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Friday, June 21, 2024

After ‘The Last of Us,’ Everything Will Be Transmedia

Back in early 2003, five years before Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and nearly a decade before Disney acquired Lucasfilm and turned Star Wars into a streaming-franchise-cum-theme-park attraction, MIT’s then-codirector of comparative media studies, Henry Jenkins, attended a conference hosted by the game studio Electronic Arts. With a selection of creatives invited from across disciplines, the matter at hand would dominate popular culture for the next two decades: How could franchises expand beyond just one or two mediums? How could they achieve what EA’s head of intellectual property development, Danny Bilson, called a "deepening of the universe”?

That challenge and the book it inspired, Jenkins’ Convergence Culture from 2006, turned out to be prophetic. At a time when movie attendance was on the rise, video games were hours long, and the internet was connecting everyone, Jenkins argued that media industries were missing a trick, and competing when they should’ve been collaborating. In response, he pitched a move into “transmedia storytelling”—a concept akin to the media mix in Japan at the time, where Pokémon dominated everything from anime to key rings. This would allow each medium to do what it does best, he wrote, “so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored and experienced through game play.”

Stories originating in games have proved less successful at exploiting this technique than, say, comic books or YA series. To put it bluntly, live-action movies and shows based on games have largely sucked. Then, in January, HBO launched The Last of Us, a drama based on Naughty Dog’s postapocalyptic game series that has drawn critical acclaim and millions of viewers—more than even House of the Dragon, an adaptation of the older book-based variety. 

It’s a harbinger of things to come. There are currently upwards of 60 game-based productions in development, from a new Super Mario Bros. movie to a God of War adaptation for Amazon, and analyst firms like Newzoo are already reporting that game IP is climbing in value “as transmedia becomes more relevant.”

Whether a show like The Last of Us actually constitutes transmedia “is a big debate in the field,” says Jenkins, speaking over Zoom. Broadly, if a story is extended, it’s transmedia, so the show’s third episode, which explores the love between minor characters Bill and Frank, counts; other episodes constitute plain old adaptation. Whatever the academic position, this debate somewhat misses the bajillion-dollar point: Game studios were already looking to Hollywood to spread their stories. Now they have an ideal to aspire to.

Yet, Jenkins argues convincingly, the successful adaptation of one incredibly cinematic game does not confirm that all future attempts will rock—for him, comics still dominate the world of transmedia. “We’re seeing so much flow between comics and film and TV right now. Not just the Marvel stuff, but in the other direction,” he says. “There’s a huge section in my comic shop dedicated to the comic adaptations of all kinds of TV shows and films, going back to vintage Batman ’66 by DC.” He also points to universe-expanding comics for everything from Riverdale, which was already based on the Archie series, to those for Star Wars and Star Trek. “Take any major franchise,” he says, “it’s in comics.”

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Perhaps The Last of Us’ accomplishments are misleading. If that adaptation’s success derived from its cinematic heart, a better insight into how more traditional games will exploit transmedia may lie elsewhere.

Released in 2021 and set to enter its second season, Arcane is an animated Netflix TV series based on Riot Games’ League of Legends, a strategy game where two teams of colorful sprites battle to destroy each others’ base. League is, to employ some technical jargon, a very gamey game; it’s the number one esport in the world. “It’s basically the swords-and-sorcerers version of basketball,” explains Alex Yee, a creative designer at Riot Games and Arcane’s co-creator. 

League’s world sprawls out of financial necessity: To compel players, Riot must regularly release new champions. Initially, the company did not even employ writers, and characters’ backstories were limited to a few lines of text; in 2014, the game’s ridiculous success led Riot to cull most of the lore for a meatier premise that might sustain TV and films.

But even now, League’s world—stuff about wars over magical runes on the planet Runeterra—isn’t the draw that brings fans to fill stadiums in the thousands. League is not the kind of thing you adapt hoping fans will follow their favorite characters to a new medium; it’s the kind of thing you take to a new medium to give those characters life.

This is where Arcane fits in. Helmed by animation studio Fortiche, the show focuses on two sisters, Vi and Powder (later known as Jinx), whose relationship disintegrates as war breaks out between two mirrored cities: Piltover, an ocean-banked scientific utopia, and Zaun, an underground slum steeped in smog.

Just as League does not require you to know its lore to play, Arcane does not require you to have played League to watch. So while material that stems from the game’s world—knee-high furry critters decked out in sharp military gear, say—fills the screen, Arcane’s success comes from focusing on those characters’ relationships. 

This was conscious, explains Yee. The team resisted the urge to swallow the Legends canon and regurgitate it whole; they were content not to relentlessly explain everything, and assumed, rightly, that the audience would thank them. Star Wars, he says, was bandied about in the writer's room as an example of doing it wrong. “So much of the conversation around Star Wars was this mystery and this mystique of, like, the Clone Wars, and ‘What were the Clone Wars?’” he says. “Then they made the prequel trilogy, and it felt like everyone was like, ‘OK, don’t tell me anything about the Clone Wars ever again.’”

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Even if Arcane is a little YA for your taste, the show is a triumph for Riot. It has drawn critical acclaim, Grammy awards, and rabid fans. It’s also bolstered League’s reputation. Arcane is a model for game studios intent on expanding their universes to new media: Certain titles may not seem suited for TV, but smart writing can bring them anywhere.

Putting aside the continued challenge of creating compelling live-action adaptations—Yee feels strongly that animation is better suited to capturing the “larger than life” essence of most game’s settings and characters—he is excited by the future of transmedia storytelling; it’s what attracted him to games in the first place. “When you look at trying to take one property or one world, and then find all these different methods of immersion—video games, AR/VR, location-based experiences,” he says, “I think there are all these exciting opportunities to live in our dream worlds.”

Transmedia’s hegemony taps into a long-standing gripe about the culture industry; namely, homogeny, that popular culture will liquidize into one money-flavored corporate soup. True or not, a lot of fans are drinking deep. “Synergy” will continue to be the buzzword among media industries, especially as outfits like Ubisoft’s film and games division turn out good adaptations like Werewolves Within, which writer Mishna Wolff created based on the VR title of same name. “It’s just a very successful strategy commercially,” Jenkins says. “It’s a strategy fans like, in part because it encourages their knowledge and mastery on the one hand, and invites exploring alternative versions on the other.”

Back in 2003, Jenkins rooted transmedia in older traditions. He wrote: “For most of human history, it would be taken for granted that a great story would take many different forms, enshrined in stain glass windows or tapestries, told through printed words or sung by bards and poets, or enacted by traveling performers.” In the modern era, it’s Tolkien’s works that have indirectly reinvigorated the popularity of this technique: The relentless retelling and expansion of stories across mediums is driven by “the thirst,” in Yee’s words, for world-building in our culture. (Jenkins says that a central moment in transmedia’s ascendance was the phenomenal popularity of The Lord of the Rings films.)

World-building gets a bad rep, functioning at its worst as a kind of corporate colonization. Famously, the author M. John Harrison called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism,” an attempt to “exhaustively survey a world that isn’t there.” Which is mostly fair, but obscures the more human seduction of elaborated characters. Playing The Last of Us, few people thought of Bill as much more than a trap-setting maniac; watching The Last of Us, they saw him in a different light. The game’s universe grew deeper.

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