Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview With Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Two)

There is a tendency for critics to dismiss sequels and prequels as being driven almost entirely by commercial motives. Yet, you show here that such structures have a much longer history. What does this history tell us about other motives that might drive such devices?

Sequels and prequels (and other kinds of sequence elements) are seen as commercially attractive in the first place only because there are other motives for wanting them to begin with; if not, then why would they be thought of as having commercial potential? I think the main reason for wanting them is the idea of returning for more visits to a world that you like, whether you are the audience or the author. That’s really the only reason there is; if you don’t like the world enough to want to go back, there’s no reason to make another work which is set there. One can experience the same work multiple times (as happens with works like Star Wars (1977) or The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)), which may be rich enough in detail to require multiple visits in order to notice everything, but ultimately audiences will want new experiences within the same world.

Authors who world-build will often create a world to house the original story set there, but if they like world-building, they may go beyond the needs of the story, generating more and more of the world, eventually developing additional narratives set in the world, usually ones connected in some way to the original narrative. The same thing can happen with popular characters that people want to hear more about; a rather early sequel, the second part of Cervante’s Don Quixote (part one, 1605; part two, 1615), was written in response to the audience’s desire to read more of Quixote’s adventures, and particularly because a spurious sequel had appeared after the first volume was published (the spurious sequel is even mentioned within the second volume of Don Quixote, and is condemned by the characters as noncanonical).

So I think commercial potential can only exist if other motives already exist; although one could try to make a sequel to a failed work set in an unpopular world, such a work is also likely to be a commercial failure (even if it is better than the original, its success could actually be hurt by its association with the original, if the original is disliked enough).

You note throughout that world-building (and world-exploring on the part of the audience) can be an activity which is meaningful quite apart from its role in a particular story. There may well be films — Avatar come to mind — which are widely criticized for their stories but widely praised for their world-building, and there are certainly directors — Tim Burton for example — who consistently seem more interested in exploring worlds than in telling coherent stories. Why, then, do we tend to devalue world-building in favor of story-telling when we evaluate so many media and literary texts?

 In works set in the Primary world (which are arguably the dominant kind), world-building mainly exists to serve storytelling, not the other way around. Thus, world-building is seen as a background activity, something done not for its own sake, and something done only to the extent necessary for a story to be told. As such, most critics’ methods of analysis still center around story (and such things as character, dialogue, and events) as the way meaning is conveyed, and many are intolerant of anything that departs too far from the “realism” of the Primary world (Tolkien notes this when he points out how calling something “escapist” is considered by many as an insult, whereas he says this is confusing the “escape of the prisoner” with the “flight of the deserter”; but this is another issue altogether).

But, of course, character, dialogue, and events are not the only ways meaning is conveyed; only the most obvious ways.

A world’s default assumptions, which differ from the Primary world, can suggest new ways that something can be considered, and perhaps make an audience more aware of their own assumptions they normally take for granted. Just like encountering other cultures can help you become more aware of your own culture, and make you realize that there are other ways of doing things or other ways to live, imaginary worlds can comment on the Primary world through their differences, they can embody other ideas and philosophies, and convey meaning in a variety of ways beyond the traditional ways found in stories set in the Primary world.

But these effects are the most powerful when the worlds in question have a high degree of completeness and consistency, in order to be believable; when this is lacking, the world may be risk being rejected as too outlandish and merely silly. And enough worlds are that way, that critics may regard even good ones suspiciously. The popularity of The Lord of the Rings is still not understood by some literature faculty, and likewise, some critics of the Star Wars prequel trilogy wonder why the films were so popular.

Stories and Worlds are evaluated by different sets of criteria, and one cannot simply apply one to the other. Sometimes a story is only there to serve the purpose of providing a framework with which to experience a world, as is the case, I would argue in a movie like Titanic or a book like The Planiverse (1984). While we generally do not fault good stories which don’t involve much world-building (since one has the Primary world to fall back upon, when the author does not provide invention), worlds, even elaborate ones, are often faulted if they do not contain good stories.

Of course, a world is always more enjoyable if the stories set in it are good ones, but some stories are clearly vehicles to convey a vicarious experience of a world and nothing more; once this is realized, one can set aside narrative expectation and focus on the world for what it is. General audiences seem to be able to do this rather well, especially in cinema, where the experience of visiting a world is made vivid through concrete imagery and sound, or in literary genres like fantasy and science fiction. Now that worlds and world-building are more prominent in culture, and particularly in popular culture, and with the rise of media like video games in which the experiencing of a world can be done with little or no narrative, critical criteria may begin to change to recognize the merits of well-built worlds.

Given what we’ve said above, what might be the criteria by which we would evaluate a text based on its world-building capacity?

 Well, as I discuss in chapter three, one way to examine the depth to which a world has been built is to examine the degree to which its infrastructures (such as maps, timelines, genealogies, nature, cultures, languages, mythologies, and philosophies) have been developed, and the interconnections between these infrastructures (which involves examining their degree of invention, completeness, and consistency). The more developed a world is, with these criteria in mind, the more we have something which appears viable, and the more we can extrapolate a world’s logic to fill in missing details, making the world seem more complete than it actually is (a well-designed world makes it so easy to fill in missing details that we may do so without even consciously noticing that we are doing so).

And it is not simply a question of the quantity of details, but their quality as well; their aesthetics must be appealing, in one way or another (this does not always mean something is beautiful) and the ideas embodied within a world must be engaging as well. Good stories will still always help the enjoyment of a world, since vicarious experience relies on character identification to some degree; one can marvel at a work of world-building but not feel one is within a world; and one could argue that such vicarious experience need not be a criterion of greatness.

But most audiences will still want such experiences. When one looks at the worlds that have endured over the years, or have found great popularity, one will find many of these elements are usually present; although some excellent and well-built worlds, like those of Defontenay’s Star (1854) or Wright’s Islandia (1942) remain obscure despite their greatness, but will perhaps hopefully gain the respect they deserve, now that world-building is becoming more valued.

 As I am writing these questions, I just saw Pacific Rim. Here, the filmmaker sets himself a challenge in creating a totally new franchise in introducing the viewer into a fictional world and establishing its basic contours. In this case, of course, he is not creating in a vacuum, since he relies heavily on audience familiarity with conventions from Japanese popular media — the Mecha and giant monster genres. Yet, it can still be challenging to make sense of what we are seeing on screen given the range of unfamiliar objects and creatures going at it at once. What might Pacific Rim teach us about the challenges of introducing new worlds to audiences?

While Pacific Rim does feature some futuristic cities and a single glimpse of a new planet (near the very end of the film), it is still mainly set in the Primary world (our world) and not all that far into the future, so the world-building that occurs is mainly on a more local level (like the Shatterdomes).  But as you say, there’s much in the way of new technologies and creatures appearing on-screen, combined with a rapid pace.  And I also found it interesting that the film was neither based on an existing franchise or constructed as a star vehicle; it seems to have been made and marketed strictly on its own merits (although special effects were highlighted as an audience draw).  Also, as you mention, most of what we need to learn to follow the story relies on established science fiction conventions, along with the film’s two new terms naming its combatants (Kaijus and Jaegers) literally defined up front.

So while I liked the fact that the film starts a new franchise, it seems as though doing so made the filmmakers (most likely, the producers) cautious to do anything too far removed from established conventions. As a result, the film has relatively little innovation and there seems to be little reason to see it a second time; everything seems clearly explained, leaving few, if any, unsolved enigmas.

While concentrating on making the story clear is fine, there could have been more extensions of the world beyond what was required to tell the story; there is not a lot of background detail and action that would warrant additional screenings, and very little world outside the activities surrounding the Kaijus and Jaegers themselves.  As the Star Wars films have shown, though developing and creating such additional background world material may raise the cost of a film, the richness that it adds to a world will make audiences want to return again, inviting speculation and perhaps even generating enigmas that need not be solved for the narrative to be complete.  The world of Pacific Rim, on the other hand, does not seem to extend far beyond the needs of the narrative.


Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  []