the end of endings?

screenshot of Onyxiapromo picture for Lost

Playing World of Warcraft it’s quite clear that the whole point of the game is that it doesn’t end. Sure, you can reach level 60, but when you do there’s the “endgame”, which lasts for ages and in which you battle for reputation and do long quest chains culminating in 40 person raids on various dragons and dungeons. And then you do the raids again, better, faster. Patches give new content many times a year and the expansion pack will be out in January, raising the level limit to 70 and adding yet more content – and presumably this constant expansion will continue for as long as Blizzard can keep us captivated.

Not that dissimilar from the way that TV dramas like Lost are apparently intended to go on forever. Rather than keeping an ending in sight, shows like Lost simply pose puzzles and defer closure for as long as they can – or in other words, until the audience drops sufficiently that the TV channel drops the show.

There are lots of stories in World of Warcraft. One of the major plotlines concerns Onyxia, a dragon who, as dragons can in this world, also takes human form as one of the chief advisors to the humans. Every time a raid kills Onyxia, her head is hung on a stake in the capital city of the faction her killers belong to (and a video of the fight is posted to YouTube by her slayers…). This, in a sense, is a possible ending to the game. 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.

Lost and World of Warcraft have opposite approaches, though. While Lost uses permanent deferral, World of Warcraft tells us all the answers as soon as we’re curious. We’ve already seen the ending: Onyxia dies, the bosses will all be killed. And the next day everything will be back to normal. Nothing will ever change. Seeing the endings happen for other players shows us our own potential endings and reassures us that the end of the story does not mean loss: everything will still be here. True, if you kill Onyxia, she’ll be dead for you for five days. But she’ll be back.

Years ago, Peter Brooks wrote about endings and our desire for them, writing of “the play of desire in time that makes us turn pages and strive toward narrative ends” (Reading for the Plot, xiii) and of the importance of the idea of an ending for the excitement of the middle, writing “of the desires that connect narrative ends and beginnings, and make of the textual middle a highly charged field of force” (xiii-xiv). We read, Brooks writes, because we want the end. This is our narrative desire – we want to know how it all works out. The end of a story is a moment of loss, too, though: it is the death, in a sense, of our living in that fictional world.

The sense of a beginning, then, must in some important way be determined by the sense of an ending. We might say that we are able to read present momentsóin literature and, by extension, in lifeóas endowed with narrative meaning only because we read them in anticipation of the structuring power of those endings that will retrospectively give them the order and significance of plot. (Reading for the Plot, 94)

Lost is an example of a narrative that uses our expectation of an ending (there are puzzles, so there must be answers) to make the entire series into the “charged field of force” that you usually get in the middle of a narrative, before the ending. But as we begin to suspect that there is no ending, that charge lessens.

World of Warcraft does something different. It tells us the ending straight away. You would think that would obliterate any tension and excitement. But quite the contrary, when we see Onyxia’s head hanging high we want to kill her ourselves, too.

Obviously World of Warcraft is more than a narrative. It is a game, and in games we know what’s going to happen, or what we want to happen. We want to score more goals than the other team, get all our tokens to the last square, kill all the monsters, catch all the other kids, play all our cards and yes, of course we’ve seen other people play and win before.

Or – let’s compare World of Warcraft instead to a story that allows the endless generation of other stories. The King Arthur stories had no real ending, as far as I can remember. They’re always trying to find the Holy Grail, but they never find it, do they? That mythology sets up a structure – some characters, a goal, some conflicts – that then allow story-tellers to tell as many stories as they please set in this fictional (historical?) world. Isn’t this as useful a comparison as the comparison to games? Both seem useful strategies for understanding what World of Warcraft is.

I titled this post “The end of endings”, but that’s not really what’s happening, is it? On the contrary, World of Warcraft emphasises endings and goals by making them visible as potentials you can achieve, not by keeping them secret. World of Warcraft isn’t about puzzles, it’s about hard work, navigation, strategy and mastery. All the answers are out there, you don’t need walkthroughs. Anyone can get to the endings, so long as they play hard enough for long enough.

It’s just that the nature of deferral has changed.

13. November 2006 by Jill

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