Modern Media Consumption (III) – Worldbuilding, Sidestories and Transmedia (Part 2)

An example of transmedia material – an extract from a licensed novel from Games Workshop’s “Black Library” imprint. Extract taken for illustrative purposes under Fair Use laws.

Previously in this series I talked about how increasingly, popular media is expanding beyond one medium into others in order to spread its appeal; this can be as simple as a film adaptation of a comic or novel, or a novel adaptation of a film or game. This, in turn, is held to be changing the approach to media consumption of the target audience.

In itself, this is not inherently a bad thing; having the option to find out more about a setting that interests you can be a great way of building interest in it since it can in its own way provide feedback to the setting’s creators. If people are particularly interested in one aspect of the setting that perhaps the original work did not touch on in enough detail, then the creators can adapt what they produce in future to this. Yet in practice, the execution of such ideas is never so simple, which I think in part is why so many fans of things turn to fan-creations rather than official ones. The enduring problem is that side-story material must remain distinct from the main storyline otherwise the result is a setting so complex that new fans are put off; ultimately, any transmedia and extended setting needs to have a starting point that makes sense on its own as a complete narrative.

As an example, consider the media response to the decision to turn the film adaptation of The Hobbit into a trilogy of films encompassing a large amount of subsidiary material from the Lord of the Rings setting and story. In effect, this is very much the same kind of legitimised sidestory as, for example, Gundam Unicorn or Stardust Memory (series I have mentioned in previous articles on this subject) – expanding one story to fill in details about the setting. However, the response was generally negative – it was felt the decision to delve into sidestory material detracted from what was popular about The Hobbit – its simplistic and self-contained narrative. The second complaint was that while the side-material was “official”, it was not part of The Hobbit itself. Considering this, it can perhaps be concluded that the average consumer of media has little interest in sidestories – that while sequels and prequels are easily understood since they form a simple chronology, the idea of obsessively filling in every gap in a story with its own narrative is still considered the preserve of the dedicated super-fan rather than a natural part of media consumption. This perhaps is because something of the appeal of a story is its mysteries, the chance to fill in the gaps not with a creator-approved vision but with some act of imagination.

Furthermore, it is best if the range of media used to form this transmedia narrative remains small and controlled, especially with regard to computer games; if it becomes necessary for someone to purchase multiple pieces of hardware in order to get the full narrative by playing a number of games, then it may become too cost-ineffective for them to keep up. Similarly, if a series’ debut entry on a new console can only be played and fully enjoyed by someone who owns a number of previous series entries – and the associated consoles – then its sales will be inherently lower with each iteration if no way of catching up is given. This is in part why series like Kingdom Hearts meet such opposition from the gaming media; the series has a complex overarching plot which is told across a number of games played on a number of consoles, some of which do not receive English-language releases; as a result, each series entry becomes increasingly convoluted and so the franchise as a whole appears forbidding to new players.

Transmedia exists in another form as well; the concept of merchandising and supplementary material such as spinoff series and adaptations. Again, this meets significant opposition from ordinary consumers, since owning merchandise has traditionally been associated with being a dedicated fan, while adaptations and spinoffs for TV or film, or in novel format, are generally considered poor-quality works. This is in part because material created for fans dedicated to a single property has a captive audience happy to consume; something written as a spinoff of a well-known property only has to really appeal to those invested enough in it to want to consume it. One can argue this is a sort of complacency among media-creators; the assumption that extending a fiction is doing it for an undiscerning audience has led to the state of affairs where spinoff material tends to be inaccessible and low-quality, or at least is perceived as such by outsiders. In turn, this does nothing to change the stereotype of fans of such properties as undiscerning consumers of low-quality media.

Thus, what could be done to change this? To challenge this reputation, there must be an attitude change among the creators of transmedia material. A general higher standard of such material would make it seem less like the creators assume that the only consumers of such material are undiscerning ones; this is something that series like War In The Pocket or Macross Plus make clear. These two examples of sidestories are written to the same, if not a higher quality, to the main narratives they are a part of, and form self-contained narratives that have a wider appeal than simply fleshing out the minutiae of a setting for super-fans. However, most importantly, it should not be required to enjoy any main series entries for audiences who prefer some mystery and questions to remain unanswered within the property.

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