Henrik Örnebring, in his analysis of Alias’ alternate reality games, argues that transmedia narratives do not create a “master narrative” where each text carries equal weight within the story world.[1] Instead, he argues that transmedia storytelling almost always involves an identifiable central text and a series of satellite texts that provide marketing for it. If we understand Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling as a photomosaic, Örnebring sees transmedia storytelling as a single photograph with an eye-grabbing frame around it. Örnebring does have a point – films and TV shows usually consider web content to be purely promotional no matter how distinctive and valuable the narrative information.

The Blair Witch Project was one of the first films to use a website as a storytelling tool. The film generated a devoted fan base a year before it was released, creating a convincing, highly detailed website about the Blair Witch. [2] The site had pseudo-documentaries, historical sightings, audiotapes, and information about a police investigation, all of which presented the events of the film as real occurrences. Once it hit the theaters in 1999, The Blair Witch Project became one of the most successful low budget films of all time.[3] Örnebring argues that multiplatform stories like The Blair Witch Project have a “hierarchy of meaning,” a dominant text surrounded by ancillary texts.[4]

Television shows are most often the dominant text, not just because they can garner more money than other media, but also because they usually involve the longest commitment for the consumer, spanning years in length and hundreds of hours in content. It is thus tremendously difficult for an alternate reality game, novel, or comic book to carry the same narrative weight as a television show, especially since television shows are one of the most accessible and accepted forms of entertainment.

Nevertheless, while it is still possible to identify a distinction between a central text and its secondary components, a text’s reception does not always reinforce this hierarchical structure. In 2001, the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence launched a massive alternate reality game to promote the film. The game was known quite simply as The Beast. An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that involves difficult challenges across multiple media platforms and spaces of everyday life. They have few or no rules and they do not acknowledge themselves as games or as a mode of storytelling. Players use their skills to collaborate to solve puzzles and move the narrative forward. Set in the year 2142, fifty years after the events of A.I., players were able to directly interact with the world, communicating with characters and deciphering fictional websites. Askwith, in his white paper, “This is Not (Just) an Advertisement,” recounts the Beast’s success:

The public response to The Beast was remarkable: during the 120 days of the game, more than 7,000 active participants formed an online collective…Estimates for overall participation range from half a million to three million players overall -- the range being a function of how one defines “participation” -- and the press coverage was staggering, with the creators reporting more than 300 million impressions in both mainstream and niche media outlets.[5]

The Beast may have been designed as a marketing tool, but it was also renowned as a creative success. Eight years later, The Beast’s complex design and passionate community became much more memorable than A.I.’s short box office run. Instead of just marketing A.I., The Beast became a text all its own, setting the bar for future ARGs.

In television, the Canadian show ReGenesis also blurs the boundary between the primary and secondary text.[6]  ReGenesis follows a scientific organization that investigates mysterious problems often related to bio-terrorism. The organization has a fictional website where viewer-players can become field agents themselves, hacking into characters’ emails, participating in forums, and taking phone calls. Players could participate in the extended reality game (ERG) without watching the television show and vice versa. But people who watched the TV show had access to information relevant to the ERG; likewise, players of the ERG learned background information about the drama of the TV show.[7] This symbiotic relationship is the exception rather than rule in television. Nevertheless, while transmedia storytelling may be more hierarchical than Jenkins’ definition suggests, it can definitely be much more than pure marketing.

[1] Örnebring, Henrik. “Alternate reality gaming and convergence culture: The case of
Alias.” International Journal of Cultural Studies. 10.4 (2007): 445-462.
[2] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture.
[3] According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the film had a production budget of $60,000 and grossed a total of $140,539,099 domestically. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=blairwitchproject.htm>
[4] Ibid., 445.
[5] Askwith, Ivan.  "This Is Not (Just) An Advertisement: Understanding Alternate Reality Games."
[6] Dena, Christy. “How the Internet is Holding the Centre of Conjured Universes.” Paper presented at Internet Research 7.0: Internet Convergences, Association of Internet Researchers. Brisbane, Queensland, 27-30 September 2006.
[7] Ibid.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
Tags: Uncategorized

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