Saturday, October 3, 2009

Interactive Movies and the Excitement of CD-ROMS

I remember when I first started studying multimedia in the late 90s there was a lot of buzz around 'CD-ROMS' and the potential for games to become interactive movies.What eventuated from these ideas was   narrowly constrained point and click movies, playing snippets of film as you progressed, that hardly set people aflutter. Now, of course, we have PS3s and Xboxes that render high end graphics on the fly, displacing the aspiration for actual film footage, and offering a greater sense of immersion and interactivity. I often wonder though what interactive cinema, decoupled from the quaint excitement of CDs as a storage medium, might look like.

I don't think it is what any of us expected it might be back in the 90s, but disembodied narratives are our interactive cinema today. The concept of interactive cinema was originally imagined loosely as 'choose your own movie', and in many ways that is what disembodied narrative encourages. In massive transmedia universes, such as Star Wars, we acknowledge that it becomes almost impossible for any one person to consume every text - they must pick and choose the ones that appeal most to them, and in doing so choose their own story of that universe. This personalization of stories in transmedia will become more apparent as the content within given transmedia universes multiplies exponentially through the growing legitimization of user-generated content. In fact the creation of that content will become an aspect of the interactivity itself.

What is great about this scenario is that although we will all potentially have a wholly  unique experience disembodied narratives, we will still have shared experiences of the universes themselves. Textual critique and debate of disembodied narratives will have to extend beyond contrasting interpretations to contrasting choices of how and what aspects of the narrative are consumed. They will certainly make for some fascinating debates, don't you think?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Is it wrong to be excited by Transmedia semantics?

I came across Xiaochang Li's wonderful blog CanaryTrap.Net once I stumbled into the online academic community of transmedia enthusiasts. There is a great discussion in the feed back of her recent post "Transmedia as intertext and multiplicity: why some types of stories lend themselves to transmedia" which gets into the semantics of transmedia. What is the significance of the distinction between medium and platform? How 'trans' must transmedia be for it to be authentic? Erek and Scott in comments both contribute some really good questions (some of which I've been pondering myself), which have helped me see how useful the term 'disembodied narrative' is. In one comment Erek poses the question of whether different stories told about the same universe all in one medium, such as comics, would constitute a transmedia story. It is suggested that in fact such a story would not be transmedia proper, with which I agree. Disembodied narrative however, would be an accurate description.

The defining idea of 'disembodied narrative' is that the story exists across multiple independent texts, with no need to make distinctions of media. I say independent here to draw a distinction between sequels and serialisations, ie each of the texts should work primarily on its own. The concept of disembodied narrative then allows us to move beyond the discussion of variety in mediums and platforms, and focus on the questions of how to work with such a fractured narrative, and how independent the individual elements should be. Ooh, its all so exciting!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Marketing is part of the Story

Advertising is part of the narrative in a transmedia story. What I have read on transmedia so far doesn't give much consideration to the integration of adverstising into the whole transmedia narrative. Certianly there is acknowledgement that when being innovative with narrative extensions on the web, it's the usually the marketing depts that are brought in to do it. This however is failing to grasp the potential of the transmedia narrative to utilise advertising. Take Heroes - it's ground-breaking in its transmedia approach, releasing back-story web comics simulataneously with the show being aired for example, yet it still has traditional advertising in a variety of media to drum up viewership. All those adverts are just wasted airtime / media space that could be used to tell more of the Heroes story, rather then just give glimpses of what they will get in the actual show, and doing that would still entice viewers.

In the last decade or so I'd be hard pressed to think of one movie or TV show that I hadn't already seen at least one advert or review of before I watched it. Not one. Usually I've seen a number of adverts and/or reviews. So everything I watch, I already have some small pieces of the narrative before I even start. That is why it is important to consider the role of advertising not just in terms of building or drawing viewers, but also in the actually unfolding of the narrative itself. This is one of the ways Cloverfield succeeded, although in a limited way, by utilising non-film footage on the internet, to both draw an audience and start telling the narrative. Unfortunatley I'm not aware of any of that footage actually making it on to TV or into cinemas like regular film adverts, but that should be the studios next step.

What needs to happen is a holistic approach to the narrative, one that includes all the marketing/advertising as well as the primary texts (films, shows, books, etc). Too often audio visual texts are sold short by their advertising, which often undermines the narrative experience of the text rather then enhance it. I only hope we will finally see the last of this as transmedia become the norm. Maybe then I won't have so many movies ruined by adverts that explain the whole thing before you even watch it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hard and Soft Transmedia

So listening to a couple of cool podcasts from Henry Jenkins blog, most from about 2-3 years ago, I can't help but feel a little out of date. I've been thinking about these things for that long, but haven't put much effort into researching them until now. Still better late then never.

It's funny how all the examples I was thinking of are the ones they are using too - ie Matrix, Star Wars, LOTR, Batman, Spiderman, etc. Listening to this podcast with the creators of Heroes about transmedia and learning just how transmedia the show is has been fascinating. I always liked the program, but felt it fell flat in some places and didn't quite live up to its potential. That's what all these transmedia academics have been saying too! I have much more respect for the show now, and will have to make an effort to watch past season 2.

It seems one of the students in the Q & A session at the end of the podcast is thinking about some of the ideas I mentioned in my last post. The distinction I talked about between a 'disembodied narrative' and 'transmedia narrative' is described by the student as 'hard' and 'soft' transmedia, soft being those transmedia media stories that are just alternate media extensions of a successful property, and hard being what I describe as a disembodied narrative below. I like the scalability of his description which allows for a grey area rather then either/or, though I must admit I'm still partial to my term disembodied narrative. Coming from an interest in the queer community and politics, transmedia just makes me think of movies for transgendered people. (I won't even get into the resulting conotations then of 'hard' and 'soft') :P

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Transmedia Storytelling

What spurred me to start this blog was the enthusiam I had recently when I finally found other people talking about these same narrative ideas. I'd been thinking about how stories are told in contemporary media for a couple of years, and came up with the term 'disembodied narrative' for my own reference and understanding of the concept I'm getting to grips with. Of course, trying to find others interested in a similar idea is difficult if you don't know the right terminology, but I found it hard to believe that I could be the only looking at narrative in this way.

I wasn't, and it was quite exciting to find that academics have been talking about something called 'Transmedia Storytelling' for a couple of years now. It's a relatively new area of study, but it hits the nail on the head. Henry Jenkins, author of the book 'Convergence Culture' (which I really must read now) has a great blog on which he frequently discusses transmedia, in particular he offers a great introductory explanation of transmedia storytelling. He identifies many of the key ideas I considered part of disembodied narratives, particularly defining them as having 'no one single source or ur-text', which is the source of all information. He gives The Matrix universe as the example of this, although I would have to disagree on that point. Having other sources of narrative information, as many not-so-transmedia stories in our culture do, is not enough to undermine the status of an 'ur-text'. With Jenkin's example of The Matrix I would say the first film is the ur-text, even though there is plenty of other narrative information to be found in other matrix media. The reason is two fold - firstly because the film was the primary and main conception of the narrative, and where produced as the primary product (and income source), with all other matrix media seen as ancillary, even promotional product for the films. It was only after the success of the first matrix film that the franchise became transmedia. Secondly, this primacy of the films, at least in a commercial sense, does translate in to a cultural perception of the films as the more authentic source of narrative, esteemed by virtue of their greater marketing budgets, as the 'true' Matrix story. In other words, the Matrix film is still the ur-texts of the universe.

A true disembodied narrative would be created when not only the artistic, but also the commercial producers conceive of the narrative across multiple media as a unified whole, right from the conception, with none of the elements seen as merely promotion for others. I think what we have at the moment is transmedia narratives, but a disembodied narrative would have no original, initiating text - ie it's innately and neccessarily transmedia right from inception. We're close to that happening, but I'm not entirely sure we are there yet.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What do I mean by ‘disembodied narrative’?

Originally stories only existed in people’s heads. Before writing, ancient cultures passed stories on orally, and each recipient could make what they wished of them in their own interpretation or retelling. Then people started making marks on things, voila we have writing, and now there is a much more accurate way of passing stories on. Skip ahead a whole bunch of centuries, and the majority of all stories, the ones that define our culture, are contained in books.

Since then a plethora of other media have developed that offer a variety of means for telling stories. We have come to think of these as what stories are – books, movies, plays, tv shows, but really the stories have always been in our heads. We know that books and movies etc can have as many interpretations as the people that consume them – but until recently the public perception was that author’s should limit the range of interpretation. There have always been authors who make their work deliberately ambiguous, forcing the audience more overtly to find their own interpretation and make their own story from it, but I would assert that this type of work has not been valued by the majority of our society. Then we got video games and Web 2.0 – and, well, as a culture we are still coming to terms with that, but we are slowly beginning to place more value on the interaction and contribution of the audience. We are in the midst of learning to appreciate that stories are as much what the audience brings to them as what they are given.

This is all very esoteric, but I do also have a much more tangiable concept of what disembodied narrative is. Media conglomerates have brought us some amazing franchise stories (and not so amazing) in the last few decades. There is the quintessential example, Star Wars, though there are many others, including Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, The Matrix, Harry Potter and Batman, just to name a few of the larger ones, but any book, movie, tv show, comic, etc that has been reimagined or extended into some other form fits here. Typically these stories all have a central text that is privelidged above all other texts, which are considered subsidiary. With Star Wars it was the ‘original’ movies, Batman was a comic, Lord of the Rings a book. Even the Bible could be considered the central text in the Christian story franchise. Yet why must we consider one text the most authentic source of the narrative, while others are secondary, just because they came after? Both the Matrix movies and video games where authored by the Wachowski brothers, yet the films are considered the ’source’ material. I would argue that The Animatrix, although created by different directors, and therefore not as authentic as the films, is actually, better and perhaps closer to the narrative I took from the original Matrix film, then the shoddy sequels Reloaded and Revolutions. This is becoming an irrelevent point, as media conglomerates put into production many of these elements simultaneously these days, with books, games and toys ready to go at the same time as a film. When all these things are essentially created all at once by an extended creative team, how can form of the narrative seriously be considered more authentic then the others?

What will emerge in our coming culture is a form of story-telling not embodied in a single text, but rather extant as disembodied narratives accessable through multiple texts in a variety of media. I’m looking forward to these stories with bated breath.

Monday, July 20, 2009

For blog’s sake!

I’ve got an idea. It’s about how the ways stories are being told in popular culture are changing thanks to new technologies. I keep seeing articles, blogs, videos and other random net emphemera that all seem to point to this trend, so it only seemed natural to collect them all here on a blog. Making these ideas open to anyone will hopefully invite feed back and help to clarify them and make them more useful. So wh00t, here it is.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I’ve studied multimedia and art history, and can’t get enough culture, high or low, pop or obscure. I want to share my fascination with all things fascinating and, of course, narrative in our contemporary, screen-soaked culture.

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