The Troubles and Triumphs of Transmedia Narratives

With the pervasive spread of global communication tools and networks across the world, it has become easier and easier to reach people with a variety of information. We are no longer as restricted by bandwidth or connection as we were and with each day any restriction that remains is challenged by new cables and fibre optics.

Each day we experience the world in a linear narrative, from morning to night. Throughout that day, we are exposed to a variety of media. Adverts on billboards, websites we visit, television we watch, radio or music we listen to etc. In essence, this is our own personal story and the connections between each text we experience only occurs for us or for the people we share the whole narrative with.

Transmedia Storytelling – a phrase coined by Henry Jenkins in 2005 as part of his book, Convergence Culture describes the way in which narratives can be linked across mediums and by doing so, these narratives tap into the linked experience we already have. The multiplicity of outputs delivered by a multiplicity of platforms concretises as well as connects. Through a mix of address, we perceive greater depth and a great experience.

To be a transmedia narrative, the story must switch between the output forms in some way and each new expression must have some advancement, it cannot be worthless. That said, many good examples of transmedia storytelling are careful to balance the essentiality of each output. A viewer may watch the Matrix trilogy, for example, without needing to watch the Animatrix, play Enter the Matrix or read the connected comics, but the viewer who does feels they have gained a more privileged insight into the world. This is a story of circles as each builds on the next in layers, helping you become more immersed in the world of the chosen fiction.

Transmedia narratives offer us, a chance to make something appear deeper and more meaningful than a single film, audio book, website, etc. The different outputs mean the viewer can immerse themselves and choose to access each in turn, changing their reception as they go.

For any would-be transmedia storyteller, approaching the creation of a narrative that switches between forms requires some thought. Can you deliver each of the components in each medium? Will the quality remain high in all the outputs? The challenge transmedia storytellers have are in a) how not to dilute content, b) how to retain value of their content and c) how to persuade a user to switch between the output forms. This can be problematic. Here are some examples:

  • I make a short film. It ends with a cliffhanger. To find out what happens next, viewers have to send a letter with an SAE to an address I specify in the credits. In reply, I send them a small booklet with the next chapter of the story.
  • I make a short film. It ends with a cliffhanger. I put on Youtube and put a link in the credits. The view clicks on it and it takes them to a website to find out what happens next.
  • I make a short film. It ends with a cliffhanger. I put on Youtube and put a link in the credits to an audio file, which I download to listen to to find out what happens next.
  • I make a short film. It ends with a cliffhanger. I put on Youtube and put a link in the credits to purchase the next instalment of the story.

We could list hundreds of these, but the examples above each ask the viewer to commit to the story in a different way and call for different actions to gain the additional content. This is called ergodic literature – a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth which describes texts that require more than minimal effort to engage with. Granted, they are not a great deal more than minimal effort in some cases, but they could be, although often the storyteller would weigh the difficulty of access against their wish to obtain an audience and the nature of the audience itself.

The origination of all content doesn’t have to be by one person and in some cases, is much better if it isn’t as involving the talents of others can bring specialist skills and a much quicker creation of content. However, when a number of outputs are being created to fit together as a whole fictional entity, some kind of guide is needed. This is a Macrotext – a non-published and mutable work that ensures the different content creators aren’t contradicting each other and thereby raising questions for the viewer that may draw them out of the transmedia experience.

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My own work on creating transmedia narratives is through collaboration. Creating outputs and guides for groups working on a particular fiction. I worked on guides for the factions and corporations of the computer game Elite: Dangerous by Frontier Developments that informed writers of the official fiction and helped everyone produce stories that tied in with the experience of playing the game.

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I then wrote one of the tie-in novels, Elite: Lave Revolution, which contained website links, encryption codes, artwork and all sorts of extras, each carefully written to add to the experience for those interested.

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In total there are nine current official novels, with a tenth due out very soon and a roleplaying game to follow. I also wrote music for five of the audio versions of the books which are being produced by the Radio Theatre workshop.

Currently I’m in the middle of a similar process with Julian Gollop and Snapshot Games’ new game Chaos Reborn, I devised a world guide which ties together the game, the characters of the game’s major backers – its gods and demigods and the official novel. This ties in all sorts of real world history events into a fantasy story. [insert gameplay image] The mix of outputs – game and book – are linear in their connection (book tells the story leading up to the game) and will likely both contain additional discoverable content to obtain as this fits in with the nature of the audience.

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In both cases there was a legacy of older works which needed to find a home in the new revised background and by ensuring they fit, this creates another appeal to the audience who may have played or read them.

So, if you are about to start making a story, consider the benefits and difficulties of the different mediums and outputs you can create alongside it as well as the different ways your audience will access the narrative. Consider transmedia storytelling, after all, the more time people spend in your world, the more immersive and enjoyable an experience they can have.

Guest Blogger: Allen Stroud


AllenStroud
Allen is an academic, novelist, music composer and part of the Lave Radio podcast team. In 2008, he completed a Creative Writing Research Masters at the University of Bedfordshire. He is currently studying a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Winchester. His website is http://www.allenstroud.com

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