This whole worldbuilding thing has been on my mind since hearing some of the comments about transmedia from SXSW. For those unfamiliar, transmedia is currently the hip phrase to describe using different media platforms to tell a larger story. For example, consider the television show Heroes. In addition to the TV show, it has webisodes and a sort-of comic book (also available online) to say nothing of various cel-phone points of interaction. Each part ideally stands on its own, but taken as a whole it creates a bigger, more satisfying picture. As a storytelling mechanism, it lets a creator tell stories in more dimensions, and as a marketing gimmick it lets you squeeze a lot more selling out of a single piece of IP. Other good examples of this include ARGs and, for all that this is a hip new phrase, there are lots of older examples of this from all the various Star Wars spinoffs to the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am, but perhaps not as much as you might think. The marketing end of this is pretty shameless, and it hinges on making more money from less creative material while reinforcing the idea that you should go back to the well, no matter how dry it seems. Plus, the new buzzword for an old idea is pretty lame. However, from a purely creative, storytelling angle this seems to have some juice to it. The idea may not be new, but calling it something helps gives creatives permission to push the boundaries a bit and that hopefully means we get more good stuff out of it as a result.
The part that worries me is worldbuilding. This seems to be riding along in the buzzwake of transmedia – the idea that for transmedia success you don’t need to storytell, you need to worldbuild. After all, if you build a rich world full of stuff, you’ll have so much material for transmedia efforts that the stories will write themselves!
This is, to put it bluntly, fool’s gold. It sounds really good on the surface, and it’s compelling because it’s actionable, and thousands of 14 year olds have filled up three ring binders chasing this dream, and my expectation is that transmedia will send a whole new generation down this particular rabbit hole.
The problem is that Worldbuilding is easy, easier than writing. Worldbuilding is like writing where you only need to write down the neat stuff and never have to worry about sticky things like characterization or conflict. It is intensely satisfying, a lot of fun, and it feels creative, but beyond a certain point it’s finger flicking. Yes, some worldbuilding can be useful to a creative endeavor, but it’s something to be done in service of the greater endeavor, not the primary activity in its own right. Making it the primary activity is ultimately a bankrupt proposition – you don’t produce much of real worth, and if you’re doing it solely to create IP, then it’s probably going to be pretty unsatisfying in the end. At least the 14 year old kid fills his binder out of enthusiasm.
But I don’t bring this up purely to piss on the idea. There are a few arenas in life where role-playing experience is actually a big boon, especially if you’re willing to embrace it’s benefits. If you put yourselves into strange situations and other people’s heads for fun, then you can benefit from doing the same thing in your daily life. And sometimes a creative idea comes along that’s old hat for you but new to the rest of the world. This may be one of those times.
See, we in RPGs have put in our 3000 bad pages of worldbuilding. If we’ve been paying attention, we know the difference between how to worldbuild for play versus how to worldbuild out of pure self indulgence. If you’ve learned those lessons, then you can probably build a world in four pages that is more compelling than even the most talented novice can in 100. That’s an opportunity, and this is why I keep using the word Transmedia rather than stubbornly refusing to accept the buzzword, as is my normal practice. Bottom line is this:
If you are a gamer and you want to create, transmedia (or perhaps more aptly, the buzzification of the concept of transmedia) is something you need to be aware of and keep your eyes on, because this is an opportunity. Like most real opportunities, it’s not going to walk up to you and demand to acknowledge your genius, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
1 – Sequels are not technically transmedia because, hey, same medium. But in terms of the spirit of it – expanding on core material – they totally are. That is to say, transmedia thinking without restraint gets us Nature Trail to Hell part XXI in 3 D.
2 – If I sound like I’m suggesting creatives may have more of a conservative streak than commonly thought it is because I do.
3 – This is something you see as you read people’s attempts (intentional and otherwise) to worldbuild. Worldbuilding is story without conflict. And the thing is, I sympathize with the desire for this. The idea that conflict is necessary to storytelling is not an idea that sits well with many people. It’s painful and disruptive and can detract from what you really want to say. I totally get that. But this is one of those tough realities – you can write stories any way you like, but if you expect people to care about them, you are going to have to risk some discomfort.
4 – Shorthand for an idea expressed by many artists and writers that if you want to do something well, you need to do it a) a lot and b) badly first. Everyone has a few thousand bad pages in them, and you need to get those out of your system and down on paper before you can get at the good stuff.
5 – MUSH folks – most MUSH writing is worldbuilding. Lord knows most apps certainly are.