Transmedia: Dirty Commie Creativity

A few weeks ago, I finally caved in and picked up StarCraft 2, motivated in no way by the promised playability or fun of the game (which it delivers), but by a heartfelt desire to blow up some internet-friends (still an unrealized goal).

(Has anyone munged “internet friends” into some kind of cool portmanteau yet? Something like frenemies? Frienternets? Interiends? Podbudsters? Hmm.)

Anyway, playing Starcraft again (it feels a lot more like ‘again’, rather than ‘a whole new game’) produced an interesting effect about four or five evenings in.

It made both me and Kate start up Mass Effect 2.

Now, I was going to write about Mass Effect 2 a little bit, but I’ve done that before, more than a few times.

And anyway, I got distracted by some folks on twitter (Tweeps. Why isn’t there a generic-internet version of “tweeps”?) talking about transmedia.

This happens fairly regularly. Every few months, someone who is metallurgically balanced so as to ping my radar will throw out some thoughts on transmedia and stir that particular brain-turtle up. I’m going to take the opportunity to write about the subject while said turtle is still awake and munching on lettuce.


So: transmedia and transmedia storytelling. The idea is that the gestalt product of a creative project (hereafter, “the content”) grows into some kind of all-permeating thing that sort of wraps up, envelopes, soaks into, saturates, and generally penetrates the content audience’s lifestyle from multiple directions and via multiple media platforms. There are some pornography analogies I could draw, but that specific image isn’t really the goal of a transmedia product (unless a corporation gets hold of it); and I don’t think transmedia creators actually want to engender some kind of unhealthy obsession with their content beyond what one might see from the typical Whedonite or a Beiber fan.

Basically, a transmedia project (theoretically) develops its story across multiple media platforms in order to provide different entry points into the story. For example, one transmedia project might include books, blogs, ‘in-fiction’ twitter feeds, movies, youtube videos from fan-turned-creators, interactive text adventures, RPGs, and shared-author stuff like the Mongoliad or a storyball. Each one of these entry-points (and each piece of content within a particular platform) has a role in the big picture of the whole project, and a set ‘lifespan’ in which it is allowed to affect the big picture.

Did you pick up on the fact that some of those content-affecting inputs would be ‘fan’-created? I hoped you might — it’s an exciting and interesting concept, because if Twitter has taught us anything at all, it’s that all writers are also readers, and most readers are also writers, and everyone’s a fan/geek/nerd about something, so why not harness that awesome creative power and make it into something bigger than any one person? Coordinated storytelling across multiple platforms (even assuming that ninety percent of it is crap) cannot help but make the whole story more compelling.

The “coordinated” part is important, obviously; hence the need for set lifespans in which different elements can affect the core content.

Is this even a new thing?

It’s a fair question. When you talk about transmedia, you quickly start talking about activities that fall under the (shiny, new, plastic) umbrella of “transmedial play”, which. . . well, let’s just quote wikipedia on this one.

The viewer/user/player (VUP) transforms the story via his or her own abilities, and enables the Artwork to surpass the medium. It is in transmedial play that the ultimate story agency and decentralized authorship can be realized. Thus the VUP becomes the true producer of the Artwork. The Artist-authored transmedia elements act a story guide for the inherently narratological nature of the human mind to become thought, both conscious and subconscious, in the imagination of the VUP.

To which I respond “Oh. RPGs. But fancy.”

And what about Harry Potter?

It’s easy to look at a lot of the big-paycheck intellectual properties and think “but seriously: this is already being done.” Harry Potter is out there in books, movies, video games, slashfiction, web comics, youtube parodies, fan created vignettes, and hundreds of other things I’d probably rather not know about.

But that’s not really what this transmedia thing is aiming for.

To which you say: “What?”

See, an example like Harry Potter isn’t (as the jargon surrounding this discussion dictates) transmedia, it’s “crossmedia” — in crossmedia, the IP crosses over to new media platforms only to spread out the original content as far as it can — the stuff beyond the books isn’t delivering new content or growing the ‘canon content’, they’re just new delivery vectors for the original content, and as for the other stuff? The slashfic and youtube fanvids aren’t acknowledged at any point in the cycle as being a ‘real’ part of of the Harry Potter collective creative product in the first place. Conversely, transmedia is designed for multi-platform multi-author hacking.

And again, that’s some pretty heady stuff — there’s no more fertile ground for innovation than a diversity of experience.

But… no one’s really doing this yet?

Here’s the thing: I think it’s being done by accident right now, and largely by people who don’t realize they’re doing it.

To take Mass Effect 2 as a (bad) example, even as I play the game I’m making up stories about the characters or other background elements in my head, because as much as there is going on in that game already (dozens of stories above and beyond the main arc), there’s tons of stuff that only gets alluded to, and those are places my mind likes to go play. I’m also wearing an N7 sweatshirt when the house gets a little chilly in the evening, and I’ve read or at least considered reading the novels/comics/whatever set in the ME2 universe that have nothing at all to do with the storyline of the games, but which add more depth and meaning to the game by thier inclusion in the net product. I’m saturated. Permeated.

But as I said, that’s not a great example. None of my head-stories have an access point by which they can be incorporated into the creative whole. I’m saturated in this content only insofar as I want to become so (heck, even when I wear the sweatshirt, it’s at least somewhat ironically).

Dragon Age (also by Bioware) gets closer in this regard simply because you’ve got the game, the extra content for the game, the flash-based spin-offs, the expansions, novels and comics that provide some intertextual depth to the setting without rehashing anything from the game itself, AND a tabletop RPG (and supporting forum) that lets you play around in the setting sandbox and create your own stories and hacks and narrative, then share it with your fellow fans in that context.

No: that’s not a perfect realization of the ideal, but I believe it’s moving in the right direction; it has a lot of the ingredients in the bowl. And if it’s not right (not yet), that’s not the point — even the failure has value. I don’t think lightning is suddenly going to strike and someone will magically produce a perfect transmedia product/template. Most great ideas don’t come as flashes of insight following brilliant successes — they come after a series of epic fuck-ups and spectacularly useless failures.

(Like, say, Google Wave; the ultimate solution-in-search-of-a-problem. Ten years from now, someone will turn that “wasted” software development and make something pretty goddamn amazing out of it. You watch.)

Why do you keep using examples from gaming?

Lots of people who get excited about Transmedia seem to want to start from books and work out from there. Those same people ask things like “how can publishers take on the author’s work to help it become truly transmedia?”

I think that’s… adorable. Also? Woefully myopic. How is a publisher supposed to help someone writing books expand their creative content into an arena neither they nor (presumably) the author knows anything about? What the fuck does Knopf know about creating a flash-based game or ARG meant to share a linearly independent story spun off from the Book they just put out in hardback?

Jesus, most of them can’t even get their heads around ebooks with anything better than 1996 cognition, and those are kind of the same thing (for now).

No, if you want to jump platforms, you need people who get that OTHER platform as well as you get the platform you’re starting with.

(And there should also be people keeping an eye out for new platforms that don’t currently look like platforms. Some of the best ‘inventions’ come from people repurposing something in a smart way. (GPS technology was originally created to help us bomb the fuck out of other people, for example.))

My point: all the platforms need to be treated with equal care, and if all the platforms are equally important, than it doesn’t matter which one you start on. Gaming (in my opinion) has always done a lot more stuff related to multi-platform creative content and “audience as author” creation, so I tend to start there (but I can be wrong, too).

Again, there’s that chime: audience as author. Author as audience. Innovation via a diverse group of creators.

I’ve been reading Where Good Ideas Come From on my Droid, and there’s a lot in there about co-mutual creation that touches on the potential power of transmedia — the creative output of many people, provided that all those people have access to the “stuff” — the gears and parts that make up a transmedia product. Leave all that stuff lying around, mix in interested and excited people with different experience, give them a reliable means to share good ideas or good notions or even half-baked half-ideas, and let it all simmer someplace that doesn’t punish failed experiments or cockblock anyone messing with the Holy Writ of the Original Content Creator, and you might get something pretty damned special.

Someplace. Someplayce.

Play. Excited, energized creation-as-play.

Now ask again why I keep using gaming examples.