Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Hello There, Transmedia

For any media fan worth their salt, story continuity is a big deal. Witness the "Star Wars" nerd trying to untangle the various timelines of the Extended Universe tie-in novels. See "Doctor Who" enthusiasts try to account for several bizarre story decisions made in the 1996 TV movie. Any "Highlander" fans who are still trying to keep track of all the various members of Clan McLeod have my deepest sympathies. Oh, and that whole alternate universe twist that the 2009 "Star Trek" movie pulled on us will no doubt be fodder for Trekker arguments for years and years to come. Such is the nature of fandom, which will remember, reflect, and obsess over all the minutiae that the actual producers of our media content are far less successful at keeping track of.

So it tickles me to no end that the studios are now paying outside companies to come in and help them stay on top of story and character continuity in their major franchise properties. A Los Angeles Times article published yesterday took a look at the rise of transmedia, specifically at the work of a company called Starlight Runner Entertainment, which specializes in developing and maintaining shared universes and ongoing continuities for easy translation to multiple media platforms. It used to be that writers put together their comprehensive bibles for the universes of television shows and other serialized media in advance. Now they can be created after a one-shot film or video game has hit it big, when unexpected opportunities for sequels and ancillaries require a media universe to start expanding in a hurry. And everything from pop-stars to toy lines can have an ongoing storyline with continuity, in order to keep their fans invested.

Why is this happening now? It seems that the studios have finally noticed that their fans pay attention to continuity across many different kinds of media, and it's actually a benefit to make sure that Captain Jack Sparrow stays in character, whether he's appearing in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" young-adult prequel book or in a MMORPG. It reinforces brands, makes marketing easier, and so on. And in the age of increasing cross-platforming, where different developers handle video games, spin-off television shows, novels, and merchandise, it takes more effort for everyone involved in a franchise to keep all the details straight. Apparently it's too big a job for the studios to take care of themselves anymore, especially when key creative talent is here one day and gone the next. If James Cameron drops dead tomorrow, it's reassuring to know that somebody has the master plan for the "Avatar" films filed away somewhere for safekeeping.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks. Too much cross-platforming can result in watered-down and confusing content. One of the most notorious examples is the ambitious Japanese ".hack" ("Dot Hack") franchise, that spread its story out over several anime series, video games, comics, and other media. The two ".hack" anime that I watched were well designed and had great worldbuilding, but also suffered from really lousy stories that were noticeably hampered by their piecemeal nature. To fully understand what was going on in one anime series, you needed certain background knowledge from playing one of the video games. It was one of the most frustrating experiences I ever had with a franchise, and I can see some of these new transmedia proponents making similar mistakes. "The Matrix" was another property that tried to insert bits of its plot into associated video games and other media, which few appreciated because the later movies were so badly received.

The bigger danger is that big, detailed master plans are inherently constraining. It's all well and good to have handy lists of character traits and universe timelines, but when you're talking about orchestrating universe-wide events to unfold over various media in different platforms, each individual component can suffer for it. You lose the flexibility and the creative freedom to take characters and storylines in more interesting directions when there's the constant worry of adjusting everything else in a property's universe to match. "Iron Man 2" had a plot that was treading water, and seemed more interested in setting up the "Avengers" movie than doing anything exciting with Tony Stark. I'm not looking forward to seeing Samuel L. Jackson being shoehorned into the new "Thor" and "Captain America" movies for more "Avengers" synergy. Building a consistent universe for these characters is all well and good, but not when it comes at the expense of basic storytelling.

I can only imagine what it must be like to work at one of these transmedia companies, trying to hash out a direction for "TRON" movies that may never be made, or figuring out how to redesign Strawberry Shortcake to translate better for video games and comic books. It's gratifying to see the monetization of activities that have been so closely associated with traditional fandom - extrapolating universes from media properties and then policing their continuity and consistency. But I'd caution for creators to tread carefully. We're not all minutiae-obsessed uber-fans, and while good continuity is a perk, it's not a necessity, and should remain secondary to actually turning out good content. You won't find a "Doctor Who" fan giving up the show just because some moron writer had the 8th Doctor declare he was half-human instead of pure Gallifreyan in the TV movie.

Maybe they could fix that through retroactive continuity. Or even regular continuity. We are talking about an alien being with a time machine here. I bet it was all a sinister Dalek plot. Oh well, that's a post for another time.

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