An Overview of Transmedia

I can't pretend to be an expert on transmedia. I can't pretend to be able to provide any kind of comprehensive look at this complex, relatively new industry. I discovered the world (worlds?) of transmedia early this year, but I jumped in head first, and I've surfed and read and researched, and -- as many transmedia artists will tell you -- I can't give you a comprehensive explanation of what transmedia is because none of us really know. It's not even necessarily a question of giving the word a definition. It's a question of understanding where we've come from, and where we might go. And where we might go is anywhere -- but that doesn't help explain transmedia as an industry.

But people still don't know what transmedia is, and people still ask. And given that I'm launching this site as a home for me in transmedia, hopefully to add my voice to the community, and as a place from which to build my own transmedia projects, I thought I would start with as much of an overview of transmedia as I could muster up. And the best way I can do that is to take you on my own journey of discovery.

That started when a contact of mine told me about a project he was working on. He was starting his own television show, and the Canadian Media Fund now demanded that shows have a web presence, or digital media component, for funding. To apply to the "web 2.0" version of the grant, he'd come up with this idea to create a game of sorts, through the internet and mobile devices, to expand the story of the show. And I thought -- this is a really great idea. And something like it has been done before.

Alternate Reality Games

I knew a bit about ARGs at the time. A good friend of mine had been involved in them since arguably the first one, in 2001, called The Beast.

The idea of an ARG is that a story is told not in a medium like a book or movie, but using the world itself as a medium. You unfold and take part in the story by interacting with various things in the world -- websites, phone numbers, email accounts, even physical geocaches and live events. They're all fake, of course, as part of a fictional story, but they seem real. The "players" of the game immerse themselves in this alternate world where these things are real and they can get phone calls from fictional characters.

There were parts of the major ARGs that were definitely gamelike. Different steps of the story were unlocked by solving puzzles. The puzzles were integrated so  that it would make sense that you had to solve it to get the next piece of the story -- encryptions or passwords on a secure website, for instance -- but they were definitely game elements.

But ARGs grew a creed: This Is Not A Game. Players and creators ("Puppetmasters") alike followed this, suspending their disbelief even in the face of these puzzles for the benefit of what was often an incredible, truly immersive, impacting story.

I put a lot of research into ARGs, reading pieces of the Guide of The Beast, a log of everything the players did and what they found (it was all pretty incredible) and reading This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming by Dave Szulborski, from a few years ago, and finding some blogs and all that. I knew that an ARG wasn't exactly what we wanted to create -- but I also saw that we could draw a lot from ARGs, learn a lot. Why reinvent the wheel, when you just need a new vehicle to use them?

ARGs had a lot to teach. They'd succeeded in telling an integrated story across many media, and they made it an immersive experience for the players. There were major elements of interaction with players and the story could change and adapt to what the players did. They also taught a lot about the way the internet could work in a storytelling situation -- both the diffusion of story elements, and the community that grew around it. This community existed, there was definitely an audience for this kind of thing, and they were willing to work together to figure out the next piece of the story, or the next puzzle.

Perhaps most importantly, ARGs opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of telling stories over multiple media. The possibilities really are endless -- limited only by your imagination. That's why this industry is so exciting for me -- it's still pretty new, and there are lots of ideas out there to tap into. Every project can be innovative in some way.

Internet Gaming

ARGs definitely seemed like a kind of game, and I also looked into other gaming opportunities -- after all, video games are a storytelling medium as much as books or movies, and their element of interaction can really bring a player into the story. And games have taken an interesting turn recently -- while big studios are creating bigger games with better graphics for increasingly powerful consoles and computers, games like Farmville and mobile apps have appeared and thrived. And they've been successful -- hugely successful -- despite graphics that would have been at home on consoles fifteen years ago, limiting system capabilities, and even being free to play.

These are elements that can be incorporated into a grander story to drive player interaction and involvement, to make people interested and want to delve deeper.

Beyond Games

As I learned more about these storytelling and gaming opportunities, I started grokking that there was something bigger here. Those communities were starting to move past what they knew and embrace something more.

At 2010's ARGFest, an annual ARG convention, the keynote speech by Maureen McHugh was about leaving behind the ARG model of puzzles and mysteries, something that ultimately excluded large swathes of potential audience who weren't interested in puzzles or couldn't solve them. Why not just use the model of integrated, cross-media to tell stories, plain and simple?

The term "transmedia" hasn't been around long, and different people use it for different things. But ultimately, story creators from a lot of different industries -- film and television, gaming, ARGs, publishing, and others -- are coming together and realizing that they're all kind of speaking the same language. And thus it seems transmedia is being born.

Different Models of Transmedia

If ARGs are one model of a transmedia project -- a story buried across multiple media, masquerading as reality, waiting to be uncovered piece by piece by delving players and puzzle solving -- then there are many other models of transmedia, ways that stories can be told without being limited by the medium they're in.

As Maureen McHugh said, the same kinds of stories told by ARGs can be told without some of the restricting elements, like puzzles. This kind of integrated story has been described by Andrea Phillips as a spiderweb structure of storytelling. Different elements of the story are found across multiple places and media, and part of the job -- and fun -- of the audience is to piece the story together from these different elements.

In the film and television industries, transmedia refers primarily to a cross-media expansion of the story universe. The first major example of this that gets commonly cited is Star Wars. What began as a movie trilogy in the 70's and 80's has expanded to a huge series of novels, comics, games, TV shows, and much more. Each of these extra media build on the existing universe, telling stories not covered by the original films, and generally fleshing out that world. A cross-media franchise is designed to extend a world beyond the original story and base medium, allowing the audience the choice to explore deeper into a world they love, learn more about the characters and places and history. (Importantly, this isn't about remaking a story for multiple media -- turning the book into a movie, into a game, into a comic. Each medium introduces a new story, which expands on the original.)

As the publishing industry jumps on the transmedia bandwagon, similar things are happening with books. In the UK, a lot of books have websites with character bios, or blogs. Fictional characters might have Facebook accounts or twitter, to interact with fans. These things might act primarily as a marketing initiative, but they still enhance a primary medium with additional, cross-media content. As ebooks try to find a place for themselves in the market, many of these things may find their way into enhanced ebooks (some already are). There's also another kind of transmedia book -- an interactive novel. This might be akin to Cathy's Book, by Sean Stewart, a kind of mini ARG where extra pieces of the story can be accessed by emailing characters, calling phone numbers, or something of that ilk. Or it may be something like the Mongoliad, a serialized digital novel by Neal Stephenson, which includes extra content, a wiki editable by readers, and the opportunity for fans to help shape the novel and add their own fanfiction-like stories to the world.

 

Even within these transmedia models, the variations are endless -- and these are only the models we've started to see. Who knows where else transmedia might go?

Elements of Transmedia

No one agrees on a comprehensive definition of transmedia, but there are a lot of common elements. Not all of these are necessary to maybe consider a story "transmedia", but transmedia stories seem to have at least a few of them. Some people think some of them are necessary, others don't.

Story is the number one element. Almost everyone seems to agree that transmedia is primarily about the story being told. Using multiple media should enhance the story, give it the depth and opportunity it wouldn't have -- otherwise, why not stick to one, more appropriate, medium? People engage in transmedia for the story most of all.

Transmedia isn't transmedia unless it uses multiple media. This could be websites, email, telephone, television, film, games, social media, books, blogs, geocaching, live events, or any other possible way for a story to be told. There's no consensus about which are necessary or best, but there's a general agreement that there need to be at least three to be transmedia.

A lot of transmedia projects have an element of interaction. Some people argue that interaction is necessary for transmedia. Some people think interaction is just "clickability", things for the audience to click on to get more of the story. Others say it should be a deeper involvement -- email conversations with characters, even the ability to change the outcome of the story.

Transmedia often demands an exploration of a broader world. It's not just about one story or narrative, it's about making the world seem bigger, more alive, more real. This could be background on characters, interactions with people outside the base text, information about the world, websites for the people or organizations involved, or whole additional stories of other people and places.

Going into the Future...

...eyes wide open. Transmedia is an emerging industry, coming from a lot of backgrounds and a lot of people with a lot of opinions. No one's sure what transmedia will look like in another five years. But that means it's a hugely exciting time to be involved. Like I've said before, the possibilities of what we can do with the concepts of transmedia really are endless.

As I begin to create my own transmedia projects, I'll be keeping a close eye on the developments around me, because it's constantly changing. But it's a community of likeminded people who want to tell great stories in great ways, and we all want to make the best of this industry.

References

The following sites and articles are some of the ones I referenced in this overview or other resources that have influenced me -- each is a fantastic and illuminating read, if you want to delve deeper.

No Mimes Media: A New Frontier in Storytelling (Maureen McHugh), Niche or Mass Entertainment? (Maureen McHugh). Deus Ex Machinatio (Andrea Phillips): WTF is an ARG?, WTF is Transmedia?The Case Against Chekhov's Gun. Culture Hacker: Transmedia Storytelling: Getting Started (Robert Pratten). This Monkey Can Type! (Scott Walker): Transmedia 2.0 -- Participatory Entertainment. Transmythology (Simon Pulman): The Future of Publishing, The Transmedia Classroom of Tomorrow, The Artist's Responsibility. ARGNet: PICNIC: Everything We Know About Transmedia Is Wrong (Daniël van Gool). storycentral DIGITAL (Alison Norrington) : Publishers to sell experiences and not products. Guy leCharles Gonzalez: Wrestling with Words: Defining Transmedia.

Certainly, there are other great resources out there, but these are some of the ones I've found most useful and have been following most closely.

Finally -- I'd love your thoughts in the comments. Are there other important elements of transmedia? Other models that already exist? Important resources I've missed?