Television, Games, and Narrative – Not With a Bang

I relate my experiences with narrative primarily to my personal experience, so in discussing that kind of matter I’ll usually talk about games I’ve played or that I am playing, in as much as I might talk about movies I’ve watched, etc. I’ve at least commented on the blogs of some pretty good academics, so I think this is a suitable psuedo-academic approach. I’ve written a thesis now, so I can say that at least one of the things I’ve written was genuinely academic. When I do talk about my own experiences, I’ll always try to provide references for those who may not share them, though in ramblings I may occasionally tend to fall short.

I was reading a chain of articles today about the ennui of World of Warcraft, and a certain problem with the game seems to be that there is no satisfying narrative conclusion, no “end.”

I believe this is a real problem, and I compare this to the majority of tabletop roleplaying games that I have played. The vast majority of these campaigns end due to outside factors. Perhaps a few players move away, making the game impossible; maybe the gamemaster grows bored and wants to try something else, or runs out of time to run the game. Maybe a player in the game becomes too powerful, and “breaks” it, rendering further gameplay unsatisfying for the group, or, maybe the challenges become too punitive and aversarial, causing players to walk out on the judge. It is very rare that a game of this nature comes to what might be termed as a satisfying narrative conclusion. That is because, I believe, HAVING that end requires both a willingness to prepare for it, to build toward that finale and make it reasonable and satisfying in the telling, AND, the more difficult aspect of “letting go.”

This is also comprable to a phenomenon seen mostly in network television, that of “jumping the shark.” People make jokes about particular games and stories jumping the shark all the time in my circle, but what’s most important to understand about the shark is that he is only seen in hindsight. One can never really, accurately, say, “we are jumping the shark, right this very second,” except in jest, but one CAN look backward and see the fin. Those television series that never jump the shark largely do not jump because they end too soon. Avoiding the shark requires the ability to recognize when you are ahead, artistically, and then quit there. I am thinking here of Firefly, for example, which did not jump the shark, not even with the movie, because it was cancelled and undersupported by the network and powers that be, and did not develop past its narrative peak because it did not have the opportunity. Beast Wars Transformers was cut a season short and thus, though it had to pack a lot of action in to two last episodes, did not definitively jump the shark. The aforelinked Jump the Shark website would like you to believe that The Simpsons never jumped, but I respectfully disagree with the voters there. It’s WELL over; I just can’t pinpoint the precise moment in this case. It went over as a result of an unwillingness to end, and let go, as the networks still had that particular cow to milk (but were happy to cancel Firefly).

This translates to other media as well. Calvin and Hobbes – artist quit while he was ahead – satisfying narrative conclusion with a heartbreaking last panel – comic never jumped. The Far Side – quit while it was ahead – never jumped. Garfield – still going on, has completely jumped, and is now mostly suitable as an internet meme.

There are, generally speaking, only two ways for long-running properties to end. They can end “too soon,” going out with a bang (or even a quiet farewell the way Calvin and Hobbes went out, but with a satisfying and dignified conclusion), or, they can end too late, going on and on until they peter out like so many tabletop campaigns I have been involved in. To steal from the greats, there is either the bang or the whimper.

The Bang is preferable, but much more difficult to coordinate. An MMORPG (and a MUSH or MUD, to pull out a trend) can by its very nature only end with a Whimper. That is because the very business model of a massive game is to work on player retention. There is no way to create a satisfying narrative conclusion for a game when you are still desperately trying to lure new people in to your world even as its sun is dying.

I may have my history wrong, but I believe that an attempt at going out with a bang was tried at least once on a MUSH, or on Megaman MUSH, the site where I am currently administratively employed. I’ve not yet gotten around to indexing this timeline file, but scroll down to the date “7 July 2213” if you click. The then-director of the game ran a story where he literally put the fate of the game on the line, and, if the story itself was not successful in engaging players, it would result in a “loss” scenario for the world and he would close the game. (To say whether or not the entire world being destroyed is narratively satisfying is another topic, but it is at least an end with some gumption.) Of course, the story was successful, players were retained, the world saved, and the game goes on and on for many more years after that.

Bold to try, but any MUSH or MMORPG that goes “out” will go out because it peters out. There’s no other way, sadly, for this to happen. If the game is still retaining players and interest, it will continue to thrive. If the game is no longer retaining players and interest, it will die the slow, ennui death. There is no marketing-related reason for an MMO to do anything other than hang on to its customers for as long as possible, forsaking narrative and artistic integrity in favor of the long, slow strategy; the eventual loss of interest and the last, frail gasp of breath.