Transmedia Grounding

Brooke Thompson recently wrote about defining the term “transmedia”. To summarize (go read the article, really), “transmedia” refers to a fictional continuity consisting of products released in multiple media, and—the different products influence each other; their story elements interact.

After reading that article, I found myself thinking about some of the challenges inherent in transmedia stories.  There’s one problem that suggests itself immediately.

What happens when someone reading one segment realizes that other segments also have elements important to the story?

Some people may feel betrayal.  They may have the impression that the thing they just bought is really just an advertisement for some other thing.  The best defense against this, as far as I can tell, is to make sure each product provides value on its own—for a story, that would mean that it feels like a complete story on its own.

Some people might feel confusion or frustration.  They may feel there are things in the story that they don’t understand, and these things are keeping them from enjoying the story.  However, I believe there are techniques to help prevent this reaction.

Transmedia Grounding

Many stories (I might even say “most”) make use of a viewpoint character.  This is a character that the reader (/viewer/player) understands and sympathizes with.  Whatever strange events happen in the story, the viewpoint character is surprised by them.  This lets the reader know that it’s okay to be confused or startled by odd things happening in the story.  It’s especially important for stories featuring elements of science fiction, fantasy or horror, because those elements are far removed from the reader’s daily life.  The reactions of an “everyday” character makes sure the story is grounded.

This device can be useful in transmedia stories.  If someone is reading one story, and elements of another story are introduced, those elements are foreign to the reader.  Therefore, the viewpoint character should react to them with surprise.  This will help the reader accept the new story elements as part of the fictional continuity.

A quick example should illustrate the point better.

Spirit Cards

Let’s say we have a television series called “Urban Mage”.  A twentysomething named Josiah and some of his friends discover that they each have a talent for sorcery, and they fall in with various urban mages and get drawn in to their conflicts.  The mages fight by manipulating electricity, starting fires, divining information and occasionally warping matter.  (I promise I made this all up for the purpose of this blog post, although I did recently reread Mage: the Ascension…)  So, in this case Josiah is our male lead and viewpoint character.  He knows next-to-nothing about magery, but he has to learn quickly.

Now let’s say there’s a web game where players learn about “Spirit Cards”, a form of magic that uses enchanted cards to call in favors from spirits.  Players of the game learn about another new mage named Acacia, and along with her they learn the rules by which Spirit Cards work (incidentally forming a nifty strategy game).  Acacia’s story is told through quests and updates on the website, and while the Spirit Cards are obviously built on the Urban Mage conception of magic, specific references to the television show are rare and far between.

Finally, let’s say that there’s an episode of Urban Mage where Acacia appears and consults with Josiah.  This is the first time that Spirit Cards are even mentioned on the show, but Josiah knows all about them and is able to use his mastery of Spirit Card rule nuances to do whatever it is that needs to be done in this episode…

That will probably upset some people.  People watching the television show without playing the game will be completely confused by the Spirit Card stuff.  People who started out playing the game will be upset that everyone in the main Urban Mage universe seems to know about the cards and rules they spent so much time mastering.

A much better way to handle the situation would be to have Josiah surprised by Acacia and her cards.  He has the opportunity to be taught about this new form of magic, and through sympathizing with him, the TV audience is able to understand it as well.  Also, the web game players are shown that their card game has an important role to play in the larger Urban Mage universe.  (It’s also a great opportunity for subtle in-jokes.)

Of course, it’s possible to go too far with this example.  If Acacia’s magic is played up too highly, she can seem like a Deus Ex Machina (or a Mary Sue!).  The ideal resolution would show that each character has something to offer the other.

Ultimately, I believe that when people read (/watch/play) media, and they really enjoy that media, they will pursue mastery of it.  If you respect your audience’s mastery of your content—if you show them that you’re proud they care about your stories so much—they’ll love you for it.

Responses are currently closed.