May 7, 2009

Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 7:31 am
Third Person Cover

Pat Harrigan and I are pleased to announce the publication of the final volume in our POV series: Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Following the first two volumes (First Person and Second Person) this project broadens our scope yet again. While the first volume was mostly (though not exclusively) focused on computer games and electronic literature, and the second injected tabletop gaming, performance-oriented play, and other kinds of systems that create meaning through play, this new volume greatly increases the range of narrative forms considered, while continuing to keep our previous concerns in play.

Given this, it’s probably no surprise that this is the biggest volume yet (more than 400 pages, though not, as the catalog currently states, more than 600). We continue to include the voices of practitioners and critics — for example, both Rafael Alvarez, who wrote for The Wire, and critic Jason Mittell reading The Wire‘s structure in game-like terms. We also continue to bring together popular arts (e.g., The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Watchmen, and Doctor Who) with experiments that will only be directly experienced by a select audience (e.g., Tamiko Thiel’s culture-crossing VR installations and Richard Grossman’s three-million-word, four-thousand-volume novel). And we also continue to connect the present and past, bringing in writing on vast narratives ranging from the early female superhero Miss Fury to Thomas Mann’s masterwork Joseph and His Brothers.

But shifting the focus to vast narrative also, of course, introduces discontinuities with the previous volumes. As the above paragraph already indicates, these essays draw in examples from television, comics, film, and novels more fully. But rather than a random selection of examples and approaches, Pat and I have sought out the projects and the authors we think can help make the connections with topics established in the previous volumes. And this also lays the groundwork for considering cross-media phenomena, such as the various ways that universe building and continuity function (or break down) in examples “managed” as differently as Doctor Who, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and Star Wars. Finally, within computational media, Grand Text Auto readers may be particularly interested in this volume’s more extensive treatment of MMOs and virtual worlds. Richard Bartle provides a new typology of such worlds (complementing his influential player typology), Matthew P. Miller discusses his work on City of Heroes, Tanya Krzywinska compares the narrative strategies of World of Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ren Reynolds looks at the narratives through which we understand such worlds, and Henry Lowood talks about player-produced replays and machinima in WoW.

Of course, as with prior volumes, things won’t end with the paper publication. With electronic book review we’ll be publishing “ripostes” to the essays, drawing in a wider variety of perspectives. And the time is also coming to reflect on the project overall, something I’m excited to see happening in Troy S. Goodfellow’s review on Crispy Gamer — the first I know of to take in the whole project. For more info now, you can check out the online table of contents. Thanks to those who have followed us for the journey.

6 Responses to “Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives”


  1. Nick Montfort Says:

    Noah, congratulations to you and Pat! I have this on order and am looking forward to it. This looks like a great conclusion to a series that has been important in many ways – because of what is discussed in it, certainly, but also because of all it includes and juxtaposes.

  2. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    This puts me in mind of a comment Lee Sheldon made at GDX. He was talking about the importance of having writers playing an ongoing role in the development of a game (rather than just bringing them in for a weekend to fill out some dialogue trees). While I think he got a little caught up in his own rhetoric (“Writers are gods”), he did make good points about the importance of continued involvement of the writing team from day one onwards.

    What struck me as most interesting, however, was his comment about writing for MMOs. Most game developers seem to baulk at the idea of having continuous plot development throughout the life of an MMO, saying that it is just infeasible to make that much content. Sheldon’s pointed to daily soap operas as an existence proof that continuous content creation is indeed possible.

    I’ve not indulged in the MMO world myself, so I have to ask: have there been any MMOs which have seriously attempted to have regular ongoing story updates (rather than seasonal ‘expansion packs’)?

    I remember hearing a talk from one of the wizards of PernMUSH many years ago about how they managed this kind of thing. They had some interesting methods. One was the ability for a wizard to “posess” any NPC and control them directly. They used this from time to time on important quest characters to add a bit of variation from the run-of-the-mill.

    The other thing they liked to do was create significant and portentious events in the world without completely planning what they meant. Anything from giving a single player a rose from an anonymous admirer to having cracks appear in the World Gem. They would then spy on the ensuing discussions and see if the players came up with any good ideas for what it meant. The best ideas would then be incorporated into later events.

    Whether you could do this in a meaningful way in a game the scale of an MMO is a difficult question, but one that I’d love to investigate.

  3. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Nick, thanks for the kind words!

    Malcolm, I’ve certainly talked with people about approaches similar to one of PernMUSH’s. Different MMOs have done different experiments with performances by live teams in the roles of NPCs. I think the Matrix game (which I didn’t play) was rumored to be particularly ambitious in this regard. Other games tend to use performance teams for things like setting up cross-faction battles (e.g., SWG folks talked about some of their approaches to this). On the other hand, doing something portentous and seeing how players respond sounds like something more commonly done by today’s ARG puppetmasters than MMO live teams.

    As for an overall story, the only MMO I’ve heard of that actually has a story arc (coming to an end) is A Tale in the Desert (in its iterations). But, of course, Sheldon was talking about a genre that doesn’t arc and come to an end, but rather keeps evolving through daily story content. I can’t think of a project that comes close, though my knowledge is not encyclopedic.

    Of course, as a writer who also has strong algorithmic interests, my question is always how we should balance the workload of such a system, and where the sweet spot is for audience experience. Sure, with a big team of writers an MMO could have daily content. But maybe a smaller team of writers and some smart generative computation could give hourly content, or more personalized content, etc. Maybe now is the time to finally put that Universe story generation model (proposed in the soap opera domain) to use in a full scale media project?

  4. Mark J. Nelson Says:

    Coming to an end after covering only the first, second, and third persons? Surely there’s space for another collection. Perhaps Obviative Person?

    (But yes, I too shall be buying/reading this.)

  5. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Henry Jenkins has just posted the first part of an interview he did with Pat and me about Third Person. I’m also honored to read that he’s using our book as the central text for one of the first courses he’s teaching at USC and to find out that he’s just the sort of reader we’ve been hoping to reach: “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.”

  6. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    Readers of Third Person might be interested in Michael Abbot’s discussion of the latest news from City of Heroes (the subject of Matthew Miller’s essay ‘Storytelling in a Multiplayer Environment’).

    At GDC this year NCSoft announced that they were adding a mission building tool to their MMO to allow players to create their own missions. They intended it to be a way for players to tell new stories. Instead it turned out to be a way to cheat the XP system.

    One wonders what Richard Garriott (former executive producer on CoH) makes of this, considering the stance he took in “Alice and Dorothy Play Together”.

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