When I was young and couldn’t sleep (mostly on Christmas Eve), I would imagine myself solving mysteries with my favorite characters from The Bobbsey Twins, or flying to Mars with Tom Swift to save the earth from aliens. My young imagination would have me trading clues with Bert and Flossie, donning a spacesuit with Tom, or (as I turned 13) canoodling with Nan.
I’m reminded of my prior fantasies by the current trend towards transmedia, or using multiple media to help make stories and characters more engaging and more immersive. Many in the entertainment industry see transmedia as the next big thing. Why not, the thinking goes, engage audiences across film, web, print and the real world to enable the audience to not just connect, but to actually become a participant in the Iron Man universe, or a bit player in Game of Thrones.
The WB is launching a new show, Aim High, designed to do just that. Connect with the show on Facebook, and your photo could become part of the show – and perhaps even one of the protaganist’s “64 highly trained teenage operatives” as well. In its day Lost did a great job of developing fictional company websites to enhance the story, and EQAL’s efforts with LonelyGirl and Harper’s Globe were similarly extensive and engaging.
It sounds great, but let’s face it – this sort of participatory media is nothing new. Truly immersive, cross-media story telling has been around at least since the first time an audience member tossed a tomato at a poorly prepared thespian.
And with video games, anyone who really wants to become part of the story has had thousands of options available. Want to be a sword-wielding hero and save a “Game of Thrones”-style world? Nintendo’s Zelda franchise, “So You Want to Be A Hero” from Sierra, the Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda and Peter Moyneux’s awesome Fable trilogy all put you at the center of that story. Rather be a lecherous lunatic, or an underworld tycoon? Leisure Suit Larry and Grand Theft Auto provide many ways to sate those urges.
Transmedia promises to combine linear and interactive storytelling – to tell a great story and make you a part of it. Unfortunately that’s happened all too infrequently. Most video games adapted from popular movies stink, while movies from video games – apart from fanflicks like Dan Trachtenberg’s Portal homage – are equally odiferous.
Even so, fans of these franchises have been more than happy to take matters into their own hands. Visit any comic-book convention and you’ll see men and women dressed up as Link or the Princess Zelda, or as Tony Stark’s Iron Man. But this sort of comstumery is hardly mainstream. Step too far out of a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts and you’ll end up being visited by the local constabulary, or worse. William Falkingham, presumably a fan of the classic Jimmy Stewart film “Harvey” found this out the hard way in his home town of Idaho Falls.
But the problem with most transmedia isn’t that it requires an unhealthy obsession with fake fur. No, it’s because most fan participation ends up as the interactive equivalent of a walk-on part. That might be fun the first time, but not forever.
Why? Because we’re all the heroes of our own movie, our own story. We don’t want to be Chauncey Gardner, we want to be Ned Stark. We don’t want to watch, we want to save the world and end up in bed with Pepper Pots (well, at least I do).
Sure, if you really like a story, you’ll happily consume more content around the story on the web, or other complementary media. But the ultimate goal of transmedia is total immersion in a story, and for that it needs to make you the protagonist – or villain – of the story, not just a passing observer.
Expect to hear a lot about transmedia over the coming years, but until you can insert each individual audience member into the center of the narrative, it’ll simply be a more socially acceptable form of cosplay – and will be consumed by just 2% of the audience – the biggest fans.
If I want to live inside a “Game of Thrones” style world today, I’ll play through Peter Molyneux’s excellent Fable trilogy, or reread the books. But I can’t wait for the day when I can actually be Lord Eddard Stark (well, at least until he gets his head chopped off).