What’s The Deal With Transmedia Anyway?

on Monday, Oct. 15th

I talk a lot about transmedia here at Turnstyle, and will be talking about it even more this week when I head to StoryWorld. With that in mind, I wanted to create a little primer on the topic, but that felt altogether too academic.

Instead I’ve decided to explain what transmedia is by way of example. Instead of focusing on techniques used by a variety of creators, I wanted to give you a holistic sense of what we mean when we talk about transmedia. It is my conviction that the secret sauce of transmedia is this: a property is more that the sum of its parts.

By mixing different mediums and storytelling techniques the world of the story takes on extra weight. More platforms mean more perspectives, and those points of view suggest something touched on in the classic film Rashomon: that reality is something altogether different from what any one of us can perceive all by ourselves.

Still, I needed something concrete to talk about, a popular entertainment property that successfully uses transmedia storytelling techniques. Lucky for us, there’s a gem that’s coming back into vogue: Halo.

Halo 4, the next installment of Microsoft’s leading franchise for the XBox, will be hitting store shelves next month. The publisher is priming the pump with all kinds of content: toys, novels, even a David Fincher directed commercial and a scripted web series. All to get fans excited about the return of the series’ hero Master Chief to active duty.

The game is far from a no-brainer slam dunk: a new development house has taken over from series creator Bungie, and Activision’s mighty Call of Duty franchise is the undisputed king of the first person shooter hill. The new dev team, 343 Industries, has a hell of a lot to prove to both old fans and the gamers who’ve come up in the years since we last saw the Chief. Not to mention the higher ups at Microsoft, who have to be looking for Halo to save them from a Christmas season without new hardware.

While there have been two Halo games since the release of Halo 3 just over five years ago, neither of them has starred the  Master Chief. Instead they’ve focused on new protagonists, which has built out the scope of the Halo world. This is, in itself, an essential transmedia strategy: building up the world that surrounds the story to the point where it becomes an engine for generating more content. From a business standpoint that means more value: those toy, book, and series tie-ins. From a fan and creator viewpoint it means a greater variety of stories.

Yet the heart of the series remains the trials of the last Spartan: John-117, the Master Chief. Taken from his parents at a young age and molded by scientists and military zealots into the ultimate warrior. A seven foot plus cyborg whose closest companion– and let’s face it, love interest– is an Artificial Intelligence program with mental health issues. Halo is unique in the grand canon of pop sci-fi. It’s Cyberpunk Military Space Opera masquerading as a action-adventure video game.

FORWARD UNTO DAWN

The current transmedia load-out for Halo is spearheaded by the web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. A weekly live-action series distributed by Machinima on their Machinima Prime YouTube channel and produced by Microsoft’s 343 Industries.

When the first behind the scenes footage hit for the show this summer I blanched. Taken out of context the sets and costumes looked like they were right out of Power Rangers. This is similar to the problem that The Dark Knight Rises had when set pictures began leaking online. Frame the elements the right way and they look gorgeous, step back three feet and it’s all bad textures and cheesy choreography.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Forward Unto Dawn is very, very good. The Halo series has a history of terse, melodramatic live action shorts used as advertising for the games. Forward Unto Dawn follows in those footsteps, but ups the ante by being in the service to a whole new story. One that will make important additions to the Halo cast.

The series focuses on Thomas Lasky (Tom Green), a cadet at a prestigious military academy, years before the events of the first Halo game. Lasky has some serious issues: his mother is a war hero and his brother, it seems, made the ultimate sacrifice. Our hero, however, is a bit of a pacifist. He doesn’t see much of a point to fighting an endless war against the human insurrectionists he’s being trained to fight.

On top of Lasky’s own internal issues the series takes its time to build up the supporting cast through quick touches. By the end of the first episode’s nineteen minute run time it’s clear who the eight supporting characters are as people. The character beats are executed with a kind of discipline that should make any network TV show runner jealous. Forward Unto Dawn could work as an ensemble sci-fi show all by itself, without the Halo name.

Which is what makes it such a good transmedia component. The show uses the setting of the Halo universe to tell its own story. The Master Chief is due to make an appearance on the show, but by the time he does the audience will be clicking in to see what happens next to Lasky, not just which butts the Chief kicks. For those in the YouTube generation who’ve never played a Halo game the series acts as a primer.

The series stands on its own, but the characters it introduces will show up in the game. A grown-up Lasky even makes an appearance in the recently released novel The Thursday War, and has an action figure slated to appear. This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, as the opening sequence of Forward Unto Dawn involves an adult Lasky recalling what led to his first encounter with the Chief. This is far beyond the “Hey look at that guy! He looks neat!” that some franchises seek to use to create the illusion of a complex world.

We could call that the “Bounty Hunting Scum” effect after the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Boba Fett makes his first appearance. A hundred short stories, comic books and animated episodes were launched by that one scene, which was itself was a throwaway. Fan love, starting in the form of eight-year-olds playing with toys drove that nearly endless expansion. Now some studios think that they can engender that kind of interest with the same trick, only to find that a cool costume isn’t always enough.

The creators behind Halo‘s mythology don’t count on production design to sell their grander storytelling ambitions. They build their  genre characters the old fashioned way: by making exceptionally flawed people and then throwing them against impossible odds.

One more note about Forward Unto Dawn: the producers wisely use the conventions of YouTube in the production choices they make. The shots of Lasky looking right into the camera as he watches old messages from his (presumably) dead brother are informed by the visual grammar of web-cams. That almost uncomfortable sense of intimacy that YouTube users are used to.

This reveals another smart transmedia tactic: the producers are shaping the way they tell the story to the medium they’re in. By using the medium’s specific language they are able to reach out to new audiences, and give their existing audience something that they can’t get on any of the other platforms.

GET YOUR READ ON

Two separate novel series are paving the way for Halo 4. One, written by the Hugo Award winning sci-fi scribe Greg Bear, is a work of high sci-fi weirdness. It tells the deep history of the Halo universe, a history that puts everything we know about the human race on it’s ear. That series promises to set the context for the upcoming game’s primary antagonists, an as-yet-unrevealed force.

The other is by fan favorite military sci-fi author Karen Traviss, who was given the task of filling in the gaps between the third and fourth games. Travis introduces the adult Lasky, and brings in elements from earlier books in the franchise’s literary canon.

Many of the major game series has this kind of publishing effort going hand in hand with their game releases. Diablo, Gears of War and Mass Effect all have tie-in novels. These are often written by members of the development teams, who can seed the novels with small moments that pay off down the line. The first Mass Effect novel, published in advance of the first game, led to in-game pay offs in Mass Effect 3. Moments that might go over the head of someone who hasn’t immersed themselves in the fiction, but not distractingly so. Yet for those who take the time to delve in, those pay-offs are huge dividends.

The strategy behind the world building Traviss has been tasked with is even more intricate than what has been attempted in other game franchises. The novels, taken together with the web series, lay the foundation for episodic game content that will be released under the name Spartan Ops. While all elements have been developed simultaneously, the story of Spartan Ops will reward devoted fans first. New converts, meanwhile, will be able to dive back into the existing material to learn more about the new game mode’s backstory.

It’s an ambitious strategy, one that gives the series a sense of scope usually reserved for mega-franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek.

THE FAN’S THE THING

Fans like to feel like they’re part of the story. Sometimes that’s as simple as “fan service”: the cameo appearance of a popular character in a background shot, or the inclusion of an internet meme into movie dialog. Cheesy and often effective. Yet these barely scratch the surface of what a truly responsive intellectual property (IP) holder can do with a robust fan base.

For some context: in the early years of web video it was unclear if Lucasfilm, producers of Star Wars, would embrace the wave of fan films that were being created or vigorously enforce their copyright against all comers. The executives of the privately held company chose the former path, and that choice has paid off in strong fan loyalty. This is true even when fans aren’t particularly happy with the direction officially licensed stories– known by the religious term “canon” in fan parlance– takes.

Fan art is folk art, and in a very visceral way there is no higher compliment for a pop art than to have it be embraced so vigorously by devotees that they want to make it their own. From a legal standpoint this can be a nightmare, however. How do you defend the value of your IP when you let people do whatever they want with it? Push back to far and you have a marketing disaster: franchises need fandoms.

Here’s another place where Microsoft is flexing it’s transmedia savvy. Just last week they announced new “Game Content Usage Rules” which provide fan creators a framework around which they can legally create content using assets from many of the games Microsoft publishes.

The history of the Halo franchise is driven in a big way by fan created content, and the franchise has done a lot to encourage fan expression. The machinima series Red vs. Blue did a lot to popularize the machinima format: animated videos that use game engines as their storytelling medium. That series featured the characters from Halo‘s multiplayer modes in comedic shorts.

Later iterations of the game included a map editor known as “Forge Mode”, that gave gamers the power to create variations of the game. Some modes were so popular that the developers brought them into official releases. The game publisher Valve, makers of Half Life and Portal, are even more aggressive about embracing fan generated content.

When an IP is anchored in an interactive medium like a video game, fans are cast immediately into the role of co-creator. Even when that co-creation is in a highly scripted and designed environment, the central experience of the player is one of active engagement with the “text”. By setting up a framework for fans to potentially co-create the broader universe– Microsoft’s new rules let them cherry pick user content if they so wish– companies are formalizing the relationship of fan to franchise. [Side note: in Microsoft's version of this, there's no money for fan creators.]

The real trick with transmedia is this: it is itself an interactive medium. By laying out elements across multiple platforms, a transmedia enabled property becomes a kind of puzzle. One that lets the user/player/reader step beyond the role of content consumer and into one of content creator. You don’t consume the meaning of a transmedia property, you edit it together. Much in the same way that we edit together the meaning of a twitter stream or a political campaign.

CRACK THE CASE

Well that turned out to be a lot longer than expected.

Here’s what I hope you take away from this overlook of the way that the Halo franchise approaches transmedia:

  • Each piece of Halo‘s transmedia stands on its own.
  • Each piece plays up the strengths of the platform it lives on.
  • Taken together they should create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
  • The transmedia in Halo is inherently interactive.

I hope that those of you who have wondered why I spend so much time talking about transmedia here on the site have a better understanding of the fascination. Part of the fun in covering transmedia is that it is an evolving batch of tools and techniques, not a strict set of rules. The way that Microsoft and 343 Industries tackle transmedia differ from many others, but the series’ popularity makes the franchise a great model for those who want to advance the art and craft of storytelling in the digital age.

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