you want to be inclusive and engage in co-creation, because of the way that blockchains let us keep track of contracts, accounting, and infrastructure.
There are a number of major projects in the space that have been incredibly bold in how they’re sharing rights with collection holders: Cryptopunks, Meebits, BAYC, World of Women. When you collect one of these NFTs, you also have a license to create with and commercialize those characters. That’s a really broad license compared to what we usually see in the entertainment industry.
It’s a lot harder for a story world with, say, 80 years of story history with 80 years of historical contracts and licenses. Making sure those story institutions can work in a new open system in a way that’s respectful to all of the preexisting legal agreements and all of the other people who are already making stories in that space is an incredibly compelling challenge. Blockchain storytelling is an incredible opportunity for creators, storytellers, and game developers.
Among other projects, your team is currently working on building a generative web3 story framework for DC. What do you hope to see as an impact on future fans?
The story team at Palm NFT Studio works with creators and partners to build narrative experiences on the Palm network.
Our mission is to ensure that we’re creating stories that are inclusive, that are inviting audience members to participate; that help big story worlds find their path onto the blockchain and build something truly breakthrough.
Historically, intellectual properties and story worlds have been able to work with their fan bases with a lot of one-way outreach, but not as much of an opportunity to share back and forth. Projects like the DC Bat Cowl collection really upend this. Holders are granted faction membership: they’re solving complex puzzles together. They’re also shaping DC’s first NFT comic book series, Batman: The Legacy Cowl by voting on everything from Batman’s costume to the story’s plot. Unlike past comic book voting experiences, these fan contributions are affecting the creative work in real-time of major DC artists including Dan Abnett, Pablo M. Collar, and Mikel Janin. This is really powerful for a fan who loves Batman, who loves DC, and who wants to be able to play and engage.
And for DC, it’s also an incredible opportunity to hear directly from fans, play with fans, and ensure that they’re learning what superfans want. A lot of these fan experiences have been done before, but never in one place, and not connected to one another in a story world where users have the opportunity to contribute to their experience. You can go to a conference and there might be a really cool event, but it’s not connected to the comics or movies. These tools give us an opportunity to engage with fans in a direct way that’s clear, cohesive, and additive over time.
For a lot of I.P., this concept of collaboration is new. For a lot of fans, it’s new. What do you think is needed to bring more communities into this space? How can we get more people to participate in this next chapter?
When we’re talking about the future of a story, it’s irrevocably tied to sustainability. What does it take to build stories to last? What does it mean to care for communities online, and in real life? Not just in terms of energy – which is critical – but what are audiences getting back for investing their time and this energy use with your experiences?
Everyone should be thinking about the footprint of the projects that they’re working on in 2022. If you’re not thinking about it, you’re not living on earth responsibly.
I love the level of effort and care that our clients and Palm NFT Studio put into our projects. We want to make sure that what we’re building is going to be efficient and sustainable long term. We’re all building the future we have to live in. I worry about everything from video-on Zoom calls to the specific impact of an experience. Is what we’re building worth the cost? And that’s part of all the decisions we make.
It’s not just about community engagement, it’s about stewardship.