In the wake of Steve Jobs's unexpected resignation as CEO of Apple, Wired.com has reprinted the essay I wrote as the introduction to the updated edition of West of Eden in 2009—twenty years after its original publication. Here's an abridged version:
A couple of years ago I found myself in a small town in Patagonia called San Martín de los Andes. The town lies in a fold in the mountains, but a short, steep hike through the woods gets you to an extraordinary vista point—the dry, scrubby buttes of the Patagonian steppes in one direction, the blue waters of Lake Lácar and the snowcapped peaks of the Andes in the other. But as with much of Patagonia, the journey is every bit as remarkable as the destination. In this case it meant following a seemingly random network of trails that wend their way up the ridge. About halfway up I encountered the trails' author—a half-dozen head of cattle. There was no "right" path, for the cattle any more than for the people. Instead, the paths all converged at a dusty spot near the summit where three old women sat on the porch of a cabin. As I approached, one of the women stood up and asked for a peso. I paid the toll and walked past a ramshackle house sporting a large satellite dish to the lookout, where I got to see a condor from above. Choose your own adventure indeed.
I'm reminded of that walk whenever somebody mentions transmedia, the seemingly radical new approach to narrative that was mapped out several years ago by Henry Jenkins, then a professor of media studies at MIT and now Provost's Professor at USC Annenberg. Henry once defined transmedia in his blog as "integral elements of a fiction . . . dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience." (He didn't mention the satellite dish or the three old women and their pay wall, but they're part of nearly any entertainment experience these days.) Earlier this month, in a post called Transmedia 202, he attempted to explain how the trails work and, by the way, defend them against those who would try to pave and straighten them and/or get obsessed with signage. It's an important read.
The games blogger at the Guardian, Keith Stuart, posted an essay recently that started out like a broadside against the whole idea of telling stories across multiple media platforms. "Most big video game releases now come with tie-in books, comics and even movies," the subhead declared provocatively. "But is this really about extending the story or is it just marketing?" Things seemed to go downhill from there:
It has become routine now. A few weeks after the announcement of any big new game release, there will be another thrilling revelation: a tie-in comic book series, a novel, a made-for-TV movie. . . . Of course, much of the excitement revolves around the marketing potential of the linear tie-in: every new story platform is an advert.
This used to be called merchandising, but now we must use the term "transmedia storytelling". Nowadays, developers are aiming to produce narratives so compelling that they transcend platform limitations; a high-tech realisation of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk concept.