In thinking about what Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin call in their 2009 book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives “vast narratives,” it soon becomes quite clear that to have such vastness a narrative requires both user-generated content and vast consumption.
To begin with the former, Bartle (2009, p. 114) notes that, using what he calls “Alice” design—in which users can, so to speak, choose their own adventures (or quests) toward a predefined goal rather than having to take a particular, pre-designated path—producers of virtual worlds “don’t have to create anywhere near as many of these quests as they would have done without the Alice quests in support, and although making a world rich enough for a critical mass is not free, it’s a lot less expensive than one in which all the quests are lovingly crafted.”
Players of these games, then, are asked to do the work of making the game for themselves, and while this is a form of freedom, it’s simultaneously unremunerated labor. (See Old Fashioned Marxism for New Media Labor for more on this.)
Similarly, Gingold (2009, p. 132) speaks glowingly of the design of the game Spore as one in which, “by directing their creatures’ evolution, players would contribute valuable material to the Spore gene pool, creating aliens and civilizations for other players to discover. [ . . . ] Thanks to the effort of other players, an infinite number of alien civilizations would await your discovery.”
Other people make the game for you, and you make the game for other players, and it’s far richer than it could be if the designers built the whole thing, but the designers, at least, would get paid.
The other commonality when considering the “vast narrative” is the extensive efforts of media companies to make connections between properties such that consumers of A come to also consume B.
Thus, “For decades, DC and Marvel treated all of their titles as interconnected: characters move across different series, and universe-wide events periodically require readers to buy titles that they were not otherwise reading to understand their full ramifications” (Ford & Jenkins, 2009, p. 304).
This, then, is a richer experience, more stories and information to enjoy, which keeps fans from running out of something they love. However, at the same time this is manipulation of consumption practices; fans can’t get everything they want/need without spending more.
Another form this takes is “multiauthored, cross-media franchises”; as Krzywinska (2009, pp. 395-6) points out, “worlds”—however “completely furnished”—“offer up a recognizable brand that can be used to produce a whole range of different products.”
In this way, rather than sprinkling some of A onto B to make it more attractive, A is spun off into A-prime, and so on. The effect is similar, whether viewed as manipulation or as providing more of what people love.
The reason all this matters is that, as Hills (2009) and Krzywinska (2009) both point out, fans would seem to be the vanguard of changes to media consumption in general. Thus, Hills (2009, p. 338) argues, “one of the key developments of television seriality in the Internet age is that cult fans’ attention to narrative continuity will start to become a more generalized feature of audience activity.”
If this privileging of narrative continuity extends to everyone, will everyone then start following narratives across platforms, spending money as they go?
Krzywinska (2009, p. 396) makes this point more explicitly, arguing that “while shows that encouraged this type of consumption used to be considered ‘cultish’ and marginal to mainstream popular culture, they are now becoming central [ . . ]. This dovetails all too neatly with greater industrial and technological convergence, which depends increasingly on formulating devices to create long-stay audiences/consumers who will spend money to remain on contact with their preferred world” (396).
This needn’t be only a pessimistic future, but in the face of the persistently celebratory tone of much of the work on these developments drawing attention to the other side seems vital.
Bartle, R. A. (2009). Alice and Dorothy Play Together. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 105-114). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Ford, S., & Jenkins, H. (2009). Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics: An Interview with Henry Jenkins. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 303-312). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gingold, C. (2009). A Brief History of Spore. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 131-136). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Harrigan, P., & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (Eds.). (2009). Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hills, M. (2009). Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005-2008) as Cult/Mainstream Television. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Krzywinska, T. (2009). Arachne Challenges Minerva: The Spinning out of Long Narrative in World of Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 385-398). Cambridge: MIT Press.