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Humans and technology

Transmedia Storytelling

Moving characters from books to films to video games can make them stronger and more compelling.
January 15, 2003

Several years ago, I asked a leading producer of animated features how much creative control his team exerted over the games, toys, comics, and other products that deployed their characters. I was reassured that the distribution company handled all such ancillary materials. I saw the movement of content across media as an enhancement of the creative process. He saw it as a distraction or corruption.

This past month, I attended a gathering of top creatives from Hollywood and the games industry, hosted by Electronic Arts; they were discussing how to collaboratively develop content that would play well across media. This meeting reflected a growing realization within the media industries that what is variously called transmedia, multiplatform, or enhanced storytelling represents the future of entertainment.

Let’s face it: we have entered an era of media convergence that makes the flow of content across multiple media channels almost inevitable. The move toward digital effects in film and the improved quality of video game graphics means that it is becoming much more realistic to lower production costs by sharing assets across media. Everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind-the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises.

And the push isn’t just coming from the big media companies. The kids who have grown up consuming and enjoying Pokemon across media are going to expect this same kind of experience from The West Wing as they get older. By design, Pokemon unfolds across games, television programs, films, and books, with no media privileged over any other. For our generation, the hour-long, ensemble-based, serialized drama was the pinnacle of sophisticated storytelling, but for the next generation, it is going to seem, well, like less than child’s play. Younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise. And in addition, all evidence suggests that computers don’t cancel out other media; instead, computer owners consume on average significantly more television, movies, CDs, and related media than the general population.

While the technological infrastructure is ready, the economic prospects sweet, and the audience primed, the media industries haven’t done a very good job of collaborating to produce compelling transmedia experiences. Even within the media conglomerates, units compete aggressively rather than collaborate. Each industry sector has specialized talent, but the conglomerates lack a common language or vision to unify them. The current structure is hierarchical: film units set licensing limits on what can be done in games based on their properties. At the same time, film producers don’t know the game market very well or respect those genre elements which made something like Tomb Raider successful. We need a new model for co-creation-rather than adaptation-of content that crosses media. 

The current licensing system typically generates works that are redundant (allowing no new character background or plot development), watered down (asking the new media to slavishly duplicate experiences better achieved through the old), or riddled with sloppy contradictions (failing to respect the core consistency audiences expect within a franchise). These failures account for why sequels and franchises have a bad reputation. Nobody wants to consume a steady diet of second-rate novelizations! 

Franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision. Hollywood acts as if it only has to provide more of the same, printing a Star Treklogo on so many widgets. In reality, audiences want the new work to offer new insights into the characters and new experiences of the fictional world. If media companies reward that demand, viewers will feel greater mastery and investment; deny it and they stomp off in disgust.

So far, the most successful transmedia franchises have emerged when a single creator or creative unit maintains control over the franchise. Hollywood might well study the ways that Lucasfilm has managed and cultivated its Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. When Indiana Jones went to television, for example, it exploited the medium’s potential for extended storytelling and character development: the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles showed us the character take shape against the backdrop of various historical events and exotic environments. When Star Wars moved into print, its novels expanded the timeline to show us events not contained in the film trilogies, or recast the stories around secondary characters, as did the Tales of the Cantina series, which fleshes out those curious-looking aliens in the background of the original movie. When Star Wars went to games, those games didn’t just enact film events; they showed us what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or a bounty hunter.

On the other end of the scale, independent filmmaker Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Clerks), a longtime comic fan, uses this lower cost medium to fill in gaps and extend character background within his New Jersey film series. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, similarly uses comics to extend his storyline backwards (Tales of the Slayers) and forward (Fray) in time, depicting huge spans in the history of the Watcher’s Council and the Slayers. Sony used the Web to offer new insights into the characters of Dawson’s Creek, mimicking the title character’s desktop, so that we can read his e-mail, sneak a peek at his journals, or even plagiarize his school essays. A team of writers updated this content each week in response to the aired episodes, using the Web to both plant seeds for future plot development and provide background to remind viewers of past actions.

In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best-so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored and experienced through game play. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained enough to enable autonomous consumption. That is, you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game and vice-versa. As Pokemon does so well, any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole.

Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. In a world with many media options, consumers are choosing to invest deeply in a limited number of franchises rather than dip shallowly into a larger number. Increasingly, gamers spend most of their time and money within a single genre, often a single franchise. We can see the same pattern in other media-films (high success for certain franchises, overall declines in revenue), television (shorter spans for most series, longer runs for a few), or comics (incredibly long runs for a limited number of superhero icons). Redundancy between media burns up fan interest and causes franchises to fail. Offering new levels of insight and experience refreshes the franchise and sustains consumer loyalty. Such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment.

And it also makes economic sense. Different media attract different market niches. Films and television probably have the most diverse audiences, comics and games the narrowest. A good transmedia franchise attracts a wider audience by pitching the content differently in the different media. If each work offers fresh experiences, then a crossover market will expand the potential gross within any individual media. So, women may not play games, but women who like Lord of the Rings might experiment on a related game title.

Have no fear-not all stories will flow across media. Most won’t, but a growing number will. Transmedia stories aren’t necessarily bad stories; they are different kinds of stories. According to Hollywood lore, a good pitch starts with either a compelling character or an interesting world. We might, from there, make the following argument: A good character can sustain multiple narratives and thus lead to a successful movie franchise. A good “world” can sustain multiple characters (and their stories) and thus successfully launch a transmedia franchise.

Many of our best authors, from William Faulkner to J.R.R. Tolkien, understood their art in terms of world-creation and developed rich environments which could, indeed, support a variety of different characters. For most of human history, it would be taken for granted that a great story would take many different forms, enshrined in stain glass windows or tapestries, told through printed words or sung by bards and poets, or enacted by traveling performers. Sequels aren’t inherently bad-remember that Huckleberry Finn was a sequel to Tom Sawyer. But Twain understood what modern storytellers seem to have forgotten-a compelling sequel offers consumers a new perspective on the characters, rather than just more of the same. 

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