Clockwork automata, steam-powered airships and ray guns have nothing to do with the convergence of online videos, mobile games, and theatrical productions. However, it’s become apparent to me that, although they’re wildly different movements, steampunk and transmedia share some essential traits, and that steampunk is a ripe genre for transmedia projects.
But let me rewind for a moment to clarify what we’re talking about here. If we can loosely describe steampunk as “Victorian-era science fiction,” then we can attempt to define transmedia as “a story that is told across multiple media.” While the jury is still out on the precise rules of what is or isn’t a transmedia story, I’ll do my best to break down the basic concept.
Ever since humans began telling stories, there have been a plethora of media forms and delivery mechanisms. From cave paintings and oral tradition to printed words and live theatre, people have always adapted their stories to different media. We’re still doing this today — how many times has Hollywood created a direct movie adaptation of a comic book? It’s only recently, however, that some people have moved beyond simple adaptation and have begun extending their stories across media. In other words, the movie isn’t simply a repeat of the comic book, but an additional element serving to continue the narrative and enhance the storyworld. This style of storytelling, in a nutshell, is transmedia.
One of my favorite questions to ask new steampunks I meet is, “how did you discover steampunk?” and each person replies with a unique story. Some discovered the genre through literature, some through costume events, and others through online blogs and forums. One of the wonderful things about steampunk is that it provides multiple points of entry for new fans, and this is true for many transmedia stories as well. In an ideal transmedia project, each media platform is able to stand alone — in other words, the viewer doesn’t need to have seen the film in order to enjoy the video game — but also serves to enhance the broader experience of the story. Through this additive comprehension, viewers are rewarded for engaging the story across its various platforms.
One of the ways that viewers gain the most value from a story, and the way that many steampunks gain value from the genre, is through direct participation. The steampunk enthusiasts who actively build costumes and gadgets, write stories, or create music gain more from the genre than a passive spectator would. In the same way, transmedia stories that contain a Live-Action Role-Playing game or an Alternate Reality Game often provide a more complete and engaging experience.
In-depth world building is also an important aspect of strong transmedia properties. In order to support the monumental challenge of spreading a narrative across many platforms, the storyworld must be robust. In my opinion, the myriad world-building possibilities afforded by steampunk make the genre a perfect canvas on which to paint transmedia stories.
Several years ago, a friend noticed my penchant for archaic science fiction, historical fashion, strange gadgets, and the Old West and suggested that I was probably a steampunk. Much to my surprise, I discovered that there were thousands of other people who shared these interests! Similarly, a short time ago I heard the term transmedia for the first time, and realized that it was almost exactly the storytelling model that we’d been creating with The League of S.T.E.A.M.
The League of S.T.E.A.M.’s expansive universe and large cast allows us to enjoy telling our story across many platforms. Our live shows provide an intimate experience designed to engage audiences and bring them into our world by interacting with our functional gadgets; our web series portrays those gadgets in action through our characters’ misadventures; artifacts from the web series’ stories are displayed in our Adventure Archive exhibits; our characters even tweet whatever is on their minds. Furthermore, we invite our fans to become a part of our story by joining the Jr. League W.A.T.C.H. and we bring them behind the scenes with our S.T.E.A.M. Geeks podcast. Our goal is to provide enough media outlets to allow our audience to explore our stories in as much or as little depth as they want.
The current steampunk scene includes other transmedia stories as well. Abney Park’s recorded music and live shows have recently been augmented with a new RPG based on their songs. Greg Broadmore’s Dr. Grordbort’s project relies on physical props, comic books, video games, mobile apps, and online videos to fully realize the story. More and more steampunk storytellers are now choosing to liberate themselves from the confines of a single media form, in order to express their ideas with greater depth and more profound audience engagement.
The people involved in steampunk are creative, unique personalities with amazingly diverse skills, and a love of innovative technology, both real and fantastical. Through the genre’s international community, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting groups and individuals with brilliant artistic talents — musicians, authors, illustrators, costumers and more — who comprise the world’s incongruous collective of steampunk enthusiasts. Few other subcultures boast such varied abilities and interests, so the potential for sensational transmedia stories is exceptional. And although both cultures are still growing parallel to each other, and both are still in the process of being defined by their own participants, steampunk storytellers have a natural opportunity to pioneer the transmedia frontier.
Top photo by Lex Machina
Bottom photo by Greg De Stefano
Andrew Fogel is a transmedia storyteller specializing in filmmaking, design, and intellectual property development. He is the Art & Media Director and resident zombie hunter for The League of S.T.E.A.M., a steampunk transmedia entertainment project based in Los Angeles, CA.