November 14, 2006
MarkBernstein.org
 

Endings

Jill writes about World of Warcraft's aversion to endings:

However, Onyxia can be killed again and again, as can every other mob in the world. It’s a MMOG, and Blizzard’s goal is to get us to play for as long as possible, just as the creators of Lost want us to watch for as many seasons as possible.

Diane thinks this might not be quite right.

There are few, if any, endings built in. As Jill says, they "simply pose puzzles and defer closure for as long as they can."

I worry about this "simply." Setting up a framework in which the same, or similar, interactions can happen over and over, with enough differentiation to keep participants interested, isn't simple; and I wonder what the opposite of mere puzzle-posing might be, what Jill has in mind here.

While old-fashioned soap operas do go on forever, the better television dramas do not -- except in the real sense that life does go on. Someone will still be King of Denmark. Stuff will happen to the Darcy's.

It's not just an endlessly repetitive puzzle. I think classical music has a lesson for us: a lot of the 19th century was an exploration of how you could slow things down and build bigger and bigger forms out of the cadences of the sonata structure. But Wagner isn't endlessly repetitive, even when he spends an entire opera movement on a single cadence.

I think it's important, too, to distinguish different kinds of work in long television. (Jane Espenson, a televison writer and Buffy veteran, has a worthwhile blog "intended to help new writers tackle the job of writing those all-important spec scripts")

This is the distinction that makes Babylon 5 and Buffy work. Things change -- and when they have changed, there's no going back. (Yes, in Buffy they kill you off and you can still get work, but the C+ you get on Friday's test does go on your permanent record) And we know things change: they tell us from the beginning. The kids are all going to grow up, and Buffy is going to die. We learn this early in the first season: we just don't know exactly when she will die or what the other kids will be like when they're grown.

Odyssey and Battlestar Galactica seem like they would be easy to extend forever. But it's not easy -- not within the framework established at the outset. Ithaca is real, and while we can have plenty of adventures on the way home, it means nothing if we don't get home in time for Penelope. In Galactica, Earth is real (or it isn't). We will find it, or not. The cylons will beat us all, or we will win. The cylons will, finally, understand themselves: the kids will grow up, they will know who they are and what they want.

Earth seems to be the Ithaca of BSG, the Black Bird. But remember: the Maltese Falcon is about finding who murdered Sam Spade's partner, and the bird, like Earth, is meant to keep your eyes off the ball.

That's the promise of a long arc: the kids will grow up. If the show were to ignore the promise, it would be an endless series of chase scenes. (his is what makes the modern arc matter in a way that endlessly episodic television -- Star Trek or The Avengers -- does not.

And this is one of my misgivings about MMPORGs today: do they go nowhere? Or are we just harvesting gold and arresting 500 villains?