Transmedia, specifically transmedia storytelling is the art of telling a single story or exploring a single world across different media. It is closely associated with the idea of a story world, a more abstract concept referring to a single narrative world that exists across different works of narrative art.
In the summer of 2011, Syfy announced an upcoming transmedia collaboration with gaming company Trion Worlds. The result is a two-part project that premiered this year in April with a long-form TV science-fiction political action drama and a corresponding multi-platform MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).
This is the background of the world they share. In the year 2046, arks carrying survivors of a dying alien solar system carrying an entire ecosystem arrive on Earth, causing war and a complete restructuring of the planet’s surface, society, and biosphere. The show takes place after this, in a town called Defiance, following the myriad political and social struggles resulting from the mix of alien and human cultures and agendas. To some degree, the show relies on tried-and-true plot tropes, such as Romeo and Juliet-style love stories, cultural and spiritual tensions, and classic science fiction elements like alien-on-alien battles, spacecrafts, blue glowy things, and futuristic energy weapons which account for most of Syfy’s budget on the show.
The goal of the project was to extensively link the shared world of the game and the show. They take place in the same area at the same time, and the two branches of the project promise future crossovers, ranging from the ability of the player’s character in the game to appear in the show to large scale players’ actions influencing the show’s narrative future. At the moment, however, the crossover is limited to similar storylines and characters and timed missions in the game that must be completed by the next episode’s airing. The two development teams both made concessions for such a project to become a reality. While, for example, the gaming team thought the alien races known as “Voltan” should bring with them flying car technology, Syfy’s television crew told them that was right-out too expensive.
Meanwhile, Syfy’s conceptual team thought horses or similar pack animals would fit the setting. The logistical team for the video game informed them that pack animals interfere with combat in games like the one they were designing. I admit to having not played the game, but I do have exposure to both television and games of this genre – and the mutual influence is clear.
The TV show brings several well-recognized actors, including Grant Bowler, (known for his previous work in Ugly Betty and True Blood,) and Julie Benz, from (Angel and Dexter). Of course, the television actors served as the live models for their digital doubles in the game. The actors, along with the visual decisions for the various races in the world, had to be decided on several years in advance than they would have been for a typical science fiction show for like this without a collaborating video game team. On the other hand, while video games can relatively easily create very non-human aliens, a TV show has more limitations, meaning Defiance’s aliens look remarkably human. The collaboration has a kind of lowest common denominator effect, where both media have to take into account the limitations of the other.
However, transmedia collaboration is not without its strengths. Despite several obvious archetypes and standard genre elements, the extensive world-building is obvious from the very first episode. Because the show is free to tell for of its mythology in the setting of the game, the world feels like it has even more depth. There are two complete languages for the show and game, constructed by David J. Peterson, who also worked on Dothraki, the constructed language from Game of Thrones. Though we don’t see much of some of the alien races, as not all are represented in the main cast, each has distinctive cultural characteristics, evident in their speech patterns, dress, and attitudes, even in minor roles.
The races are also original in that the cultures seem to have been built from the ground up, rather than borrowed from Earth cultures and pasted onto alien species, a welcome relief to a veteran viewer of the genre (though some play it a little close at times).
The show promises a world full of conflict and tensions, some which are more television arc-worthy, others of which could easily permeate throughout the show and game worlds (such as racial tension and environmental dangers). The show has recently been renewed for a second season, hopefully bringing the promised crossovers closer to reality.