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Broad Strokes: Coloring Canon Outside the Lines

Andrea Phillips | 16 Nov 2012 13:00
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DLC helps with that, but eventually the DLC team gets pulled into building the next full version of a game. Fostering continued engagement between releases is an area where the transmedia toolset can help. Dragon Age, Portal, Halo, Assassin's Creed and others have branched out into comics, books, web series, and the like in order to keep delivering fresh content to fans - which in turn reminds those fans about the game they love, and keeps them from having the time to fall in love with some other game instead.

This is the baseline where it's easy to confuse building a franchise with building a transmedia story. It's not enough to just throw together random pieces of content and call it transmedia. Each piece you build has to add something unique and valuable to the entire experience. And those pieces shouldn't be limited to simply creating stories peripherally related to the game on other platforms.

The idea is to create a piece of the world of your game to make it feel more concrete, to make your players feel more a part of it.

Making Transmedia Games

Worldbuilding and characterization are more interesting purposes for the transmedia toolbox. The idea is to create a piece of the world of your game to make it feel more concrete, to make your players feel more a part of it.

This used to be fairly common. Ultima had its cloth maps and coins, ankhs and cards. Infocom games from Wishbringer to Deadline had notes, poison pills, letters. They may have been conceived to compensate for poor graphics and sound, but no gaming rig can provide that same sense of wonder. Tangible artifacts can be expensive to produce, alas, so these days, they're most often limited to deluxe pre-order editions. And not everyone even buys boxed games anymore. But you don't need to fabricate a physical object to do great worldbuilding or characterization. Digital artifacts from your story world can do the trick as well. A website for a company in the game. An interactive map. A field guide to the wildlife. All of these can make a game feel more immediate, more real, which in turn makes the player's connection to your game more immediate, more gripping.

A better use for transmedia is in an area that games are the worst at: propagating backstory and exposition. Portal gave you context brilliantly in-game with environmental storytelling - posters, bloody handprints, abandoned coffee mugs. But in general, the narrative of a game is told much less subtly than that. We have libraries full of history books, awkward NPC monologues, and the same information duplicated by every other NPC. The quest formula and cut scenes. These tools are often used to carry the entire payload of story in a game, and they create a serious friction problem.

Friction can be an issue for transmedia projects, too - sometimes the effort of switching between media is too much, and you lose audience. But games do too much context switching even within the same game, on the same screen.

Games are at heart about inducing a state of flow. When I sit down at a controller, I am primed for certain stimuli. I have already made a choice to play a game, not read a book or watch a movie or browse Metafilter. I have expectations about the experience that I will be participating in.

It's likely (in my case) that experience will be punching dragons in the face.

That means anything too different or tangential from dragon-punching is fundamentally disrespectful of my play experience. If I want to be punching dragons, I have already chosen not to read a book, so why do I find book after book in my videogames? The same goes for video content. Some people find long cut scenes distracting, because when they are playing a game, they have already chosen not to watch a movie.

The solution is easy. Break the frame. Prune elements from your game and make them accessible elsewhere in order to provide a superior experience. Give me an app to auction my stuff off to other players from my phone - some games have done this already, but it should be bog-standard. Let me read those libraries from your story world on my Kindle, when I'm actually in a reading mood. Let me listen to your hilarious radio broadcasts in a podcast. Let me consume where the tool and the context are most comfortable for me.

And that's just the beginning. Game designers should be better at transmedia than anyone. Don't accept the limitations that come with shoving all of your content into a single overstuffed work. Take a step back.

You can keep the same story payload -- the same narrative depth - while placing each piece of content where it is most convenient for the player to experience it. And sometimes the most convenient place for a player to access in-game content won't be in the game at all.

Andrea Phillips is a writer, game designer, and author of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, so she is mad biased on the topic.Her work includes the games Perplex City, America 2049, and The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones. She cheats at Words With Friends.

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