Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Part Three)

Are the "vast narratives" created under commercial conditions different from some of the avant garde experiments or eccentric art projects (Henry Darger) also discussed in the book? In other words, do artists think about such world building differently removed from the marketplace?

Artistic considerations can be opaque at the best of times, and that's especially true with someone like Darger. But it's probably safe to say that commercial considerations played no part in his mind. His work was obviously a very private, very internal process. As far as we know, no one but he even knew it existed until after he died. But it's impossible not to speculate, isn't it?--why someone would spend their life creating something like In the Realms of the Unreal. He's almost like a Borges character.

But getting back to the commercial considerations: Walter Jon Williams addresses this directly in his Third Person chapter, and goes into some detail about the commercial considerations of shared-world novels and novel franchises, and how they inform his artistic choices in different ways than his single-author series.

Monte Cook and Robin Laws also discuss this in regards to the tabletop RPG industry, and here we get into very interesting areas of artistic choice. Because what a tabletop RPG writer is doing is creating a kind of machine that other people can use to create stories. Speculatively, someone could write an entire RPG system from scratch, for their individual use, but they'd still be playing the system with other people. The primary consideration in any RPG design is: Does it work? In other words, does it create the kind of stories I want it to, in the way I want it to? And because the tabletop RPG hobby is an inherently social one, this question is very, very close to: Will other people want to play it?

Laws' essay touches pretty directly on the commercial considerations that go into publishers' decisions to go with one property or another, or create their own. And Cook's essay focuses on the sequence of choices a gamemaster has to make in order to enact a particular rules system for the players. What we still don't have much of, outside some of the other 2P and 3P essays (Hite, Hindmarch, Glancy, Stafford) are really nitty-gritty analyses of why designers have created particular rules systems. Why does Call of Cthulhu have a "Sanity" mechanism? Well, that's an easy one, but why, for instance, does Dogs in the Vineyard have a dice pool system, with which players "bet," "raise" and "call" against the gamemaster? Why does The Mountain Witch have a "Trust" mechanism? For every example like that, some designer or team of designers balanced genre appropriateness, individual preference, commercial potential, player familiarity, ease, elegance, playability, and on and on.

For comics, as much as we love them, there are serious narrative handicaps to anyone working within one of the established commercial universes. In particular, it's rare that anything ever truly ends in any real sense. Storylines wrap up, series get cancelled, characters die--but the universe spins on. It happens in this way because DC and Marvel can still make money from it. It takes a huge apparatus of creators, editors, printers, distributors, retailers, consumers, etc., to keep these universes functioning.

You see something analogous in MMOs, although in that case it's weighted much more heavily on the creative and consumer ends, with fewer middle steps. But in both MMOs and comics, there's an unslakeable thirst for new content. You can't just stop producing, or the whole thing dries up and blows away. The advantages MMOs have over comics in this regard are: 1) They are much, much more profitable, and 2) Consumers create a large part of the new content themselves, in the form of their characters, inter-character interactions, and user-created emergent storylines. Anyway, all of this exists in the marketplace, not the ivory tower; the final judgment is the commercial one.

Of course, the art world is also a marketplace--and even the competition for faculty positions (which support many of the more interdisciplinary and experimentally-oriented digital media artists) exerts what might be seen as a market-like pressure. But the pressures aren't the same as those for commercially-oriented vast narratives.

Comics and science fiction fans have long stressed continuity as a central organizing principle in vast story worlds. Yet, you close your introduction with the suggestion that continuity is only one of a range of factors structuring our experience of such stories. Can you describe some others?

"Continuity" is a byproduct of telling a bunch of stories within the same setting. If someone writes a stand-alone novel, she doesn't have to worry about it, except in the simplest sense of making sure that a character who dies on page 50 isn't alive again on page 200. It's only when an author writes a series of novels, or comics, or something else, or other people start writing in that world, or it otherwise grows longer and more complex, that continuity becomes an issue. On the most basic level, it's a sort of contract between author and reader, showing that you care enough to keep the details straight (and aren't engaged in a metafictional exercise or parallel-worlds plot). Too much sloppiness in this area breaks the trust and announces the story's fictionality too directly.

That said, in certain genres, like big comics universes, maintaining continuity is hilariously difficult, bordering on impossible. Grant Morrison is probably right when he says that continuity is mostly a distraction in big comics universes, and will be as long as characters are not allowed to age and die away. No one is going to kill off Batman permanently, no matter what happened in Final Crisis 6, just as Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Superman and the others all came back from the dead.

This speaks to a wider problem in comics continuity--without any real endings, and with no meaningful change that can't be revised or done away with at any time, the DC and Marvel universes lack consequences. Any individual storyline might be good or bad, but because they all exist within this ceaseless flow of stories, any narrative power is slowly worn away. One of Pat's favorite DC storylines is Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen's 1984 "Legion of Supervillains" storyline, in which Karate Kid is killed. Now we see that Karate Kid is back in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. What does this do to our appreciation of the original story? Nothing has changed about the text, but now it's been robbed of permanent consequence, and Pat's pleasure in it is diminished. Maybe that's a shallow way of appreciating narrative, but few comics readers will deny that it's a significant part of their enjoyment. And not just comics: the same thing happens in all forms of storytelling. We don't know of any literary critic who appreciates the narrative twist with Mr. Boffin near the end of Our Mutual Friend. You feel cheated; it's arbitrary and it undermines everything that's gone before, and robs the story of what James Wood calls "final seriousness."

This is what made The Dark Knight Returns so powerful, when it was first published. By providing an ending to Batman's story, it cast its shadow both forward and backward over Batman's entire publication history. Suddenly it became possible to read a Batman story in light of where the character was ultimately going. Alan Moore tried to do the same sort of thing--provide a possible ending--for the entire DC universe in his unproduced Twilight of the Superheroes miniseries, a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

Even Agatha Christie recognized this, though her series novels are almost completely continuity-free, with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple staying essentially static thoughout her uncountable novels. But she still wrote Curtain (and kept it in a bank vault for over 30 years, until a few months before her death) to provide an end to Poirot.

Maybe the best approach to comics is to view them, as Grant Morrison seems to, as existing in a sort of permanent mythological or legendary space, in which the importance lies in the relationships between the characters and the ritual reenactment of certain actions, and not in the movement of these characters through time. We're okay with Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes all giving us versions of the story of the House of Atreus, and we appreciate them on their own merits, as literary instantiations of the same story. We don't spend much time trying to reconcile the discontinuities.

Greg Stafford's 3P chapter discusses the process of distilling multiple sources of the Arthurian stories into a coherent, playable RPG campaign. This was a heroic undertaking, but it was possible because 1) Stafford had final authority to accept, reject, or reconcile discontinuous story elements, and 2) he was not working with a constantly-expanding data set, such as the DC Universe. The question is not so much "Could you coherently reconcile all of DC's continuity?" as, "Why would you bother?" Without meaningful consequence, it's better to view the whole universe as existing in a sort of timeless fugue state, with only transitory consequences.

Incidentally, Doctor Who exhibits a different strange mixture of semi-continuity, with irreconcilable story elements (e.g., the multiple histories of the Daleks) combined with actual, permanent consequences (e.g., the Doctor's regenerations). A lot could be said about this, and what it means for narrative reception, and there's certainly a lot of that discussion in Third Person, but we've gone on a bit long here already.

The issue of the "ending" is a recurring issue in the book with several essays promising us "my story never ends" or "world without end," while others point to the challenges of sustaining creative integrity given the unpredictible duration of television narratives. Does the idea of a "vast narrative" automatically raise questions about endings and other textual borders?

Perhaps not automatically, given that we're treating as "vast" projects that are both ambitious in scope and yet planned for a particular, bounded shape from early on. But it's a very common move for vast narrative projects to make, and it's probably an inherent part of those that are conceived as productive systems. Why turn the system off? Similarly, those that are connected closely to events in the world beyond their control, or which have important audience contributions, have something in their dynamics that resists not only the hard border (those are intentionally designed away) but also the ending. That's why we've seen audiences attempt to continue projects that the authors bring to an end. But, of course, that's just a current twist on an old phenomenon, one you've also seen in your work on fan cultures.

That said, and though it may betray a little stuffiness, Pat does prefer narratives that seem to have a traditional shape to them, with meaningful endings that pay off everything that's gone before. And Noah thinks this is essential to a certain kind of project, even if some of his favorite fictions (from Mrs. Dalloway to Psychonauts) succeed on different terms. Commonly, comics and television structures work heavily against traditional narrative closure, but for commercial reasons, not even interesting modernist, postmodern, or currently-experimental ones. Which is why it's so exciting to come across something like The Wire, which is a coherent literary work realized in the televisual medium, which until recently Pat at least didn't think possible.

What demands do "vast narratives" place on the people who read them? Is a significant portion of the reading public ready to confront those challenges?

At this point, the question might actually be whether the expanding end of the reading public is willing to take on something that isn't as vast as, say, the Harry Potter or Twilight books. Perhaps it's just our skewed viewpoint, but it seems like large fictional projects, which either start with novels or have them as part of a cross-media environment, are a key way the reading public is growing. This reminds Noah of how his experience of being in the university is changing, now that even graduate students often can't remember a time before the Web very clearly and most students think that games are "obviously" as important a media form as, say, television. Vast possibilities and large interaction spaces now seem a kind of media norm.

That said, the pleasures of our youths--e.g., reading Marvel and DC comics and playing Call of Cthulhu and Champions (not the forthcoming online version)--were pleasures that grew with extended engagement, with developing understanding and elaboration of fictional universes and their characters. Those could be thought of as "demands," but we didn't feel that way about them, and we don't have the sense that people today reading a long series of novels or playing a computer RPG for 50+ hours (without even being completionist) feel that way either.

T-t-t-that's all, folks!