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 thoughts on “the end of endings?

  1. Luca

    I like the idea of comparing the narrative essence of Wow to the Mythology described as a system able to generate endless stories. What’s different is the point of view on the story itself. We can describe Mythology as a coherent set of elements (characters… laws… passions…) according to which someone could tell (create) endless stories. That’s more or less the same you can do in Wow.. but in Wow you find a couple of crucial elements that make the whole thing incredibly more powerful.
    1. you are the main character of your own story ( every single player is the director of his own movie)
    2. Even if the stage is always the same (and nothing is going to change forever) the narrative experience is strongly related to the character’s own story. That makes it different every time.

    If wow is some kind of mythology, players are Gods, NPCs are the humans and Blizzard is the fate.

  2. Dennis G. Jerz

    The Arthurian legends, like most oral narratives, are infinitely expandable.

    Our literary passion for a long, detailed plot with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist who changes slowly, over time, across several reading sessions (unlike, say, a Greek drama, which happens in one sitting) is a relatively new phenomenon, and form and content are joined in the development of the bound codex and the novel.

    It’s also probably worth looking at the economic publishing environment that led Dickens to write exaggerated characters for his serialized novels.

  3. Jill

    Yes – and the economic “publishing” environment that leads Blizzard to create a never-ending experience (Scott‘s paper in our anthology is about that…)

  4. Francois Lachance

    Jill, are you not describing two competing desires? The one for narrative, a story nicely configured. The other, narration, the telling. In epistemological terms one is the thing known and the the other the experience of knowing it. Children (and adults) love repeats of familiar stories and of courese the infinite and infinitissmal variations on the twice told tale. Every carrot I see is like every other carrot but different.
    Ending and not-ending is perhaps besides the point. The unfinished story still fascinates in the re-reading.

  5. Mark Bernstein

    > Jerz: Our literary passion for a long, detailed plot with a beginning, middle, and end . . . is a relatively new phenomenon

    But some (fairly) long detailed plots with a beginning, middle and end, predating the codex, would seem to include the works we know as Gilgamesh, Homer, Exodus, Saul, The Peloponnesian War, The Aeneid, The Synoptic Gospels, and Beowulf. I’m not certain that Roland was composed to be a codex, or Gawain and the Green Knight, or Mortu Arthure. I assume that Mohammed, Dante and Chaucer composed in codices? (I expect there are examples from China and Japan with which I’m unfamiliar. The Eddas might be pertinent. I’m sure I’m missing other things.)

    Might the multi-day Navaho chants (Kinaalda, say, or Ye’ii bicheii/Night Way) be considered as outside “relatively new”?

    It seems to me that we could be more careful in distinguishing among endless stories and other large narratives. The Arthurian stories are not an epic but rather a collection of separate stories that share some settings and characters. The Commedia dell’Arte works in the same way. For example, Trollope’s _Palliser_ novels share settings and characters and an overall arc, but you wouldn’t call them a single story. The modern serial mystery (Hammet, qv Hemingway’s Nick Adams) shares a hero between stories, and in recent years (Sayers->John LeCarre, John D. Macdonald) that hero’s own story becomes a significant metaplot.

  6. Jill

    I agree that we’re not talking about a single story anymore – hm, perhaps you’re right, perhaps it’s just a fictional universe that many stories can be told about.

    Oh dear, I have all these student papers to read and I can’t think straight, I’m going to have to come back to this later, because you’re all challenging my ideas quite excellently.

  7. […] I have a bunch of student paper drafts, some MA project descriptions and a nearly completed draft of an MA thesis to read and prepare feedback for and a talk to prepare and oh dear, I can’t think straight. Which is a pity, because the discussions around yesterday’s post about endings and endless stories and World of Warcraft and Lost are fascinating and demand thought. […]

  8. Dennis G. Jerz

    Mark, you’re right that those epics do contain a beginning, middle and end, but they also contain almost endless room for episodes that can be exchanged and interposed. Our sense that these epics are presented in this particular order is certainly influenced by the fact that we are likely to encounter them in codex form, where they have been carefully edited and normed in order to reduce contradictions and inconsistencies. I’m thinking of the codex not as a place to compose stories, but rather as a vehicle for encountering them. (Note that I specified a “literary passion” and “reading sessions”.)

    Drafting a story on a stack of loose pages is certainly not composing in a codex, whether or not the end product was intended for one. But, yes, it’s very useful here to distinguish between collections of stories sharing characters and excerpts from a coherent single narrative. Thanks for bringing that up.

  9. Dennis G. Jerz

    While I’m at it… one of the reasons I love the old British SF series Blake’s 7 was that it ended — quite definitively, quite shockingly, and quite effectively.

  10. Mark Bernstein

    It seems to me that great care was taken in assembling, editing, and revising many antique works that predate the codex. It’s not entirely clear to me how best to demonstrate this in the face of the intentional fallacy; the fact that a particular tale seems well constructed could always raise the objection, “post hoc propter hoc”.

    But we know that very early authors tried hard to edite carefully and to reduce contradictions and inconsistencies, because they tell us about how hard they themselves worked at this (Thucydides, Cicero, Pliny the Younger come to mind) or because they tell us about other people’s efforts (Philo on the Hebrew Bible).

    Conjecture: the aparent endlessness of current MMOG is an artistic blunder. In COH, for example, heroes who attain specified levels can venture into new parts of the world. I speculate that these rites of passage are important and more should be made of them, “Today I am level 6 and can leave Atlas Park”, or “This day I was made level 30 AND first begun to go forth in my cape and sword, as the manner now among heroes is.”(http://www.pepys.info/1661/1661feb.html)

  11. Ruth Page

    I’m really interested in the debate you’ve opened up here about a ‘sense of an ending’. The potential for open-endedness seems to be a critical issue that has been foregrounded in debates about new media and its relationship to narrative for the last 10 years, and remains in the centre of these kinds of discussions. The question I would want to pose, is just how culturally specific our anticipation of a beginning-middle-end (and the teleological loading of the end point)might be. For example, Maori narratives – both myths and conversational narratives – are not structured like this at all, and downplay a denouement or end point. So I guess what I am trying to raise here, is are we perpetrating a kind of abstraction in this kind of discussion, which ignores the cultural specificity of the narrative schemas you are talking about?

  12. Ryan Van Dolson

    Greetings. I’m currently working on an undergraduate thesis project on narrative and identity elements and interplay in WOW, and I’m curious, Ruth Page, if you could point me in the direction of the “debates about new media and its relationship to narrative” that you mentioned. Thanks!

    Also, I would be thrilled to talk with any of you concerning my project. You can e-mail me at vandolson@gmail.com or message me on AIM @ psychophant. I could use some feedback and/or discussion to help me out.

    Cheers,
    Ryan Van Dolson

  13. […] and head of the department of humanistic informatics [sic] at the University of Bergen, is devoted to Wow, is editing a book on it, and has clearly thought deeply about it. That is a selling point. […]

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