This is the third and final segment of my response to David Bordwell’s thoughtful analysis of some of the pitfalls and challenges associated with transmedia storytelling. Thanks to David for sparking what has been a fascinating exchange, one which has forced me to sharpen my thinking about certain key issues that I am working through for my class.
Another drawback to shifting a story among platforms: art works gain strength by having firm boundaries. A movie’s opening deserves to be treated as a distinct portal, a privileged point of access, a punctual moment at which we can take a breath and plunge into the story world. Likewise, the closing ought to be palpable, even if it’s a diminuendo or an unresolved chord. The special thrill of beginning and ending can be vitiated if we come to see the first shots as just continuations of the webisode, and closing images as something to be stitched to more stuff unfolding online. There’s a reason that pictures have frames.
Again, I’d argue that Bordwell is describing a specific kind of filmmaking, one that may gain very little from transmedia expansion. Yet, as I said earlier, the aesthetic properties of texts that lend themselves to transmedia experience are world-building (as we’ve been discussing) and seriality. By definition, a serial text is not self-contained. It resolves one chapter and immediately plants the book that will draw us into the next. It is, as Angela Ndalianis stresses in Neo-Baroque, a work which pushes beyond its frame. Now, to be clear, the cliffhangers which have shaped many classic serial forms do depend on an understanding of where one text stops and another begins. But we can see this as an art of chunking rather than framing. They know how to break the story down into meaningful chunks which are compelling emotionally within themselves but which gain greater urgency when read in relation to the other installments of the story. We still have a lot to learn about how to create meaningful chunks and link them together across media platforms. As such, I am watching more and more vintage serials to see how they balance between self-containment and openness.
This may be why transmedia seems so far to work best in relation to television, which is increasingly relying on seriality (and back story) to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience, and where it is applied to film, it seems to work best for franchises which will have a series of increasingly preplanned sequels. No one would take away the aesthetic pleasures of closure and containment, but there are also aesthetic pleasures in seriality, openness, and especially, for me, a pleasure in suddenly understanding how a bit of information consumed in one medium fits into the puzzle being laid out for us in a totally different platform.
So far, transmedia texts have been most compelling while they are mid-process and have tended to disappoint when they reached their conclusion. This phenomenon may tell us something about the degree to which they rely on open-ended and serialized structures rather than the kinds of closure which is the pleasure of a different kind of fiction. The anxious fan wants to know that the producers of Lost isn’t making it up as they go along, though of course, on one level, every storyteller is making it up as they go along. The hope though is for a certain level of integrity and continuity between the pieces which allows us to find the coherent whole from which the many parts must have once broken adrift.
For me, though, I am also intrigued by the moment when the story is rich with possibilities, when fan speculations span out in many different directions, and when each of us has taken the parts as resources for constructing our own fictional world. I wrote about this almost 20 years ago in response to Twin Peaks: I was much more interested in the hundreds of complex theories about who killed Laura Palmer that invested fans constructed individually and collectively than I was in the official version which David Lynch and Mark Frost were forced to add under pressure from the networks.
In between opening and closing, the order in which we get story information is crucial to our experience of the story world. Suspense, curiosity, surprise, and concern for characters–all are created by the sequencing of story action programmed into the movie. It’s significant, I think, that proponents of hardcore multiplatform storytelling don’t tend to describe the ups and downs of that experience across the narrative. The meanderings of multimedia browsing can’t be described with the confidence we can ascribe to a film’s developing organization. Facing multiple points of access, no two consumers are likely to encounter story information in the same order. If I start a novel at chapter one, and you start it at chapter ten, we simply haven’t experienced the art work the same way.
Transmedia storytellers are becoming increasingly skilled at deciding when extensions should be rolled out in relation to the franchise’s “mother ship.” Some plot developments do require careful sequencing. There’s a pleasure to be had in watching Robert Rodriquez’s Shorts in making fun of a schoolboy who claims that sharks ate his homework in an early scene and then looping back in time to discover that he is telling the truth. Even though the plot of the film shifts around the story information so we see events out of sequence, there is still a larger rationale determining why we experience these events in a particular order.
The same may be said for the difference between materials released to the web before we encounter the film or television series, which often are designed to help us manage the complexity of an unfamiliar world or an ensemble-centered narrative, and those which come later in the unfolding of the franchise. Enter the Matrix comes at a particular juncture in the film series, while the multiplayer game based on The Matrix comes only after the film series was completed and the Wachowskis wanted to cede greater creative control back to the consumers to take the world in new directions. The Battlestar Galactica webisodes , “Face of the Enemy,” which came on the eve of the final season went back in time to refocus us on the character of Felix Gaeta, who had been a secondary figure for most of the run, showing us the events from his point of view and revealing previously unknown aspects of his motivation, just in time to set us up for the character to play a much more central role in the series’s final year. This is why transmedia “chunks” often tell us explicitly where they fit into the larger time line and why many of us prefer to read those chunks within a narrative sequence.
So, we may simply be over-stating the degree to which the dispersal of information is open-ended. Certainly, once the information moves beyond the borders of a single text, there’s no control over what order the spectator encounters it. And it may not matter in which order we encounter certain aspects of the world building. But it may still be the case that the release and roll out of transmedia content is carefully timed and structured to construct a preferred reading sequence. Geoff Long has called for navigational tools that help viewers to find relevant content and to identify at what point it fits into the unfolding of the larger transmedia story. Given this, I believe that it would be possible to do a formalist reading of a transmedia narrative which mapped the functions of different bits of information and for me, that would go beyond simply a list of joints and citations. It would simply be a task of enormous complexity. Much as Roland Barthes could apply his methods to only a small segment of a Balzac story, Geoff Long has been able to apply the narrative analysis to only a short segment of Jim Henson’s transmedia texts.
Gap-filling isn’t the only rationale for spreading the story across platforms, of course. Parallel worlds can be built, secondary characters can be promoted, the story can be presented through a minor character’s eyes. If these ancillary stories become not parasitic but symbiotic, we expect them to engage us on their own terms, and this requires creativity of an extraordinarily high order.
Well, yes, and these are the functions of transmedia extensions which interest me the most — and for that matter, the ones which spark the most excitement in the industry types who seem to grasp the concepts the best. It isn’t simply about the narrative; it isn’t simply about filling in gaps in the plot. “Gap-filling” seems to be a special case: the parlor trick that The Matrix franchises plays with the delivery of information from the doomed Osyrus which unfolds across three different media platforms. More often, transmedia is about back story which shifts our identifications and investments in characters and thus helps us to rewatch the scenes again with different emotional resonance. More often, it is about picking up on a detail seeded in the original film and using it as a point of entry into a different story or a portal into exploring another aspect of the world. And yes, to do this well is creativity of an extraordinarily high order, which is why most transmedia extensions disappoint; they fail to achieve their full potential. Transmedia is appealing to artists of a certain ambition who nevertheless want to work on popular genre entertainment rather than developing avant garde movies or art films. It appeals to intellectually engaged viewers who are more at home with popular culture than with gallery installations.
I’m curious to hear what other transmedia critics and creators are thinking about this exchange.