When I devote time to media – whether it's a game, TV show, book, or slice of delicious chocolate cake drowned in molten frosting lava – I tend to lose myself in it. I think about it constantly. My speech becomes laden with referential jargon, and probably by pure coincidence, my friends start punching me in the throat more frequently. That's the power of a great world, though. You have to drag me away from it kicking and screaming, and even when you do, I bring a few chunks of officially licensed astro turf along for the ride.
But it's fun to be hopelessly and utterly absorbed in a place halfway across the galaxy from Real Life's day-to-day doldrums. Whether it's a million-mile-per-hour escape from reality or something that ends up hitting all too close to home, there's something downright magical about, say, wandering Fallout's wastes or selecting the “family” conversation option of every goddamn person in Mass Effect 3's entire galaxy. Things like that are, in large part, the reason I play games.
So I think I'm probably qualified to talk about why transmedia's insidious, spindly web of Facebook games, apps, iOS spin-offs, art books, and delicious chocolate cakes drowned in molten frosting lava is doing it so very, very, very wrong.
In truth, transmedia has always fascinated me. I've had more high-noon bookstore staredowns with videogame novelizations than I can count, with crowds of bystanders mumbling “Will they or won't they” until the book and I finally embrace in steamy liplock. To this day, I still have dreams about Metal Gear Solid 2's titular tome, its lingering looks and musky perfume now a stain on my very soul. OK, I'm exaggerating that part, but I can stump most Halo nerds because I read a couple not-completely-but-mostly-terrible novels in high school.
Today, though, transmedia finds itself charmed out of its cramped niche jar by a robotic melody made up entirely of buzzwords. Brand synchronicity. Facebook integration. IOS F2P FPS GPS. Many of these social extensions claim to be “casual” experiences to help ease in new players as well, but – as soon as they start hurling “unlock items in the PC/console game,” “download the app,” and “pester all your friends to procede more quickly” at folks who haven't touched a game since Tetris – the whole notion of simplicity explodes into a dusty haze of confusion. There are so many layers to these things, and transmedia games – by virtue of hedging their monetary bets on transmedia – certainly aren't shy about them. I play games all the time, and these things overwhelm me. I can't even imagine what it's like for someone who thinks WASD is some sort of anti-drug organization.
In truth, though, the corporate convolution of it all is only part of the problem. Do I want to, say, poke and prod at tiny, previously unknown corners of Dead Space and Mass Effect's universes while on the go? Sure. Sounds like a nice vacation within my vacation. Nowadays, though, that simply can't be a reward in and of itself. I'm beginning to think publisher execs believe gamers hate to actually play games, because everything dangles some oh-so-desirable carrot in front of our noses.Ghost Recon: Commander, for instance, will reward your tactical Facebook exploits with weapons in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Ghost Recon Online – and vice versa.
The biggest offender, though, is easily Mass Effect 3. Its Galactic Readiness means that multiplayer and iOS spin-off Mass Effect: Infiltrator directly (and confusingly) impact single-player. No, you don't need to play either to get an optimal ending, but the game strongly encourages it without really explaining how to make up for it if you don't. Both Mass Effect and (to a lesser extent) Ghost Recon introduce a slimy strand of obligation to their proceedings. Hell, Mass Effect's Galactic Readiness degrades over time, essentially pressuring players into brittle bundles of nerves and stress over their game experience.
I really shouldn't need to be saying this, but here goes: Gaming is a leisure activity. We don't play these things to be strong-armed into sacrificing our precious hours at the almighty alter of transmedia. You know what obligation is? It's a product of real life and all the ugly pressures I play games to get away from. I can't lose myself in a fantasy world if you're constantly punching me in the face with brass knuckles made from the real one. I want to love this magnificent place you've constructed, held on high by the carpel-tunnel-ridden claws of writers who poured their passion onto a page until they bled. I really, really do. But you make it so damn hard.
And that's a crying shame, because – in theory – transmedia's a pretty rad idea. So please, publishers, stop breaking its bones to fit an obtuse monetary mold. For one, no one cares, so that's gonna hurt your bottom line a bit. But, more importantly, these worlds are at their best when both they and their players can do what they want, when they want. Believe it or not, people like to explore and discover. It lets us own an experience, world, or brand. (Or, put another way, do you think Star Wars Extended Fiction novels sell because they're good? Hah!) So quit suffocating us. It's time for a breath of fresh air.