Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meaning, the superstructure running throughout Meta-story

“Without consistent and empowering Meaning, throughout all Transmedia expressions of a Meta-story, the audience will lose their connection with your Franchise.”

With big Meta-stories that have big worlds, it seems that there is a limitless menu from which to choose what to base additional media expressions of the core story on.  Well-built Meta-stories do indeed have a lot of possibilities to work with.  However, all of those potential narrative slices through the larger Meta-story must all share a very important foundational block.  That block is the “Meaning” (with a capital “M”).

Let’s take a moment to be specific about what Meaning in a Meta-story is.  Meaning is the mythological lesson, the ethos of the story that structures everything within that narrative.  Structuring around meaning is part of classical story craft so those who train in and study story will recognize this discussion but let’s take it a step further.

There are many examples that I can use to illustrate meaning at work in a Meta-story and the omission of meaning in other media expressions to the detriment of the franchise and IP.  I will use James Cameron’s Avatar as my example for both.  
James Cameron is a world builder and an artist, producer and director who creates grand mythology that can rise to the level of a Meta-story.  I have a lot of respect for the thought and depth he puts into his work.

Avatar’s “Meaning” is “the power of discovering the connection between all things.”  This Meaning permeates all choices Mr. Cameron made for this movie.  His characters are all different takes on connectedness. 

Sully is a man who has lost all connections:  His family, his place as a warrior, his belief in anything, even connection to his own identity of being a whole man. 

Colonel Quaritch has chosen to disconnect himself from everything but fighting and winning.  He is the anti-connection.  He’s not connected to what is best for his country or world, certainly not connected to humanity, only to himself and making all things submit to him.  Keeping all things separate allows him the freedom to do and think the most horrible of acts and thoughts for his own purposes.

Doctor Grace looks for proof of connections.  She is the scientist studying the church and suspecting the transcendental.  She has yet to connect with her nascent belief without science and facts.

The Na’vi are the achievement of connectedness without loss of the individual.  They represent the possibility of salvation through submitting to connectedness and as such, their connectedness is fragile and the barrier to blind progress.

The Meaning, connectedness, or its lack also drives the imagining of the world and all production designs.  The flora lights up when touched showing the beginnings of connections.  The Na’vi physically connect to the beasts and the Mother Tree.  
The human’s protected enclave of walls and steel, dust and dirt, masks and weapons contrasts all this.  A place where connecting with others is all but impossible except within the rules and missions that the company proscribes.

Even further shaping the narrative, the story unfolds and drives forward by shaping discovery, wonder, stakes and the costs of finding and then fighting for a connection so profound that it engages all living things on the planet.

Whether you agree with the choices or not, Avatar is purposely-structured, deeply considered and richly crafted in great detail.  Those of you who may have artistic or directorial criticisms let’s hold them for now in service of a point to be made that is not about critiquing the quality of the movie but exploring the Meta-story’s effectiveness in Transmedia execution.

With the primary media being so clearly crafted around finding and fighting for the wonder of connectedness, how then is it that the video game completely missed this most important of foundation stones? 
Though the video game is full of action, it simply allows you to choose to play as Na’vi or human to fight one against the other.  The context and conceptual/visual coolness of the movie is represented but the reason why so many people were moved by it to see the movie multiple times, the Beautiful and wild Meaning in connectedness, is wholly missing in the gaming mechanic.

It’s critical to understand why your audience loves your property and continue to deliver that meaning in all expressions.  Anything short of that feels hollow at best or worse still, betrayal on behalf of commercialism even if there was no conscious decision to make it so.  In the Avatar game “The Currency of Power” needs to flow from achieving and accumulating connections in some form or another.  If I loved the movie, I am looking to advance my relationship with the world and the narrative.  I don’t just want to play as a Na’vi, I want to care about life and my connected world like one. 

I have been involved in many projects with big Franchises quite a few ways that moving a narrative into Transmedia expression can go awry.  Those include:

Movie companies, for reasons of security, not willing to give critical information about the story to other media licensees in time for them to include it in their product or media development.

Licensees not understanding the critical role of the Meaning of the original story in their work and simply applying their media's "success dogma" like a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Licensor’s licensing management group focusing too intensely on a predetermined “style guide” or “franchise bible” that defines the property as merely and only the contextual elements found in the launch media.

I don’t know what the case was for Avatar but the example of losing the Meaning in the Transmedia translation into a video game stands as very clear example of what can happen even when the creator of the narrative is a great world builder and a good narrative structuralist, if the meaning isn’t carefully shepherded, communicated and discussed as to how to use it in each additional media expression. 

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