This is PART THREE of a six part post reproduced with kind permission of Maureen McHugh, Writer and Partner at No Mimes Media.
As I said in Part 1, because the artform takes stories and shatters them into pieces, it’s a lot easier for the audience to put the story back together if it’s a kind of story they recognize. If it’s, in other words, a conventional narrative. So, say, detective mysteries tend to make pretty decent transmedia stories. In print stories, I like to break conventions, use less well understood conventions, and generally fart around. In transmedia, I’ve had to learn that I can make the character as complex as I want, but the structure of the narrative better be pretty simple.
The funny thing about transmedia storytelling is that for all its reliance on conventions, the artform itself doesn’t yet have many established conventions. And the ones that it has are probably conventions that will fall away as audiences learn the artform and as technology gets better.
For example, right now in connecting the pieces of the story, we often use puzzles. An audience member watches a video and in the video, the character mentions a particular kind of bike lock and asks that the audience member helps him get it open. The audience member googles the make of bike lock and discovers it can be opened using a Bic pen. When the audience member emails that information, it triggers the next chunk of story. That particular puzzle is simple. But the puzzles are often much more complex—ciphers, codes, hidden messages.
This particular structure was very successful in a breakout transmedia work, the ARG for Steven Spielberg’s AI. Elan Lee, Jordan Weisman, and Sean Stewart built a story which was gated by puzzles. When they created the work, known now as The Beast ARG but nameless when they created it (ARGs don’t have title pages), they did not for a moment think that all transmedia stories would be a series of websites and email communications gated by puzzles. A community of about 3,000 active members and 10,000 total followers came together to ‘play’ this story. (One player said about ARGs, ‘they’re a game in which you play a person exactly like yourself except you pretend that the story you are following is real.’) That community was unexpected. The collaborative work of solving puzzles—morse code hidden in a sound file of water dripping from a faucet, clues hidden in jpeg images, messages in website source files, etc.—became the pleasure of the experience for some of the audience.
They enjoyed it so much that when it was over, several of them created their own grassroots transmedia Internet experiences, modeled on The Beast ARG, including puzzles. But enjoying puzzles, like chess or bridge, is not really everyone’s cup of tea. A lot of people liked Myst, but the majority of them never finished it.
Making a transmedia project, like making a movie, can be expensive. We often make video and audio recordings. Streaming requires bandwidth. Websites have to be designed. Email and phone calls to thousands are expensive. Creating events and experiences in cities is also expensive. A project can easily run to the low seven figures. That’s a million dollars. Chump change in the movie industry, but not something you find lying around in the couch cushions. To raise that kind of money we need to reach a pretty large audience, but making transmedia narrative dependent on puzzles eliminates a vast percentage—probably the majority of that audience.
Nobody is quite sure how to make money from these things but if the audience doesn’t grow, no one is going to make money from these things. Transmedia projects have attracted hundreds of thousands of ‘hits’, that is, websites have had hundreds of thousands different people come to them, but no media project has yet broken out into mainstream awareness. There is no transmedia equivalent to Twilight, or Grand Theft Auto, no Lady Gaga or even Mad Men. There will be (and when there is, a lot of the people reading this post will be rolling their eyes and saying ‘New? New? I’ve been doing this for years!’) But something that depends on people figuring out morse code is not going to break out. (Although I wouldn’t have put my money on American Idol, so I am not an especially accurate authority on matters cultural.) But to me the puzzles are a limiting function. Might there always be some transmedia projects that use puzzles? Sure. There are video games that use puzzles. But there are lots of other kinds of video games, and there are lots of other kinds of transmedia narratives.