In Defense Of Transmedia

Some weeks back, I mentioned transmedia, blah-blah-blah, and someone asked, “Hey, something-something transmedia?” And I was all like, “Shit yes I can talk about that!”

Then I probably fell asleep. Likely with a beard of vomit atop my actual beard and a squalling baby — not my own — in the other room. You’d be amazed at how often that happens to me. Damn babies. Sneaking in here at night. Drinking all my liquor. Pooping on the ceiling fan so when I turn it on — well. You see where I’m going with this. Turns the room into a shit salad. That’s truth.

Right. What was I saying? Ah. Yes. Transmedia.

Our film is considered a “transmedia” project. What does that mean? It means the film is not the sum total of the experience. It one story in our storyworld. Still not getting it?

First, feel free to hit a more “official” definition over at Ye Olde Wikipedia.

My writing partner, Lance, compares it to a bullet hole in glass. The bullet hole is the center of your storyworld, and is likely represented by a single project — in this case, our film. But all the cracks radiating outward like a spiderweb represent new paths into the storyworld, which are themselves new stories. Yes, we have the film, but it is not the end of the experience. I won’t speak specifically as to what else is coming, but we have a handful of other elements in play that are being grown organically at the same time as we grow the script — episodic content, perhaps. Software. Technology. Live experiences. Doesn’t need to end there, and it doesn’t need to be married to the convention of film. The story continues. The story wriggles free from the confines and takes a life all its own.

For the record, I do not purport to be an expert on the subject. I’m just a big fan, a fan who’s taken tentative steps into understanding how it can best serve storytelling (which means, best serving the audience, as the audience is the recipient of the story).

I will now take questions, and answer them clumsily.

Is this the future of storytelling, or is it just a gimmick?

It’s just a gimmick. Like a guy who can chew bubblegum with his butthole. Sorry to waste your time. Go home. Go home to your children and tell them it was all a dream.

No, it’s not just a gimmick. I mean, it can be. Anything can be. A whole TV show can be a gimmick if, say, you were to make a television show about a bunch of cavemen created explicitly for a series of car insurance commercials.

That said, I don’t know that it’s the future of storytelling. I distrust anything that claims to be the future of anything. Unless it drops a flying car into my driveway, I’m dubious. What it does, however, is offer us new tools for our toolbox. Once upon a time, we had a number of expected avenues for our stories to travel: film, television, games, print, and so on. Those things are merging. It is a syncretism, if you will, of the ways and philosophies of storytelling. It comes together and forms a giant blob that will eat us all.

Wait, that can’t be right. What I mean is, the combination of these elements and avenues forms and forges whole new paths. It’s all about the story, then. It’s not all about the means; it’s all about the message.

Why now? Haven’t we seen this before?

Short answer: Because technology allows it.

Long answer: Yes, we’ve seen this before, but in a limited fashion. Star Wars might be the best and earliest example of transmedia, at least in my mind. This sounds silly, but the toys and action figures are a good example of transmedia storytelling — it takes the story we know from the trilogy and places it in the hands of the audience in the form of “playtime.” (And then people shoot those stories in the back of the head by collecting action figures still in their clamshell packaging and locking them away in pressure-sealed vaults to keep The Precious ever-perfect, freeze-framing childhood in a disturbing bout of ennui-addled, banality-driven adulthood. But that is perhaps a talk for another time.)

Star Wars really didn’t have the technology to pull off the “singularity” of transmedia storytelling, though, and while we may not be quite there yet, we’re damn close. Right now, almost anything you can imagine regarding a story is possible. If you conceive of it, it can probably be done. Time and money matter, of course, but things are getting cheaper. People can develop apps with only a handful of people. You can “print” materials with greater ease (check out this MakerBot video from Radar).

We’ve no limitation that demands we bind a story to a single medium. A story can now move from screen to screen, it can leap to the page, it can be an action figure in your hands, it can be given to the audience (individual or crowd-sourced) and left to mutate and grow. That excites the hell out of me.

Ah, but.

At present, transmedia is limited by corporate interests. Transmedia is best-served (in my mind) when it grows organically together — think how a forest of trees grow together, forming an ecosystem, rather than how you might build one house, then another, then another. You conceive of the whole package, or at least a good part of it, right from the beginning. Most examples of transmedia aren’t really effective, though — sure, you see a video game and a comic book and a novelization, all orbiting the main property, a film. But most of those things are a rehash, a retelling. Further, they tend to be grown separately, by separate “teams” in the company or, more likely, by entirely separate corporate entities. The properties don’t “talk.” They don’t speak to one another. It’s like the Lost ARG that happened a few years back — it was non-canonical, because it was handled by ABC without input from the creators or writers of the actual TV show. Hence, people thought they were getting an authentic experience, but they weren’t. They might as well have been engaging in a fan-created experience. Or they might as well have all been masturbating on crackers (last one on the cracker has to eat it!). (What?) (Shut up.)

Is an ARG, an alternate-reality-game, considered transmedia?

It can be, if it crosses multiple platforms. Otherwise, it’s basically just a live-action game, or a piece of software. For me, an ARG is usually one part of the transmedia storytelling experience — either the bullet hole, or one of the cracks in the glass. It needn’t be the sum total of the experience.

Isn’t this good only for genre material?

Nope. You’d think that. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Dead in the harbor wrong. Floating there, face down. Scummy shrimp nesting in your open maw. Barnacles on your inner thighs. Eels using your guts as sweaters. We’ve all been there. Am I right?

Look at Mad Men. Look at the “Mad Men Yourself” avatar creation. Look at Betty Draper on Twitter. Think about what else you could do — webisode content for lesser-tier characters, a “create-your-own-advertising-agency” game, a “create-your-own-ad-campaign” game, an ARG sponsored by a liquor company. The list goes on and on.

Need I note that Mad Men is not a genre show?

Aren’t you just watering down your story by fracturing it?

Not if it’s done well. Our film is the focus. It’s the bullet hole. We are making a film and we want to get it right. We’re not relying on the transmedia elements to carry it. We are, however, letting transmedia be a vent — if we have good ideas that don’t belong in this story, they may belong elsewhere, and now we have a place for them to live.

But the film is the film. A game is a game. Even when they talk to one another and reflect upon each other, they each still need to be good on their own terms. You’ll offer no value if each is weak; the entire storyworld is only as good as its flimsiest component.

Why? Why does this matter? Sell me on it.

Listen. Truth-telling time. People aren’t consuming media like they used to. Habits are changing. No, it’s not universal, and yes, you still have people who listen to 8-Track cassettes with religious zeal. But fact is, the Internet really did change everything. Technology has blown open the doors. People want more, and they want more now. That’s because people are dicks.

But whaddya gonna do? You’re people, I’m people, the audience is people. No robots, yet. Hence, it’s time to adapt or die, friends.

Meteor’s a coming. Are you a mammal? Or are you a dinosaur?

Okay, doomsaying aside, here’s the deal. Me, personally, when I encounter a story I like, I want to really get up in it. You give me Bioshock, and I say, “I want more, and I really want it now.” Seriously. When that game hit and I played it and it was awesome, I would’ve consumed any other materials that were of similar quality and were easy for me to get my hands on. A novel? A comic book series? Some novelty app? I wanted more. I wanted to be in that world as much as I could be — it felt deeply realized, and had they grown up a serious transmedia effort around that game from the get-go, I think people would’ve gotten on board. (Mind you, my earlier rules apply: no rehashes, no retellings — new content, new stories only.)

Further, the audience wants to be invested. They want a part of it. So, you cede a little control to them. Why do you think roleplaying games are popular? Or video games? Or fan fiction? These are all ways — sanctioned or not — that the audience grabs a hold of beloved properties and hugs them and squeezes them and calls them George. A lot of companies resist that. Some creators do, too. They don’t want to cede power to the audience. They want to be the authority. The auteur. The top dog.

Noble intention, and I’m with you — in theory.

But it’s like with piracy. Sure, it’s not fair. No, you may not like it. But conditions on the ground are changing. People are doing things differently. You can cross your arms. You can stomp your feet in a huff. It won’t help. It’s like being mad at the tides. They still come in, come out, no matter how you feel about it.

Plus, coming from a background in pen-and-paper roleplaying games, I like the option of giving the audience some measure of control. And the secret is, when you give them the tools, you’ve provided parameters for that control. You aren’t holding a leash, but you are pointing to the doors through which they may walk.

What does this mean for writers? Will this kill traditional storytelling?

No, of course it won’t kill traditional storytelling, silly. I was just being dramatic with all the doomsaying. Instead, transmedia will kill your families. It’s also the cause of global warming. Also: global awesomeing.

Ahem. No.

Seriously, think about it.

Movies didn’t kill paintings.

TV didn’t kill movies.

The Internet didn’t kill TV.

But it did change them. It did open up new avenues.

As a writer, you can only benefit by understanding these avenues. You’re writing a book? Take some time to think about what else you can do with that. This is especially true if you’re going full-on-indie and will self-publish. Think about what other materials you can use to tell deeper, different stories in your storyworld. Is it worth doing a RPG? An interactive website or comic? An app detailing the map of your fantasy realm? Do you have a third-tier character who you think could use his own series of short stories, or choose-your-own-adventure tales? Is there value in launching the book at a live event?

Point is, you have options. Every story will demand different options — and, as a storyteller, you’ll intuit which options are best.

You can only gain and offer value if you understand these things. Is it necessary? No. Will it be useful to you? Will it help you build audience? Will it give you more tools to tell the stories you want to tell?

Yes, yes, and yes.