Transmedia Storytelling and The Matrix
by Sam Shepherd
The proliferation of communication platforms in today’s society allows for a divergence in how stories are now told. The accessibility of electronics, software, and the internet provide access to tools which people can use to create, as well as receive, stories as never before. This digital storytelling allows for new ways of engaging and interacting with an audience by utilising photos, video, animation as well as sound and text.
A means to leverage these digital formats is through transmedia storytelling, a method of creating an experience across many different platforms and formats, such as movies, television, video games, books, comics and the internet. In doing so, the storyteller can reach a broad audience as well as create more depth to the overall plot and storyline. Author Henry Jenkins describes the concept of transmedia storytelling in his book Convergence Culture:
A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole … a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. — Henry Jenkins, p. 98
Jenkins outlines the process of transmedia storytelling through seven core principles, which require the production of content through which an audience can both participate and engage in via different mediums. Where transmedia differs from traditional cross platform approaches, is how it provides storylines exclusive to each medium, but which are all interrelated and combine as parts of the whole to tell an overall narrative.
Spreadability vs. Drillability
Spreadability is the ability of the public to engage actively with media content through social networks and in doing so, develop the value and worth of the work as a whole. Part of the appeal of The Matrix is how it creates a desire for committed consumers to track down information and easter eggs hidden throughout multiple media, gaining further insights into the world. The audience can then drill deeper into the work gaining a richer experience. By then sharing what they have found allows a greater collective understanding of the overall narrative. Consumers of popular culture now have many more opportunities to investigate these complex worlds and then compare their findings with others, participating in online communities and expanding their knowledge.
What audiences make of Revolutions will depend on the amount of energy they put into it. The script is full of cul-de-sacs and secret passageways. — Keanu Reeves, TV Guide
Continuity vs. Multiplicity
Each piece of content in The Matrix world is not only connected to one another but all remain in narrative synchronization. So, while numerous other stories branch off in their own direction, every branch always relates back to the original content. The content of each branch holds its own narrative but is self-contained, so an audience could view each separately, or in any order but the overall narrative still exists within a defined timeline. As each story path crosses one another many times, each of the different mediums have been designed not to be viewed chronologically; to do so would require a viewer to pause a movie, to then pick up a game controller, then briefly interrupt that by reading a comic.
Stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences. Rather, we are seeing the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle and end. — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p. 118
Each work expresses the story from a different viewpoint, enhancing the overall world of the Matrix, while contributing from each separate medium.
Immersion vs. Extractability
The full experience of The Matrix story isn’t simply a passive activity, as the audience must immerse itself into the several video games for complete understanding. While characters like Niobe and Ghost have only supporting roles in the movies, how we feel about them will depend on if we had played the video game Enter the Matrix.
In this game the player takes direct control of these two characters, spending countless hours keeping them alive and completing missions. Having felt like they had a direct impact upon the story in the movies may result in a bond that would not be experienced by viewers who saw them on screen for just a few scenes.
Within The Matrix franchise, the story can be consumed through the trilogy of movies, but to fully experience the complexity of The Matrix ‘world’ fans must also engage across other mediums such as short movies, comics, books and video games. Here, each aspect conveys the story from a different perspective, supplementing the narrative and contributing new understanding from each additional medium.
More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium. — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p. 114
Seriality, and Subjectivity
In the case of The Matrix, several mediums contribute to this “synergistic storytelling” method. The Animatrix is a ninety-minute collection of animated short films, set in the world of The Matrix, and created by some of the leading animators in the industry. Although the short films have compartmentalised stories, they each interconnect, such as in Final Flight of the Osiris (2003).
Here the character Jue must communicate a message to the crew of an ally vessel regarding information about the enemy machines. The opening scenes of the movie The Matrix Reloaded show the characters discussing this “last transmission of the Osiris” but had the viewer not seen the additional events they would not have the same depth as those who had — that Jue gave her life to ensure this information was delivered. In addition, there are also two games which contribute to the plot line, Enter the Matrix, a third-person video game, and The Matrix Online, a massively multiplayer game — both set in the world of The Matrix.
In the opening missions of Enter the Matrix, the player is required to retrieve the information supplied by Jue and get it to the meeting we see in the movie. For those who have only seen the movie, they do not get to experience this broader narrative but for someone who has had transmedia involvement with the works will have actually played an active role in this plotline, following its course across three different media.
Further building upon these motion picture mediums is that of books and comics. The Wachowskis collaborated with well-regarded animators and comic book writers who were known for their distinct visual styles. These artists built upon existing canon by creating a collection of short comic book stories set in the fictional universe of The Matrix and were released as webcomics between 1999 and 2004.
A number of books were also published, ranging from The Art of the Matrix which gives readers an inside look at the first film’s background, containing conceptual drawings, storyboards, and interviews with those involved in filming. Other books included Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy, and Philosophers Explore The Matrix.
Some audience members are not going to be satisfied with only the official works from the original creators and instead take it upon themselves to find opportunities for potential performance in and around the transmedia narrative where they can make their own contributions. In the case of fans of The Matrix this lead to the creation of fan fiction, illustrations and artworks, videos and cosplay.
This user created content is of varying quality, ranging from work created by professional artists, through to keen amateurs. None of this is authorised by the original creators but still adds to the world of The Matrix in its own way
Together, the movies, animated films, games, comics and books combine to each add information and enhance parts of the world so that collectively the whole narrative becomes more convincing and engaging. The various media of The Matrix create a richer, more in depth experience for some viewers, although it is important to note that while some may enjoy investigating character backgrounds and finding connections across the franchise, other consumers can be left confused or uninvolved with this approach. Regardless, more and more stories are spanning across media to offer both an appealing and unique product which is in the interest of both the consumer, and those producing and selling it.
It is a pickle, no doubt about it. The bad news is there’s no way if you can really know whether I’m here to help you or not, so it’s really up to you. You just have to make up your own damned mind to either accept what I’m going to tell you, or reject it.
— The Oracle
Jenkins, Henry. “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling,” Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York : New York University Press, 2008. Pages 93–130.
Jenkins, Henry. “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 12 December 2009.
Jenkins, Henry. “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: The Remaining Four Principles of Transmedia Storytelling.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 12 December 2009.