We could start this chapter at any one of several points, and each of them get something fundamental across, so let’s start with a set of disparate beginnings.
Interactive media, our teenager, is almost fully grown, and has experienced a number of things since adulthood loomed over the horizon. Fashions may come and go, but the appeal of subcultures, of associating with something that offers identification with a herd, a common perspective and ethos, appeals to every young person. As digital writing has begun to mature, it takes stock of its surroundings and realises that far from a childish pursuit, the industry that has developed around games, and digital games in particular, is growing at an incredible rate, eclipsing the niches occupied by hypertextual narrative and MMORPGS. Our teenager’s peers are embracing a new form of storytelling—coined ‘transmedia narrative’—and it seems that here, at last, a culture born intertextual, postmodern, might find a voice.
There is a contract between author and audience. Maintained and supported by the text (the story, for want of a better catch-all), it asks them to build worlds, populate them with believable characters and then send those newly created personas off on adventures. World building is one of the principal functions of good storytelling. Talented writers craft an environment we can believe in. It might be ours, it might be a little off-kilter from the norm, but it is a world, and we build it together.
Technology is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. We carelessly transmit the details of our lives through social networks, as naturally as breathing air. Our digital exchanges are as real as those in the world. They might not have the virtue of physicality, but we pay as much attention to them as we do to a handshake, the expression in someone’s eye. Sometimes we pay more attention.
If we live and breathe digitally as much as we do physically, then why should we deny our characters and their world that same freedom. In fact, surely granting them the same detail, the equivalent texture, is world building too?
You know, we can do it, so why shouldn’t we.
Each of these origins, addressed individually, might give rise to a singular approach to digital storytelling—and each can, in fact, do just that—but together they merge, overlap, infiltrate each other’s territory and what we get is this:
There is much to be admired about Transmedia work, and we’ll celebrate each of them in turn, but as a whole, it’s a mess. A huge, sprawling, cacophony of world and story and technology and virtuality and illusion that has no centre, no point, and very often, no control. Ursula K Le Guin put it eloquently (Ursula K Le Guin never puts anything less than eloquently, and we should read more of her writing) in From Elfand to Poughkeepsie:
There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
Transmedia wants to have its cake and to eat it. It wants the construct to be provided—the fabric of the world exists, ready to be populated with tweets and status updates, with diary entries found pinned to the wall of a child’s bedroom, with knowing asides to the camera (because Transmedia knows that a camera is present, all the time)—and it wants the pact between author and reader to be easy, to be smoothed by this plasterwork and nails built by other hands and never questioned. By wanting everything, by eschewing restraint, it wastes and scatters. It is lazy.
If transmedia works at all, it is when it restrains itself. When it nudges into another platform just to show you something storyable, something that pertains and cannot be told another way. Writing is rules, and care, and (Le Guin again):
It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.
What Transmedia is good at is the illusion of emerging story. Like serial fiction, Transmedia narratives emerge a piece at a time, over time and bit by bit. They slip into the world and draw their readers into a story that, in not presenting itself as a finished thing, suggests that it is happening now. Not in a galaxy far far away, or on some lonely shore, or in last night’s dream of Manderley.
Transmedia is adept at imitating the real.
That’s not terribly helpful though, if you’re dead set on writing a story that is going to be told across synchronous platforms. The real is probably as far from your thoughts as you need it to be. What you need to know is how to use each platform and, more importantly, when to use them.
Before we get to the practical advice though, a little more history and context (you can skip to the end if you only came here for the practical stuff):
Transmedia offers the inclusion of ancillary content as an available feature of digital’s platform agnostic potential. As elements to be utilised, video, audio, first and second person records, diary entries and confessionals, maps, illustrations and games are all present within a broader platform that ‘consumes other media’ and remediates that content in language and grammars familiar to their analogue forebears. It is perfectly natural that digital storytelling should seek to include those previously invisible content streams as elements within a connected, intertextual landscape.
Henry Jenkins, then Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at MIT, reflected that transmedia storytelling—the coordinated use of storytelling grammars across platforms—can work to make characters more compelling. It’s a persuasive argument; as readers become conversant with each other’s presence on distributed media platforms, and as they observe and embody the performance exhibited by blogging, social media and other aspects of telepresence, then offering those facilities to characters in a fictional universe ought to render them more clearly, with fuller personalities, nuances and contradictions than is available in the linear, closed system offered by conventional writing practices.
What has emerged though, outstrips Jenkins’ proposal for narrative synchronisation across digital channels. When characters in a TV show are gifted blogs in the ‘real’ world, communicating with viewers (now readers) in real time, regardless of the temporal status of the primary channel of narrative delivery, the result isn’t synchronous characterisation; it’s shouting. Their twitter accounts might engage with conversation with each other and with a remote audience, imparting some sense of consequence to that communication, but they lack the constructed nuance of dialogue and mis-en-scene present in an authored, closed textual space. Book content extends into video material, as extra-textual trailers for the primary text, where they at least function as a marketing lead for new audiences, or less cohesively as video diaries seemingly aping the narrative function of found-footage film familiar to audiences viewing ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
Transmedia offers the opportunity to engage with the characters in a story, to be a part of the storied events. It is difficult to match the intention of a crafted paragraph with the multiple-channel, cross-platform future we seem to be wandering headlong into. Worse, its even harder to imagine who is going to pay attention long enough to actually read it all.
Transmedia devices extend narratives into games, in fact, it could be proposed that they are the result of a financially attractive games industry being eyed up in a bar by a hard-up linear story. Jenkins observes the narrative causality of ‘The Matrix’ as a particularly prominent example of this; the release of the second and third films in the Wachowski’s film trilogy was accompanied by short fiction within the universe established by the first film, a series of animated films broadening the narrative foundation of the series, and a computer game which provided a key element of the second film’s plot sequence, without the completion of which certain elements of story within the third film make scant sense. Picking apart elements of story construction in as large an endeavour as ‘The Matrix’ is not the role of this volume, and however constrained by time, cinema release, technology or audience each element might have been, the question that remains unanswered by proponents of transmedia story form is this: to what extent is each element necessary to the overall story? Or is it simply well constructed fan-fiction within that world; not adding anything of consequence, nor illuminating character in a manner described by Jenkins.
Since the emergence of a set of paragons for transmedia form—‘The Matrix’ as cheerleader in chief—that difficulty of marrying form to content to intention has remained. It is possible that the wholehearted adoption of transmedia form by established production houses, and the subsequent emergence of a generation of writers capable of creating content within those platforms is a result of the fragmentation effect of remediated media forms, however what remains is a sense that all too often, new platforms and ancillary content—blogs, games, social media all—are included within a product’s release because then can be, and not because they should be.
Examining transmedia storytelling, we are confronted with a cacophony of rhythms constructed to achieve affect rather than story, to imbue atmosphere through sound and vision in place of good storytelling.
Transmedia is Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
That’s the problem. When we throw the contents of the whole kitchen cupboard at story, it just makes a mess. An inedibe, glutinous, sticky, disorienting mess. A recipe is built up carefully, with attention. Let’s get to the cookbook.
If you want to write transmedia, then don’t make the mistake of thinking that The Matrix is what you’re making. The Matrix is loud, and expensive, and you can’t remember what happened in the second film, can you? What The Matrix represents is a marketing executive’s dream of what digital storytelling might be. Dedicated readers (superfans—we’ll use this term again) will seek out and devour everything, at a fair amount of expense, and while they might represent a decent income—for as long as their attention is on you—they don’t last. Marketing transmedia is brand extension, is a campaign to sell someone else’s product and it’s beneath you.
Let’s look somewhere else. Somewhere more interesting. Somewhere, for a writer, that’s not film.
John Clute, in his review of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), identifies within Gibson’s text transmedia phenomenons useful for Transmedia writers to consider:
It would be inappropriate – this early in the life of the book – to strip the latter parts of the story wide open; but this can be said. All 135 sequences of the footage (film fragments released anonymously on the internet by the ‘Garage Kubrick’) to date are numbered steganographically – that is, through a complex process of ‘digital watermarking’ which must be deciphered to be read – in a pattern that seems unmistakably to represent the map of some urban area. That the pattern is in fact not a city map, that it is in fact something whose implications wrench the heart, the reader will discover. For the pattern, and the story embedded in the pattern, and the maker of the pattern, are one. Together, they are the wound of the world doing story. (2003: 405)
Clute isn’t terribly interested in digital writing. What he’s identifying in Gibson’s story—through the means of its telling—is, beyond the demand for decoding; a substructure that nods toward something else, something storyable, something that pertains and cannot be told another way. When Transmedia restrains its ambition, it can achieve something as subtle as the substructure of Gibson’s tale. The implication of utilising technology to tell a story suggests that the action of the reader is somehow required—somehow manifested—in the uncovering of meaning. Gibson is interested in story, and the manner in which technology can be utilised to tell a story in a new way. That does not equate to letting the technology tell the story though: In all of Gibson’s work, new tools and techniques are the ground in which to work, not the work itself.
Brand extension is a way to work with digital elements though. While The Matrix’ transmedia elements amount to little more than a reworking of Lucasfilm’s Expanded Universe vision for the Star Wars series, it is possible to approach the extension of an existing text in a way that demonstrates some aspect of the narrative left unsaid, or in need of explanation, although this is not without its own problems.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy sits squarely within his ‘Weird Fiction’ stable of work. The first novel—Annihilation—follows the twelfth expedition sent into a zone (of Southern Florida) out of kilter with the rest of the world. The manner of the story dictates that each character is referred to only as their role—the Biologist, the Surveyor, the Psychologist—a naming structure that extends into their documentation of Area X itself. Annihilation had a digital ‘extension’ designed to work as a taster for the book, an incursion into the real world and a bridge back to Area X. Within the site, viewers are introduced to the themes of the novel (paranoia, deception, implanted suggestion and a larger, quasi-governmental organisation pulling the strings) and invited to undertake a training and selection procedure, making decisions about how to react to what Area X contains.