October 12, 2008

Alive in Dead Space: Crossmedia

Feature

Master Chief GuitarHave you ever read a Star Wars novel? Picked up a Halo comic? Watched a LOST mobisode? Played the Riddick game? If so, you've taken part in an ever-growing form of storytelling. Crossmedia (or transmedia) storytelling expands a fictional world beyond a single medium, crossing literature, film, comics and more. Now it's finding its way into more and more games, with Dead Space poised as the next big franchise to take the plunge. Crossmedia offers opportunities to expand and deepen the relationship between a fan and a universe, but like any single medium, it comes with its own limitations.

Dead Space Wallpaper
Dead Space is first and foremost a survival horror video game from Electronic Arts. It tells the tale of a derelict space station and the horrors that have come to pass on board. It features a rich backstory and universe - one which the developers decided to expand through crossmedia. Thus, a prequel comic series and animated movie were born. Each medium is used to tell a piece of what is essentially a trilogy, with the game as the grand finale. With the comic series already out, and the movie and game coming within the month, this franchise has hit the ground running. As a new face in an experimental medium, will Dead Space fall prey to the mistakes of the past, or further the art of storytelling?

In the Beginning

Star Wars Rock
I couldn't tell you when crossmedia truly began, but it's hard to argue that Star Wars represents a major milestone. The Star Wars universe has found its way into nearly every medium of art and storytelling that exists. It has had a particular influence in games - Star Wars stories have been told through games since Rebel Assault in 1993. Scores of titles followed including Shadows of the Empire in 1996, Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, and The Force Unleashed, just released in September 2008.

But with hundreds of Star Wars novels, movie-to-game tie-ins, comic spin-offs, and cartoons, how can we take any of it seriously? It's hard to deny the stench of merchandising on even the most pure of Star Wars projects. Dozens of cheap supermarket novels read like professional fanfiction. The latest movies exist primarily to sell truckloads of action figures to kids. They basically put the Star Wars name on something because it will sell.

But it's what most franchises strive for, to have such a strong name brand. From Pokemon cartoons, to Doom novels and Battlestar Galactica comics, the goal is to be able to slap a name on something and watch it sell. Still, when artists, writers, and creative visionaries are concerned, we're bound to see some higher purpose emerge.

Beyond Merchandising

Animatrix
The Matrix was one of my earliest exposures to true crossmedia storytelling. It started with The Animatrix, a collection of animated shorts released between the second and third movies. Each short was created by a different team, all under the supervision of the Wachowski brothers. What made them so fascinating was that they either revealed important plot points in The Matrix universe, or gave depth to aspects of the world the movies didn't have time for. The shorts, The Second Renaissance Part I and II, explained how the movie's evil machines came to be, while Beyond explored what happens when a group of kids stumble upon an infamous "glitch in the matrix."

Following The Animatrix, Enter the Matrix helped bridge the gap between The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions through a video game. While Enter the Matrix met with tepid reviews, it was interesting for fans, as the Wachowski brothers recorded two hours of live footage for the game's cutscenes. Through the eyes of minor characters, the game allowed you to explore and fight in scenes from the movies, meet with recognizable characters, and fill in some blanks in the rather convoluted plot. Possibly most interesting of all, the game retconned the death of actress Gloria Foster, explaining her replacement by Mary Alice in the role of the Oracle as a deal made at the cost of her "shell."

Fan's dwindled opinions toward The Matrix series aside, these crossmedia stories were not only financially successful, but they felt genuine. There was a clear effort to thoroughly expand the Matrix universe. And while it's hard to say for sure, I think it's safe to assume that it influenced several future crossmedia projects.

A Diamond in the Rough

Halo Karoake
With crossmedia franchises exploring different genres, each piece of a tale can vary in quality. With so many hands involved, it's not uncommon for a supplemental story to transcend the main piece.

As a raving Halo fanboy, I've consumed just about all of it. If there were one word I could give to the plot of the Halo franchise, it would be "scattershot" - scattershot in quality, and scattershot in where it actually makes sense. But there are moments, tales in the universe, that are so great not just because they are well told, but because there is such a rich world backing them up. If you're a Halo fan at all and you've never listened to the ILoveBees radio play, you're missing out on an amazing piece of storytelling. Neil Blomkamp's live action Halo shorts, the Halo graphic novel, and Joseph Staten's Contact Harvest round out the best of what the series has to offer.

Riddick
In 2000, Pitch Black was released in theaters to positive reviews. It was an effective scifi/horror film known for its character Riddick, an anti-hero and escaped convict played by Vin Diesel. Four years later, Riddick went the crossmedia route, with a planned Chronicles of Riddick movie trilogy, the Dark Fury animated feature, and Escape from Butcher Bay, a video game prequel story. The movie was a flop, killing off any chance of a trilogy, and the animated feature did little to turn heads, but the game was something special. My pick for game of 2004, and critically acclaimed all around, Escape from Butcher Bay was the rollercoaster ride the movie wished it was. It's a shock for a movie tie-in video game to be good, let alone innovative and expertly crafted.

This "diamond in the rough" aspect isn't unique to crossmedia - a mediocre book can have a great chapter, a lame movie can have an amazing final act, and a bad game can have one fun mode. But since crossmedia bridges several mediums, those varying degrees of quality are more poignant. A bad game with a fun mode is still a bad game, but a great game in mediocre franchise can be a gem.

The Canon Issue

Charlie from LOST
If there's one thing that threatens crossmedia as a viable storytelling platform, it's the canon issue. The arguments of whether something is canonical, or in-universe, faithful, official, and not simply fanfiction can dilute a universe to little more than internet message board arguments. What is the point of telling a story across multiple mediums when one contradicts the other, or is written off as unofficial?

Keeping these disparate tales consistent with each other seems like a simple task with a bit of thoroughness, but the issue rears its head constantly. Take LOST as one of the most depressing examples - the game, Via Domus, seemed to tie in perfectly with a TV episode that aired shortly after, yet the creators of the show announced before release that the game wasn't canon. Via Domus was also a very bad game, leaving gamers with a story that meant absolutely nothing to the series as a whole, three hours wasted, and a $60 hole in their wallet.

Even Halo, a series which has a defined story bible behind it, has run into issues. In the past, developer Bungie has condemned some of its tales as unofficial, contradicting previously established plot points in their game sequels. It creates a tier system, in which one medium holds more weight than another. The games are gospel, while the offshoots, which in the case of Halo tend to be the more interesting parts, carry less weight.

Darth Vader vs. Boba Fett
Possibly the worst offender is Star Wars. Granted, there is a lot of Star Wars to keep track of, but with a five tier system of checks and balances, things get a little ridiculous. The Holocron, a tracking database, was created to sort through the Star Wars expanded universe, eliminating contradictions and inconsistencies. But with the franchise already divided into five different levels of relevance, any attempt to be thorough seems moot.

If upcoming crossmedia projects like Dead Space can't reign in the canon issue, the medium will never transcend the domain of obsessive-compulsive fanboys posting on message boards.

Shining Light on Niche Genres

Stan Lee's Finger
While crossmedia has a way to go before it will be recognized as a true art medium, there is one benefit we are seeing now. Mainstream genres like gaming and movies can draw audiences towards niche genres like animation and comics through crossmedia. Halo and Dead Space brought people into comic shops and book stores, while the Animatrix DVD was one of the top selling anime DVDs of 2003. This cross-pollination effect can bolster mediums that need it.

The Road Ahead

Dead Space
Crossmedia faces many pitfalls. It can come off as a cheap marketing ploy more easily than any other medium. Without planning, a crossmedia project can buckle under a convoluted and contradictory narrative. It even threatens to strip away a consumer's imagination - we can't fill in the gaps in a universe if some comic or YouTube short does it for us.

If creators of these universes can avoid the pitfalls, there is a world of potential. Crossmedia offers the ability to paint a world in mixed media. One aspect of a tale may lend itself to a book, while another may be more appropriate for a movie or game. It gives fans a way to stay with a world they love, but experience it through a new lens. And as a new medium, we don't even know the directions it could go.

Entering this genre, Dead Space already looks promising. With each of its three parts, comic, video game, and animated film already completed, it looks to be a universe that was planned well in advance. Its main piece, the game, has been wowing the press for months, the comic has been selling out, and the animated feature's preview whet fan's appetites for sci-fi horror. Will it be a corny cash-in project or the next franchise by which all future crossmedia projects will be judged?
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