October 15, 2009
Futures of Entertainment 4 - Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Parts 1-3)

The Futures of Entertainment 4 conference is slowly drawing closer, and registration is still open!

As the entirety of Friday will focus on projects and issues of transmedia, we decided to bring you an interview that Henry posted to his blog back in May with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, the editors of Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. The third of a set of three books exploring studies of media, Third Person gathers dozens of essays discussing and debating topics surrounding "vast narratives" that draws from the perspectives of artists and academics alike.

Henry is currently using Third Person as a central resource in his Transmedia Storytelling & Entertainment course at USC, so if you would like an introduction to the text or more details about issues of transmedia, francising, branding, etc., we have reproduced the full interview after the jump.

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.

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

A reader asked me whether the book included a discussion of soap opera, which would seem to meet many criteria of vast narrative, but doesn't fall as squarely in the geek tradition as science fiction series like Doctor Who or superhero comics like Watchmen. Pat does include a brief note about his own experience watching soaps with his grandmother. What do you see as the relationship between "vast narratives" and the serial tradition more generally?

Soap opera is definitely a missed opportunity for us. We had intended to have at least one essay on the subject, but it fell by the wayside as our contributors came aboard and our word count ballooned. We had also intended to have more essays on more purely literary topics; as it stands, Bill McDonald's essay on Thomas Mann seems a little lonely in the middle of all that television. We had wanted at least an essay on Faulkner, probably one on Dickens, and some others. But it's exactly there that Third Person would have started to tip over into more traditional areas of literary history, theory, and narratology. We think one of the strengths of the series is the unexpected juxtaposition of very different fields and genres. So in the end, we opted more for the digital.

The serial tradition seems to us to be a huge and maybe indispensible part of most "vast narratives." Comic books and television especially follow very naturally from the serial tradition exemplified by Dickens. In all cases, the story unfolds in the public eye, as it were: David Copperfield appeared in monthly installments, as do most modern comic books; TV serials are generally weekly. In all cases there's ample opportunity for the public to respond to plot developments and offer feedback.

In David Copperfield, for instance, you have the strange character Miss Mowcher, who appears first as a rather sinister and repulsive figure, but when she reappears is pixie-ish, friendly, and plays a role in helping David. What had happened in the meantime is that the real-world analogue of Miss Mowcher (Catherine Dickens's foot doctor) had recognized herself in the installment and threatened to sue. And as we understand it, the characters of Ben on Lost and Helo on the new Battlestar Galactica were both intended to be short-term minor characters, but proved so popular with viewers that they were promoted to central recurring positions.

There are plenty of artistic problems that arise from serialized storytelling, one of the most serious of which is the potential for unbalancing the narrative. Writing an unserialized novel allows you to edit, revise and generally overhaul the story before the public sees it. To serialize a story forces you to go with your thoughts of the moment, which may change before you finish the story, whether because of new artistic ideas of your own or because of outside forces (TV cast changes, editorial shifts in direction, Miss Mowchers, etc.). The Wire is one of the strongest televised serials ever aired--arguably it's simply the best--and that show was blessed with a strong writing staff with long-term narrative plans, substantial freedom from editorial direction, and as far as we're aware, very few unplanned cast changes. David Simon and the other creators like to talk about Dickens in reference to the show, but The Wire is in fact much more narratively balanced and formal in structure than most of Dickens's novels.

At the same time, a lot of exciting art happens in exactly the improvisational space that seriality provides. The writing staff on David Milch's Deadwood seems to have, on a daily basis and under Milch's direction, group-improvised nearly all of the Deadwood scripts. The end result is a constantly surprising story that still somehow appears as a tightly-structured drama, even down to following, more often than not, the Aristotelian unities of time and place. (And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that Sean O'Sullivan does great work discussing seriality both in his Third Person essay, and in his essay in David Lavery's collection Reading Deadwood.)

First Person experimented with placing a significant number of its essays on line and encouraging greater dialogue between the contributing authors. What did you learn from that experiment?

One thing we learned is that putting a book's contents online, which previously had mostly been done with monographs, could also work with edited collections. MIT Press was happy enough with the results that we followed this practice with Second Person and will do it again with Third Person. We'd like to see this practice expand in the world of academic publishing, since we now have some evidence that it doesn't make the economic model collapse (it's other things that are doing that, unfortunately, to some areas of academic publishing).

Another thing we learned is that, while blogs were already rising in prominence by the time we started working with Electronic Book Review on this portion of the project, the kind of conversation encouraged by something like EBR isn't obviated by the blogosphere. In general, blog conversation is pretty short-term. People tend to comment on the most recent post, or one that's still on the front page, and this is only in part because blog authors often turn off commenting for older posts, as an anti-spam measure. EBR, on the other hand, solicits and actively edits its "riposte" contributions (returning them to authors for expansion and revision, for example) and ends up fostering a kind of conversation that still moves more quickly than the letters section of a print journal, but with some greater deliberation and extension in time than generally happens on blogs. These different forms of online academic conversation end up complementing each other nicely.

As you note, comics have had a long history of managing complex narrative worlds. What lessons might comics have to offer the new digital entertainment media?

Digital media has already absorbed a lot of helpful lessons. In Third Person this can be seen in Matt Miller's chapter on City of Heroes and City of Villains, which goes into depth on how Cryptic translated comics tropes into workable MMO content.

The place to speculate might actually be the reverse of the question: what comics could take from contemporary digital media. We don't have any idea what a Comics Industry 2.0 would look like, but we suppose it's possible that DC and Marvel could take some of the pressure off themselves by integrating user-generated content of some sort; overseeing, funding and formalizing fan web sites, or who knows.

Every so often the industry does try something like this: back when we were growing up, there was a comic series called Dial "H" for Hero, in which a couple of kids had some sort of magic amulets that would turn them into different random superheroes when activated. The twist was that all of the names, costumes and powers of the heroes were reader-generated. Readers would send in letters with drawings and descriptions of superheroes they'd invented, and then those heroes would be integrated, with the appropriate credit, into later issues. This sounds extremely childish, and it was. There were no opportunities for readers to affect anything except the most replaceable elements of the story. (Although we do give DC credit for making it a boy-girl team, so that one of each pair of superheroes created would be female. Trying to build female readership is an ongoing problem for the big companies.) Later in the '80s, DC did give readers the opportunity to alter the narrative, when they ran the "A Death in Family" storyline in Batman. In this case, the Joker attacks, beats and blows up Jason Todd, the unlikeable second Robin, and DC established a 1-900 number which readers could call to vote on whether Todd lived or died. Well, they voted for him to die, and so he did, but the whole thing is regarded, rightly, as pretty distasteful, and they never bothered with anything like it again.

So the impulse toward interactivity exists in the industry, though it's never really gone anywhere. We suspect that some type of formalized interactivity will be a part of the comics industry going forward. What it will look like, we don't know.

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

Are the "vast narratives" created under commercial conditions different from some of the avant garde experiments or eccentric art projects (Henry Darger) also discussed in the book? In other words, do artists think about such world building differently removed from the marketplace?

Artistic considerations can be opaque at the best of times, and that's especially true with someone like Darger. But it's probably safe to say that commercial considerations played no part in his mind. His work was obviously a very private, very internal process. As far as we know, no one but he even knew it existed until after he died. But it's impossible not to speculate, isn't it?--why someone would spend their life creating something like In the Realms of the Unreal. He's almost like a Borges character.

But getting back to the commercial considerations: Walter Jon Williams addresses this directly in his Third Person chapter, and goes into some detail about the commercial considerations of shared-world novels and novel franchises, and how they inform his artistic choices in different ways than his single-author series.

Monte Cook and Robin Laws also discuss this in regards to the tabletop RPG industry, and here we get into very interesting areas of artistic choice. Because what a tabletop RPG writer is doing is creating a kind of machine that other people can use to create stories. Speculatively, someone could write an entire RPG system from scratch, for their individual use, but they'd still be playing the system with other people. The primary consideration in any RPG design is: Does it work? In other words, does it create the kind of stories I want it to, in the way I want it to? And because the tabletop RPG hobby is an inherently social one, this question is very, very close to: Will other people want to play it?

Laws' essay touches pretty directly on the commercial considerations that go into publishers' decisions to go with one property or another, or create their own. And Cook's essay focuses on the sequence of choices a gamemaster has to make in order to enact a particular rules system for the players. What we still don't have much of, outside some of the other 2P and 3P essays (Hite, Hindmarch, Glancy, Stafford) are really nitty-gritty analyses of why designers have created particular rules systems. Why does Call of Cthulhu have a "Sanity" mechanism? Well, that's an easy one, but why, for instance, does Dogs in the Vineyard have a dice pool system, with which players "bet," "raise" and "call" against the gamemaster? Why does The Mountain Witch have a "Trust" mechanism? For every example like that, some designer or team of designers balanced genre appropriateness, individual preference, commercial potential, player familiarity, ease, elegance, playability, and on and on.

For comics, as much as we love them, there are serious narrative handicaps to anyone working within one of the established commercial universes. In particular, it's rare that anything ever truly ends in any real sense. Storylines wrap up, series get cancelled, characters die--but the universe spins on. It happens in this way because DC and Marvel can still make money from it. It takes a huge apparatus of creators, editors, printers, distributors, retailers, consumers, etc., to keep these universes functioning.

You see something analogous in MMOs, although in that case it's weighted much more heavily on the creative and consumer ends, with fewer middle steps. But in both MMOs and comics, there's an unslakeable thirst for new content. You can't just stop producing, or the whole thing dries up and blows away. The advantages MMOs have over comics in this regard are: 1) They are much, much more profitable, and 2) Consumers create a large part of the new content themselves, in the form of their characters, inter-character interactions, and user-created emergent storylines. Anyway, all of this exists in the marketplace, not the ivory tower; the final judgment is the commercial one.

Of course, the art world is also a marketplace--and even the competition for faculty positions (which support many of the more interdisciplinary and experimentally-oriented digital media artists) exerts what might be seen as a market-like pressure. But the pressures aren't the same as those for commercially-oriented vast narratives.

Comics and science fiction fans have long stressed continuity as a central organizing principle in vast story worlds. Yet, you close your introduction with the suggestion that continuity is only one of a range of factors structuring our experience of such stories. Can you describe some others?

"Continuity" is a byproduct of telling a bunch of stories within the same setting. If someone writes a stand-alone novel, she doesn't have to worry about it, except in the simplest sense of making sure that a character who dies on page 50 isn't alive again on page 200. It's only when an author writes a series of novels, or comics, or something else, or other people start writing in that world, or it otherwise grows longer and more complex, that continuity becomes an issue. On the most basic level, it's a sort of contract between author and reader, showing that you care enough to keep the details straight (and aren't engaged in a metafictional exercise or parallel-worlds plot). Too much sloppiness in this area breaks the trust and announces the story's fictionality too directly.

That said, in certain genres, like big comics universes, maintaining continuity is hilariously difficult, bordering on impossible. Grant Morrison is probably right when he says that continuity is mostly a distraction in big comics universes, and will be as long as characters are not allowed to age and die away. No one is going to kill off Batman permanently, no matter what happened in Final Crisis 6, just as Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Superman and the others all came back from the dead.

This speaks to a wider problem in comics continuity--without any real endings, and with no meaningful change that can't be revised or done away with at any time, the DC and Marvel universes lack consequences. Any individual storyline might be good or bad, but because they all exist within this ceaseless flow of stories, any narrative power is slowly worn away. One of Pat's favorite DC storylines is Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen's 1984 "Legion of Supervillains" storyline, in which Karate Kid is killed. Now we see that Karate Kid is back in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. What does this do to our appreciation of the original story? Nothing has changed about the text, but now it's been robbed of permanent consequence, and Pat's pleasure in it is diminished. Maybe that's a shallow way of appreciating narrative, but few comics readers will deny that it's a significant part of their enjoyment. And not just comics: the same thing happens in all forms of storytelling. We don't know of any literary critic who appreciates the narrative twist with Mr. Boffin near the end of Our Mutual Friend. You feel cheated; it's arbitrary and it undermines everything that's gone before, and robs the story of what James Wood calls "final seriousness."

This is what made The Dark Knight Returns so powerful, when it was first published. By providing an ending to Batman's story, it cast its shadow both forward and backward over Batman's entire publication history. Suddenly it became possible to read a Batman story in light of where the character was ultimately going. Alan Moore tried to do the same sort of thing--provide a possible ending--for the entire DC universe in his unproduced Twilight of the Superheroes miniseries, a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

Even Agatha Christie recognized this, though her series novels are almost completely continuity-free, with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple staying essentially static thoughout her uncountable novels. But she still wrote Curtain (and kept it in a bank vault for over 30 years, until a few months before her death) to provide an end to Poirot.

Maybe the best approach to comics is to view them, as Grant Morrison seems to, as existing in a sort of permanent mythological or legendary space, in which the importance lies in the relationships between the characters and the ritual reenactment of certain actions, and not in the movement of these characters through time. We're okay with Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes all giving us versions of the story of the House of Atreus, and we appreciate them on their own merits, as literary instantiations of the same story. We don't spend much time trying to reconcile the discontinuities.

Greg Stafford's 3P chapter discusses the process of distilling multiple sources of the Arthurian stories into a coherent, playable RPG campaign. This was a heroic undertaking, but it was possible because 1) Stafford had final authority to accept, reject, or reconcile discontinuous story elements, and 2) he was not working with a constantly-expanding data set, such as the DC Universe. The question is not so much "Could you coherently reconcile all of DC's continuity?" as, "Why would you bother?" Without meaningful consequence, it's better to view the whole universe as existing in a sort of timeless fugue state, with only transitory consequences.

Incidentally, Doctor Who exhibits a different strange mixture of semi-continuity, with irreconcilable story elements (e.g., the multiple histories of the Daleks) combined with actual, permanent consequences (e.g., the Doctor's regenerations). A lot could be said about this, and what it means for narrative reception, and there's certainly a lot of that discussion in Third Person, but we've gone on a bit long here already.

The issue of the "ending" is a recurring issue in the book with several essays promising us "my story never ends" or "world without end," while others point to the challenges of sustaining creative integrity given the unpredictible duration of television narratives. Does the idea of a "vast narrative" automatically raise questions about endings and other textual borders?

Perhaps not automatically, given that we're treating as "vast" projects that are both ambitious in scope and yet planned for a particular, bounded shape from early on. But it's a very common move for vast narrative projects to make, and it's probably an inherent part of those that are conceived as productive systems. Why turn the system off? Similarly, those that are connected closely to events in the world beyond their control, or which have important audience contributions, have something in their dynamics that resists not only the hard border (those are intentionally designed away) but also the ending. That's why we've seen audiences attempt to continue projects that the authors bring to an end. But, of course, that's just a current twist on an old phenomenon, one you've also seen in your work on fan cultures.

That said, and though it may betray a little stuffiness, Pat does prefer narratives that seem to have a traditional shape to them, with meaningful endings that pay off everything that's gone before. And Noah thinks this is essential to a certain kind of project, even if some of his favorite fictions (from Mrs. Dalloway to Psychonauts) succeed on different terms. Commonly, comics and television structures work heavily against traditional narrative closure, but for commercial reasons, not even interesting modernist, postmodern, or currently-experimental ones. Which is why it's so exciting to come across something like The Wire, which is a coherent literary work realized in the televisual medium, which until recently Pat at least didn't think possible.

What demands do "vast narratives" place on the people who read them? Is a significant portion of the reading public ready to confront those challenges?

At this point, the question might actually be whether the expanding end of the reading public is willing to take on something that isn't as vast as, say, the Harry Potter or Twilight books. Perhaps it's just our skewed viewpoint, but it seems like large fictional projects, which either start with novels or have them as part of a cross-media environment, are a key way the reading public is growing. This reminds Noah of how his experience of being in the university is changing, now that even graduate students often can't remember a time before the Web very clearly and most students think that games are "obviously" as important a media form as, say, television. Vast possibilities and large interaction spaces now seem a kind of media norm.

That said, the pleasures of our youths--e.g., reading Marvel and DC comics and playing Call of Cthulhu and Champions (not the forthcoming online version)--were pleasures that grew with extended engagement, with developing understanding and elaboration of fictional universes and their characters. Those could be thought of as "demands," but we didn't feel that way about them, and we don't have the sense that people today reading a long series of novels or playing a computer RPG for 50+ hours (without even being completionist) feel that way either.