Transmedia: between augmented storytelling and immersive practices

Article  by  Mélanie BOURDAA  •  Published 06.09.2012  •  Updated 06.09.2012
Between augmented storytelling and immersive practices, transmedia strategies form the new architecture for developing franchises in the creative industries. The boundaries of the concept are, however, not always well understood.


The cultural industries, especially the audiovisual sectors (television and cinema, among others), have been going through deep changes related to the convergence of technologies, and with what Henry Jenkins calls “Convergence Culture”. These two movements have helped bring about the emergence of new production strategies: cross-media, transmedia storytelling (Henry Jenkins), deep media (Franck Rose), and media mix (Mizuko Ito) have gradually been making their appearance in the audiovisual landscape since the 1990s.

Behind these fashionable words are narrative and economic realities and a wish, on the part of the production industry, to put in place competitive creative strategies. For the audience, especially fans, there is a desire to immerse themselves in the discovery of storytelling worlds, just as there is a desire to hijack them and make them their own.
This article aims to scrutinize the phenomenon of transmedia storytelling in order to explain the mechanisms and the challenges for the cultural industries, in particular film and television. In the first instance, we will give a panorama of the definitions covered by the term. We will then look at how production strategies help bring about the creation of narrative worlds and of augmented storytelling. We will finish by explaining how alternate reality games (ARG) are examples – both immersive and hybrid – of transmedia creation.

Transmedia storytelling, between narrative extensions and immersive practices

The term “transmedia” was coined in 1991 when Marsha Kinder spoke of “commercial transmedia supersystems”[+] NoteMarsha KINDER, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, University of California Press, 1991.X [1], referring to the field of advertising strategies. New definitions of transmedia storytelling have been developed and put forward since then. Several researchers have suggested avenues for reflection and different terminological elements that complement each other to explain this phenomenon. Several of these extensions are noteworthy, and illustrate both the diversity of the approaches taken and the fact that transmedia storytelling is part of an experimental process both in terms of practice and in terms of conceptualisation.

Henry Jenkins’ contribution to the definition of transmedia is  Transmedia storytelling is a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.  important for two main reasons. First, he turned the term “transmedia” into an adjective, adding it to “storytelling”, thereby placing the focus back on narration. “Transmedia storytelling” thus became a particular way of telling stories. He then put forward an academic definition, which was to be the first. In an article published on 6 November 2003 in Technological Review, he pointed out that the Wachowski brothers had taken advantage of the potential of technological convergence to create a range of storytelling devices connected with their film franchise, Matrix. The description of a world spread across several forms of media (comics, cartoon films, video games, massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) led to Henry Jenkins coming up with his first definition of transmedia storytelling. He believes that transmedia storytelling represents a “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience,[+] NoteHenry JENKINS, Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide, NYU Press, 2006X [2]. He added that ideally, each medium should make its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
The second point to be raised is that transmedia  Cross-media does not provide an expansion of the created realm but an adaptation of the same story, across several different forms of media.  storytelling is not exclusively done on digital media platforms. Indeed, Matrix Comics testify to the importance of all media in developing stories and transmedia narratives. Finally, Henry Jenkins differentiates cross-media from transmedia storytelling. Cross-media does not provide an expansion of the created realm; rather it produces an adaptation of the same story, but across several different forms of media.
In the wake of Henry Jenkins, Christy Dena wrote the first thesis entirely dedicated to the phenomenon of transmedia storytelling. This research paper, by way of an analysis of concrete examples of transmedia production strategies, puts forward an interesting typology of transmedia projects, shedding light on the most important differences between franchises and “pure” projects. According to Dena, there are four possible ways of looking at transmedia projects. We have chosen just three for the purposes of this article. Franchises are considered to be mono-medium multiple extensions that build on the narration based on a central story, which Jenkins calls “mothership”. Transmedia concepts are written as soon as production starts. I will refer to them as “pure” transmedia projects. Finally, transmedia projects comprise several forms of media, as is the case for ARG (Alternate Reality Games).
These definitions stress that transmedia storytelling is an extension of the narration, which is what I refer to as augmented narration. Several principles expounded by Henry Jenkins reinforce this notion. He reminds us of the importance of building a world which will enable the narrative extension process to be spread over several media. The phenomenon of seriality bears witness to the coherence of this world spread across several media, and reinforces the idea of augmented storytelling. Finally, Jenkins talks about the principles of continuity (Marvel comics books  and DC Comics) and multiplicity (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) which strengthen seriality or show a franchise from another perspective, through a character, an event or a particular place.
Creating a coherent world through narrative extensions therefore appears fundamental, but it has to be immersive and participatory, as Franck Rose showed.
Frank Rose came up with a term and an approach that differed from those of Dena and Jenkins. According to him, it is more accurate to speak about deep media, since the aim, through its strategies, is to bring to life an experience in which the recipients and fans can take part and immerse themselves. This immersive approach to transmedia strategies puts the recipients and the fans at the heart of the action.

Fans are of course the most active of recipients in these transmedia processes. They seek out the story content on different media platforms (digging) to share it with the community (spreading). Jason Mittel[+] NoteJason MITTEL, “Sites of participation: Wiki fandom and the case of Lostpedia”, Transformative works and cultures, vol.3, 2009X    [3] referred to this phenomenon as “forensic fandom”, comparing fans to archaeologists searching through the media to put the world together. This phenomenon has something of the nature of “collective intelligence” as expressed by Pierre Lévy.

Fans then take part in activities, be they  This fan ARG was so successful that it threatened the official ARG of Lionsgate…  intellectual or creative, which in turn add story content to the franchise. Jenkins speaks of the principle of “performance”. According to him, producers, when setting up their franchise, have to leave room for the fans’ creations. They take possession of this space and ownership of the text to create their own extensions. Fanfiction, the practice of writing and reinterpreting the story, is of course the mostly widely known activity. Fans can go even further in their performance creations, and produce their own immersive transmedia concept that the fan community can enjoy together. For example, a fan set up an ARG before the adaptation of The Hunger Games came out. He wanted to immerse the fans in the world of the franchise so that they could come together and play, and share in their common passion. He created an interactive site requiring registration in order to be issued with a badge of a district of the Capitol; a Panem radio broadcasting information and clues for the games; and Twitter and Facebook accounts pages to add to the mystery surrounding his alternate reality game. However, in this particular case, Lionsgate, which distributed the film, had this ARG closed, raising issues of intellectual property. This fan ARG was so successful that it threatened the official ARG of Lionsgate…
In the cultural industry field, Jeff Gomez also contributed to defining transmedia storytelling. According to him, transmedia means the broadcasting of a dense message through different media. Above all, Jeff Gomez had the profession of transmedia producer recognised by the Producers Guild of America. The profession of transmedia producer is now recognised and seen as a legitimate part of the audiovisual sector; it has a legal status and transmedia producers can put forward transmedia narrative strategies based on audiovisual works.
Even though these approaches have characteristics in common, transmedia storytelling, both in practice, and in terms of its definition, is under construction. Some researchers such as Geoffrey Long or Matt Hills have called for critical analyses of the definition put forward by Henry Jenkins, since they believe it to be too romantic and idealised.
In fact, the audiovisual sectors create transmedia franchises. There are in reality few pure transmedia projects because of the difficulty in creating a synergy between the different types of media and the legal and economic vagueness that it is sometimes difficult to clear up.
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The creation of an augmented narrative: a few examples of television series

The television and film industries have seized transmedia production strategies, seeing in them a way of promoting their narrative content and attracting a larger public to their franchise. In an increasingly competitive and connected environment, the transmedia strategy constitutes a means of starting up a franchise or creating public loyalty towards a particular world.
Promoting a franchise using transmedia strategies, even if this phenomenon is seen from a marketing point of view, does have benefits. The advantage of starting with a franchise is that the story and the characters have already been laid down; the aim is then to come up with additional storylines over several media, whether digital or not. What is more, a community is formed, and a certain level of expectation and a certain amount of pleasure from the act of discovery based on a narrative world are created.
The Westeros Wall - Game of Thrones
The American pay channel HBO called upon the advertising agency Campfire to promote two of its leading series: True Blood and Game of Thrones. An alternate reality game, postulating the existence of vampires in real life was created for the first series, but they promoted Game of Thrones across several media, and in so doing, built a narrative world based on this heroic fantasy series. Westeros was a pure invention by the author George R.R. Martin, so Campfire decided to centre its transmedia strategy around finding out about this fictitious world through the five senses. For each of the five senses, they developed an extension on a medium, in order to immerse the fans in Westeros and in the series story. For example, for sight, they recreated the Wall, an essential part of the storyline of the Game of Thrones, which fans had to explore by way of an interactive website. Fans played the role of a guardian of the Wall, and had to warn any other characters of an attack that would threaten Westeros. For hearing, they recreated the Inn at the Crossroads in which users could walk among the tables and listen to conversations and plots by the series’ characters. To launch this advertising campaign, Campfire also sent influential bloggers a box of perfumes and bottles supposed to represent the smells of Westeros. The information was thereby sent on to the blogosphere, creating anticipation and curiosity about the series. This sensory experience gave fans and those curious about the series a taste of the series and made the recognition of this very unusual series tangible.
The world of science fiction, with its complicated narratives and imaginative stories is particularly suited to the developments of augmented narrative taking place. What is more, television series, with the large number of gaps between the episodes and between seasons, are able to extend their narration to other media platforms. Between seasons 2 and 4, and 3 and 4, the makers of Battlestar Galactica offered webisodes that filled the narrative time gap or that concentrated on the character of Gaeta who was to be key in the last season. Fans who wanted to could go to the official website and watch short episodes to find out who Gaeta was and what the various acts of resistance were on New Caprica. This augmented narrative approach provided additional narrative elements for the fans while broadening the series’ scope.

The film-maker Jeffrey Jacob Abrams is always  It was with Lost that J.J.Abrams most effectively harnessed a transmedia strategy .seeking to provide narrative extensions to the series that he creates. For example, he was the first to offer an ARG based on the spy series Alias; but it was with Lost that he most effectively harnessed a transmedia strategy. There were two aims to this strategy: provide answers to the fans using new narrative content, and keep the community interested during the gaps. To keep the coherence of everything connected with the series, transmedia storytellingcontinued to blur time markers and the boundary between reality and fiction. The posters for Oceanic Airlines, whose flight 815 crashed on to the island in the pilot episode of the series, were put up in American towns. This fake advertising campaign sent people to a real-fake website for the airline, which was one of the entry points (rabbit hole) to the alternate reality game Find 815. In order to explain the projects of the Hanso Foundation and the aims of the Dharma Initiative, key elements in the series storyline, the producers also created documentaries with scientists telling the public about projects that had been developed or broadcast, in agreement with the channel ABC, on real-fake advertisements during the broadcasting of the channel’s series. Viewers who didn’t know Lost may have been very confused, especially since more than one website had been set up to boost the “reality” effect desired by the producers. Finally, to offer both a place for fans to discuss the series, and an educational space, they created the Lost University which offered online courses connected with the series storyline, given by university professors from the UCLA in California.

The transmedia strategy used for another series by J. J. Abrams, Fringe was different because it was faithful to the series’ world: it developed the characters and concentrated on the emotional or professional links between them. For example, the comic book series explained the meeting between Walter Bishop and William Bell and their first scientific papers, thereby increasing the narrative temporality of the series. Another series of comics concentrated on secondary characters, on their life and their motives. Walter is also brought to the forefront in webisodes that showed him explaining other autopsies connected with cases from Fringe. Fans were therefore able to become involved in investigations that were not in the episodes of the series, thereby reinforcing the idea that the characters continued their work outside the time limited by the episodes.
It is, however, important to point out that transmedia storytelling is not limited to the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. Sitcoms such as How I met your mother develop a story that is researched on media platforms (websites, twitter accounts, blogs, books), and series such as Glee take advantage of their genre that is a hybrid between a musical and drama series, offering music extensions on YouTube, iTunes as well as tours and concerts.
Parks and Recreation, a mockumentary broadcast on the NBC network offered transmedia extensions on the narrative of this fake documentary. Of course, the fictitious town of Pawnee has its website, so that the events organised in the town, and meetings announced during the episodes can be followed.
Two characters decided to go on a road trip from Pawnee to the Grand Canyon. Despite the trip’s being announced and the preparations for it being referred to in the series, the road trip was not shown in any of the episodes. The producers preferred to put on line a webseries centred on this trip. Over four episodes, the fans were able to follow the round trip. The website also provided an interactive option for fans, who can add posts and comment on their photos from their trips in a scrapbook. Leslie Knope, the main character, goes on an electoral campaign to become the new mayor of the town of Pawnee. The website for the campaign is on line at, and shows the interactions between the fans. For example, the fans were asked to choose Leslie’s campaign poster which then appeared in the series. The meetings that the characters speak about in the series, but which are not shown, are made available as videos on the website, thereby adding narrative content. Finally, Leslie wrote a book on Pawnee which is the subject of a whole episode of the sitcom. The following day, this book, shown as having been written by the character Leslie Knope, was available for purchase on Amazon. This book refers to episodes in the series, but also provides new narrative items.
Transmedia strategies developed based on television series stem from the franchise phenomenon and serve two different goals for the production company: promote the original content of the franchise, or create viewer loyalty by immersing them in the narrative world. The examples written about above are typical of immersive and narrative transmedia extensions based on the original content (in this case, a series), so that fans can discover, if they so wish, a rich and coherent world on other media platforms.
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ARG, hybrid promotional objects

One of the promotional transmedia strategies has proven to be especially participatory and immersive: alternate reality games. The aim of ARG (Alternate Reality Games) that is particular to transmedia strategies is to blur the boundary between reality and fiction. These games are described as being an “alternate reality" because they are not only part of the diegetic world of the fiction; they also use the real world as the playground in which they are deployed. These hybrid games attempt to put the players in the actual process of augmented fiction. In this “broken reality”[+] NoteJane McGonigal, Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world, Jonathan Cape, 2011.X [4], the players delve into interactive augmented fictional stories. They then have to work together to solve a riddle connected with the world of the story in a way that is entertaining, but that requires work, thought and collaboration. It appears to be impossible to play an ARG alone, given the clues to be solved that require various intellectual and technical skills, and given the physical places that are to be explored. The point of such a transmedia process is then to create a participatory community based on a franchise which will evolve to put back together the broken world that is presented to them by the “puppet masters”, the architects of the game.

There are several elements of ARG which are peculiar to them, enabling them to be characterised. In order to plunge the players into the game’s hypertext world, entry points, also referred to as rabbit holes, containing clues are spread over several media platforms. These entry points draw the players into the world and start up the game. They can take on forms that are more or less original. For example, Nine Inch Nails decided to create an ARG when its album Year Zero (2007) came out. At a concert in Lisbon, they left a USB key in the toilets of the concert hall with encoded folders that had to be deciphered, and which provided links to a number of websites created for the event.
ARG are built along a well-established timeline that ensures that the game develops and that the players progress as planned. This timeline for the ARG lasts anything from several weeks (the ARG for Lost between seasons) up to several months (the ARG for Why So Serious lasted a year).
The first “official” ARG recognised as such was undoubtedly The Beast, created to promote the film by Steven Spielberg Artificial Intelligence. One of these entry points was the mention in the film credits of Jeanine Salla, the robot’s therapist . When the most curious member of the audience searched this name in Google, they came across her blog and found out that she was investigating the death of her friend Evan Chan. 666 elements were created for this alternate reality game, including blogs, websites, encrypted codes, and places to visit.
Screenshot of the ARG, Why so serious?
Why so serious? – one of the most well-known ARGs – helped create recognition for this type of viral marketing. This ARG created for the film The Dark Knight was to last a year and plunged the players into the twists and turns of Gotham City. The players had to choose sides: the Joker, the enemy of Batman, or Harvey Dent, the public prosecutor of Gotham City. Several rabbit holes were spread across websites or in the real world. So, during Comic Con, an aeroplane left the Joker’s telephone number in its vapour trail asking its recruits to make themselves up and send the photos to a community website. The game’s other original features included the players’ having to go to New York cake shops after obtaining its geographical location and a password, in order to buy a cake containing the Joker Kit with a mobile telephone number, playing card and the address of anther website to visit. The whole of Gotham City was created virtually, including the police, public transport, the city hall, the Justice department, the cake shops and pizzerias, which all had a website with important clues to decipher and share with the other players. 10 million people in 75 countries at some time or other during the game visited a website belonging to the hypertext architecture of Why so serious?. And the film, The Dark Knight, achieved its third best performance in the box-office during the first week-end of its showing in the USA.
Today, producers and distributors of blockbusters dedicate a large part of their marketing budget to ARG. The Amazing Spiderman, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Prometheus all offer alternate reality games that spike the curiosity of the audience and bring together a community of fans who share the same goal.
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Transmedia Storytelling - work-in-progress

Several sociological or economic factors have helped to bring about greater visibility for transmedia storytelling. First, the use and the ownership-taking of new technologies in production practices have enabled this phenomenon to unfold, offering interactive and participative digital extensions. Second, the high level of competition in the audiovisual sector contributed to the emergence of increasingly complex and appealing storylines. Finally, thanks to the legitimacy of fan practices and to geek culture, it has been possible for transmedia extensions to be created, and then passed on, analysed and re-appropriated by these gatekeepers.
However, by way of these definitions and these examples that are characteristic of the audiovisual culture industry, we understand that transmedia storytelling is a phenomenon that is largely experimental. Transmedia storytelling needs complex practical examples to be studied, and the definition to be analysed so that it can be refined.

Translated from French by Peter Moss

Photo credits:
- Main image: Lost / ABC
- The Wall : GOTsfile / flickr
- Screenshot of the ARG Why so serious ?
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Henry JENKINS, « Why the Matrix matters », Technology review, 2003.
Henry JENKINS, Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide, NYU Press, 2006.
Jane McGONIGAL, Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world, Jonathan Cape, 2011.
Jason MITTEL, « Sites of participation: Wiki fandom and the case of Lostpedia », Transformative works and cultures, vol.3, 2009.
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  • 1. Marsha KINDER, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, University of California Press, 1991.
  • 2. Henry JENKINS, Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide, NYU Press, 2006
  • 3. Jason MITTEL, “Sites of participation: Wiki fandom and the case of Lostpedia”, Transformative works and cultures, vol.3, 2009
  • 4. Jane McGonigal, Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world, Jonathan Cape, 2011.
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