Henry Jenkins provides the most widely used definition of transmedia storytelling in Convergence Culture:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics…Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game or vice versa.[1]

One might think of Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling as a photographic mosaic. In a photomosaic, each pixel is its own image, but when the pixels are compounded and stitched together, they form a much larger picture.  Similarly, a transmedia story does not privilege one text over another – the fictional world cannot be exhausted within a single medium. When all the dispersed elements of a transmedia story are pieced together, with each text contributing key bits of information, the result is a better understanding and unified picture of the story world at large.

Before examining what transmedia storytelling is, it is important to understand what it is not. As described in 1.1, most major entertainment franchises barrage consumers with promotional and redundant content across media. But this is transmedia branding, not storytelling. A Heroes promo spot on the Internet or a Heroes T-Shirt does nothing to enhance the fictional universe, but The 9th Wonders! comic book provides a candid, insightful look into the prophetic visions of one of the characters.

Another distinction must be made between transmedia extensions and adaptations. The Harry Potter films, for example, are essentially the same narratives as J.K. Rowling’s books, with the same characters and the same dialogue, only reinterpreted and subjectively altered. [2]  Thus, the Harry Potter films are a retelling of a story, not a distinct addition to it. Granted, some people may consider a visually pleasing and entertaining adaptation “a distinct and valuable” contribution to a franchise, since it brings the characters and events to life. But in transmedia storytelling, each text stands as a distinct component of some larger narrative timeline.

For example, Jenkins describes The Matrix franchise as one of the boldest attempts at transmedia storytelling. The Matrix is about a dystopian future where mankind’s perceived reality is actually a simulation created by machines in order to pacify the human race and use their bodies as a source for energy. After the success of the first film, Andy and Larry Wachowski sketched out a plan to extend the narrative across additional media components.  In theory, by expanding the narrative into comics, short anime films, a videogame, and eventually a massive multiplayer online game, hard-core fans could satisfy their craving for more information while at the same time, new audiences could discover The Matrix through multiple points of entry.

Rather than serving as redundant adaptations, each text contributed a new part of the overall story. For example, in the animated short Flight of the Osiris, the protagonist barely manages to deliver a letter warning the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, a hovercraft in “real world,” that the sentinel machines were going to attack Zion, the last human city on Earth, in a mere 72 hours. [3]  The letter resurfaced in the videogame, Enter the Matrix, where the player retrieved the letter from the post office. Finally, in The Matrix Reloaded, characters make passing references to the “last transmissions of the Osiris.” People who followed the trajectory of the letter across media platforms were treated to a unique transmedia experience.[4] This passing reference was just one of many recurring motifs across the multiple media components of the Matrix franchise. The video game and short animated films developed characters who had mere cameos in the films and also provided back-story on the main characters.

Despite its bold transmedia aspirations, The Matrix had some notable problems. For one, regular moviegoers were not prepared for the hypertextual logic of The Matrix sequels. [5] The sequels’ highly complex narrative placed new demands on audiences, and many were upset that transmedia consumption seemed to be a requirement for comprehension. Additionally, the Enter the Matrix game received poor reviews with many critics and fans frustrated by the limited linear game play and the over-use of cut scenes.[6] These two complaints — that the films were too dependent on transmedia content and that individual texts were not enjoyable in their own right  — will return in my Chapter 4 discussion of Lost. Yet at the very least, The Matrix began a discussion about the implementation of transmedia storytelling and how it might succeed creatively and economically in the 21st-century.

[1] Jenkins, 95-96.
[2] For a more in-depth discussion of the difference betwen adaptation and transmediation see: Long, Geoffrey. Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis, 2007.
[3] 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.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture.
[6] Gerstmann, Jeff. “Enter the Matrix Review.” Gamespot.com. 20 May 2003.
< http://www.gamespot.com/pc/action/enterthematrix/review.html?page=2>

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
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