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Resurrecting Multimedia from the mire of Transmedia

Words come and go, in and out of fashion. And when the topics of discussion are screen-production, screen-media, technology and narrative, words can fall out of fashion very quickly. 

Even those words that begin with clear intentions and a desire to be useful descriptors, can quickly be hijacked and malformed into contestants for the ongoing game of buzzword bingo. ‘Transmedia’ is just such a word. With the term ‘Trans’ simply meaning ‘to move’, the notion of Transmedia as “narratives that move across different media-forms”, it’s a perfectly apt description. Yet the term has been so absorbed by advertising and marketing-gurus and conjoined with the word ‘campaign’ as a means by which you can sell more Shit to People, that it’s a word quickly losing its lustre to many (myself included). I’m certainly tired of hearing people excitedly extoll the virtues of ‘Transmedia’ and yet are unable to site any case studies that aren’t simply glorified advertising campaigns or shallow pretexts for product-placement.  (and if someone mentions ‘Why So Serious’, from The Dark Knight, in my presence one more time I may have to commit acts of violence…)

It’s in this vein of soap-box observation and annoyance that I’ve decided it’s time to resurrect an oldie but a goodie…. MULTIMEDIA.  

It’s hard not to say Multimedia without immediately conjuring mental images of CD-ROMS and the heady days of early last decade. It’s a word that was quickly supplanted by apparently more sexy buzzword descriptors - Cross-Platform, Multi-Platform and finally Trans-Media. But I think there’s an intrinsic value in the word Multimedia that is holistic yet specific in the way it articulates an experience. 

The Transmedia age, kicked off by Marsha Kinder and then later pressed into service by Henry Jenkins, invariably put the focus onto narrative productions that spanned out and across different media forms from the impetus of a consistent storyworld. In many ways it’s a hub and spoke model that looks outwards, where the central story property sits at the centre looking outwards to manifest across a scope of radiating and inter-connected media forms.

The thinking inherent in this model is a kind of deliberate ballooning - a ballooning of forms means ballooning of the idea,  of the budget, ballooning of time, ballooning of audience, ballooning of scale and complexity, ballooning of resources. Some of these are good things… Some of them are clearly not. I think this model has lead to a very common phrase I hear; “who has the budget for all that…?”

I think this outward, expansive Transmedia way of thinking has, all too often, delivered profound mediocrity. A lot of project ballooning that diminishes substance; like spreading peanut-butter too thin. Thick peanut butter on 1 slice of bread is Awesome..! Trying to smear the same amount of peanut butter across a whole loaf of bread is a far from satisfying experience. And most Transmedia projects are just peanut butter spread so thin as to be unappetising and not worth the effort. 

This is not to say it can’t work, and I’ve written many times about the need to see dramatically sustainable storyworld design as essential to transmedia in order to make it work. But it’s fair to say that for all the excited talk about Transmedia there is an awful lot of mediocre examples with no sustainable business model. And most of these are little more than advertising to sell a traditional property such as feature film (hence my annoyance every time someone mentions ‘Why So Serious’ as a great example of Transmedia… WSS was Nothing more than glorified advertising to an already established and committed fan base). 

This brings me back to Multimedia…. Yes, that word that seems strangely old-fashioned, goes right to the heart of embracing all that new and converged media forms offer, whilst doing so in a way that condenses and makes immersive the narrative, rather than simply ballooning it. 

In a storytelling context, Multimedia simply means to use more than one media form to tell a story - textual, aural, visual, interactive. But rather than the implication of Transmedia where the story experience moves and expands out to other mediums; with Multimedia, other media forms are drawn in and combined. The model is the reverse. 

Multimedia is about Epistolary storytelling - a very old form that takes on a crucial mode of thinking about narrative in the digital interactive age. This uncommon word is used to define a story told in ‘documents’ without an omniscient narrator. Witness the gothic victorian novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein written as diary entries and letters. Epistolary writing in books was enormously popular at times through the 17th, 18th and 19th century, yet the principle of restricted narration from distinct points of view without an omniscient narrator lies at the very heart of Multimedia - Narrative experiences that present a story with different media elements to create a condensed and unified experience. 

When I look around at the narratives on offer in the digital space, it’s not Transmedia experiences ballooning across platforms that excite me; rather its the contained, condensed, focused, unified Multimedia projects that are proving to be substantially more compelling and viable on both creative and practical fronts. 

Certainly the age of the downloadable ‘app’ (and the mobile touchscreen device in particular) gives this mode of a unified epistolary story experience great appeal: a comodifiable product that can be sold, a contained experience that doesn’t pose too-high barriers to entry for audiences, cost-effective production that need not balloon, creative focus in development and execution…

Below is a few that have caught my attention in recent times. Not necessarily because any of these are amazing but certainly all of these found an audience and had a cohesion of intimate concept execution that didn’t balloon outwards. Rather these are projects that pulled different media forms together into something tight and and unified and focused. I would argue there is infinitely more to be learned by studying the underlying mechanics of these projects than all the time in the world pondering the marketing machine that delivered ‘Why So Serious…’

And of course, there is also the very soon to be released THE CRAFTSMAN from Portal Entertainment - an Interactive dark Thriller experience for iPad. A story of voyeurism, abduction and dark secrets where the audience plays a part in the story, caught up in sinister mysteries spiraling out of control. Arriving July 2013.

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