Mon
Jul 15 2013 10:00am

Divided, It Fails: Defiance’s Multiplatform Narrative Strategy Doesn’t Quite Work

Defiance

The Syfy original series Defiance just wrapped its first season last week, and I have… opinions.

Defiance takes place in 2046 on the former site of St Louis. In 2013, the Votanis Collective, comprised of several alien species, came to Earth in search of a new home after their own star system collapsed. During the “Pale Wars” that followed, a terraforming accident transformed the Earth into a strange new landscape. After the war, several Votan species integrated into human society while others remained in the badlands.

The show is a pretty straightforward interpretation of science fiction in a western style, and I was initially intrigued by the idea that Earth itself is recast as the unknown frontier. Shoshana Kessock has already discussed Defiance’s somewhat problematic adherence to western tropes here on Tor.com, but I think the show suffers most from its haphazard approach to world-building and storytelling.

Defiance video game MMORPG Nolan Irisa

Defiance and its corresponding MMORPG create a transmedia or multiplatform narrative, meaning they both contribute to the fictional universe through synchronized storytelling. This can actually be pretty cool, like when a tertiary character in the show escapes the authorities and then appears as an NPC in the video game, opening new missions for players. But most of the time it leaves the burden of establishing the show’s lengthy backstory within the game world.

 The strange result is that the narrative structure of the show—both on an episodic and season-wide scale—is constantly interrupted by half-assed infodumps in order to get the non-gaming audience up to speed. An early mission in the game features Nolan and Irisa (the show’s central protagonists) pulling a heist for a crime-boss and then skipping town with the loot before eventually (in the show’s pilot) settling in Defiance. The show itself communicates practically none of this until episode six, when another character hastily explains why he’s dragging them in for a bounty. After a tidy resolution (the bounty hunter lets them go because he respects Nolan’s parental concern for Irisa), that plot thread is never directly mentioned again.

Defiance, Volge The two-part pilot introduces us to a potentially vast frontier, complete with dangers in the form of Beyond Thunderdome-style nomadic raiders, militaristic mecha-warriors, falling debris from decaying spaceships, and giant bear/spider hybrids (or wolf/spiders, maybe?). But once Nolan and Irisa settle in, we rarely leave the immediate vicinity of Defiance, so it’s impossible to get a handle on the scope of the world or its various inhabitants.

We know that St Louis was largely destroyed and rebuilt as Defiance, which is established as a politically unaffiliated border town. The badlands extend westward, but what else exists in this new world? The show only mentions three other locations: the Earth Republic capital in New York, the Votanis Collective HQ somewhere in Brazil, and a prison in Las Vegas. But what are these places like? Based on the characters from New York, the city remains more “civilized” than the border towns, but Brazil and Las Vegas (and the rest of the world) are a complete mystery.

Defiance LiberataThere are six alien species roaming around this future Earth, but only three of them are afforded any real screen time. The Castithans, Irathients, and Indogenes get fairly detailed (if essentialist) cultural descriptions, but they’re almost always treated separately. The Volge comprise the mechanical armies roving the badlands, but the Sensoth and Liberata are left out the show’s narrative almost entirely. The writers try to get us to care about one of the background players (a Liberata bartender) by having a main character call him by name about five minutes before he’s found murdered. Well, maybe “try” is a strong word.

Ideally, the game and the show should refer to each other and enhance the experience for a diligent audience while still being essentially “complete” in their own right. Unfortunately, Defiance (the show, at least) is devoid of any nuance or subtlety on its own, and the writers clearly get tripped up trying to hastily explain background information you may or may not already have from playing the game.

Defiance Irisa Nolan

The series tries to focus on a more intimate, character-based drama than the game would be capable of, but generally fails because we rarely have enough information about the world to fully understand the characters’ personalities or motivations. Unless the show’s writers find better ways integrate the expansive world from the game, there doesn't seem to be a reason to come back for season two.


Sarah Tolf is the production assistant for Tor.com. She devotes far too much time to television shows that infuriate her. You can follow her occasional rants on Twitter.

19 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I'm only familiar with the show and what little I gather about the game from online discussions, but I have felt the show's worldbuilding and backstory exposition were a little scant. There are so many dangling threads, so many important pieces of information that have only been mentioned in passing. I'm not even sure how much that can be blamed on the game. For instance, in the finale there was a passing revelation that, if accurate, would contradict the entire established Votan backstory: how can they have been searching for a ship that's on Earth for 3000 years if they've been hibernating aboard sublight ships for 5000 years? But the throwaway line was never explained further, just dropped for the rest of the episode. If that was a setup for a storyline in the game, then that's pretty bad story construction, because a lot of us have no interest in playing the game.

The other thing that annoys me is that the constant show-game tie-ins mean that events in Defiance are repeatedly, coincidentally connected to events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Almost every time something from the outside world influences Defiance, if it's not from New York/the Earth Republic then it's from the Bay Area. The constant back-and-forth between the same two locations got to feel rather contrived.

I'm very disappointed in Defiance. I wanted it to be good, I felt it had the potential to be great, but it's only had about 4 episodes I felt were genuinely good, and the season finale, "Everything is Broken," could not have been more aptly titled, since it pretty much wrecked the whole endeavour in my eyes. And I do wonder if the show's problems with focus and coherence and direction had something to do with the fact that it had to serve another master, to answer to executives who cared at least as much about the game as about the show.
TVee
2. TVee
As an example of concurrent tv/game world building I have found defiance an interresting experience and one of the better examples I've come across. Greater integration would be good but the logistical/creative problems are obvious. I actually find the lack of the Defiance town in game more than any lack of game world storyline being present in the TV show. Akin to the limited geography refered to by ChristopherLBennett. The lack of TV back story/context I haven't really felt but then I have played the game . On the whole my problems concern the generic-ness of the game and its lack of player integration or feeling part of a real world in the game. A case of being Jack of all trades and master of none, until of course the last episode which was an abhorent mess of out of the blue end of characters and out of the blue leaps of storyline.
Christopher Bennett
3. ChristopherLBennett
Personally I don't see how it's even possible to pretend that an MMO shooter game is part of the same reality as a TV series, when the game has such breaks from reality as endless resurrection of dead characters, the ability to carry unlimited amounts of supplies, the ability to run and fight indefinitely without growing fatigued, the existence of impossibly durable vehicles that can survive great leaps and rough landings over and over, etc. Not to mention the fundamental unreality that the same basic sequences of events get re-enacted separately by thousands (millions?) of different player-characters of different appearances, sexes, and species.

The only interpretation that would make sense to me is that the game is just a dramatization/simulation based on the actual events that happened in the Bay Area, with the details adjusted to suit the needs of a game. But how would it be possible for characters within the Defiance world to create or play such a simulation when they no longer have communications satellites, long-distance radio, television, or the Internet? Or is it, perhaps, a historical reconstruction created in a later era after Earth's orbit has been cleared and high technology has been restored?
Sky Thibedeau
4. SkylarkThibedeau
you know if Nolan had stayed dead that would have been the most awesome plot twist since Poor Dead Ned Stark.

@3. my take is the narrative part of the game only applies to my character. Shadow War and other multiplayer events aren't part of the narrative. As far as resurrection goes, Nolan and Sukar have already come back from the dead once or twice and I'm betting irisa and kenya will too.
Christopher Bennett
5. ChristopherLBennett
@4: Maybe, but we'll never see them carrying infinite supplies in hammerspace.
Steven Lyle Jordan
6. Futurisk
Defiance's main problem is just plain bad writing. Clumsy infodumps are only part of an overall lousy job at presenting characters and motivations, plots, mechanations and resolutions. After the total train wreck that was the last episode in its first season, you won't see me wasting any more time on this show.
Bob Blough
7. Bob
I have to disagree. I love it that not all plot threads or back-up stories are explicated in the series. It remains much more real and interesting. Those who want it all spelled out don't want a series they want a glossary.

Yes, the writing is sometimes clumsy (this is TV - with a 40 minute show to be written each week, some of the writing is good, while other is perfuntory) but the acting is quite good and I found myself very moved by the show as a whole.

I do not play the game, but I didn't feel that there was exhorbitant use of info-dumps (certainly not like a Neal Stephenson novel).

I am looking forward to another season.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@7: I don't want every detail spelled out, but I don't want major, important plot points to be abandoned and ignored either. For instance, what the heck happened to the Volge? They were this major menace in the pilot, but aside from a few references to their attack on Defiance, it's like they've ceased to exist. And that throwaway line about them searching for the ship for 3000 years -- that's too big a revision of the fundamental backstory to just be tossed out and then ignored. It needs followup. It needs justification. Without that, it just feels like the writers are ignoring their own intricately constructed backstory. I'm willing to trust a story to leave some things unexplained, but only if it seems like the writers have it all figured out in their own minds, that there's a bigger, coherent reality behind the scenes. I did get that sense from the show at the start, but now it feels like they're making it up as they go and tossing aside their original plans, with both plot and characterization.
TVee
9. TVeee
@(#3)Well with any sci fi you have to suspend some disbelief. Yes endless resurrection in a game is unrealistic but otherwise it wouldn’t be a game. I accept that but do want something newer from games and not just the same rehashed MMO format. You can’t carry unlimited supplies but you can carry more than is realistic. You can’t run indefinitely but can walk, some realistic limitations are good but too many will make a game unenjoyable. The vehicles do get damaged and blow up but do respawn. Not great I’d rather they didn’t respawn and hate the fact that your vehicle passes through another players vehicle like a ghost but suspect that’s a requirement considering the simple logistics and how much computing it would take for thousands of such collisions happening at one time. The unrealism of different players doing “quests” would be something you just have to accept to play any game. Personally I’d rather a well made 4 player coop with a better story than a watered downed MMO storyline. I don’t want it to be real in a mundane way I just expected to feel connected to a coherent reality/storyline that was connected to the reality of the show more. If you play an rpg like oblivion or mass effect you get a sense of cities, politics and economics but with MMOs like this you just get empty landscapes, goon enemies and ghost like players zooming across the map like yourself paying little attention to each other. No real teamwork, no real emersion.

In response to your last paragraph (#3) sorry that wasn’t what I meant and I think over complicates things. You don’t have to explain a game mechanic in terms of the imaginary world for a game to more immersive. Games mechanics should balance or facilitate a game without detracting from the fun or immersion too much. To switch it from game to show; you are sitting watching the show at home with different camera angles, better lighting on scenes, background music and subtitles, none of that needs to be explained in the “Defiance world” to make the show feel more real or immersive.

Your last comments (#8) about the Volge are a good point and I suppose is more want I mean. With some story components in the game and some in show, an absence of overlap and dare I say it repetition between both seems to be needed to connect them and make them feel within the same world. But the storyline in the game suffers from being an MMO rather than a straight RPG and I doubt it will adequately fill the story gaps in the show.
Christopher Bennett
10. ChristopherLBennett
@9: "Yes endless resurrection in a game is unrealistic but otherwise it wouldn’t be a game."

Exactly the point. The needs of a game and the needs of a story are very different. What's necessary or desirable in one can be silly and awful in the other. They don't necessarily work as part of the same reality. So maybe it's better not to try to pretend they are.

"You don’t have to explain a game mechanic in terms of the imaginary world for a game to more immersive."

If you're coming at it as a player of the game, no. But I'm coming at it as a viewer of the show trying to make sense of how something as clearly unrealistic and unnatural as MMO gameplay is supposed to be passed off as part of the more naturalistic reality of the show. It just doesn't work. Heck, a few weeks ago, I saw a post from a player of the game complaining that a roller in the show was wrecked by a collision that a roller in the game could brush off with no damage. But of course the version on the show was the more realistic and credible one, the way a vehicle in the real, physical world would behave, while what's in the game is the way a construct of vectors and pixels is programmed to behave and has nothing to do with reality. They just don't go together.
TVee
11. Akzel
Please don't hate me, but: I can't watch the show because the aliens are so… human?! It annoys me so much! I tried, I watched two or three episodes and then just gave up, I guess it's not the type of fiction that's for me.
Morgan Anderson
12. white_walker_01
I beleive this show could have been better if they dropped the whole one town sheriff stuff we've seen hundreds of shows just like that. Instead they should have used their number one asset which is there world and had Nolan and Irisa doing odd jobs having us expierence this new earth in it's entirety. All the while setting up a huge conflict happening in the background
TVee
13. TVee
@10 Format, structure and style must be determined by the media conveying it. Books are difeerent to comics, comics different to Tv, Tv different to movies. Games are also part of this spectrum. None of them define a "story" but take different routes to convey it. The benefits and downfalls of one will be different to that of another. However, these differences do not preclude any or all them representing the same imagined universe/world as part of a trans-media project.

You HAVE to suspend some disbelief to enjoy a TV show such as Defiance. You are used to suspending your disbelief in that way. The game requires you to do it in a different way to a lesser/greater extent in different areas. I don't think they have that balance right. The mechanics of a TV show and the mechanics of a game do not have to be part of the "story" or explained "in character" as opposed to "out of character".

There are so many unitergrated transmedia projects (Avengers, Batman, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) and if you are saying game and show integration shouldn't be attempted then in your ideal furture we are set for some very blinkered, uniterresting and boring transmedia storytelling in times to come. I think Defiance is a step in the right direction, its not perfect and I hope the advantages of TV show funding coming in bulk from companies such as Netflicks and Amazon and the advent of more dynamic gaming in respect to DLC lead us to more transmedia integration and TV shows building on what Defiance has done.

I am neither solely a player or a viewer, I am both. A TV show and a game are equally unrealistic and unatural. An example time passes differently in both and neither match reality. 40 seamless continuous minutes watching the show does not equal 40 seamless continous mins in the definace imagine world. Some scenes are flashbacks some scenes happen at the same time. You understand this storytelling mechanic as given and without complaint. This doesn't prevent them from shooting an episode from a first person POV that IS a continuous 40mins within the Defiance imagined world. Two very different story telling mechanics, do they prevent the two episodes from being set in the same imagined world?

I agree I do not feel this present style MMO format is the best fit but lets clear something up. I want a sense of reality (i.e. a set of balanced/coherent physical laws etc) in a game and a show that are relaxed enough for it to be enjoyable but not relaxed so much that it is pointless. The laws of the reality may differ slightly between Game/Show predominantly necessitated by budget and technology. I do not feel those differences are the problem. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy the show you should be able to do it in another way to enjoy the game. Neither the game or the show is more real than the other when you are talking about an imagined world. The collision you speak of can be explained in the game as the vehicles are made from alien derived metals and are therefroe very durable whilst in the show budget and episode length restrictions meant the crash had to be downscaled below what would be expected in the game.

Matching mechanics isn't that important to me what is important is that I want a sense of "real" world context, where I feel I am part of wider "imagined world" community, society, economic environment and natural environment. I feel this is lacking in the game predominantly because of the MMO style chosen but not inherent to games or even to the MMO genre as a whole.
Christopher Bennett
14. ChristopherLBennett
@11: I've felt similarly about it, that the aliens were oddly retro in how simple most of the makeups were and how humanlike the designs were. And their cultures aren't very alien either. Castithans' gender roles are just what Western civilization's gender roles were until a few decades ago, and their habit of bathing together as families is no more alien than Japanese culture. And the Irathients are pretty much your stock Space Indians, except they're not in space.

If anything, the most interestingly alien culture in Defiance has been the human culture, which has moved beyond conventional Western attitudes toward sexuality and marriage and come to treat such things as prostitution and polygamy as perfectly acceptable and natural. Although it's hard to believe so much change could occur in a single generation.

@13: You don't need to explain to me that format needs to serve the medium. It's self-evident that the design of a game needs to work as a game and the design of a show needs to work as a show. But that's my whole point -- that what works well for one doesn't work as well for the other, so trying to treat them both as part of a shared reality can undermine them both. They're just so different in their demands that I think they would both be better served if they remained more distinct.
Sky Thibedeau
15. SkylarkThibedeau
@5 yeah you have a point. I just play with what I have on hand. If I run out of ammo I run back to an ammo cache. I use the same weapon and never switch it out in game.
Sky Thibedeau
16. SkylarkThibedeau
@9 I loved the closed Beta version of Big points battlestar Galactica with the Collision and splash damage. I think it caused too much lag and was removed. I never understood why regenerating cylons didn't just kamakazi the whole fleet.
TVee
17. TVeee
(@14) As I said before your thinking that integration between games and TV shows is not possible and shouldn't be tried is a very sad future for storytelling. I am glad Defiance is trying it and hope it and other shows build on what they are learning.

An example of where it worked well is The Walking Dead and the game by Telltale Games. Much simpler idea but worked very well.
TVee
18. missallen
It wants to be "Firefly", but it ain't. It ain't shiny enough.
Christopher Bennett
19. ChristopherLBennett
@17: I'm not saying there can't be games based on shows, I'm just saying they're obviously more game than reality. You can't treat something as concrete canon when every player's actions make it happen differently each time. You can't pretend it represents physical reality when it has blatant contrivances like immortal players who can carry infinite amounts of supplies and weapons. The only sensible justification for such a thing is that it's a game based on real events.

Maybe there are some game formats that could be treated as part of a canonical reality -- something more like a conventional RPG, say, or something like one of those open-world games where there's just one consensus reality that's actually affected by players' actions and choices (like that EVE Online thing I've heard about, I think). But an MMO like this or Star Trek Online, where it's more about playing out prescripted combat scenarios than actual role-playing or drama, is just too contrived to be treated as canonically "real."

But personally I would be very troubled by the idea of a game where the players' actions actually shape events in a connected TV series, because that would be a very bad approach to writing the TV series. Storytelling needs to be shaped by the needs of the story and characters. Having a storyline affected by random events happening in a game would disrupt it terribly. I've seen how good writers trying to write ongoing series for Marvel or DC Comics have been hampered by the requirement to tie their storylines into whatever universe-wide gimmick event was being done that year, throwing their planned story arcs into chaos and forcing them to swerve in random new directions. It would be just as bad, if not worse, if they had to be beholden to what a bunch of random gameplayers did to the universe. After all, the gameplayers' choices wouldn't be motivated by dramatic considerations or what made a good story, just by the desire to get ahead in whatever part of the game they were in at that moment.

In its defense, the Defiance game is doing the integration the only way it really could be done: with the events prescripted in coordination with the show's writers so that such random disruptions don't happen. But that means there's only one preset sequence of events that every player is acting out slightly differently with a different character performing them. Obviously that can't be part of the show's canon, not if taken literally, because from the show's perspective each of those events can only happen once, in one specific way. So what player's version is the real one? Sure, you as the player get to pretend yours is, but how does that fit into the larger universe, into a less solipsistic overview of the series's reality? The most that can be said is that the broad strokes of the game's events, the contents of the cut scenes, are what "really" happened, but the specific gameplay, the part that's different for each player and features all the impossibilities necessary for MMO shooter-type games, is apocryphal, or is just an approximation of the single "real" version of events that must have happened.

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