Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Mutating Transmedium

Today, we have another new author joining our ranks at Fantasy Matters--John Murray, a computer science PhD student who is interested in video games and digital narrative.  His essay today talks about Henry Jenkin's concept of "transmedia"--that is, blending multiple platforms or media types to tell a story or convey an idea.  He looks at several video games that employ this concept in creative and exciting ways, as well as several that fall short in their attempt.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneIn 2007, the video game industry surpassed the movie industry in gross revenue. Another recent trend is that almost every successful fantasy or science fiction movie worth its salt has released an accompanying game, usually one that follows closely the storyline of the original movie. Such forgettable games as Enter the Matrix, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone point to one result of this trend: mediocre tie-ins and adaptations.

The reviews and feel of these games reveal how closely tied they are to the movies themselves and how the effort put into them is completely abstracted compared to the original material.  They often feature voice talent from the original movies and use key scenes, detailed props, or settings. Unfortunately, in many of these games the aspiration toward "transmedia," a concept that Henry Jenkins observes and named, falls short of its promise. But they are participating in the same process, the same blending of contexts that makes a “transmedia property.” How do these games contribute to this emerging genre, marketing strategy, and approach to media creation?

I propose that they are shadowing the original, rather than being true examples of transmedia. A shadow is a somewhat diminished representation, projected from some light source onto a surface and that follows closely the behavior and character of the “original.” But in all ways it is derivative; it does not seek to produce novel experiences, but rather represent and characterize, as closely as possible, the characters, settings, and story elements of the host movie.

Host, I say, as these games are in a symbiotic relationship with the movie itself: having seen the movie or played the game, you are likely to want to see or play the other. Or at least so goes the logic of marketing surrounding such releases, often preceding the movie itself. But the idea of mashing up a given universe across different media isn’t novel—just its conscious use is.

With such games in mind, let us now step back and look at the games that are without a host, and consider their features. One of the original games for the PC was Lucasart’s first foray into the Star Wars universe: X-Wing (1993). It was also one of the very first games I've ever played, and I managed to play it before I saw the movies it was inspired by. Instead of popping you into Luke Skywalker's seat in the famous Death Star trench run (as a later game based around the franchise indeed does), it instead introduces you to the flight simulator genre with the story guise of enlisting in the rebel alliance as a flight cadet, achieving medals and accomplishing tours of duty.

TIE FighterIts sequel, TIE Fighter (1994), similarly integrates a compelling original story based in the Star Wars Universe about your experience as a Rookie in the Imperial navy, and your rise in the ranks. While the two games are remarkable for their implementation of the flight simulator genre (and innovations in dynamic orchestration based on in game events), they also mark the beginning of the LucasArts tradition of decoupling a prize property and the games they produce, creating the first true transmedial connection. In this sense, your background knowledge of the universe gets you into the door, but the story, the experiences and the characters are all unique and created to suit the game and its goals, and not vice versa.

Another long running series produced by LucasArts exhibits this originality further: Star Wars: Dark Forces was one of the original first person shooters to be released following the birth of the genre, and its storyline and main character were carefully chosen to match the genre. Instead of interspersing a ton of cut scenes, or allowing multiple types of gameplay (as would be necessary to match all of the dramatic situations in Star Wars -- a feat not even closely achieved), Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995) and its sequel, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (1997) undertake the construction of an original character through experiences which the player enacts. There is a general background knowledge, again, and there are the tropes of the genre -- but it is through choosing to take on the role of an estranged imperial soldier looking to join the rebel alliance that the character Kyle Katarn is forged.

Fast forward to the present; we are now in the age of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, and the tradition has been adopted for the first time in the Lord of the Rings Universe with Lord of the Rings Online. Instead of taking scenes from the main storyline of the movie or book properties, the game takes the world and the events, but shows what happens to the secondary characters, the settings when the heroes aren't there. It shows a dependent story, one which meets the criteria of a transmedia experience, but which is closely tied to the original story.

Knights of the Old RepublicAlready announced is the latest Star Wars MMORPG, The Old Republic, which is produced by BioWare and utilizes the Knights of the Old Republic storyline. It looks far more promising than the original attempt at a Star Wars RPG: Star Wars Galaxies (2003). This game seemed in many ways like a skinning of Everquest, much as Dark Forces was like a skinning of DOOM, but with fidelity to the experiential aspects. Here was a shadow of a shadow, as Plato would call it: a game created as a reflection of both a movie and another game.

Games such X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and now, possibly Star Wars: The Old Republic show the potential for transmedial properties to be sources of inspired connections between genres and media outlets, but the examples I opened with also demonstrate the danger of the term becoming merely a buzzword, what with their lack of creativity and truly original material.