Canon, Setting, and Transmedia

Canon, it’s been observed, is what people argue is true about stories that aren’t. Continuity, similarly, is what’s supposedly consistent in worlds that aren’t.

Metaplot is what you call either one when you want to start a fight.

I’m faintly offended by the idea of canon in roleplaying games. RPGs are by their nature varying and modular. Trying to lock them down to a consistent set of facts is disrespectful to players and painful for everybody.

I’ve been told that a consistent body of facts is essential to establishing a property across multiple media. That if you don’t keep on top of it, and you don’t start early, you lose what’s identifiable about your setting.

That’s only true, I think, if you’re telling a single story across multiple media. And when you’re selling a setting, rather than one story, I’ve thought for some time that it makes sense to reinvent that setting for each medium.

For example, if I’m writing a Green Lantern novel, I have opportunities and limitations that just aren’t present in the Green Lantern comic. I can develop the world in ways that just don’t make sense in comics — complicated aliens, the psychology of power ring use, and so on. And those ideas would often be clumsy and overly detailed if they were ported back to the comics.

Still, as we move towards transmedia-native properties, I’m changing my mind again. Transmedia narrative involves more inherent cross-promotion than “simple” adaptation. Where adaptation is about following a core story or core concept across media, transmedia’s in large part about following the details. It matters that a tweet reflects a detail on a physical asset.

Why am I thinking about transmedia storytelling, anyway? Well, because it’s the way my jobs have been going for several years. When we started the story initiative for EVE, we wanted people to follow information from the chronicles to the news feeds to in-client artifacts. Rather than telling versions of the core story of EVE1 in each medium, we wanted to build one narrative across four or five media.

There were high points and low points to that process. The launch event for The Empyrean Age expansion and novel was extremely effective, despite a few hiccups. We later brought the same techniques together to do an immersive event around Fanfest 2008, using news articles in real time to lead up to a trailer showing a battle between the Amarr and the Gallente. That story had visible effects in-game2, and was reflected in online short stories around the same time. It also quietly resolved a plot thread that we’d left dangling for years.

We were telling a relatively small and simple story, but it worked. People at Fanfest were checking for updates during the show. RP arguments broke out on the forums.

Part of why it worked is that the EVE setting is transmedia native. From the very beginning, EVE stories have been told through pictures of the week, short stories, live events, news feeds, and a host of other channels. In the last few years, we’ve added novels. Since the EVE setting evolved in multiple media, it has strengths rooted in each one.

That’s a happy place to be. Although coordinating multiple channels is a huge effort, it’s paid off. Our consistent body of facts3 has been the backbone for a lot of the cool stories we’ve told.

How should settings be customized to individual media? Does live content have a lasting impact on your perception of a setting? Why do you like complex continuities, and why do you hate them?

  1. Pirates vs. Truckers vs. Day Traders
  2. A starship graveyard. Everyone loves Wolf 359.
  3. ¬†Admittedly, it hasn’t always been consistent.

2 thoughts on “Canon, Setting, and Transmedia”

  1. The problem with EVE is that there are thousands of players who simply don’t care about ‘the canon’. There are plenty who do, don’t get me wrong, But the majority of EVE’s ‘canon’ and setting is generated by the players.

    Which pirate corp is bring hunted by which anti-pirate corp this week, which alliances are making which strategic moves etc. When you primary content generators are the players the only thing that can be said to be canonical are the actual rules of the game, the fiction is a side-show.

    The chronicles are great, but they can be a bit haphazard and I’ve been unable to find a resource which puts them all in order and outlines the connections. I’m sure CCP has such a resource, just to keep on top of things, but it would be nice if the players had access to something similar.

    Speaking of chronicles is there any plans o publish them in on dead trees or e-book form? Collections of connected stories would be a great way to introduce people to the universe and draw them to explore other areas of the fiction.

  2. I think it’s a good thing that EVE‘s developer fiction is secondary to its player action. I do think that the developer fiction hasn’t always been as accessible as it should be.

    I was discussing the stories we told, but that’s largely not what MMOs are for. They’re more for the stories players tell (or the stories players tell afterwards). While developer fiction can be fun and useful, it’s never as engaging as the stuff you do alongside other players.

    Even if developer fiction is a relatively small part of a game experience, though, it’s a necessary one. The goal shouldn’t really be to push for more of it, or to make it louder, but to make it more fun and more useful, especially in actual play.

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