Transmedia can be an easy target. After all, there are so many terrible book and film adaptations in video games, and developers often have recourse to use cutscenes to tell the story, which highlights the difficulties of delivering a narrative in-game; Max Payne 3 received a lot of criticism for delivering a narrative too dependent on cutscenes. One alternative seems to be to hide the backstory within audio logs or embedded content, or especially transmedia publications that substitute for genuine in-game world-building. This use of transmedia for world-building could be a sign of even more desperation than extensive cutscenes. If this interferes with the player’s enjoyment of the game, and the in-game narrative feels empty or slimmer as a result, this is certainly a problem.
However, with the right amount of world-building in the game itself and a well-crafted transmedia product as a balance, it is possible for publishers to present the mythology of a franchise across different media.
For example, 343 Industries did a superb job with Halo 4, developing the Halo universe with a story that captured themes of loyalty, friendship, scientific ethics, and posthumanism. The history and legacy of the Forerunners, however, is such a complex and detailed part of the Halo mythos that it was left to science fiction master Greg Bear, and he handled it deftly. His Halo novels are complex, challenging, and far more literary than we are used to in transmedia texts.
But what happens when a relatively new IP has to build a world inside and outside the game? Well, success is also possible here. The Dead Space franchise, for example, has managed to produce some excellent transmedia pieces that supplement the games well. This started almost by chance: the original Dead Space game was somewhat of a sleeper hit. Image Comics teamed up with EA to release a Dead Space graphic novel penned by Antony Johnston and Ben Templesmith (of 40 Days of Night fame).
This humble transmedia offering is a fantastic success by any measure. Johnston’s story takes us behind the events of the game to explore the diverse and fully-realised characters who live through the earliest phases of the Necromorph outbreak. Dialogue is sharp and authentic, and gives the reader a foreboding sense of what is to come. Even better, Templesmith’s impressionistic art design perfectly captures both the psychological deterioration brought on by the Marker and the wide-eyed terror of the full Necromorph horror. Ultimately the market is the best judge: While the first edition hardcover is no longer available anywhere, a couple of years ago it was fetching nearly $300. It has now been re-released in paperback.
Subsequent instalments of the game produced two more graphic novels: Dead Space: Salvage and Dead Space: Liberation. While neither of these offerings hit the heights of Templesmith’s original work, they are certainly passable narratives that give further context and texture to the world. Christopher Shy’s art style combines photography with digital art to echo Templesmith’s psychological impressionism, and although the writing is not as polished as in the first graphic novel, it is certainly not as poor as we sometimes see in game adaptations.
B.K Evanson extended on the graphic novels with two full-length prose novels. Dead Space: Martyr (2010) narrates the discovery of the very first Marker, making it a true origin story. Set in the mid-21st century, it tells the story of everyman engineer Michael Altman (a Christ-like figure for the shady Unitologists) and his role in the very first Necromorph outbreak on Earth. This is an excellent horror novel. The sense of exploration and fear is skilfully presented, and there is a particularly outstanding scene in a deep-sea submarine which conveys the claustrophobia and psychotic derangement that results from proximity to the Marker. When the action breaks out, the high-paced prose and minimalist depiction of the Necromorphs is genuinely confronting, in the best tradition of horror and gothic fiction.
In 2012, Evanson followed this up with Dead Space: Catalyst, which tells of a later incident involving the interplanetary activation of Markers. While this is still a solid novel, it suffers from uneven pacing — when the action and climax arrive, Evanson runs out space to get full impact. It’s just a little less measured than Martyr. Nonetheless, the characterisation of Istvan is very impressive; he seems to suffer from autism spectrum disorder until he has a special communion with an excavated Marker. The fraught relationship with his brother Jensi is depicted with sensitivity and pathos, and Evanson has clearly honed a bleak, nihilistic tone that suits the Dead Space world perfectly.
In the Dead Space franchise, we have an example of transmedia graphic novels and fiction that are highly successful. Here they supplement and balance the world-building that exists in the games, but which can’t be fully articulated in that form. As games are still developing as a cultural form, it is not surprising that these will be the exceptions to the general rule of terrible transmedia. These cultural products seem to develop out of an established franchise, and the jury is out as to whether Defiance’s experiment of genuine co-creation across media will bear fruit, but we have good reason to be sceptical. While we see what comes of this, though, it’s worth remembering that transmedia certainly has plenty of the bad and the ugly, but there is at least a little bit of the good sprinkled in there too.
Chad Habel turns gaming into work, and work into play. His alter ego works at a university.
[Image credits: Comic Vine; Image Comics; EA]