By now, we have enough experiments to start to develop some core insights about what kinds of stories work best in a transmedia context. How would you define the goals and properties of a good transmedia story?
The core goal should always be to create a compelling story. Every facet of the work would reflect that, in a perfect world. But it’s interesting to think about what elements of a story will actually sustain it, and what won’t.
A lot of great transmedia works share certain surface characteristics: intricate mythologies or story worlds, a thread of the mysterious unknown, and some form of group identity the audience can relate to and imagine being a part of. Science fiction and fantasy are of course the main stock of transmedia so far, both because those genres easily fit those criteria, and because their fans tend to both interrogate their fiction relentlessly and sit early on the tech adoption curve. But we also see a lot of thrillers and mysteries, because those provoke seeking and solving behaviors; the audience actively wants more angles to the story and is motivated to seek them out.
There are a few genres that haven’t yet been explored very well, though, and so I think we’ve found only a few things that work. How I Met Your Mother is pioneering the extended transmedia punch line. We’ll definitely see more and more of that. And MTV’s Valemont and now Lizzie Bennett Diaries tap into a potentially rich vein of complex social drama, for example. I think there’s potentially a thriving market for soap-style transmedia relationship drama, but there haven’t been as many efforts in that direction so far.
There’s a related question: Is there anything in transmedia guaranteed not to work? I think very internal, literary stories might struggle to carry an expanded treatment without transforming into something entirely different. The Old Man and the Sea, for example, is a moving piece of writing, a work of classic literature, absolutely worth your time. But not really a great candidate to create a transmedia property. If you were to fracture it into pieces or expand the core of the story, you’d inevitably lose the power of the work as it stands. That’s a huge part of being a transmedia creator, too; knowing when to leave well enough alone, because applying your tools will make the story worse, not better.
You describe yourself as a “big fan of physical artifacts” which help expand the world of the story. So often, transmedia is associated with digital media in popular discourse. What are some rich examples of projects which brought tangible and tactile media experiences into the mix? What do you see as the value of doing so?
Tangibility is a profoundly powerful thing. It’s why we bring back souvenirs from trips, and why we cherish old concert t-shirts, why we buy replicas of rings and swords from movies we love. It’s almost like locking all of the feelings and memories about a certain time and place into that object for safekeeping. I couldn’t begin to explain the neuroscience, but I know the tool is that compelling. As an artist, of course I want to use that tool for the benefit of my story! And as a businesswoman, if people are willing to pay for that depth of experience, then I should definitely make it available.
Of course the HBO Game of Thrones campaign The Maester’s Path is a great example of physical artifacts in transmedia marketing. The scent chests and food trucks dreamed up by Campfire were beautifully executed and well received (and I say this as someone who was on the team but definitely not the genius who dreamed up the strategy). Alternate reality games as a whole have an enormous history or providing tangible goods, to such an extent that the annual conference ARGfest sets up a museum every year so people can see and touch that history for themselves.
I’m working on an indie project right now called Balance of Powers, and just a few weeks ago, Kickstarter backers were sent an eight-page newspaper from the story world. It had display ads, classified ads, horoscopes, political news, a crossword puzzle — just like a real newspaper, but all slightly altered to give information about the alternate-history universe where the story is taking place. The audience loves it, we have a way to make a little more revenue, and the story world expands in breadth and depth. It’s a winning proposition all around. I am determined at this point to make a tangible element for every project I make, if I can manage it — it’s that powerful.
But as with many of the tools we place under the transmedia umbrella now, it’s not even a very new practice! Video games used to use tangibility all the time. I loved Infocom text adventures, back in the day. The games themselves had no sound or graphics, but the boxes they came in were works of art. I remember letters and postcards, a swizzle stick shaped like a palm tree, a plastic evidence envelope with “cyanide” pills inside, maps and journals. Ultima games did it, too: coins and tarot cards and cloth maps. These objects both helped to evoke the game world right off the bat, and became cherished objects long after you’d finished the game. Games still do some of this, but they’ve switched to the revenue model, as well. You only get Master Chief’s helmet if you shell out for the premium edition of Halo III.
I am a naysayer and don’t consider all licensed objects to have that power, though. For me, there has to be an element of touching the story world. A toy light saber? Absolutely yes. Action figures and bed sheets? Maybe not so much. Those may be important sentimental objects, but they don’t feel like objects from a fictional world that have materialized in our universe the way a replica of The One Ring might.
One common misunderstanding in transmedia is that because the information is dispersed across media, it can be consumed in any sequence and thus the story is essentially nonlinear. What roles do you see sequencing of information playing in shaping the transmedia franchise and what are some strategies people are using to influence to order in which we engage with the different segments they have produced?
This is one of the big structural challenges we deal with again and again. You can make entirely nonlinear experiences, but they’re the exception, not the rule. That said, it is common for a minor component of a project to become a vector for introducing people to the greater work — one wonder how many new people gave How I Met Your Mother a chance after the Robin Sparkles “Let’s Go To The Mall” video. So you can certainly make discrete pieces that don’t have much bearing on the chronology of the overarching storyline.
There are several possible solutions to the problem, though. One is to make it very obvious what your intended sequence of consumption is. Reading or viewing guides, for example, for finished works. It’s also good design to account for that in your structure; to make entry points obvious and numerous. Everybody knows where to get started with Star Wars — you watch the movies.
For an experience that plays out in real time, finding a way to catch up new audience members is an enormous challenge, but an important one if you want to keep your audience growing. One of the things I’m most impressed with from The Lizzie Bennett Diaries is their recap model. Of course viewing order for the web series is obvious from looking at the YouTube channel. But there’s also a handy reference page where important Tumblr posts and Storified social media exchanges are archived.
And then there’s the Fourth Wall Studios approach with Dirty Work — there’s a main linear narrative with a distinct and obvious path through it. Other elements add to that, but it’s not strictly necessary to consume them at all — and they’re all anchored in the main video so that it’s literally not possible to access them from the wrong spot.
I think, though, that all of this is still a little clumsy. This is one of those elements of transmedia narrative where I feel like we haven’t yet established the right conventions and vocabulary. In film, you know how to interpret a montage or a scene with calendar pages dropping to the floor. One day, we’ll have simple and agreed method for showing an audience the best and intended way to navigate a transmedia experience, even if we’re not quite there yet.
You use the example of “Chekhov’s Gun” to describe a particular kind of storytelling, where everything introduced must have a clear function within the narrative. Once you introduce a gun into the story, at some point you have to have a character fire it or otherwise what’s the point. Yet, transmedia expands the potential range of functions which a device or detail might serve. For example, it might simply tell us something about the world which goes beyond the demands of a particular story, or it might be a rabbit hole which opens up places for the audience to explore beyond what’s explicitly on the screen. How, then, do transmedia producers know when to stop adding details? How do you answer the core question which many game designers learn to address early in their creative process — what’s not in the game?
That’s a particularly pertinent question in light of the reaction to Prometheus. The film centered around explaining a mystery from the first Alien film — at least in part; there were a few points of conflict between the two accounts. But many viewers of both films were very unhappy with how that mystery was answered. They felt that by spelling out the origin of that first alien, the original work lost some of its impact.
When you’re writing a complex work of fiction, it’s often the case that you’ll have a lot of information about backstory that you aren’t going to pass on to your audience. It might seem like a waste to generate that knowledge and then not use it as content. But sometimes it’s crucial to get your story straight about events and motivations you never want to spell out — you’re creating a negative space, and that space has to remain consistent. In order to preserve consistency, though, you have to be completely clear about what occupies that space.
I think, though, that part of this is simply the art of storytelling. The act of telling a story is implicitly the act of choosing a frame. There will always be things that happen before your story begins, and after it’s over; there will always be things that occur during the story that you choose not to include. The art of narrative is to curate what you include in order to create the most satisfying possible story. Unfortunately, that’s one of the hardest skills for a writer to learn.
The best (but still imperfect) advice I’d have is to understand what parts of your story are absolutely immutable, and which you can change. If you can cut something out of the story and still have a comprehensible story, then that element has to go through a harder vetting process. What is it adding? If you can’t put your finger on a rock-solid reason to keep it in, maybe that’s your signal that you shouldn’t include it at all.
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.