“We have video games and we have TV shows, and TV shows based on video games, and video games based on TV shows, but this is not that. It’s all those things.” That's how Geoff Boucher described a new transmedia story that Syfy will be putting out next spring: an aliens-come-to-earth project, called Defiance.
It has two components: a traditional television series and a traditional massively-multiplayer online role-playing game. The two platforms will share the same story world, during more or less the same timeline (although apparently the story in the MMORPG will start before the story in the series), and they will even share some of the same characters. That alone is a pretty ambitious undertaking—trying to successfully manage two parallel narratives in the same intellectual property. In fact, the show producers have had to create a position for a “mythology coordinator” in order to help keep everything straight. The real trick however, is that Syfy claims that the two aspects of the project will not only parallel one another but that they will actually be interactive, with players of the game acting as a driving force in the show.
"How!?" you might be screaming to yourselves right now? Well, apparently your choices in the video game influence the events that happen on the television show. It’s an effective claim in that it’s interesting, appeals to the audience's desire for control, and is something we haven't really seen much of before. But the looming question is—how exactly would something like that work? Production limitations (time and money) mean that it won't be practical to shoot multiple possible storylines in order to reflect changes in the game, and it won't be possible to work fast enough (particularly on an FX-heavy show) to keep the episodes in pace with changes in the video game as they happen. We’re big fans of ambition and even bigger fans of innovation, but this sounds suspiciously like a recipe for disaster, or, if not disaster, at least a very disappointing shadow of what is being promised.
On the bright side, the show does have some genre television veterans like Grant Bowler (True Blood/Lost), Julie Benz (Buffy/Angel), Tony Curran (Doctor Who), Jaime Murray (Warehouse 13), Graham Greene (Wolf Lake), Mia Kirshner (Wolf Lake/The Vampire Diaries) and Fionnula Flanagan (Lost). While Syfy has had more than its fair share of disappointments over the years, it is the general rule of thumb that their original series tend to be better than their movies. Successes like Eureka, Haven, and Warehouse 13 are enough to keep optimists clinging to the memory of Battlestar Galactica and The Lost Room and hoping that someday another series of that caliber will roll out.
If nothing else, this project should provide an interesting diversion from some of the more traditional and repetitive storytelling models on television today. We'll also be interested to see how Syfy (and Trion Worlds, who is building the MMO) will handle some of the practical, economic circumstances of a dual project like this. Will the MMO be free to play? What will happen if the TV series is a success but the game is not, or vice versa? One of the fun things about watching creators break new ground is seeing how they handle the pitfalls that develop. We've got the better part of the year to watch things unfold before this story world actually starts to hit our screens.
What other television series do you think should have MMO components (We're thinking Mad Men)?