By Xiaochang Li | September 23, 2009
With FOE this year being heavily transmedia-centric, I’ve been thinking (and reading) a lot lately about transmedia — about what there is to say now that we’re past the phase of describing what it is and moving into thinking more deeply about what it does and how.
A recent interview at Narrative Design Exploratorium with Starlight Runner CEO (and past FOE panelist) Jeff Gomez got me thinking about the relationship of transmedia to “genre fiction,” or stories written with distinct formal conventions such as mystery, horror, sci-fi/fantasty, and romance.
In the interview, Jeff maintains that
“You don’t need a science fiction or fantasy story to spark up a transmedia narrative. Our main criteria at Starlight Runner is that the story, brand or message lends itself to a rich world, real or imagined. The world needs to have a past and future, it must be populated with engaging characters, and there has to be something about it that makes us want to be a part of it . . . you can easily take a soap opera scenario, a high school scenario, the building of a new model of car or home and blast away”
While I wholeheartedly agree that no specific genre is required for that transmedia spark, it does seem that transmedia efforts tend to skew towards Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and other stories that follow certain genre conventions. Similarly, as evidenced by the way the “cult media” panel at FOE 2 veered quickly into a transmedia discussion, genre fiction seems to have an affinity for transmedia as well.
Transmedia and the Multiplicity Principle
Jeff’s comment about soap operas and high school scenarios being just as easy to extend into transmedia points to one possible explanation — what television scholar David Thorburn calls the multiplicity principle of tv melodrama, where the audience’s familiarity with the thematic or character conventions of a genre can help fill in and add nuance. Rather than flatten characters into stereotypes, however, the multiplicity principle in fact allow for deeper and more complex developments because they give these stories the freedom to render characters and themese more suggestively rather than spelling everything out.
As Thorburn explains:
“The familiar character-types and situations thus become more suggestive and less imprisoning. There is no pretense that a given character has been wholly ‘explained’ by the plot, and the formula has the liberating effect of creating a premise or base on which the actor is free to build”
Or, as in the case of transmedia narratives, it gives the audience a rich base to generates deeper curiousity and an exploratory instinct, which drives them to develop and expand the story further outside of the initial point of contact with the narrative.
Transmedia as Intertext
Through this multiplicity, genre fiction has the freedom to create rich, nuanced characters and themes that are still broadly rendered enough to leave room for the audience to speculate, contribute, and pursue the story further. This is one possible reason for the overlap between genre fiction lends and transmedia, since further pursuit of the story is precisely what leads people to engage with narrative expansions elsewhere. In other words, both genre fiction such as sci-fi or melodrama and transmedia narratives require the existence of multiple texts and stories, as well as open invitations to curious, sophisticated audiences built into the narrative structure.
Perhaps then one of the deep affordances of transmedia stories is that they operate just not as a collection of texts, but as an intertext, a text that is produced within the interaction between multiple texts. This is part of what differentiates transmedia, media that moves across and between forms and platforms, from static multimedia nodes. Transmedia isn’t just about multiple stories or versions, but about creating a rich in-between space, an archive of shared meaning in-between different parts of the story. In short, a universe.