Crossmedia, Multimedia and Transmedia

Media Scientist Renira Rampazzo Gambarato on three different types of transmedia stories, ‘The Matrix’ and why do we need transmedia stories

videos | October 29, 2020

Transmedia storytelling is a new term, a new concept, but as a phenomenon it’s quite old. We could talk, for example, about stories such as Alice in the Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan which were created 100 years ago: they are considered pioneer kinds of stories related to transmedia storytelling. But the term, the concept of transmedia storytelling was coined by Professor Henry Jenkins from the US in 2003, so in this sense it’s quite new. And probably because of that it’s still widely open, so it’s more an elusive concept than a ultimate idea or definition of transmedia storytelling. Nevertheless, we can still trace some of the main characteristics of transmedia storytelling according to Henry Jenkins who first conceptualized it.

So we could think about transmedia storytelling evolving. First of all, it’s about multiple media platforms, so it’s more than one medium. It’s not just a book, it’s not just a movie, it’s not just a video game, but it’s a story that is spread out through several media platforms: for example, a TV series, a book, a comic book, a video game etc. The second aspect is very important: it is about the expansion of contents which means that the story is spread out across different media platforms in the sense that the story is expanded, the story is growing, and the story has new elements, new information, new content, and not the repetition. This is very crucial for understanding transmedia storytelling, so transmedia storytelling is not about the repetition of the content but the expansion, so new and relevant content that is presented in different media platforms. The third element, very important for transmedia storytelling, is audience engagement. Engagement is a kind of buzz word nowadays, and there are several different understandings of engagement, but for us right now we could think about at least two main aspects: one is interaction and other is participation, so the audience can somehow be involved into the story.

With these three elements we can think about transmedia storytelling as an integrated experience, so we have all these elements spread out to different platforms with the collaboration of the audience, but in an organized way, in an integrated way, not loosely displayed. This is the main idea of transmedia storytelling. It is also interesting to mention that it is not just related to fictional stories, but also to non-fictional contexts. For example, nowadays we have transmedia storytelling related to activists, related to politics, journalism, marketing, branding, not just entertainment. This is interesting to highlight.

Also, we could talk about different kinds of transmedia stories or transmedia projects. Robert Pratten suggests three different types of transmedia stories. The first one, probably the most common one, is called transmedia franchise. What does it mean? A transmedia franchise is the probably the idea that everybody has in mind about transmedia: maybe the most famous example is The Matrix, this project from 1999 with the trilogy of three movies but also several other extensions related to the story world of The Matrix, so we have the films, but we also have the animated films and we have comics and then we have video games etc.

So what is the main characteristic of a franchise? In a franchise we have all these elements of the story spread through different media platforms, but they are somehow independent which means that if you want, you can just watch one movie from The Matrix and you can enjoy it and have a good time and you will be satisfied with it. Maybe you would like to watch the three movies to have more in-depth understanding of the story, and then you will enjoy it, but maybe you will never watch the movies but you’ll play the game, and this is okay. So the idea is that all these different elements can function as an entry point, a way that for people to be in touch, to start to be in touch with this story world, and once they are inside this story world, they can choose if they want to migrate and go throughout all the other extensions that are being offered to that. This is the idea of transmedia franchise.

The second is called portmanteau transmedia. Portmanteau is a French word that would mean ‘port’, to carry, and ‘manteau’ is a jacket, and so is a kind of suitcase that you can put things into. So the idea of portmanteau is more in the sense that we have different elements across different media platforms but they are kind of dependent on each other for the audience to really understand what is going on, for the audience to really have a good experience. The classic example of portmanteau transmedia is alternate reality game. The alternate reality game it is well-known nowadays already, and it’s a kind of game that has as its motto ‘This is not a game’ in the sense that it is a kind of puzzle-solving or treasure hunt experience: people will have to follow the clues and go from a website, for example, to receiving a phone call and then go into a live event or coming back to a blog online. So normally alternate reality games involve online and offline experiences. and for the audience to make sense of the story, they should go through all the elements in order to do so. This is the idea of portmanteau transmedia.

The third is called complex transmedia experience, and it’s basically a combination of the two other, so when we have the parts of the story that are franchise in the sense that they can be experienced independently, but we also maybe have an alternate reality game involved in this story world. A good example would be here the TV series Lost. Lost was built to be a transmedia story, and besides the TV series it has several other elements, so we have games, we have several websites, and also we have an alternate reality game called The Lost Experience. The combination of the franchise with the alternate reality game would give us what is called the complex transmedia experience.

And maybe for us now to conclude we could think about one of the main questions related to transmedia storytelling which is, well, what is that for? Why do we need transmedia stories? Or do we really need this kind of production? Is it all about the money involved in it? These kinds of questions are relevant for us to stop and try to understand the value of this kind of experience. We could say that, first of all, of course, it is related to making money, this is true, for example, if we are talking about all these Hollywood blockbusters related to transmedia such as Avatar, for example: of course, the financial aspect, the profit, the intention to make money out of it is involved.

But we believe that that’s not just this, and it’s not just as simple as making money. Why? Because there are several other projects that are totally not related to making profit or are not at all related to having a big budget. So it’s very interesting to also realize that for us to produce a transmedia project, we do not necessarily need all the resources that Hollywood has, for example. In this sense we could have as examples all the activism projects being produced all over the world that normally are absolutely not for profits and do not have any kind of intention to make money out of it, but it normally has the intention to bring awareness for people about certain issues.

We could say then that the point of transmedia storytelling is to offer a more meaningful experience for the audience, to offer an enriching experience in the sense that people that are interested in a certain story world and a certain issue can have the opportunity to go deeper and have more information to go deeper and be able to know more about this story world that they like, that they are related to and that somehow is significant for them.

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Assistant Professor, Faculty of Communications, Media, and Design, School of Media, Higher School of Economics
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