Some Things I’ve Learned from Transmedia Worldbuilding

This is an article commissioned for Meanland in August 2012. The site pages are now offline and so the article is published here. (Original hyperlink)

“Some Things I’ve Learned from Transmedia Worldbuilding” By Christy Dena

If you’re playing transmedia bingo, “worldbuilding” scores 10 points and one of those little jelly desserts from the kitchen. It is a term used by just about every transmedia evangelist, and me in the early days. Indeed, it seems a rite of passage for transmedia practitioners and commentators alike. There is a reason for this: it is a helpful metaphor for understanding and communicating that a transmedia project involves many stories and media ñ there is a whole ecology operating.

Of course, “worldbuilding” has been around longer than transmedia, and is employed in many different ways. Some invoke “worldbuilding” to describe the use of multiple media forms, especially “immersive” ones like “virtual reality”. Buzzwords ahoy! But what this article focuses on is worldbuilding for writers and designers at the development stage, and especially two types of worldbuilding in transmedia: expandability and believability.

Worldbuilding and Expandability/Scalability
Over the years I’ve been sent plenty of scripts or films to analyse and give recommendations on transmedia expansions. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have found this incredibly difficult. Why? Because they’re written to be a comprehensive whole, to start and finish elegantly within the single film – there are no unexplored moments. It is this experience that solidified for me the difference between creating a transmedia project from scratch compared to retrospectively converting one (something I’ve talked about in this if:book article for instance).

— Episodics & Affordances
So oftentimes, worldbuilding in transmedia is an approach where the original concept is conceived with further development in mind. How can we design the setting and characters so they are amenable to continuing their life beyond a single medium? One technique is to think about your story or game as episodic, even if there is only one publication planned at the beginning. This way you engineer the world for continuation

Another important consideration when creating scalable worlds, is to think about the affordances of each medium. If you design your world to operate in one medium, it may not translate well to another. Game writer and designer Flint Dille for instance, offers advice for those creating a game franchise, asking you to think about the various needs for each medium:Flint Dille @ Transmedia Victoria

— Theme
Creating with theme in mind is not a transmedia-specific technique, but it is helpful in the transmedia context. As you know, a theme is a high-level message or idea. I find a too general theme like “good always wins over evil” is too loose to be a guiding force. Like everything, the more personal — or specific — the better I find. But in the transmedia context, there are some that argue there are certain types of themes more suited to transmedia. Transmedia producer Jeff Gomez advises that transmedia-suitable themes are “positive” because negative ones would naturally implode on themselves and therefore inhibit chances of expansion. Further to this, game designer Jesse Schell finds that good themes are about “wish fulfilment,” such as the “fantasy of being a pirate” for Pirates of the Caribbean (The Art of Game Design).

For me, I’ve found theme to be one of the most important tools in my writing, design, and directing toolkit, irrespective of whether I’m working on my own or another’s project. I’ve written about theme before, as a meaning-making device throughout the development and production process. What I’ve found is that it is more effective and freeing to make decisions about anything from character appearance, tone, music tempo and so on informed by theme rather than by the details or rules of a world. It is freeing for me, and freeing for those who work on other people’s worlds, as it gives you room to create rather than just execute.

— Setting & Character
Obviously your setting is quite important. If it is too small or medium-specific, it won’t lend itself to expansion in many stories and games across media. Is it a place, or many places, that can be read, watched, and maybe played in? Considering all three implementations cancels out a lot. If your story is a horror set in a house with a babysitter, kid and killer, then it isn’t really suited for expansion as a MMORPG. Character is also similar. One of the techniques I speak about to those unfamiliar with interactivity is character classes. A scalable world is one in which you have ensemble of characters to explore with various stories (think of long-running TV shows), and your (possible) players can have a role in. On the latter, it is a question of thinking about single characters compared to character classes. Could players join in by being part of an artist collective, army, legion of angels, or performance troupe? Iím trying to not limit the possibilities here, but I think you get the idea. It is the difference between creating single characters and ones that represent a grouping that can be expanded with both non-player characters and player characters.

Of course, all of these techniques are not the only ones, and can be reversed. Writer Andrea Phillips observes the creators of Why So Serious? managed to transform a property (Batman) that doesn’t facilitate a place for the player to live in the world (besides being a main character):

So why was Why So Serious such a big deal? It’s because it took a world that did not have space for an audience to live inside it — Gotham — and created canon spaces where players could dwell, for the first time. They became voters and accomplices. It turned a property that was previously not very well suited to a transmedia experience and created one that suddenly is. It’s not just Batman and his allies and enemies anymore. (“Why So Serious Lessons in Transmedia Worldbuilding”)

Game researcher Lars Konzack mentions characters in his discussion of creating “Epic” secondary worlds (more on this shortly). For Konzack, it is important to create worlds that have depth, and depth means showing different and serious aspects of your protagonist or player character. He says to include “several layers of moral choices in order for the heroes to show what they are made of. This means the hero may indeed succeed on some moral issues while at the same time failing on some other, thereby building heroes of depth.” (“Subcreation of Secondary Game Worlds” PDF).

— Distant Mountains/Negative Capability
Once you’ve thought through the expansive possibilities of your world, it is important to ensure these possibilities are hinted at in your work. It is not only okay, but de rigueur to leave subtle gaps. Indeed, “distant mountains” is a term used by Gomez to describe (in my words) references to aspects of a world that are not fully explored in the main narrative. Daniel van Gool reports on Jeff’s talk about creating successful franchises with detail about this technique:

The final component to successful franchises according to Jeff Gomez are “distant mountains,” a term based on Tolkien’s work: when Gandalf is leading the Fellowship through Middle Earth, he can point to some mountains in the distance and tell the group in detail about the backstory related to those mountains. This removes the feel of walking through a “cardboard set” to get to the next plot point. Instead, we experience the richness of the world, it peaks our curiosity and makes it feel more real. It also plants seeds that may or may not grow into new plot points or future branches of the franchise. (ìJeff Gomez Reveals Secrets to Transmedia Franchise Development at Cinekidî)

Similarly, in his Masters thesis, transmedia producer Geoffrey Long spoke about “negative capability” as the “art of building strategic gaps into a narrative to evoke a delicious sense of ‘uncertainty, Mystery, or doubt’ in the audience.” He continues, explaining that “references to people, places or events external to the current narrative provide hints to the history of the characters and the larger world in which the story takes place” and this “empowers audiences to fill in the gaps in their own imaginations while leaving them curious to find out more” (53, “Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company PDF)

I see this as rhetorical technique to facilitate the perception of a persistent world in the reader/viewer/player, while at the same time permitting a character, setting, or subject to be explored later on. As a writer, you may know all the details about it at the time of writing or you may not – it doesn’t matter. You know enough to reference it. But of course, only put in such references if they actually serve the current experience…because I’ve found worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding doesnt work (more of this shortly).

Worldbuilding and Believability
Another aspect of worldbuilding is creating a believable world. This kind of worldbuilding is best known in fantasy writing as an approach to creating entire, believable, imagined worlds. Tolkien’s progeny spend years working on the details of their imagined world, making sure every constructed mountain, star, shoe, and condiment fits. There are decades of resources and discussions on this approach, including this handy guide: Patricia C Weade’s “Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions” (thanks Andrea Philips). Since there is so much published about this approach I won’t go into any depth. Instead, let’s look at less material concerns.

— Internal Consistent Reality
Konzack advises that “in order to subcreate a believable secondary world whether digital or not, one has to make an internal consistent reality.” He argues the best way to do this is by focusing “more on the philosophical, mythological, and religious cultural aspects of their world” (“Subcreation of Secondary Game Worlds” PDF). Be aware, he continues, that “different cultures might have different worldviews” and “these cultures might be influenced by different sources of wisdom”. There are two other levels (epic) and (naive quests) that work together with the (philosophy) level ñ so check out his essay.

But I want to note too, Konzack says that the fact the new secondary worlds you create won’t be that known to your explorers is actually an immersive and compelling design approach. ìThis gives the explorers of the secondary world an impression of exploring a world, which is bigger than what is immediately present, because there is more to it than what first meets the eye, giving them even more reason to explore.î

— Cause and Effect
Another aspect of believability is a technique writer Donald J. Bingle says writers should think about: cause and effect (“Cause Ways”). He says it is “bad writing when an author fails to deal with unintended consequences of the changes he or she makes in distinguishing their world from the world we know.” (626-627). An example is the police using normal bullets in Total Recall (1990) – so if fired they can destroy the glass dome and kill everyone on the planet. Failure to attend to the effects of new causes you introduce, actually “causes logical gaps or disconnections in atmosphere that leave fans of even the most popular works dissatisfied.” (697-699). To circumvent this problem, Bingle suggests you think about:

  • Who benefits from this change?
  • Who is hurt by this change?
  • Who could generate money/ power/ fame from this change?
  • What would an evil person do with the power/ technology/ circumstances created by this change?
  • What is the silliest thing that could be done with this change? (Gene modification technology has led to glow-in-the-dark pets…)
  • What are the moral, political, and religious implications of this change?
  • Who will be offended by this change and how could they resist or undermine it?

— Independent Activity
In his essay on worldbuilding, writer Aaron Rosenberg talks about creating worlds that exist independent of you as a writer:

ìThe settings, characters, and events must exist independent of the viewer, the creator, and the central characters. [Ö]That sense of independent activity gives their world depth and anchors the story to give it more depth as well. The world becomes more believable, more natural, as does the story.î (“Descartian Dilemma, or Hey, Where’d Everybody Go?“)

Rosenberg suggests doing this by thinking of each of your characters as existing on their own channel. So you think about what they’re doing while the protagonist is off doing something else. He cites the example of villains often not doing some evil deed until the protagonist has the time to find them and stop them. This is often just purely for convenience of plot and isn’t realistic. He suggests thinking about:

  • Where does she go after he walks away?
  • What is she doing?
  • Why?
  • What was she doing before they ran into each other, that caused her to be there at that time?

Problems with Worldbuilding
Of course, not all of these techniques will be right for you, and right for every project. Some of the things I have learned are that you don’t need a huge lengthy transmedia bible. It depends on the function of your documentation, and so if you just need to summarise key points for your team members then less is better. In terms of how you approach your worldbuilding, writer Victoria Strauss uses (well she did in 1998) a kind of iterative approach where you first get a firm grasp on your world’s core principles, and then let the details develop during the writing process. (“An Impatient Writer’s Approach to World Building”).

Some have gone so far as to lambast worldbuilding altogether, like writer M. John Harrison’s popular diatribe:

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the readerís ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isnít there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isnít possible, & if it was the results wouldnít be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilderís victim, & makes us very afraid.î”(“M John Harrison On Worldbuilding”)

So far I’ve found some techniques to be really helpful for me becoming aware of blindspots in my creation ñ which is something I can’t stand seeing in other projects. I’ve also found that putting in details about a world to help make it seem bigger just doesn’t cut it with my players. So now I always make sure that every website I create, every element that represents my imagined world, also functions to give my characters more depth. I’ve also found that the kind of worlds I like aren’t necessarily consistent across projects or media. In many cases I don’t mind because, on reflection, it is actually a world that is always inconsistent.

Indeed, here are two perspectives on the virtues on inconsistency (which creates a kind of consistency — yeah you get it). The first is game designer, writer, and producer Tadhg Kelly, who argues game companies should stay with their franchises because fans are loyal to their worlds not the worldmaker. Recognising the problems with “franchise fatigue,” Kelly encourages creators to ìkeep working with the franchise, but not on the same gameî:

ìNintendo has used its key characters in many contexts over the years for this reason. Mario Kart is not the same game as Super Mario World, and Zelda titles invariably have a new key action that changes the game significantly. Nintendoís designers realise that their successful franchises are a platform for experimentation rather than an impediment, and this is why they remain the most successful game company in the world.î (“The Perils of Franchise Fatigue”)

The second is writer Philip K. Dick, who in 1978 shared some thoughts on worldbuilding, and Disney, and writing:

ìIt is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe–and I am dead serious when I say this–do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.î
(“How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”)

In the end, create the world you want in whatever way you want. I’ve been doing that in my own awkward way, and this article is about sharing some of the processes I’ve learned and observed so far. I haven’t listed all the techniques I use, or even the ones I ignore, but I’d love to hear what you’ve explored and found works or doesn’t.