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

One of the first classes I will teach through my new position at USC will be Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment. I've already started lining up an amazing slate of guest speakers and have put together a tentative syllabus in the class. The primary textbook will be Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, which was edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Many of you who have been working with games studies classes may already know the first two volumes in the MIT Press series which Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin have edited. I've been lucky enough to be included in two of the three books in the series: my essay "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" was included in First Person and my student, Sam Ford, interviewed me about continuity and multiplicity in contemporary superhero comics for Third Person. So, I am certainly biased, but I have found this series to be consistently outstanding.

A real strength is its inclusiveness. By that I mean, both that the editors reach out far and wide to bring together an eclectic mix of contributors, including journalists, academics, and creative artists working across a range of media, and I also mean that they have a much broader span of topics and perspectives represented than in any other games studies collection I know. They clearly understand contemporary games as contributing something important to a much broader set of changes in the ways our culture creates entertainment and tells stories.

For my money, Third Person is the richest of the three books to date and a very valuable contribution to the growing body of critical perspectives we have on what I call "Transmedia Entertainment", Christy Dena calls "Cross-Platform Entertainment", Frank Rose calls "Deep Media," and they call "vast narratives." Each of us is referring to a different part of the elephant but we are all pointing to an inter-related set of trends which are profoundly impacting how stories get told and circulated in the contemporary media landscape. I found myself reading through this collection in huge gulps, scarcely coming up for air, excited to be able to incorporate some of these materials into my class, and certain they will be informing my own future writing in this space.

And I immediately reached out to Pat and Noah about being interviewed for this blog. In the exchange that follows, the two editors speak in a single voice, much as they do in the introduction to the books, but they also signal some of their own differing backgrounds and interests around this topic. The interview is intended to place the new book in the context of the series as a whole, as well as to foreground some of the key discoveries that emerge through their creative and imaginative juxtapositions of different examples of "vast narratives."

Can you explain the relationship between the three books in the series? How has your conception of digital storytelling shifted over the series?

First Person was originally conceived as an attempt to reflect and influence the direction of the field, at a particular moment, while also trying to do some work toward broadening interdisciplinary conversation (in the vein of Noah and Nick Montfort's historically-focused New Media Reader). As such, most of the essays grew out of papers and panel discussions from conferences, especially Digital Arts and Culture and SIGGRAPH. This is also why we used the multi-threaded structure--in order to preserve some of the back-and-forth of ideas characteristic of any emerging field. Unfortunately the book didn't come out as quickly as we hoped, and we were a little worried that it would become more of a history. But it turned out that many of the issues the field was concerned with at the time (e.g., the ludology/narratology stuff) remained, and still remain, things that people entering the field have to think through--so readers still find the book useful today.

That said, we learned an important lesson about the potential for delay, and about thinking of the long-term relevance of a project, so for Second Person we very consciously tried to commission a book that we didn't conceive of as trying to influence the conversation of a particular moment. Pat was working at Fantasy Flight Games when 1P was released, and had been thinking a lot about the relationship of stories to games, especially board games and tabletop RPGs. We both thought it would be an interesting area to explore, especially considering that there wasn't much out there, to our knowledge, that covered similar ground. So the idea was to explicitly draw connections between hobby games, digital media, and other similar performance structures (like improvisational theater) and meaning-making systems (like artificial intelligence research). It was much less "of the moment" than 1P and to our minds, that's when the series really started to take its shape.

Third Person wound up being something of a hybrid of the first two books. Like 2P, it addresses some underserved areas of game design and experience--such as Matt Kirschenbaum's essay on tabletop wargames--but again we're trying a bit to change the terms of the discussion, arguing for a broader conception of our topics. While 2P may have been one of the first books to integrate real discussion of tabletop and live performance games with computer games, its concept is one that goes down easily with most people in the field (we even got reviewed in Game Developer magazine). 3P is a bit of a challenge to digitally-oriented people who think about their field as "new"--or exclusively concerned with issues related to computational systems--because we believe people making digital work have something to learn from people doing television, comic books, novels and the other forms discussed in the book. And we also believe there's something to be learned in the opposite direction as well, and from continuing to connect projects from "high art" and commercial sources. We're very curious to see what the reception turns out to be for this volume, which we view as completing a kind of trilogy.

One striking feature of this series has been the intermingling of perspectives from creative artists and scholars. What do you think each brings to our understanding of these topics? Why do you think it is important to create a dialogue between theory and practice?

Broadly speaking, our scholarly essays often provide a big-picture view of a subject, providing context and analysis, and our artists' essays provide a more detail-oriented, granular view, usually of just a single work or small number of works. Inevitably these distinctions become pretty blurry; for example, we intended John Tynes's 2P essay to be strictly about the Delta Green design process, but he wound up providing a wide-ranging, highly analytical piece about game design philosophy--which is wonderful! Later, in 3P, we gave Delta Green co-creator Adam Scott Glancy the same mandate, and got something of the same result, with a history of the Delta Green property mixed in with wider ideas of narrative strategy.

This is one of the benefits of getting all these contributors side by side in the same series of books; you can see ideas from one person reflected in very different contexts, or, in the case of Delta Green, how the somewhat different design philosophies of two of the three Delta Green creators combined to create the property. This is then situated in the larger context created by the contributions of other creators and scholars, working in a variety of forms related to our themes, resulting in something far richer than one author could deliver.

Incidentally, one notable thing we've found about hobby games designers, is that they're very willing to talk about what goes into their design process, but they're seldom asked! That's a result of the anemic academic attention paid to the field. For literary critics, a novelist's or poet's design process, philosophy, and narrative strategies are all legitimate areas of study (even if "author studies" is now rather out of fashion). Even video game designers are getting some respect these days. But the hobby games industry is too small, it seems, to have merited much attention. This despite the fact that many current video game designers started in the hobby games field: Tynes, Greg Costikyan, Ken Rolston, Eric Goldberg, etc.

While a central focus of the books has been on digital media, especially games, you have always sought to define the topics broadly enough to be able to include work on other kinds of media. In the case of Third Person, these include science fiction novels, comic books, and television series. What do we learn by reading the digital in relation to these other storytelling tradition?

When we talk about "digital media" or "computational media," we're talking about something that is both media and part of a computational system (usually software). As we see it, the lessons digital projects can learn from non-digital projects are both in their aspects that are akin to traditional media (for example, how they handle stories and universes constructed by multiple authors) and in their systems (how they function--and how these operations shape audience experience). The articulation between the two, of course, is key.

We're certainly not the first people to note this. For example, it's been suggested (Noah remembers hearing it first from Australian media scholar Adrian Miles) that digital media creators often fret about a problem well known to soap opera authors: What to do with an audience who may miss unpredictable parts of the experience? Obviously the problem isn't exactly the same, because one case is organized around time (audiences may miss episodes or portions of episodes) and the other is organized by more varied interaction (e.g., selective navigation around a larger space). But there is a common authorial move that can be made in both instances: Finding ways to present any major narrative information in different ways in multiple contexts, so that the result isn't boring for those who see things encyclopedically and doesn't make those with less complete experiences feel they've lost the thread.

Of course, what the above formulation leaves out is that this problem doesn't have to be solved purely on the media authoring side, and perhaps isn't best solved there. Another approach is to design the computational system to ensure that the necessary narrative experiences are had, as appropriate for the path taken by any particular audience. This requires thinking through the authorial problem ("How do we present this in many different contexts?"). But ideally it also involves moving that authoring problem to the system level ("How can we design a component of this system that will appropriately deliver this narrative information in many different contexts, rather than having to write each permutation by hand?"). And, if successful, you don't have to solve the difficult authoring problem of keeping your audience from being bored because they're getting variations on the same narrative information over and over. Then you can use the attention they're giving you to present something more.

Obviously, this isn't easy to do. Computationally-driven forms of vast narrative are still rapidly evolving (at least on the research end of things). But the basic issues are ones that non-digital media have addressed in a rich variety of ways. Even the question of what kinds of experiences one might create in this "vast" space is one that we need to think about broadly--it's a mistake to think we already know the answer--and looking at non-digital work broadly is a part of that.

You write, "Today we are in the process of discovering what narrative potentials are opened by computation's vastness." Is that what gives urgency to this focus on "authoring and exploring vast narratives"?

Personally, that's an important part of our interest. But it's certainly not the only source of urgency. As the variety of chapters in the book chronicles, in part, we're currently seeing exciting creativity in many forms of vast narrative. One might argue that something enabled by computers--digital distribution--is part of the reason for this (e.g., television audiences and producers are perhaps more willing to invest in vast narrative projects when "missing an episode" is less of a concern). But we think of this as distinct from things enabled by computation (permutation, interaction, etc.), especially because some systems (such as tabletop games) carry out their computation through human effort, rather than electronically.

How are you defining "vast narratives"? What relationship do you see between this concept and what others are calling "transmedia storytelling," "deep media," or "crossplatform entertainment"?

Definition isn't a major focus of our project, but there are certain elements of vast narrative that especially attract our attention.

First, we're interested in what we call "narrative extent," which we think of as works that exceed the normal narrative patterns for works of a particular sort. So, for example, The Wire doesn't have that many episodes as police procedurals go (CSI has many more), but it attains unusual narrative extent by making the season--or arguably the entire run of five seasons--rather than the episode, the meaningful boundary.

Second, vast narrative is interesting to us in the many projects that confront issues of world and character continuity. Often this connects to practices of collaborative authorship--including those in which the authors work in a manner separated in time and space, and in many cases with unequal power (e.g., licensor and licensee).

Third, and connected to the previous, we're interested in large cross-media narrative projects, especially those in which one media form is not privileged over the others. So, for example, the universe of Doctor Who is canonically expanded by television, of course, but also by novels and audio plays. On the other end of the spectrum, Richard Grossman's Breeze Avenue project includes a 3-million-word, 4,000 volume novel, as well as forms as different as a website and a performance with an instrument constructed from 13 automobiles--all conceived as one project.

Fourth, the types of computational possibilities we've discussed a bit already, which are present not only in games (we have essays from prominent designers and interpreters of both computer and tabletop games) but also in electronic literature projects and the simulated spaces of virtual reality and virtual worlds.

Fifth, multiplayer/audience interaction is a way of expanding narrative experiences to vast dimensions that we've included in all three books--including alternate-reality, massively-multiplayer, and tabletop role-playing games. Here the possibilities for collaborative construction and performance are connected to those enabled by computational systems (game structures are fundamentally computational) but exceed them in a variety of ways.

Given all of this, it's probably fair to say that our interests are a superset of some of the other concepts you mention. For example, your writing on transmedia storytelling certainly informs our thinking about vast narrative--but something like a tabletop RPG campaign is "vast" for us without being "transmedia" for you.

Patrick Harrigan is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. He has worked on new media projects with Improv Technologies, Weatherwood Company, and Wrecking Ball Productions, and as Marketing Director and Creative Developer for Fantasy Flight Games. He is the co-editor of The Art of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (2006, with Brian Wood), and the MIT Press volumes Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (2009), Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), and First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (2004), all with Noah Wardrip-Fruin. He has also written a novel, Lost Clusters (2005).

Noah Wardrip-Fruin works as a digital media creator, critic, and technology researcher with a particular interest in fiction and playability. His projects have been presented by conferences, galleries, arts festivals, and the Whitney and Guggenheim museums. He is author of the forthcoming Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies(2009) and has edited four books, including Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), with Pat Harrigan, and The New Media Reader (2003), with Nick Montfort. He is currently an Assistant Professor with the Expressive Intelligence Studio in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz.