With an increasing focus on consumer engagement, many media producers have taken to expanding existing media franchises across different platforms. Beyond simply mirroring the same story across platforms, in transmedia storytelling “each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” and gives a unique, but independent, fragment of story (Jenkins). Valve Corporation for the last several years has embraced transmedia with increasing fervor as a method of supplementing the stories of their popular video game franchises. A particularly rich example of how Valve has integrated an existing franchise into a transmedia experience is their comic, Portal 2: Lab Rat, produced alongside the 2011 release of their video game Portal 2.
Starting with the humble release of the short space warping puzzle video game Portal in 2007, the Portal franchise has since branched out across multiple forms of media to become a true transmedia experience. The video games Portal and Portal 2 form the backbone of the Portal franchise and have been accompanied by the release of two sophisticated alternate reality games (the first of which required players to at one point contact an obscure phone number to connect to a modem in the kitchen of a Portal developer’s house), several animated vignettes, and the aforementioned comic book titled Portal 2: Lab Rat. The comic was released online for free and bridges the gap between Portal and Portal 2 with a separate story that follows a new character: a schizophrenic scientist known as the Ratman.
In the first Portal, there are several references to an obscure character whose “rat dens” (pictured below, left image) are found hidden behind the sterile walls of the “test facility” the player spends most of the game. Since the creator of these spaces, which contain strange and psychotic scrawlings and images, never appears in the game, the game creates a sense of mystery and a feeling that the world of the game is larger than what is shown in the game. This creates negative capability, or in the words of Henry Jenkins, a set of “potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed” (Jenkins).
Interactive puzzle games, according to Janet Murray, “have a slower pace of engagement” and can “take advantage of this slower pace to offer a richer level of story satisfaction” (Murray 52). Indeed, Portal can get away with hiding narrative elements, like the rat dens, in the environment for this reason and can safely assume most players will see them as they carefully traverse each map looking for a solution for each puzzle.
The shadowy character is revealed in Portal: Lab Rat, whose signature scrawls feature in the background of the first page (shown above, right image). The story features Doug Rattmann (or simply, the Ratman) who follows the game character in the events near the end of the first game. By explaining who the character is, Valve has not only filled the void left by the negative capability created by the secret rat dens, but has also fulfilled fans who want to know more about the underpinnings of the game’s environment and plot.
In Portal 2, the Ratman’s writings appear with more prominence and play a slightly more important role in the game than in Portal. However, the actual Ratman character is still only referred to symbolically and indirectly; a character whose actual plot is ancillary to the game’s main plot. These symbolic images, such as the one seen in-game below (right image), drive more interest in the character. In contrast with the references in Portal, these references are more direct, and perhaps more significantly, exist in reference to the story in the comic which did not exist when the first Portal was released. Because of this, these references become migratory cues, or hints to the player that there is a connection with another story that is not being told in the game, which in this case, can be found in the comic.
This transition from a reference to a character that does not exist in any medium to a direct reference to a character who does exist in comic book form, highlights a key similarity between negative capability and migratory cues. As Geoffrey Long observes, media producers are capable of “utilizing negative capability to craft potential migratory cues,” like the references in the original Portal, which can then “become actualized as migratory cues when those extensions are made available,” as in the case of Portal 2 and Portal 2: Lab Rat (Long 60).
Looking at this transmedia extension shows how a media producing company, like Valve, can extend a successful work into a larger transmedia experience through the use of negative capability and migratory cues. The disjoint, but canonical, nature of each story creates a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience” that ultimately creates a rich experience for fans of the franchise.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an AcaFan. N.p., 22 Mar. 2007. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html>.
Long, Geoffrey A. Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company. Thesis. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. “Harbingers of the Holodeck.” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. 53. Print.