Transmedia Storytelling

At first glance, the term “transmedia storytelling” seems easily understandable. It’s just “telling the story using different media”, right? Therefore, though the term “transmedia” is relatively new, most media company executives think they know exactly what it means. Why, it’s exactly what they have been doing to good ideas all along, turnings books into movies, movies into video games, and games into merchandises! Few executives realize that simply taking an idea (often essentially unmodified) from one media to another does not provide the audience with the transmedia story “hearing” experience.

Henry Jenkins first coined the term “transmedia storytelling” in 2006, to describe a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” [1] Based on this definition, the usage of the medium is secondary to the craft of storytelling and experience of story “hearing”.

I will first illustrate a couple rookie mistakes at the craft of transmedia storytelling, then for contrast, follow up with a couple more examples that, in my opinion, have “got it right.”

Rookie Mistake #1 – The media is the only variable

A rookie mistake is to define transmedia storytelling simply by the “means”, rather than the “ends” by treating the media as the only variable in the process.

Second, Hollywood loves making of popular books into movies, notably Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, and Twilight in recent years. The motivation is to lower the risk in investment. If the book is popular, then we have a guaranteed turnout for the movie, right? The Japanese have also been turning popular mangas into anime or movies for decades. One of the bestselling and critically acclaimed mangas of all time, 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, was made into a movie trilogy recently. The three movies incorporated 300 characters (with the major ones portrayed by A-list actors and actresses) and had a budget of 6 billion yen[2]. It was no small feat, but the only variable in the project was the media. The story “listening” experience of the manga and movie are not different. In fact, the movie strived to replicate the manga as faithfully as possible, worrying about driving away die-hard fans if they did ntot. When the first part was released in 2008, fans were elated at how much the actors resembled the manga characters. Plot progression, scenery, dialog and the cinematography were all precise down to the minutest detail, too.

Main characters from the 20th Century Boys manga

Movie poster for Part 1 of the trilogy

Rookie Mistake #2 – We don’t need to do any additional work

Media companies invest enormous amounts of money and time into the creation and production of stories. Licensing their creative intellectual properties seems like the ideal way to branch into other media without additional investment risk on their part.

Characters from successful movies are often licensed to video game publishers. Like collecting royalty, these licensing deals require little to no additional investment from the owners.  Dave Perry, President of Shiny Entertainment, alludes to an awful experience trying to make a Terminator game “that can only have one Terminator that you can’t kill because you wouldn’t have the Terminator left [since you couldn’t get the rights to the Terminator, Sarah Connor, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.]”[3] It was an awful experience for Perry and his team, and the resulting game was not very fun. When Perry worked on Enter the Matrix, however, the situation was completely different. The Wachowski brothers granted all rights and provided access to everything. The Wachowskis even declared, “this is more than a licensing deal. It’s an artistic partnership”. Furthermore, rather than handing over the script and licensing rights to the Shiny, the brothers remained involved and made sure they created a story that worked well for the gaming platform.

Rookie Mistake #3 – Product placement is an easy way to blur the lines between reality and fiction

In addition to treating licensing as the way to reach other media, some consider product placement to be a legit way to let the real world to seep into the fictional world. And look at all the money from the sponsors; why not kill two birds with one stone?

Media executives cannot help but be tempted by lucrative product placement deals. Some might even argue that it encourages the transmedia experience. Jesse Alexander, the executive producer for the TV show Heroes, makes argument for the placement of the Nissan Versa in season 1 of the show, “Nissan had a new car they wanted to launch. [Assigning it to the character Hiro Nakamura] was organic to who he was. The car became a character in the narrative in a way that didn’t seem forced.”[4] This particular product placement was relatively successful because it made sense for Hiro, the Japanese salaryman, to exclaim excitedly at the prospect of driving a car for his cross country mission to save the cheerleader, as most Tokyoites cannot imaging owning a car in a city with a population density of more than 5000 people per square kilometer. It also makes sense for Hiro to pick a Japanese-made car because the Japanese are known to be very partial to their native brands. Perhaps it is possible for Alexander to claim this Nissan Versa as a successful product placement that actually enhances the story “listening” experience. He would have no chance in the later ones, though. In the subsequent season, the majority of the audiences squirmed when Claire, the cheerleader in the story, received a Nissan Rogue as a present from her father. It did not serve to facilitate story or character growth and the car was mysteriously stolen a couple episodes later. The current season has so many blatant of Sprint phones that there is a section on the Heros Wiki devoted to keep record. Whoever is doing the counting obviously pays more attention to the product placement than the story. Good news for the sponsors, but not so good news for the storytellers.

Hiro picks his rental car.

So what’s up with all of these rookie mistakes?

These rookie mistakes may seem disparate, but there is a unifying theme – the temptation to take shortcuts rather than invest in generating creative content. The latter is much riskier and costly that the former.

Key: Transmedia Storytelling Requires Creative Content

Let’s go back to the TV show Heroes. Although it made some serious snafoos in product placement, it is generally regarded as one of the most innovative transmedia storytelling experiences due to its success in telling the story through TV, comic books, web, and mobile games. (Its blunders in product placement may be indicative of the show’s overall success, because the sponsors would not have cared otherwise.) The audience can take part in one or two or all of these offerings and through them experience different aspects of the Heroes story.

How does Heroes do it? According to Jesse Alexander, “the writing of Heroes is done by 10-12 people…there has to be enough people to generate that content…that’s why we need the huge team” [5] Instead of writing each episode one by one, an writer is assigned to story arcs for a certain character, like Peter. The entire writing team gets together and do rapid prototyping to iterate on the narrative to ensure its quality. The Heroes comic book is not a spin-off; it’s entirely new material that is part of the canon of the story. Like the Nissan Versa, the idea of using comic books is organic because one of the characters from season 1, Issac, is a prophet comic book artist, and Hiro uses Issac’s comic books from the future to guide his hero quest. The web comic component told much of the background and history the TV show is unable to tell due to time.

An excerpt from the Heroes web comics

Another innovative approach Heroes takes is to weave part of the fictional story into the real world. Examples include websites created for the fictitious corporations in the show: Primatech, Pinehurst, and The Linderman Group. Primatech, AKA The Company, is an important part of the story because it plays the role as the faceless super villain for a significant part of the story canon. These websites give expressive “faces” to these faceless super villains and makes it easier for the audience to “suspension of disbelief”. The cost of the website is cheap content-wise, but the state of the websites are kept up to date with the progression of the story. In the case of Primatech, an NBC employee will respond to inquiries from the website and send emails on behalf of these corporations. Before Primatech disintegrated, one could even inquire about employment opportunities through the website.

The fictional website for Primatech. The bit about Noah Bennet, AKA HRG, was added to reflect story progress in season 3.

The fictional website for Pinehurst, the villainous biotech company from season 3.

As if the TV show, comic books and websites are not enough, Heroes also has a mobile game. The game, developed with collaboration from the show’s writers, allows the audience to step into the shoes of three of the heroes, meet other characters from the show, and take their stab at saving the world.

A screenshot from the Heroes mobile game.

CLAMP’s experiment with Tsubasa and xxxHolic

Sometimes, transmedia storytelling only requires one type of media. CLAMP, a popular Japanese manga artist group made up of five women, is not lacking of work that have been turned into anime. Here’s what’s interesting: the authors currently have two concurrent series running (Tsubasa and xxxHolic) and there are occasional crossovers from one story to another. The main artist for each series is different, so the styles are drastically different. The main characters in each series are different except for a couple characters that seem to straddle both series. In addition, Tsubasa reads more like episodic adventure stories for boys while xxxHolic reads more like a romantic girl manga. The two series are telling stories that happen within the same universe (though different dimensions) and operate under the same rules. It remains to be seen what will happen when the series converge, which is the plan, and what that will bring to the audience’s story “listening” experience.

CLAMP's Tsubasa

CLAMP's xxxHolic

There Is Only One Story

Transmedia storytelling is a tricky and laborious craft. It is unfortunately easily confusable with more traditional marketing techniques executives are used to. The important thing to remember true transmedia storytelling involves only one story, albeit a very elaborate story told through a variety of media with creative new content. The usage of different media is entirely secondary to the craft of weaving layers and layers of content for the audience’s story “listening” pleasure.


[1] Jenkns, H. (2007) Transmedia Storytelling 101, March 22, 2007, Retrieved:  February 16, 2010 from http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

[2] 20th Century Boys, Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th_Century_Boys

[3] The Game Informer (2002) Nothing Can Prepare You

[4] Dahlen, Chris,  (2007) MIT: Heroes, Narnia Panel Talks Transmedia Storytelling, November 21, 2007, Retrieved: February 16, 2010, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/16294/MIT_Heroes_Narnia_Panel_Talks_Transmedia_Storytelling.php

[5] Taylor, Alice (2007), Hollywood & Games: An Interview with Jesse Alexander, June 27, 2007, Retrieved February 16, 2010 from http://www.wonderlandblog.com/wonderland/2007/06/hollywood-games.html

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