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Broad Strokes: Coloring Canon Outside the Lines

Andrea Phillips | 16 Nov 2012 13:00
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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.

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