Defiance, a science fiction television series that launched alongside a massively multiplayer online video game earlier this month, is an experiment in cross-media storytelling.
The promise is that by launching the property across two separate mediums, audiences will be able to engage and experience the narrative from two distinct, unique perspectives, thereby increasing their engagement and commitment to the franchise.
The scope and ambition of Defiance are huge. Both the online shooter and episodic series were planned and created simultaneously, offering both sides a wealth of opportunities to weave the two together in new and unexpected ways.
It differs from the traditional creative process, where a franchise finds success and creates an impressive following in one medium, before then being spun out as a new experience in another.
Take Scott Pilgrim. The original graphic novels, created by Bryan Lee O’Malley, was published in black and white between August 2004 and July 2010. A movie, entitled Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, was released in 2010 as a direct representation. The graphic novels were incredibly popular and triggered a video game developed by Ubisoft Montreal for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.
All three interpretations follow roughly the same storyline and premise. The problem is that while it’s possible for creators to expand on the source material, there are inherent limitations. The original interpretation exists, and more often than not creates a precedent by which fans know and relate to the show.
Lord of the Rings, for instance, is a well-loved series of novels known for its rich lore, mythology and characters. The movies and various video games that have followed have always had to stay true to these anchors; there’s no way of rewriting what happened at Helm’s Deep, at least not without upsetting a few fans, or creating a new race out of thin air, for example.
The way in which the public consumes media is changing though. Television shows are broadcast globally and social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook allow millions of fans to communicate and debate with one another in real-time. There’s a chance here to move away from a passive, never-changing form of content.
Video games, on the other hand, offer an increasingly immersive and social experience. Players revisited Halo 4 for its episodic co-operative series Spartan Ops, which developer 343 Industries divided into a ten week “season” between November 2012 and February 2013.
Telltale Games took The Walking Dead franchise and explored human morality, testing players with ever more difficult decisions and tenuous relationships. It was commended for its compelling narrative and won dozens of industry awards.
But despite The Walking Dead’s numerous achievements in characterization and player immersion, it was still tied to the comic book series’ original material. The odd character appeared for a fleeting cameo in the video games, but because the original tale is already set in stone, it was difficult to have any meaningful crossovers.
Defiance is different though. By producing the two simultaneously, cable television channel Syfy and video game developer Trion Worlds have the chance to create something larger, more organic and ultimately more compelling. It’s too early to say whether or not they’ve succeeded, but the potential is clear to see.
Audiences love to be immersed and involved in entertainment. It is, after all, the reason why pantomime has endured as such a popular form of theatre.
How many times have you seen someone shout at the television screen, ‘don’t do that you idiot!’ or explained to the person next to them how, if they were in the same situation, they would have reacted differently and triggered a more positive outcome?
Cross-media releases could, in theory, be produced to give audience members real influence and impact.
Let’s say that the Gears of War franchise, featuring masochistic Marcus Fenix and his testosterone-fueled buddies, had a TV show. Much of the series’ premise revolves around Emergence Day, or the moment when the Locust horde (an alien race that used to live underground) rises to the surface.
Season one of the show could end with the remaining human forces backed against a wall, with no way out. The video game, on the other hand, would pit players as other soldiers, tasked with defending the city at all costs. If enough enemies are defeated in the alloted time, season two begins with Marcus and his chums escaping their nasty predicament and retaking their stronghold.
When a franchise is created simultaneously across multiple mediums, there’s also the option to use deeper and more complex narrative ideas.
A pivotal character may decide to turn on his companions, seemingly out of the blue. In the TV show such a plot twist might feel unjustified. But what if an ebook, published every week in conjunction with each episode, offered a first-person perspective from this character, revealing his motives and back story in a way that just wasn’t possible before?
A couple of projects have tried this, such as the .Hack series - which used a series of video games, manga comic books and anime TV shows to attract new fans predominantly in Japan, but also worldwide. Few have managed to hit the level and quality of storytelling that propels films to be Oscar-nominated and novels to be The New York Times bestsellers, however.
Creating truly cross-media experiences isn’t easy. It takes considerably more resources and a collective team that can explore new ideas but also agree and execute upon a single vision.
That could be a difficult transition, given the traditional leadership and ‘final say’ that has been enjoyed by directors in the media industry for many decades.
Scheduling could also be problematic. The time needed to write a books, develop a video game and shoot a TV show varies; George R.R Martin takes a number of years to write each instalment in the Game of Thrones series, for example, which would be tricky to coincide with an annual TV season.
The rewards for approaching media in this fashion are high, however, and the experiments in cross-media content will only increase as technology continues to develop.
Regardless of its success, Defiance is a turning point in modern storytelling. Ignoring that would be a grave mistake.