Taylor Mitchell, A&E Editor
A transmedia narrative, also called transmedia storytelling, is when a story is told through multiple forms of media. As an example say there is a movie and as a sequel it gets a tv show, some audio dramas, or even books; all telling a continuous and connected story. It is basically a device that allows for a more varied form of storytelling, by using different media one is able to use the strengths of each medium to help how effectively a story is told. This kind of storytelling has become widely used in the video game industry, and its starting to be seen as a problem. Recently, a good bit of backlash has been thrown at Blizzard Entertainment for their use of transmedia storytelling in World of Warcraft and Overwatch, and honestly I don’t think it has been a bad direction to go in.
The main complaint I keep seeing is simply that developers should put all of the story they want to tell into their games. I should be clear on this, that isn’t in anyway unreasonable, yet here I am to argue against it. Allow me to explain. In the past transmedia storytelling has been used when companies have no intention on telling a part of a story in their game. In games like Halo or Gears of War this is primarily backstory that can be alluded to or referenced but could, for good narrative reasons, never be fully explained. Nobody likes exposition breaks in their action shooter games, its a restriction of the genre. Yet while some of Overwatch’s comics and shorts do tell backstory, some actually move forward a story that, if you are just playing the game, you are not even made aware of. Why is that? I see it as a restriction of Overwatch’s genre, a competitive online shooter. The way the game is set up, a series of online matches, doesn’t lend itself to a story.
While the heroes themselves hint at a world with many stories to tell, there just simply isn’t a place to tell them outside of special events. With this in mind, Blizzard seems to have made the decision to tell these stories in the way that makes the most sense for their game, outside of it. While doing this they can also ignore the limitations of the genre. Transmedia storytelling has become, in this case, the technique required to move past a development issue.
Yet, how does this idea of telling a story outside of limitations fit for World of Warcraft? Has the game not been telling stories for 14 years now? Honestly, how this idea is being applied to the game, and the backlash to it are the reason I am writing this. In the new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, the team for the game is interested in telling a more character driven story. This is where the issue of genre comes in again. Massive multiplayer online (MMO) games have a tendency to tell stories through either walls of text or short interactions or cutscenes involving non-player characters. These are fine for very event driven narratives, but not for character drama. In truth, having the player just follow around a few characters as they endlessly talk to each other wouldn’t be very engaging. It would be similar to having a big exposition dump in a film, informative sure but it doesn’t hold the attention. It also has no gameplay potential so it would all around bore players. The solution that seems to have come from this problem is to put actions into the game, yet give extra context in short stories or comics. Players don’t have to seek these things out, but they can if they want to better understand the characters inner motivations. A player that doesn’t care about this, however, still gets the epic cinematics and gameplay they want. It is a way to please two very different kinds of player. It also allows the developers to move past the limitations of their genre, into a region of storytelling they want to explore. In the end, I think that transcendence of limitations in narrative is one of the most interesting ideas that games have for us recently.