Besides being an obvious windfall for any movie’s marketing team, The Martian’s description of Watney’s struggle as an object of worldwide focus and solidarity lends an excellent opportunity to develop a transmedia narrative through social and mobile media. Through the ARES: live YouTube channel and the “Bring Him Home” app, the story of The Martian drifts from the contained fictional worlds of print and film to worlds more familiar to daily life.
In some ways, the ARES 3 astronauts as portrayed on ARES: live seem no less real than this NASA astronaut aboard the space station. Neither can prove their existence to the viewer beyond what can be seen from the YouTube video, and the formatting of the two web pages is essentially identical. Similarly, there’s little difference in experience between messaging Mark and messaging any distant person. “The Martian: Bring Him Home” makes use of the LED indicator on the smart phone, blinking blue to signal a new message from Mark (the same notification as for a text message, voicemail, etc.). The messages can be scrolled through in a similar manner to any chat platform (Facebook messenger, Hangouts, etc.). Conversations will Mark are audiovisually and technologically similar to conversations with any person who you’ve never met (compare to an AMA with a celebrity or chatting on Omegle).
Of course, there are tip-offs. The Ares 3 crew is a little bit more cheeky than you might expect of a team of professionals making a public video. The app has a somewhat cheesy “control panel” aesthetic, with plenty of sound effects thrown in for good measure. The 20-minute transmission time between Earth and Mars is completely ignored, because a chat-based game with a wait time that long would feel excruciatingly slow. The response choices are limited to two often similar options, since greater nonlinearity would demand a larger investment of time and money.
But the technology is definitely good enough to get the narrative across the threshold of believability to merit suspension of disbelief. And as technology improves (or effort increases), narratives told through digital means will become more and more indistinguishable from real narratives distant from the listener in time or space. This affordance of digital storytelling methods—the ability to appear on the same platforms as and side by side with real stories—is an invaluable advantage for making a story realistic and engaging. While print, film, and virtual reality consoles seek to temporarily immerse us in a fictional world, social and mobile media narratives try to worm their way into the real world.
Social and mobile transmedia narratives also lend themselves easily to exploiting those characteristics of digital media that Golumbia notes “surpass or altogether exceed those of nondigital or analog texts” (54) while using an already well-developed technological infrastructure that is familiar to the user. Nonlinearity is easy to achieve: viewers can click on different videos or follow different links as well as collaborate to create even more storylines via roleplay, commentary, and fanfiction. Multimedia elements are already an integral aspect of social media websites. Story elements are easily saved and shared.
Certain media lend themselves to technological complexity, and the viewer’s expectations will depend on what the medium can accomplish in its most perfect form. At the low-tech end of the spectrum, the Ares: live channel is great at providing the audiovisuals and level of interactivity expected of a YouTube channel. The Bring Him Home app is a little less effective at being a chat simulator; while the receiving of messages is intuitive, the response choices are limited. Greater nonlinearity and interactivity than a YouTube channel are expected, but in practice the user gets less. And as a virtual reality experience, VR Mars is underwhelming, with simplistic visuals and a clumsy method of moving around and making decisions (looking in a direction to point the cursor).
Ultimately, whether a media form attempts to intermix with reality or immerse us in fiction, the technology will be both enabling and limiting to the story. The viewer’s ability to enjoy any given incarnation of a story will depend largely on whether the work capitalizes on the affordances of the medium while not pushing constraints. What social media fiction sacrifices in terms of immersiveness is made up for in its easy integration into real life and inherent collaborativeness; on the other hand, virtual reality holds the promise of a first person, immersive experience but requires high quality graphics and smooth mechanics for making decisions and moving around to be enjoyable, along with being less intuitively social. The different digital forms of The Martian reveal how digital media need not be high-tech in order to bring interesting capabilities to the narrative.