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Sherlock Holmes from Warner Brothers was part of the single largest holiday season box office ever, holding a solid second place in earnings behind James Cameron’s Avatar. Directed by Guy Richie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, it spawned a transmedia experience sponsored by 7-11, Coca-Cola and Lifelock. Partnered with Facebook, 221B uses the website’s connectivity and privacy protocols as a portal. 221B is a groundbreaking, immersive game that should be emulated as an example of social media applications, transmedia narrative and interactive gaming.

The story follows eight related cases that Holmes and Watson must solve using clues found in videos, articles, flash games, virtual searches of rooms, and asks players to deduce the solution to cases that lead directly into the mystery the film. The game offers character introductions and “Easter Eggs,” tidbits from the game that the feature film will reference, validating the fans’ participation in the property. The game’s production design is fantastically executed: its aesthetics are beautiful and engrossing, allowing the player to play the game for hours without a jarring exit from the page. Even the branded mini-games from the sponsors are aesthetically and thematically consistent while still getting their brand’s messages across to the targeted consumer.

Another innovative element of this social media endeavor is that the game has a multiplayer option; the player can invite a Facebook Friend to play as their Watson or as Holmes to their Watson, based on a personality quiz at the game’s beginning. The two players then must work together to assemble clues that when looked at together lead to the solution of each case. While 221B isn’t trying to yield a social media community, it has broken apart the boundaries of what a social media game is expected to be and is clearly helping to create a fan base for the Sherlock Holmes movie and franchise.

The social media rollout of Sherlock Holmes is carefully executed (despite the occasional questionable in-store poster for taquitos) the transmedia program has even managed to integrate Twitter. Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ housekeeper at 221B Baker Street tweets gossip about the cases as they are released and The Society Spy reports on the more tawdry and scandalous news stories of fictional London Society. When one gets over one’s initial aversion to the idea of Victorian characters on Twitter, the narrative bits that are expanded in the twitter feed seem more and more charming. With the help of yet another sponsor, The Tweetdeck Telegram Co. preserves 221B’s aesthetics and once again, shows how a consistently executed production design can bring an audience member into a fictional world.

There is one, lingering question that plagues this particular campaign: is it drawing enough attention to itself? While there is no doubt that 221B is brilliantly crafted and should be trumpeted as part of the release of the film -which has had no problem drawing attention to itself- I stumbled upon the social media component almost by chance about five weeks into its rollout. Not only is direct marketing for the Facebook game somewhat lacking, but the response on the movie’s fan page is hardly robust. One has to wonder if given a greater chance to explore within the narrative universe or communicate in narrative, as Valemont did so elegantly this fall, might have created a stronger game-based following, the partnered multiplayer somewhat discouraging a wider social network growing out of the game?

The lack of direct marketing of the game itself, or the way in which that direct marketing was implemented, may or may not prove to have limited the number of people who play 221B before the movie came out, but there can be no doubt that, post-release, people hungry for more Holmes can enter the expanded universe. Hopefully enough of the movie’s fans will experience this fantastic narrative experiment to appreciate just how groundbreaking it is as a social media campaign. This sort of high quality production and complex gameplay will be associated more and more with major releases to whet the appetites of fans and draw considerate attention to brand sponsors. As with other narrative experiments in social media from 2009, there are limitations one can see in its use of social media, but without question, it is on the vanguard of things to come in social media, and has earned a place as a jewel in the crown of narrative ventures.

Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer and Editorial Lead at Starlight Runner Entertainment. To hear more of her thoughts on media, follow her and catch up on her other blogs through Twitter: Caitlin_Burns

Caitlin Burns
Caitlin Burns has spent a decade working with narrative intellectual property franchises, independent artists, brands and philanthropic initiatives as a transmedia producer. Developing content strategies, overseeing multiplatform story worlds and localization campaigns spanning the globe, she understands what it takes to create a success story. Her work includes projects with Starlight Runner Entertainment including Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney Fairies, and Tron Legacy for Disney, James Cameron’s Avatar for Fox, Halo for Microsoft, Happiness Factory for The Coca-Cola Company, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon and Transformers for Hasbro. She has also worked with Sony, Showtime, Pepperidge Farm, Scholastic, Tribeca New Media Fund, FEMSA, Wieden+Kennedy, Reebok and Stratasys.
Caitlin Burns

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