If there’s one thing that strikes me about writing for transmedia stories, it’s that there’s a lot more to it than just writing.
If I write a novel, I have to plan the storyline of the novel, the character arcs, themes and tone, and then put it all into flowing, beautiful words. That’s not easy. If I write a transmedia story, I have to do all the same planning, plus create a design framework that maps out how the audience gets the story I’ve planned — whether it’s in bits and pieces through blogs and emails, or the environment of a game, or the piece of the larger narrative found in a story or video. I have to consider how the audience will come across the work, if they’ll come to it “out of order” or in the middle of the action.
I have to tell a story more through the things I don’t say than the things I do. The hints at “distant mountains”, the links between pieces of the larger narrative or world, the context surrounding it all.
I read an article last week from Rock, Paper, Shotgun about how writing for video games has become a lot more integrated than it used to be.
In fact story telling in games is taking on more intricacy all the time. It now assumes – under the banner of “narrative design” – that there’s more to spinning a good yarn than lobbing some dialogue on top of an existing premise for conflict. This undertaking, the work of the narrative designer, is a pursuit that meshes writing and game design together in a more tightly woven form that we might previously have been used to. This is not simply slotting exposition between the action, but something more integral.
It’s the exact same case with writing for transmedia — even if a game-like property is not part of the project, and so there’s less explicit game design in the narrative design, it’s nonetheless a much more integrated process with the production of all the different pieces of media and story.
One of the first paragraphs of the article immediately spoke to my transmedia storytelling sensibilities:
[E]ven before development properly started, [Brink] lead writer Edward Stern was scrutinising page upon page of notes about something other than game mechanics – notes that went into startling depth about every element of the game’s story, from its characters, to the background of its world.
[...] They’re things that need never explicitly make the final cut – but you can see their remnants in the art, the animations, the level design and the game’s objectives. Clues to the big picture.
It’s something you hear over and over again when talking about transmedia storytelling — ensuring that the world is rich enough to support the stories you’re telling. Revealing a few blog posts from a character isn’t going to cut it if there isn’t a whole archive that makes it real. If one story delves into a particular conflict, that conflict better have been alluded to in the narrative that took place nearby. In the real world, everything is affected by everything else; so too in your world.
[Penumbra designer Tom Jubert says,] “…as a narrative designer, that’s half of your job: not to make people do stuff that works through narrative, but to get people interested enough in the narrative that you don’t need to make them – that they want to make sure that everything works together.”
Same with the writer of a transmedia story. It’s our job to craft a compelling enough world and also design the way the audience experiences that world in such a way that they’ll always be looking for more.