Scary Transmedia Synergy Within the 'Gears of War' Universe

by Nick Dinicola

23 September 2011

Perhaps in this age of serialized television, franchise-driven films, and transmedia everything, the very idea of a stand-alone product is antiquated.

Last week I wrote about the differences between the Gears of War games and the books. The latter succeed with characterization because we’re allowed inside the characters’ heads. In the games, we only see their tough, impersonal personas, which makes it hard to care about them.

But this is not to say that the books are above any criticism. In fact, they’re missing a very important element of the Gears universe: action (something which the games happen to excel at). The fact that both pieces of media complement each other so well makes me wonder if this is just a coincidence or some kind of expertly planned transmedia formula.
Karen Travis, the author of the books, is more interested in what a character is thinking during a fight than the fight itself. And since we’re reading about the fight from such a limited perspective, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. Even when she does go into detail about firing formations and such, it’s only very basic descriptions. She doesn’t set the scene or describe the landscape in any detail, so it’s hard to picture the layout of a battle. During a major battle against exploding enemies on an oil rig, she writes about the characters running along catwalks and climbing ladders, but as I read it, I realize that I don’t want to read about this battle. I want to play it.

Imagine: you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings because killing a baddie might ignite the flammable vapor on the rig, the environment is always changing as catwalks collapse around you, and the designers could easily funnel you towards specific blown out walls that give a great view of the chaos. It could be a fantastic set piece, but unfortunately it only exists on paper, which is not the best medium for action. All action feels more immediate in a game or movie than in a book. Writing out a sequence of events naturally slows the pace.

So the games are good with action but not with characterization, and the books are good with characterization but not with action. Together they supplement each other quite well, but separately they leave much to be desired. On one hand this seems like an effective tactic when handling a transmedia property, since it allows each product to embrace its given medium while encouraging consumers to buy more stuff. On the other hand, since no one product can stand on its own if you only consume one, then you’re willingly or unknowingly missing out on other important aspects of the universe. I’m left unsure whether to compliment the Epic team or admonish them.

Assassin’s Creed has rather infamously spread itself over as many mediums as possible. There’s a live-action short movie, a comic, and multiple animated shorts—all stand-alone products. However, none of these products take advantage of their particular mediums. The movie doesn’t do anything that the games don’t already do. In fact, it tries very hard to be as similar to the games as possible. And none of these explore the central mystery of the series concerning Those-Who-Came-Before and the Pieces of Eden. Unless you’re a major fan, there’s very little reason—if any at all—to hunt down these extra stories.

After all, when a product is properly stand-alone—when it does everything right—there’s no need for me to buy the expanded fiction. Even though I adore the Mass Effect games, I have no desire to chase down the novels or comics because the games already excel at world-building and character development. This makes the games better products, but it also costs BioWare money since I’m only purchasing one kind of media.

Dead Space has expanded with mixed results. Its two movies and one of the comics have not expanded the universe in any significant way or done anything unique with their respective mediums. The first comic takes advantage of the fact that (unlike the game) it doesn’t have to look realistic at all: The characters are appropriately stylized, and the color palate is appropriately bleak. The doomed colony looks oppressive even before any monsters show up. The book Martyr also seems like it will significantly expand on the mythology since it’s about the creation of the Unitologist cult. But again, this is a novel taking up the slack of world-building when the games utterly fail to do so. But this also makes it more worth reading.

Perhaps in this age of serialized television, franchise-driven films, and transmedia everything, the very idea of a stand-alone product is antiquated.

At what point will a publisher’s business acumen take over and a game’s fiction will be purposely split across mediums to the point where no single product has a definite end? Instead, everything ends in a cliffhanger, to be continued in the upcoming comic/novel/movie/series/facebook game.

At least Epic seems to disagree. The fact that they hired Karen Travis to write the game suggests that they want to add some proper characterization to their game. And Gears 3 does include some genuinely affecting moments, so it’s more of a complete package than the previous games. Maybe it really is just a coincidence that the books and games supplement each other so perfectly. As for the Gears comics, I haven’t read them yet. It makes me wonder what else I might be missing.


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