Designing Expansion

So far, a transmedia producer should develop the spatial dimensions of a world and leave narrative gaps to facilitate exploration and discovery. But how should the ‘secondary texts’ be crafted? By definition, transmedia extensions should add some insight into the overarching narrative. And they should be integrated through various forms of migratory cues. But in this section, I argue that transmedia extensions should be understood as individual experiences, not just sources for more narrative information. A transmedia/television producer should make the process of discovering narrative information a fun and worthwhile experience in its own right. Obviously, different types of extensions have different potential for creating enjoyable experiences. As such, I examine transmedia extensions in the form of a ‘new episode,’ diegetic artifact, or alternate reality.

1.)  “New Episode” Extensions
As the name suggests, “new episode” extensions are essentially a new episode(s) of the TV series, only in a different form of media.[1] These may exist as graphic novels (Heroes), videogames (Alias: Underground), webisodes (24: Conspiracy), or mobisodes (Battlestar Galactica: The Resistance), and exist as spin-offs, sequels, prequels, or fillers, but in all cases, new episode extensions must satisfy two requirements. They must be tonally and thematically consistent with the television show and they must be a transparent mode of storytelling. That is, unlike diegetic artifact and alternate reality extensions, new episode extensions maintain the boundary between the fictional world and everyday life.[2] Audiences take pleasure in experiencing the television narrative through the lens of a different medium and can do so from the comfort of the outside world looking in.

In one example of a new episode extension, Joss Whedon continued the storyline of Buffy The Vampire Slayer into a comic series known as “Season 8.” The comic book reads like an episode from the show, with the same characters, mythology, and fantastical creatures. Except, Whedon understands that a comic should not be exactly like a television episode:

The show was very mundane, deliberately mundane…A comic has got to work on a grander, epic scale. We can really take the characters wherever we want…That’s where the fun is, in revisiting these characters. It’s like being with my old friends, but in actuality, not being with my old friends, because the actors aren’t there to play them. It’s a little different. It’s a symphony based on the little tune we played.[3]

Whedon knows that extending a storyline into a new medium means that the story must be altered to fit the capabilities of the medium, while also maintaining the integrity of the show.  So while Whedon can afford to be more fantastical and “grand” in his presentation of a comic book narrative (due to lack of financial and personnel limitations), the characters’ actions must still be consistent with the beloved characters from the show. Each medium has different storytelling possibilities: books can add psychological depth to characters, video games can put spatial dimensions into a story, and films can provide visually stunning sequences. Thus, new episode extensions can offer fresh experiences based on how well they capture the same appealing qualities of a television show, while also taking advantage of the medium’s unique storytelling potential.

2.) Diegetic Artifact Extensions
Askwith uses the term “diegetic extensions” to describe transmedia extensions that originate in the fictional universe, but are available to explore in the actual world. [4] Janet Murray calls these “hyperserials” or virtual artifacts from the fictional space of the TV series.[5] These may come in the form of diaries, legal certificates, telephone messages, instant messages, and e-mail messages. John Caldwell presents three types of digital artifacts: characterized proliferations, narrativized elaborations, and back-story textuality.[6] Characterized proliferations enable users to explore items from a character’s life.[7] For example, on, users could explore Dawson’s emails, IM chats, journals, and trashed items. Narrativized elaborations “allow the narrative arc to continue outside the show.”[8]  And back-story textuality increases “intimacy” with a character by providing more in depth character development, like a college essay or blog post. However, as Askwith argues, these categories often blend together, making it difficult to differentiate between the three.[9] Thus, I find it useful to break down hyperserials into two broad categories: character artifacts and institutional artifacts.

Character Artifacts

Dawson’s Desktop is an excellent example of a character artifact. The site filled in gaps between aired episodes (narrative elaborations) but also gave users the opportunity to dig around Dawson’s trash bin (characterized proliferations).[10] Fans could even send their own e-mails to Dawson as if they were fellow students.[11] Character artifacts are usually based off characters appearing in the show. Examples include The Office’s Shrute Space (the blog of Dwight Shrute) or 24’s ‘Palmer Campaign,’ which allowed users to gain insight on Senator Palmer’s political platform and his stance on issues like wildlife protection and clean energy. [12]

One interesting character artifact comes from the second episode of Heroes. Hiro, a computer programmer who can bend time and space, discovers a comic book called 9th Wonders!. The comic book is the creation of another main character named Isaac Mendez, an artist who can draw the future. Hiro frequently consults the comic to see what will happen next. And when the 9th Wonders! went online, viewers could follow the painter’s prophecies along with Hiro.

Institutional Artifacts
As Derek Johnson has argued, many cult television shows depend on the presence of institutions to expand a hyperdiegesis.[13] Institutional artifacts usually come in the form of novels or websites. The House Special Subcommittee’s Findings at CTU was a novel framed as a piece of investigative journalism from within 24’s story world. Published to expose declassified documents and transcripts from The C.I.A’s Counter Terrorism Unit, the author claims that “24” was the code-name given by the news media to refer to the scandal in the agency. [14] The book jacket reads: “This report names names, wags fingers in some surprising new directions, and may even serve to clear some well-positioned scapegoats of culpability…It’s the kind of drama you only expect to see on TV.” By positioning the book within 24’s hyperdiegetic space, readers play the role of a citizen in the show’s universe. While no one would mistake The House Special Subcommittee’s Findings at CTU for non-fiction, there is a certain pleasure in imagining Jack Bauer as a real person.

In both character and institutional artifacts, television moves even closer from our living rooms into our everyday lives.  Their effectiveness seems to be judged based on well they bring elements of the fictional world into the actual world, while also improving our understanding of the television show. Yet as mentioned in 3.1, institutional artifacts are generally better for worldbuilding than character artifacts. Institutional artifacts encourage characters to play a role, but it is a role that exists comfortably in the off-screen space of a show’s hyperdiegesis. In contrast, character artifacts may allow more direct interaction with a character, but such interactivity risks bringing fans ‘too close’ to the action of the show.  In her study on the relationship between the television show Spooks and its ancillary games, Elizabeth Jane Evans argues that fans want to maintain a distinction between themselves and the television characters in the show. [15] They want to “imagine what another person must feel like in their situation without for a moment confusing ourselves with that other person.”[16] When we interact with institutional artifacts, we do not play our actual selves as much as we play a character in the same world as the characters on the show.  This role is intensified through alternate reality extensions.

3.) Alternate Reality Extensions
Alternate reality extensions allow people to play a role as a member of the narrative world and challenge the boundaries between the reality of the show and everyday life. Generally, only the most devoted fans participate in alternate reality extensions. However, these extensions offer the most interactive and immersive experience within the diegetic world of the television show. Sometimes an ARG[17] can run concurrently with the television show, such as Alias, ReGenesis, and Push, Nevada. In the Alias ARG, participants paid close attention to the show in order to follow the clues of the ARG. For instance, after seeing two characters memorize a binary code in the show, viewer-players entered the same binary code into an online chatbot, receiving a URL where they could access a secret message from a major character on the show.[18]

Alternate reality games do not just exist on the computer; they can also incorporate SMS messaging, voicemail, newspapers, billboards, flyers, and live events. Steven Jones argues that many fans enjoy the simple act of crossing the fictional world and the actual world:

Part of the fun of such intermediation is the viewers’ or players’ pleasure in following the official “hacks” or media re-purposing, crossing the threshold between text and outside world, seeing different media crossed and re-crossed in order to use the media network as the ‘platform’ for a larger, unstable structure, even if we know that structure is…a marketing device for an entertainment product.”[19]

Jones argues that this “threshold crossing,” a characteristic of alternate reality games, is similar to early role-playing games, where people acted out imaginary characters and fantasy worlds. However, unlike many fantasy-role playing games, which transport the player into a fictional world, alternate reality games bring the fictional world into everyday life. This can cause some jarring disconnects with television, as I will discuss in Chapter 4.

Thus, a transmedia extension should not just be something more for the hard-core fans to do, but actually an individually satisfying experience all its own. Though it is impossible to evaluate what makes an extension “fun,” a television/transmedia producer should pay special attention to what kind of story they want to tell and pick the appropriate transmedia extension. New episode extensions blend the appeal of a television show with the capabilities of a new medium. Diegetic artifact extensions let users be a part of the fictional world and alternate reality extensions enable a higher degree of interaction and participation within that world.

[1] Jason Mittell first used the term  “new episode” as a category to describe some video games’ relationship to serial narratives. In “Serial Narratives and Tie-In Games: Problems, Possibilities and Pleasures.”  Unpublished paper presented at Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Vancouver, Canada, March 2006.
[2] These are a similar category to what Ivan Akswith calls “narrative extensions” in TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television, which are also unique for acknowledging themselves as a mode of storytelling. However, unlike my use of ‘new episode,’ Askwith does not include role-playing games in his category of narrative extensions. (whereas I have included video games)
[3] Vineyward, Jennifer. “Re-Buffed: New Comic Book Series Resurrects Vampire Slayer.” 1 February 2007.
[4] Askwith develops the category “diegetic extensions” in TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television. However, Askwith distinguishes between diegetic artifacts (“objects that have explicit significance in the core television narrative”) and diegetic extensions (“objects that do not appear in the core narrative, but are presented as if they exist within the diegetic space of the program”). For purposes of simplicity, I will conflate these categories into one.
[5] Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
[6] “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition.
[7] Ibid., 51.
[8] Ibid., 51.
[9] TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television.
[10] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture, 115.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Johnson, Derek . “Inviting Audiences In: The spatial reorganization of production and consumption in ‘TVIII’.” New Review of Film and Television Studies. 5, 1 (2007): 61-80.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Cerasini, Marc and Alfonsi, Alice. The House Special Subcommittee’s Findings at CTU. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
[15] Evans, Elizabeth Jane. “Character, Audience Agency and Transmedia Drama.” Media Culture Society. 30, 2 (2008): 197-213.
[16] Ibid., 205
[17] Alternate Reality Game.
[18] Ornebring, Henrik. “Alternate Reality Gaming and Convergence Culture.”
[19] “Dickens on Lost: Text, Paratext, Fan Based Media.” 22 May 2007. Loyola University, Chicago.

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