Creating Transmedia: An Interview with Andrea Phillips (Part Three)

Game designers have long debated how they might create a game that makes people cry or indeed, whether people cry about games all the time (and not just from frustration.) I am often asked a similar question about transmedia.  Is our experience of transmedia a necessarily cold and analytic one — putting together pieces of a puzzle, searching for clues which provide insights — or does it produce its own range of emotional impacts on the audience? 

The idea that weeping is the sole arbiter of emotional response is absurd. The fact is that not only can games and interactive narrative produce a range of emotions — the same tears and laughter and boredom you can get from flat media — but also a whole new palette of emotions that require the audience to have agency. Frustration, as you say, but also fiero. Guilt over one’s actions. Pride over an accomplishment. Relief at escaping from danger.

Many transmedia narratives share that element of interaction, and hence can open up that broader range of human emotions to provoke. Indeed, this is one of the things I find the most exciting, as a writer — if the goal if a story is to provide an emotional experience, then surely the forms that allow you to access a wider scope of emotions is the clear winner.

The idea that a transmedia experience must be cold and analytic is equally misdirected. It’s mistaking form and structure for content. The emotional payload is carried by the context and meaning each piece has, not by how you consume it. You wouldn’t call a business letter anything but a cold and emotionless format, but the memo that hires you or fires you is going to have tremendous emotional weight because of the meaning you bring to it as a reader.

It also bears noting that insight based on fragmented evidence is our natural experience of life. Not to go down that “the whole world is a transmedia experience” path, but there is definitely a seed of truth there — attaching meaning and therefore emotional weight to what amount to breadcrumbs is a very common and very human activity, whether the stories we’re engaging with are authored fiction or not.

Writers have often described film and theater in terms of the willful suspension of disbelief, yet it can be hard to sustain disbelief across a story which is dispersed across so many different media. Indeed, transmedia often calls attention to the processes of its own production and circulation in ways which can impact its emotional reality. This may be why early ARGS claimed “this is not a game” and thus incorporated the reality of the web into the story. I’ve suggested we might think about the active production of belief as part of the expectation the transmedia storyteller places on their audience. What insights do you have about the problem of maintaining the credibility of a transmedia story?

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with quite a lot, because there are tremendous ethical and legal questions around pervasive fiction. How do you account for bystanders misinterpreting your content — and maybe reporting you to the authorities? And yet how do you create an immersive experience if you’re lamp shading the fact that your story isn’t really real?

The solution, I think, is to separate the idea of realism and verisimilitude from the idea of emotional and narrative authenticity. It’s easy to mistake the two, because they’re both interpretations of truth. This isn’t a new problem, either. In the 18th century, many novels claimed to be papers found in an attic, journals arrived in a mysterious parcel, and the like. They, too, were striving for realism in an effort to stake out credibility and authenticity, as the novel was considered a low form at the time. But now we’ve grown comfortable with the idea that a novel is outright fabricated by a writer, and that novels have cultural value, too.

Transmedia narrative will get there as well, and I suspect a lot faster, because audiences now have much more sophisticated media habits than audiences three hundred years ago. The audience will happily forgive you for gaps in realism. The hero rarely has to take a bathroom break, after all, and the bad guys are nearly always terrible marksmen. But if you have a character react to a situation in a way that doesn’t feel true to the audience, you’ll simply lose them.

Once you recognize this key distinction, it liberates you from striving to make things all look perfectly and completely realistic. The audience wants to buy into your story, so using intro and outro bumpers on video clips and corporate footers on websites don’t damage the heart of the experience.

Classic Hollywood developed principles of redundancy so that every detail that mattered was repeated multiple times — they sometimes talked about the Law of Threes. Does redundancy become more or less important in a transmedia text? What are some strategies that are effective for building redundancy into the text without boring your most dedicated fans? Are there other principles which should be used to insure the accessibility of a transmedia story?

As with many parts of transmedia creation, there’s no one right answer. It depends on what works best for the project you’re trying to make. Outright repetition could be necessary in some works and not others.

The one hard rule I’d put is this: if you’re providing multiple entry points to your story, then you need to provide enough context for the audience to understand what’s going on at exactly that point. If that means you have to repeat important details, then so be it, but a more elegant solution might be to provide easy access to that information in an out-of-story reference source. It might also be possible to include certain key information in entry pieces of content and then never repeat them. If you’re making a sprawling Star Wars-style venture, you probably don’t need to explain what a Jedi is in every new book or film; you can assume a certain amount of canon knowledge in your audience.

There is one more consideration, though, and that’s the effect of fandom on a work. In an emergent and adaptive narrative, you may not even know what details will be important ahead of time. You simply choose the things your audience has focused on and reward that focus to the best of your ability.

Some communities thrive on explaining the story to one another, as well. Homestuck comes to mind — it’s recently been described as the Ulysses of the internet by the Idea Channel. It’s nominally a web comic, but there are strong game influences and even outright games, music, and heavy audience influence over the events of the story. At this point, there are dozens of characters and an incredibly convoluted universe that operates under some very specific rules. The story can be nearly inscrutable in places if you aren’t active in the fan community one way or another.

But if the creator, Andrew Hussie, were to repeat important details in the way that Hollywood might suggest, it would disrupt the flow of the story, limit its scope to what could be planned ahead of time, and it would remove the need for a sort of social grooming that happens in the fan community, of sharing common knowledge about the story and world. I don’t think that fandom would be as robust if Homestuck itself wasn’t as opaque.

 

Some argue that elements built into a transmedia story in order to intensify fan engagement can seem overwhelming to a more casual consumer who wants to just sit back and be entertained. Is this tension inevitable around a transmedia work or can we, as Christy Dena has argued, created different forms and levels of participation for different segments of a transmedia audience?

We can design for different levels of participation, and in fact for the most part we do. But there is a point of diminishing returns. If only ten people in the world will ever see a piece of content, perhaps you’re better spending your budget on something else. You do in general have to choose between providing a very rich and deep experience for very few people, or providing a somewhat shallower experience to a much broader audience.

The fashionable solution right now is to make each platform a self-encapsulated narrative, completely accessible to casual audiences. Star Wars works just as one movie. Lizzie Bennett Diaries works just as a web series. Lance Weiler’s Pandemic works just as a short film, and so on and so forth. But there are varying degrees of immersion available if you’re motivated for all three of these. For Star Wars, you get entire other stories. For Lizzie Bennett, you get just a little characterization and depth.

And again, the issue of fandom rears its head. In a classic alternate reality game, most people will never actually solve a serious puzzle or pick up documents in a secret meeting at midnight. But the players who do jump through those hoops actually become a part of the entertainment for more passive audience members. The experience becomes something akin to a spectator sport.

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. Her book A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is published by McGraw-Hill. Her work includes educational and commercial projects such as The Maester’s Path for HBO’s Game of Thrones with Campfire Media, America 2049 with human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, Routes for Channel 4 Education, the independent commercial ARG Perplex City, and The 2012 Experience for Sony Pictures. These projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a BIMA, an IVCA Grand Prix award, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others.