Back when “transmedia” was an innovative new term rather than a way to describe everything Marvel or Sony or Harry Potter does across movies, video games, and comics – in other words, about 15 years ago – there was a brief craze of “second screen” experiences to accompany TV dramas. As viewers watched the show, they’d browse a website on their laptop (smartphones didn’t exist yet) for extra bits of story, like text messages between characters, or news articles reporting on whatever had just happened on screen. The idea was essentially: why watch one screen when you can watch two for twice the entertainment?
Back in 2008, I designed one such experience for the BBC’s Spooks: Code 9 spinoff. Sadly, our Liberty News website wasn’t nearly enough to rescue a decidedly uneven drama that had been overdesigned for the “youths”. In any case, the second screen fad was quickly forgotten amid the oncoming tide of smartphones and social media apps, which were far more interesting and distracting than any transmedia made for TV shows.
The story wasn’t over, though. As soon as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous amongst gamers, there was flurry of second screen experiences, this time to accompany video games. Anyone playing Mass Effect 3 in 2012 could install a Datapad iOS app to get messages from crewmates, read the game’s codex, and grind away on a minigame that’d help you see the game’s supposed “good ending”.
Ubisoft, always helpless before transmedia’s charms, built similar companion apps for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin’s Creed Unity in the following two years. They were… fine. I found it handy to set waypoints on the map and get bonus items, but juggling a phone and a controller was a lot of hassle for not much benefit, especially compared to using in-game tools.
Evidently other players agreed, and game companion apps are no more. Maybe it was foolish to think they could ever work given how interactive and immersive games are meant to be. But the problem wasn’t the apps – it was that they weren’t giving players what they really wanted. What’s better than a map of where you’ve already been? A map of where’s best to go next.
I’m not too proud to admit I played long sections of Elden Ring with one eye on a tablet loaded with walkthroughs and levelling guides. And while I’m sure there are some Stardew Valley players who’ve never visited the fan wiki to find out a villager’s favourite gifts, or Animal Crossing: New Horizon players who’ve never been tempted to check out a turnip price calculator, I just don’t think there are a lot of them – the volunteer-run ACNH API, which services an entire ecosystem of Animal Crossing apps and websites, gets three million requests per day.
Walkthroughs, wikis, Reddit explainers, YouTube how-tos – they all make games more fun. I don’t think I’d have stuck with Elden Ring if I hadn’t follow a route to get an overpowered meteorite staff early, or to become overlevelled by farming runes. The game’s sheer difficulty – and lack of difficulty settings – seemingly made the community more forgiving of people doing whatever they needed to to make it easier, rather than sneering at those who couldn’t hack it. Despite the help, Elden Ring never got remotely easy for me, but it was a lot more enjoyable.
These companion apps and websites, practically all unofficial and fan-made, smooth over the bumps in games, whether that’s a boss that’s too tough, a level that’s poorly designed, or simply a player who – for whatever reason – just needs a hand for a while. They make games more approachable and accessible. They make games better. But they only exist because people are already excited; a truly dreadful or unbalanced game is unlikely to have the level of community devotion required to create great resources.
Interestingly, few people think of these companions as cheating any more. These days, people are most likely to find them by typing “how to use flasks in elden ring” into Google, as if asking a knowledgeable friend. It’s reminiscent of the “extended mind” hypothesis, which suggests that some tools, like pens and paper – and instantly-accessible online resources – can become so integrated into our thought processes that they’re basically turn into an extension of our minds.
Maybe that’s why one person’s speedrun feels like an achievement for the entire community. With the internet, we’re all playing these games collectively, learning from each other, whether or not they’re multiplayer. And that’s worth keeping two screens on at once.
Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 374 (September 2022). Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash