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Broad Strokes: Coloring Canon Outside the Lines


At Nordic Games Conference this year, mere moments before I took the stage, a gruff man from Hamburg asked me why I had come. “Transmedia,” I told him.

He scoffed. “Transmedia is irrelevant,” he said.

This sentiment isn’t exactly hard to come by in gaming circles. According to prevailing feeling, transmedia is bad films based on your game. Or bad games based on someone else’s film. It’s marketing gimmicks and action figures. It’s exploitative, brings no value to the audience, and definitely doesn’t make the experience of the game itself better. Right?

Story isn’t necessary to make a game. Not even a great game that people love – games from Tetris to backgammon do a stellar job without even a hint of narrative.

Wrong. Transmedia and games are a natural fit – arguably more so than transmedia goes with film and TV. Games have done things I’d consider transmedia for decades. And I maintain that modern games can become better by adopting even more transmedia narrative methods.

First, though, we need to establish a definition for “transmedia storytelling.” Per USC Prof. Henry Jenkins, transmedia storytelling is the art of telling one story across multiple media, where each medium is making a unique contribution to the whole.

In less academic terms, it means Star Wars, where you have to watch the movies to see Princess Leia and Han Solo fall in love, but you have to read the books to follow the romance all the way to marriage and twin babies. It also means Why So Serious? and The Dark Knight, where the school bus you steal for the Joker in the alternate reality game makes a cameo in the opening moments of the film.

The common thread is fragmentation — breaking the frame of a story to bring it to another medium, whenever that’s appropriate. The result is a mosaic of stories, where each piece adds to a greater whole, and where working out where and how the pieces fit together is a part of the pleasure.

Many transmedia projects use the real world and interactive media as platforms. This lets you paint with a broader palette of emotions than flat, non-interactive platforms. This is news to film and marketing folk, but narrative designers for games should already know this in their bones.

I’ve often wondered why our benchmark for games-as-art is, “Can a game make you cry?” The emotional texture of a game can be so much more nuanced and interesting than that. Games can make you feel pride, frustration, even guilt over what you have done. How many films or novels can do that?

The Power of Narrative

You may think that I’m saying every game needs a story, and that every game needs transmedia storytelling. That’s definitely not the case. Story isn’t necessary to make a game. Not even a great game that people love – games from Tetris to backgammon do a stellar job without even a hint of narrative.

But a slap-dash coating of narrative can give the player motivation to play and keep playing that simply wasn’t there before. Angry Birds without those egg-thieving green pigs is just a physics simulation. I had physics simulators in high school. I did not spend an Angry Birds amount of time on them.

The fact is that story makes people care more about your game, and for a longer period of time. Look at the simplest measure of unadorned fan engagement: fan-crafted copyright violations available for sale on Etsy. Low-narrative games tend to have lower numbers of fan crafts for sale. As of this writing, Farmville has a mere 32 items available. Tetris has 437. Warcraft has 1,291. Legend of Zelda has a staggering 2,692.

If you accept that games are an art form that can make a story deeper, richer, more engaging by making the story interactive – and I don’t think many readers would argue that here – then contemplate the possibility that transmedia is a set of tools you can use to make a great game even deeper, richer, and more engaging than that.

Continued engagement doesn’t just mean your players make more crafts when the game is over, though. It means loyalty. An engaged player will buy your next game, your DLC, your merchandise. That means more money in your pockets to keep making more and better games.

But keeping a fan hyper-involved for an extended period of time can be tricky and terrifying, given the years-long production cycles that narrative-heavy games can have. Right now, games have a problem with fan communities eventually going dormant in between major releases. Not all of those fans come back.

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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