Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Four)

You make an important observation about the nature of sequels here: “A trade-off between novelty and familiarity occurs: The world is no longer new to the audience, but the burden of exposition is lessened by what has already been revealed of the world.” So, one could argue that the creator of the sequel is freed to do different things than the creator of the original. If this is true, what are some examples of creators who have effectively exploited that freedom to do something interesting?

Contrary to the negative image many people have when it comes to sequels, some sequels are generally considered better than the original works they follow.  In my experience, anyway, people often say they like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) better than Star Wars (1977); The Lord of the Rings certainly builds interestingly on the world introduced in The Hobbit; and Riven (1997) is arguably better than Myst (1993).  In all three cases, the sequel expands the world a great deal, while carrying forth characters and situations established in the original.  Each also builds upon how the world works, extending the world logic from the original work (for example, the rules regarding the functioning of lightsabers, the One Ring, and linking books).

Authors may find it easier to develop an existing world than begin an entirely new one, and expansions can still introduce as much (or more) new world material as the original work.  Practically speaking, this can also have to do with economics; a longer book or a higher-budget movie is more of a financial risk to a publisher or studio, so original works that introduce a world may be more likely to be represented by shorter books and lower-budget movies, while sequels to a successful work will be given more investment (for example, Pitch Black (2000) had a budget of $23 million, while its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) had a budget of over $100 million).  Whatever the case, world expansion is necessary for a sequel to continue to engage an audience, who wants to revisit the world they like, but at the same time, have new experiences in it.

The Star Trek film this summer was controversial precisely because of its ret-conning practices: it’s restaging and reimagining of the Wrath of Khan narrative seems to have been embraced by some new fans, but at the cost of much gnashing of teeth by veteran fans (myself among them). What does this example tell us about the challenges or opportunities in revising or revisiting familiar worlds within popular media?

 In the case of Star Trek, they wanted to have it both ways; a fresh start, while keeping continuity with what has come before.  Technically speaking, the 2009 film was not a reboot, due to the “alternate timeline” device (complete with “Spock Prime”, with a Nimoy cameo that may have been thrown in to suggest to fans that if Nimoy accepts this film enough to appear in it, then you ought to accept it, too), but most people still consider it a reboot.  Like you, I, too, found this recasting of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy annoying; why not move on to a new set of characters, as the TV shows did, and mostly successfully at that?  And the motive here is not the best, either.

Retconning, even when not taken to the extreme of a reboot, may be done for artistic or narrative reasons (as with Tolkien’s adjusting of The Hobbit so as to fit The Lord of the Rings better, or Lucas’s clean-up and added effects shots in the “Special Edition” re-releases), but when it’s done for purely commercial reasons, it may seem more suspect, since money, not art, is the motive.  Of course, the degree to which retcon occurs also makes a difference; cosmetic changes are more easily accepted than those which change the story or characters too directly or too much.It’s also usually easier to reboot a character-based franchise than a world-based franchise, because the background world is closer to the Primary world to begin with, and reboots are usually concerned with bringing things up-to-date more than anything else; changes in the Batman, Spider-man, and Superman franchises are a good example of this.

But in more world-centered franchises, like Star Trek and Star Wars, you don’t need to have the same characters present all the time (Star Trek shows remained on TV 1987 to 2005 without relying on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy); it’s the world, with all its designs, devices, locations, and logic, that keeps the audience engaged.  So one can only hope that Abrams doesn’t reboot Star Wars.


While as the book jacket informs us, you reference more than 1400 imaginary worlds across the book, certain worlds keep recurring, among them Oz, Middle-earth, and the worlds associated with Star Wars. What makes these worlds especially rich for your analysis?

Certain worlds are larger and better developed, so when it comes to discussions of infrastructures, internarrative theory, sequence elements, and so forth, there’s just more to work with and examine in larger worlds.  Their infrastructures have thousands of pieces, and some are still growing.  The worlds of Oz, Middle-earth, and Star Wars are also very influential ones, and ones that helped forge the imaginary world tradition.  And, when using them for examples, they are also worlds that the readers of the book will likely already be familiar with, and which require less explanation.  But there are so many interesting ones that are less known, and deserve more attention (like Defontenay’s Star and Dewdney’s Planiverse), and I try to highlight some of these in the book as well.

You revisit the familiar debate between interactivity and storytelling (or narratology and ludology as it is sometimes framed in game studies), which seems to be unresolvable. But, you suggest that there are ways to reconcile competing claims for game play and world building/exploring. Can you elaborate a bit? How might this focus on immersion offer us a way of reframing these core issues in Game Studies (which is a field where you have made many contributions already)?

Video games and the experiencing of imaginary worlds both involve such activities as world exploration and the learning of a set of intrinsic rules and how things work, and in many cases, piecing together a backstory and seeing how actions relate to consequences.  So interactivity is perhaps more compatible with the experiencing of a world than it is with the telling of a story.  It’s the difference between causality and a causal chain of events.  You can have causality built into a world, so that one kind of action results in a particular result, but due to choices made or chance, you don’t always get the same sequence of events.  A fixed causal chain of events, like that found in a novel, stays the same and doesn’t change.  But a world can accommodate either.

The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author.  So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice.  Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.  And it isn’t just immersion, but what happens after it as well (that is, absorption, saturation, and overflow, which are discussed in detail in chapter one).  By focusing on worlds and the experience of them, video games studies will be better able to make comparisons between game experiences, and describe them in a more world-based fashion.


Your term, “deinteractivation” may be somewhat awkward, but it also provides the best explanation I’ve seen for why it has been so difficult to translate games into other kinds of media experiences -- for example, films or comics. Defiance represents an interesting recent experiment. To what degree do you think it has been successful at creating a world that bridges between games and television?


Although long, I believe “deinteractivation” is a morphologically-sound coinage, related as it is to words like “deactivation” and “interact”, and no more clumsy than the words one finds in polysynthetic languages like Ainu, Chukchi, or Yupik. Hopefully its etymology is clear enough to indicate that it means the removal of interactivity, something that occurs when a world or narrative makes a transmedial move from an interactive medium to a noninteractive medium.  (As a form of adaptation, it is something we will see more of as video games make transmedial moves into other media.)

In the case of Defiance, where both the TV show and the game were developed together, I would say that the world appears to have been designed with both media in mind already, rather than beginning as a game that was later adapted into a TV series.  But it will be interesting to see which survives longer, the game or the show, and how they influence each other.

Also, the fact that the game is an MMORPG means that it is more interactive than a stand-alone game, but also more vulnerable to the ravages of time; while a stand-alone game, just like a TV show, could be experienced in its entirety at some future date, an MMORPG can really only be experienced as it was during the time it is being run; once it ends, it’s over, and it cannot be re-experienced.  It may be too soon to know whether it successfully bridges the two medium, or creates a solid fan community around the show/game experience (will other media venues follow?)

Perhaps we can get some idea from the text on the Defiance website: “Players of the Defiance game will have the chance to cross over into the show in a new and bigger way: By seeing their avatar recreated as a character in the second season!” First, this conflates players and their avatars, and second, the avatar will be “recreated” as a character; so it appears all interactivity has been lost during these two removes.  One can imaging other ways an MMORPG and a TV show could be linked; for example, a TV show could be made from the events of the MMORPG as they occur, or perhaps the storyline of the TV show could be adjusted based on the events of the MMORPG (the game events could provide the ever-changing background for the TV characters’ lives; if a revolution is stirred up in the MMORPG, it occurs in the background of the TV show, affecting the characters, and so on).  If nothing else though, and despite the outcome, Defiance is an interesting experiment, its name perhaps referring to its attitude toward standard television fare.

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.  []