Part 4 Old Methods in New Bottles
Conventions are essential to transmedia work. Stories that have shapes familiar to the audience. The damsel in distress. The disappearing person. The murder mystery. Transmedia is also establishing conventions for itself.
Many of the conventions of transmedia are borrowed. And many of them are rather old conventions that have fallen out of popular use. Transmedia is a new, naive medium, and so it makes fresh some existing conventions that have become clichéd or technologically obsolete.
Transmedia echoes television and older literary traditions (like Charles Dickens novels, which were serialized in magazines or the television show 24, which is rather like the perils of Pauline with torture) in that it’s often structured as a serial.
Surprisingly, transmedia has also resurrected the radio play. Part of the reason for that is economic. Audio alone is cheaper than video, and more compelling than text. But audio is also a novelty for an audience that has mostly only experienced music and talk radio as audio forms. It’s unexpected and it feels intimate, overheard. It can be delivered, in it’s shortest form, to a mobile phone, which makes it even more intimate and private. The story is whispering in your ear, just to you. The phone call feels interactive but for right now, that interactivity is limited. With a lot of back end programming and a parser, you can have a kind of limited conversation with a character. (You could hire an actor, but again, that limits the possibility of a real breakthrough into culture—can you hire enough actors to field a million phone calls, and would you want to even try?) So already there is an artificial convention in transmedia storytelling, the one-sided phone conversation. The monologue from the character to you.
A very effective version might be the pretense of a pocket call. Where the audience member has the sense that the characters don’t realize they’re broadcasting. The coincidence of important conversations accidentally being broadcast is no more artificial than the convention that every criminal leaves a clue. (According to the U.S. Department of Justice Statistics, about 30% of homicides go unsolved and that number is rising.) Or that business in Michael Bay movies where cars flying off cliffs spontaneously explode in mid-air.
That’s a convention that will lose some of it’s effectiveness as it becomes less novel. Early movie audiences screamed in delighted fright when the train came towards them. Now we don’t. For an audience right now, overhearing a conversation on a phone feels somewhat ‘interactive’ but when audiences become more accustomed to transmedia conventions, it will just become expected.
Which leads to Interactivity. Ah, interactivity. The Holy Grail.