One of the hallmarks of storytelling over the past few thousand years is that the majority of people who are drawn to stories are not interested in creating stories on their own. They don’t even want to confront the means of delivery, or to understand how stories are imagined, created or produced. What they want is an imaginative, emotional narrative experience that is transparent to all of these mechanisms and processes. They want to consume in the same way that you or I might prefer to consume a meal without having to gather ingredients, cook, season, serve, or do much of anything except taste and chew.
I mention these points to re-frame the context surrounding transmedia storytelling and a recent example of that exploratory narrative form: Level 26, which you can see here, and read more about here and here.
There’s no question that transmedia storytelling is possible, and no question that it is interesting as an experimental form. It also intersects nicely with interactive storytelling in the form of the ARG (Alternate Reality Game), but therein lies the rub.
If you’re unfamiliar with the 90-9-1 Principle, click that link and take a few seconds to digest the graphic. What you’re seeing is a simple mathematical ratio between the people who make content (1%), the people who like to play with content (9%) and the people who only want to digest content (90%). (In my experience as both a storyteller and interactive narrative designer, that’s reasonably accurate.)
Currently and appropriately the question of transmedia storytelling is being put forward by the 1% who create such things, and being analyzed and debated by the 9% who are interested in understanding such things. What’s missing is the 90% who simply want to take stories in and enjoy them, and it’s an open question whether those people are waiting for a breakout transmedia title/experience, or whether the transmedia form is inherently uninteresting to them precisely because it cannot be transparently digested.
To see what I mean, consider that the adult gaming community — meaning people who regularly play board games, computer games or online games of any type — is but a subset of the greater mass of entertainment-seeking consumers (people who go to movies, watch TV, read books, etc.). In fact, my own sense of this macro-social breakdown is that gamers — here even more broadly defined as people who want to participate in an experience versus passively witness an experience — are that same 1% + 9% of the global population.
The problem for transmedia storytelling (and for interactive storytelling of any kind) is that the bar set by 90% of the population (“Don’t make me think!”) is almost antithetical to the goals of the 1% and the 9%. The 90% want something that is transparent, meaning something that requires no interaction or confrontation in order to be enjoyed. But that seems to be the exact opposite of what transmedia promises, or at the very least what it can currently deliver. (And it is the exact opposite of what the current crop of interactive products deliver. Every game requires inputs of one kind or another.)
On a theoretical and experimental level it’s genuinely interesting to think about how stories can be spread across multiple mediums, and what the effect of that presentation might be. But I wonder if the very concept of transmedia may not be too complex for the average consumer of stories. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued, of course — just the opposite. Transmedia storytelling should diligently be pursued as both an art and a craft, but the question of transparency should also be consciously addressed along the way.
— Mark Barrett