Entertainment is a risky business, so anything that makes money or attracts attention becomes the basis of the next pitch and the next big investment. After the success of “Lost” in spreading fan involvement from the TV screen to the Web in the form of intense plot speculation, map-making, webisodes, and games, “transmedia storytelling”—whose properties have been brilliantly observed by my old friend and colleague Henry Jenkins of USC—became the goal of many producers. I agree with Henry that the creation of a consistent story world with participatory elements that takes viewers deeper into the fictional universe is a phenomenon very much worth taking note of. But I am also impatient with the concept, because I don’t expect transmedia anything to be around very long.
Why am I so sure? Because “transmedia” like “photoplay” is an additive term for a temporary, additive practice. Just as we no longer think of movies as merely photographed plays, we will someday cease to think of television and the Web as separate media platforms for authors to work across.
As Nicholas Negroponte used to say, “Bits are bits.” Anything translated into binary integers is part of the same medium—the digital medium. And once an entertainment property is in the digital medium, all of the expressive possibilities of that medium become available to it. Digital representation is not limited to sending legacy media packages down a new kind of wire: It is not merely a transmission technology. The digital medium is a new form of representation, opening up new possibilities of interaction and immersion, and the possibility of wholly new genres of entertainment that transcend their patchwork origin. Just as movies transcended the patchwork of photography, plus live theater, to find their own expressive language.
Most of my students do not own a TV—they watch on their computers. Millions of older consumers are watching TV and movies on demand on their iPads or game control systems. Some smaller number are calling up the Internet on their living room Google TV sets. Right now the mating between these separate media forms is clumsy and incomplete. Additive design is not stable because it takes too high a cognitive load: If you don’t believe me, try to figure out which game events belong to the canonical “Lost” universe, or how to pause a video stream using the Google TV remote control.
How will we transcend this awkward additive transmedia stage? Not by making everything on television interactive or everything on the Web serialized and non-participatory. But by looking at the points of intersection of existing media genres—what we might currently think of as the transmedia design space—as marking off the turf of an emerging new genre. which will eventually define its own space within the vast expressive affordances of the digital medium.
What would this new participatory story genre look like? Some of its conventions are clear, based on the way people have wanted to connect with existing story worlds and multiplayer games. It will involve an internally consistent but puzzling fictional world, an authored but participatory plot, and an encyclopedically large cast built around a small number of iconic figures.
The shape of future inventions can be glimpsed by consulting our own frustrations with existing media patchworks. For example, on the Web, viewers can pose theories and argue about the interpretation of episodes and scenes, but they can’t point to them or excerpt them. In a format that was custom made for participatory story telling, viewers would be able to create precise pointers to parts of an episode, and assemble them for replay or post commentaries linked to the exactly the moment that proves their point. They would be able to create and share their own playlists to emphasize a particular point of view or follow an important story thread.
The elements that currently take place in separate game worlds could also be more closely integrated with the unfolding action so that they could inflect (but not disruptively alter) the course of the actor-played, scripted main characters. There would still be a division between the scripted actor-focused story and the interactive one, but the sequencing of events would be shared, reinforcing the sense of immersion in a single narrative world. Just as daytime soap operas used to bring all the characters together for a party or a funeral every season, participatory dramas could arrange large events like battles, contests, telethons, sales of virtual merchandise, or the release of puzzle clues that would synchronize the work or the partisan actions of teams of viewers within an unfolding dramatic situation.
The thirst of fans for access to secret communications could also be accommodated in a more integrated manner. For example, a character could be shown writing an email or text message, with some viewers gaining access to the contents of the message on a synchronized display.
Not all shows in this future integrated medium would have the same kind of interactivity. Some would be more like current television shows, but they would have affordances we now go to the Web or the DVR to find, such as access to backstory, character profiles, actor’s filmography (where do I know that guy from?), or the kind of on-screen informational captions that “Lost” was forced to resort to in its last season just to keep people informed of the over-elaborated and highly confusing story, which would also have been useful on “The Wire.”
It is always easier for me to see the direction of change than it is to identify the time frame in which a particular moment of invention will occur. The emergence of integrated interactive stories is getting closer as TV, console games, and the Internet converge on the same living room screen. But it is not technology that will drive it. The arrival of the new genre will come with an act of the imagination, similar to the first “Star Wars” films, when someone conceives of a coherent multiepisode, multiseason story, in an elaborately detailed and mysterious world with room for large participatory groups in well-defined, but open-ended roles. It may be a science fiction universe or an historical adventure or a romantic soap opera or a Western or gangster story. But it will be a world that people will want to inhabit as well as view; one where the viewing reinforces the delight of participating and the participation reinforces the richness of viewing. It will be a story with multiple conflicting points of view, or compellingly ambiguous moral choices, or a multilayered symbolic mystery, or some other special complexity. In other words, it will be a great story that could only be captured in a new interactive medium, and the demands of that story will lead to a new synthesis of media conventions that will seem graceful, inevitable, and not “trans” anything.