The Unwritten Rules of Transmedia

Figure 1: Reference to an ARG

Unwritten is all about blurring the lines between fiction and reality.  Obviously the “reality” in the story as it’s depicted is based in fantasy, but even in real life the lines between what is real and what is fictional are blurring. Stories take place across all mediums, and even come to fruition as games that we play out in real life, ARGs.  In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, people can get upset when a real person is arrested that they associate with a fictional character. In Unwritten, Tommy Taylor’s arrest shocked and upset his fans, and while this may seem silly, it isn’t far from the truth. What if Daniel Radcliffe was arrested for torturing owls?  There would be upheaval in the Harry Potter community!

Unwritten seems to draw a lot of attention to the rise of online fan culture.  The book has lots of references to fans convening in online spaces, and using the web to discuss and learn about the world of Tommy Taylor, both fictional and “real.”  The story depicts people deciphering clues from the fiction, debating about the characters, and becoming emotionally involved when Tommy is arrested. Today, even the most obscure programs have dedicated fan sites to foster the discussion and creativity of its dedicated followers.

It makes a very brief but very amusing reference to fan fiction with the bailout box.  You could drop your story in a box to be critiqued anonymously, and one of the stories in the box was basically fan fiction; turning Tommy Taylor into torture porn. This is obviously a reference to fan fiction sites discussed by Henry Jenkins in Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars article, where stories are critiqued and the authors are relatively anonymous, and they often take the fiction in a completely different direction than the original authors intended.  These stories typically adapt a work of fiction to more precisely match a fan’s interests and desires, and obviously the writer of the story in the bailout box was interested in graphically violent Tommy Taylor novels.  In doing so they often break from the canon, the accepted or “official” work of fiction, and as such are often subject to legal action.

The story depicts a few children whose lives are completely centered around the world of Tommy Taylor, pretending to cast spells and act out the stories from the novels.  This obsession eventually leads them to rush into a burning prison, where they are eventually killed.  I believe this is an exaggerated reference to alternate reality games, and their unbalanced power structure. McGonigal alludes to the dangers of the puppet master – ARG player relationship, wherein malevolent puppet master could lead the most dedicated players into illegal, dangerous, or even fatal situations under the guise of the game. Unwritten isn’t explicitly depicting an ARG, but it is subtly referencing them.

Fans who may or may not be emotionally stable can get too caught up in the fiction of the ARG, take it over, and ultimately do something dangerous that they wouldn’t do otherwise.  What if the cloudmakers had gone to Afghanistan to try to find bin Laden?  It isn’t entirely inconceivable.  I think the authors were definitely using some tropes of ARG’s to make a point, even if the story wasn’t depicting a game.  For example, a panel (figure 1) shows Tommy Taylor using a set of musical notes from one of his fictional stories to open a real life safe.  Inside the safe is an object (the doorknob) that allows Tommy move on to the next part of the story (or game).  Another example is a web link in a search results page on one of the panels, describing Tommy Taylor searching for acrostic puzzles in the books. This kind of clue-searching is entirely reminiscent of ARGs.

Figure 2: Insider reference to source material

One other reason why Unwritten is a great example of transmedia storytelling is its meta references to the works it is based off of.  The author of the Tommy Taylor books stood firm on his 13-book limit (though a 14th eventually leaked), much as J.K. Rowling constantly insisted to the media that the Harry Potter series would end at seven books.  Later, Tommy Taylor is on a train to prison, where he sits next to the red-headed Savoy, who displays a hilarious interest in his tattoo, much as Ron Weasley freaked out about Harry Potter’s scar on the train to Hogwarts in the first book.  These insider references to source inspirations are found in a number of transmedia stories.


About shep979

Junior at Trinity University. Editor of
This entry was posted in Blog 5. Unwritten, Blog Assignments. Bookmark the permalink.

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