Modern Media Consumption (II) – Worldbuilding, Sidestories and Transmedia (Part 1)

As a writer, and especially as one of science-fiction, I thoroughly enjoy creating settings; the act of sitting down and designing a world is genuinely interesting to me, because it is a kind of creativity that is not simply telling a story. The writer has the opportunity to flesh out the detail of a setting to make it believable to them, which in turn makes it far easier to write or create stories within.

A well-developed setting also permits an author or writer to easily create supplementary material for publication; setting guides, sequels and prequels and similar. An entire mythos or universe can be created for (and ultimately sold to) an audience. Commercial interests aside, this is one of the joys of science fiction or fantasy; when the author is charged with creating entire societies, countries or planets then there is infinite potential for stories to be told. However, as I have mentioned in a previous article, there is a necessary difference between the writer knowing all the details of their setting and having this information themselves, and the best way of communicating it to the reader. Having a plethora of supplementary information available can lead to a franchise or series becoming convoluted and inaccessible (as I touched on in my previous article in this series) as entries in the main series become reliant on the audience knowing details of the side-story material. Similarly, extending a setting’s compass post-facto, by creating new details to fill gaps in the original narrative and explore parts of the setting named but not considered in detail, risks losing what made the original work.

A fine case in point here is the Gundam franchise; its core Universal Century timeline shows many different approaches to extending a setting. The original Mobile Suit Gundam TV series was a largely self-contained narrative with some prologue material setting up the central conflict, and a war resolved within the series’ running time. It established a pace of technological development, laid down the thematic “rules” of the combat and technology and, while it was perhaps tonally inconsistent, was a coherent fictional universe. Subsequent sequels were set safely chronologically “after” the events of the original series and so did not attempt to rewrite what happened to any great extent; the overwhelming sense when watching series like Zeta Gundam and the much later-set Victory Gundam is that one is watching a series of stories telling the history of a fictional world.

However, the franchise also has side-story material within the Universal Century timeline which, while it may work as a piece of science-fiction in its own right, when considered as part of the main narrative makes the whole seem less thought through. A good example is the excellent OVA miniseries 0080: War in the Pocket – considered on its own, it is a good war story simply told that happens to be set within the Gundam franchise. However, its events are supposed to be running concurrently with events within the Mobile Suit Gundam series – and obviously, it was written some time after in real-time. As a result, stories like War in the Pocket and its fellow side-stories The 8th MS Team and MS Igloo, rather than making the fictional timeline seem more complete, make it seem more fragmented. A key plot point of the original series was that the battles the protagonist was a part of were the most decisive, the central campaign of the entire war – and the sense of isolation and pressure this entailed was used as part of the story. The viewer could imagine other battles taking place, or weapons being tested, for after all it was a global war, but the mystery that remained while they were not explained contributed to the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, the three main side-stories of Mobile Suit Gundam all have at their forefront unique weapons, renowned characters in-setting and so on which if anything distance them too much from the main timeline. Too much is being made clear and as a result it becomes harder to hold the whole setting together. This is not to disparage any of the series; they are quite enjoyable – but this post-facto rewriting of what was originally a comparatively tightly-defined setting makes it seem looser and loses some of the definition which was a strength of it.

This is compounded by non-animated materials like the MSV series of illustrations, intended to depict limited-production or variant weapons from within the setting, and stories like Advance of Zeta or Gundam Sentinel; what these all do is further make the setting’s technology less well-defined by attempting to make it clearer. There are only so many times an entire range of weapons and innovations can be written off completely in order to make this subsequently-added material fit the existing timeline without it seeming like the whole is a cynical attempt to reheat the franchise. It is thus this which sums up my argument; laying down worldbuilding detail before writing gives the creator a palette of things to deploy and build on. Creating a setting, establishing its rules and telling a complete story within it closes that setting off to a greater or lesser extent, making it harder to return to the setting and explore new possibilities because they must be considered in relation to what already exists.

Obviously, if a setting is more nebulously defined from the start, this problem does not exist; two examples that come immediately to mind are Warhammer 40,000‘s background and the Macross franchise. In the former, the best-defined parts of the setting are used to establish it as one which is too big to adequately understand or survey ruled by factions which are inefficient and may well not even know what they have available. Engineers on one side of the universe may believe that have just invented something someone knew about somewhere else a decade ago, and there is no way for either to know. If this is the basis for the setting, it is thus easy to add material to it at will; new weapons which may in fact be old weapons, aliens which have lived for centuries without even knowing of the existence of anyone else and so on. This is particularly useful given the flavour is ultimately used to justify the existence of a wargame to which new material is added; rather than strictly define a setting and thus limit the potential options for game-pieces, the setting must necessarily be vague.

The latter is more interesting; the side-material is created effectively contemporaneously to the main stories and focused on fleshing out small details of the setting that make it seem more human. The premise of the whole franchise is an ever-ongoing process of galactic exploration (justifying constant technological development and new alien races to find) set against human stories of showbusiness and love (and thus justifying getting the singers who provide the music together to record more songs). Some of the side-material for Macross is thus fascinating because it works on these two levels; one example is the Macross Frontier Christmas Special, an album of Christmas-themed novelty songs which both in-setting and in reality were recorded by notable pop stars. Ultimately it is merchandise used to sell the franchise; however, the album works as a cheesy, charming bit of novelty pop of the sort that would exist in reality representing a bit of novelty pop that would exist in the setting.

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