Category Archives: Transmedia in Entertainment

Agency, Game and Transmedia Story

© Kevin Moloney

“Story” has been with us for as long as we have been communicating. We tell stories to better understand how we can or should move through life. Existentialists such as Paul Ricour and Peter Brooks argue that an act of narration allows us to deal with time, destiny and mortality, and to create identities.  Narrative allows us to situate ourselves in the world.

But as narratives are a metaphor for our own lives, games are practice for it. “Games traditionally offer safe practice in areas that do have practical value,” notes cyberdrama theorist Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. “Lion cubs roughhouse with one another in order to grow to be predators. Small children play hide and seek, a good way of training hunters, and ring-around-a-rosy, a good way of practicing cooperation and coordinated behaviors. Older children in our society are understandably drawn to pitting themselves against machines.” And contest stories are as old as Odysseus. Murray places the contest as “one of the most pervasive organizing principles of human intelligence.” These dramas compel us through stories from MacBeth to Mortal Kombat. If the former is the drama told, the latter is the drama happening.

In a game the drama happens to us through “agency,” the pleasurable aspect of play in which the players actions have meaningful consequences in the game. We act, the game responds, the story changes. A novel asks us to set aside our agency, our right to make choices argues Ken Perlin. Instead the agency of the protagonist takes over and we are swept up in his or her struggles. We cannot interfere as we hitch ourselves to them for a ride. “By way of contrast, look at games,” he notes. “A game does not force us to relinquish our agency. In fact, the game depends on it. When you play Tomb Raider you don’t actually think of Lara Croft as a person the same way, say, you think of Harry Potter as a person… While you’re actually playing the game, the very effectiveness of the experience depends on you becoming Lara Croft… Every choice she makes, whether to shoot, to leap, to run, to change weapons, is your choice.”

Game play can also deepen immersion. Murray pointed to the early text-based Zork computer game to demonstrate the difference your presence in the story makes. In the game you enter a dungeon through a trapdoor. It is slammed behind you, and, She says, “The moment is startling and immediate, like firing a prop gun on the stage of a theater. You are not just reading about an event that occurred in the past; the event is happening now, and unlike the action on the stage of a theater, it is happening to you.”

In an effective transmedia franchise the keystone element may be a narrative story told through film or in a novel, in which a fully drawn character acts without our influence. But games offer an important expansion of the world in which that story unfolds. Through a game we can step into that world and exercise our agency to create our own side story or experience the actions of the hero first hand. We can feel the tension as we approach the Death Star’s exhaust port and the elation of a good shot that wins the battle.

The role games play in a transmedia story is examined more on the Lure of Games and Power of Networks page linked here, under Contexts at the top of the site, or near the top of the right sidebar. Stay tuned for posts on how games can work in a transmedia journalism story.

Lost in a Matrix of Avatars: Principles of Transmedia

In late 2009, media scholar, transmedia describer and master builder of lists Henry Jenkins outlined his “Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling.” The pair of blog posts went a long way to shape the entertainment industry’s understanding of what transmedia storytelling does out there, once it is let loose. Their title, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn,” refers to a clue to deeper stories that makes a brief appearance in Blade Runner, and is an invitation for the viewer’s imagination or sleuthing instincts to launch.

You may be awaiting that origami yourself, hoping soon the unicorn drops and leads to what transmedia journalism will be. I promise that is up soon, in pages rich with examples. But first I want to set the stage for some principles of transmedia journalism by looking at Jenkins’ principles in entertainment. These will hopefully be an invitation to imagine transmedia journalism on your own. They are:

  • Spreadability — Stories are compelling enough to be spread through fan interaction. What stories do you want to share?
  • Drillability — Stories inspire deeper investigation, engaging the fans to explore the story’s context, and solve intricacies or mysteries. Keep the gaps of The Matrix or the layers of Lost in mind with this one.
  • Continuity — Here multiple stories exist within the same defined world, and maintain coherence and plausibility. Think of how tightly the many stories of the Star Wars galaxy fit together.
  • Multiplicity — Though continuity is highly prized, a multiplicity of story possibilities may make a tale more fun or a richer experience for fans. Look at how the 2009 reimagining of the very continuous Star Trek story upended the characters’ lives, or drill around for alternate tellings of familiar tales, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Spider-Man India.
  • Immersion — A good tale, a good character or a rich story world pulls us in and lets us forget ourselves and feel present at the scene. When was the last time you forgot you were in a theater or paging through a novel? Did the impressive 3-D of Avatar pull you into the silver screen?
  • Extractability — What can a fan take away from the story and bring into their own life? From Captain Kirk lunch boxes to the action figures of Star Wars and even the theme parks of modern entertainment franchises, more and more things and places that contribute to the grand story are available to us.
  • Worldbuilding — Each story in a transmedia franchise contributes to the complexities of the world in which they take place. Remember how C.S. Lewis built Narnia in the imaginations of readers?
  • Seriality — Serial stories are not new. From Dickens’s serialized novels to Harry Potter, the unfolding of a tale has held onto us like a Dallas cliffhanger. A serial keeps us in a story world longer.
  • Subjectivity — No, this isn’t that thing we work to avoid in journalism. Here Jenkins means a transmedia story embraces the varying points of view of multiple characters. Ever read Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The whole frightening novel is constructed from personal and subjective letters, allowing us to see the same story through multiple eyes.
  • Performance — A transmedia story may inspire a fan to act. What stories inspired us to play when we were young (or when we’re old and nobody is looking)? A good story — a really good one — can grab us so thoroughly that we want to act it out ourselves or write a new installment of the tale. As geeky as that sounds, it is a real mark of deep engagement.

These principles are fleshed out in greater detail and with many examples on the Transmedia Principles page linked near the top of the right column or under Contexts at the very top of the page. Read on. Drill deeper.