Technology is changing the way we receive and experience entertainment. Over the course of three or four posts, I want to talk about several interesting trends in storytelling. Today’s post looks at three new storytelling worlds, each of which span a variety of media platforms, and examines why the entertainment industry will be producing more of them for the foreseeable future.
The germination time for an idea in the corporate entertainment industry seems to be about two to three years. That is about the time it takes to make an idea into a movie, a game, or a book, for that matter. A few years ago, the word “transmedia” became a hot topic among entertainment circles. We are already seeing the results with much more on the way in the next couple of years.
Henry Jenkins, USC professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts defines transmedia this way:
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
Jenkins argues that transmedia separates itself from traditional media franchises when the story is told using several different genres of media. But there is the rub. Corporate entertainment firms clearly see the benefit of providing a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” These transmedia projects allow them to create multiple avenues for audiences to experience their products — the success of both Marvel and DC as movie studios have proved the profit behind the model — but they seem to continuously miss Jenkins’ point about dispersing the storytelling across the genres. Since 2007, when Jenkins posted his definition of transmedia online, he seems to have been fighting a rearguard action trying to fend off those that see transmedia as simply another means to attract attention, rather than a new vibrant way to tell stories.
Jenkins himself recognizes that efforts across genres are mostly related to world-building and back story, rather than integrated into a single narrative.
Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theater knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.
Transmedia world-building has become big business in the entertainment industry. Recently, I have been exposed to three different media properties which are expertly exploiting transmedia principles to create larger more complex story worlds than they could if they limited themselves to only one type of media.
Dungeons & Dragons: Rise of the Underdark
At PAX this year, Wizards of the Coast eagerly discussed with fellow GeekDad Dave Banks and myself their Rise of the Underdark campaign going on across the various genres of the D&D media properties. The story of the attempt of the Drow Queen to return with her dark elves and rule the surface both influences the modules produced for their classic table top game and stands behind the adventures of their MMORPG . WotC sees these storylines as a means to help unify the D&D experience, no matter what media is used to play. They plan to introduce a new storyline on an annual basis, giving players a new set of worlds and characters to explore each year.
To me, SyFy original programming has not been worth watching since it veered away from science fiction into paranormal. Being a huge science fiction fan, I have to say that I miss shows like Stargate: SG1 and Battlestar Galactica. After a long drought, SyFy is finally returning to SciFi, and I am intrigued by both the premise of their new show and the initial look of its visuals. It also appears to have the storytelling chops to be something better than average.
Defiance takes place nine years after Earth has been terraformed to be an ideal place for an alien civilization. The remaining humans are beginning to put the pieces back together, and, if the trailer is any indication, to fight back. What makes this project interesting from a transmedia perspective is that they will be releasing an MMO at the same time. What better way to create a loyal community of fans than to put them all together in on online environment where they can converse and play in the world they love.
Relium Media: Angel Punk
One of the most interesting adventures in the world-building style of transmedia is Angel Punk by Relium Media, a small start-up company out of Portland, Oregon. Relium has taken the world-building aspect of transmedia and turned it into a business plan. Their first story world, Angel Punk, will include different but related storylines in comic book, movie, and novel forms. It is a fascinating idea to see if you can build an entertainment company from the ground up using transmedia principles as its foundation.
Here is a look at their first production short from the set of their film. (Trivia quiz: can anyone from the Pacific Northwest tell me where they are shooting? I know. It’s one of my favorite places.)
It makes sense that the efforts among entertainment companies interested in transmedia have been focusing on world-building and extension. From a profit point of view, these are the low-hanging fruit. Telling interesting stories in a variety of media allows your company to take one story world and present it to a much larger fan base than you could with a single storytelling medium. The impetus for much of these changes in corporate storytelling comes down to simple marketing. The larger the fan base, and the more entry points for the fan base, the easier it is to achieve profitability and takeoff speed for an entertainment property. If they are not careful, creativity can take a back seat to these concerns, and the value of transmedia ideas is lost or executed in an amateurish way. But when executed well, they can create some of the most entertaining experiences on the market.
But these huge projects are not the only ideas about how technology can change storytelling. In my next post, I will talk about how transmedia concepts can influence a single story, rather than a story world.