Television, Serialization, and Endings

I read an article recently entitled “the Cosmology of Serialized Television.” It’s a great read if you’re interested at all in media and storytelling, so you should check it out.

The tl;dr is basically that the structure of television makes it impossible to create good art. Specifically, the “interferences” of networks and audience, the need to sometimes suddenly end a show or to stretch it out for four more seasons, ends up almost categorically creating failures. Any show that attempts to build an overarching storyline or mythology ends up becoming too complex, too grand for its own good. Shows like Lost fail because the creators can’t plan an ending, even though it seems like they’re working towards one, and then when they do it, they find it impossible to really tie everything up in a meaningful way, because it went on for three seasons too long.

Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the Big Crunch mentality has been to make television creators think of themselves as auteurs, to convince them that in spite of the massive interference with their work, they can somehow create a work of aesthetic integrity and sociological insight even if they don’t know where it’s going. Well, sometimes you get lucky, but more often, the result is disaster, and the effort spent toward that failure is redirected from where it would be better put: creating great trash. The quality hack becomes a crap expressionist.

There’s a lot of good stuff here, even though the author disparages some shows that I very much enjoyed -- like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which admittedly had some not-so-great seasons. But I think the overarching message rings pretty true:

If you don’t know what the ending is and how long it will take to get there, you can’t create a good story.

Getting it Right

That said, it is possible. The author makes the example of Battlestar Gallactica, where the creators didn’t know where the show was going necessarily, but made a careful attempt to lay clues that they could use, and keep the show from getting too unwieldly such that when they did end it, they could mostly wrap things up.

The author also implies that the ending was terrible. I actually liked it, having just watched through the whole series earlier this year. I can see how audiences, especially at the time, might have been totally underwhelmed and betrayed by some of it -- angels and prehistoric Earth and all -- but I’d had the ending slightly spoiled for me, and I actually liked the interplay of the hard science fiction with the ambiguous mysticism. So it worked for me.

There were confusing bits, of course.

To me, this is sort of the holy grail of serial creation -- having a general basic idea where you’re going, planting a lot of hints and mysteries that you can tie up later, keeping things moving and interesting so that at some point, maybe 50% of the way through, you can start to plan out how it’s going to end and tie everything up. This is basically how I run D&D games.

In fact one of my most-loved games that I ran worked very much like this. I started it with very little idea where it was going. Planted a bunch of clues that meant nothing to me. But as I went, everything started to come together more and more, and a truly interesting plotline sprung from the mysteries I’d not planned. The game did perhaps get a little unwieldly and I had to try to wrangle it back, but ultimately it led to a very good story. Each new way I found to tie unrelated mysteries together actually created interesting revelations for me and my world.

If improvised storytelling like that is going to work, it has to be carefully monitored. A lot of work went into figuring out how it would all come together. And partway through, an ending definitely has to be planned and worked towards.

The question then becomes: is serialized storytelling at all really worthwhile, or is it at its most basic a concession to the gods of commerce? I’m personally a fan of the community-building aspect -- not even the audience building aspect, which is a business issue, but the community building of people interested in and discussing the work as it is slowly released. It’s like novel to novel in Harry Potter, everyone collectively waiting for the next one. When done right, it allows for a different kind of story, that I think better allows for character growth over a longer period of time, without simply making a 10-hour movie or 5000 page book. And perhaps most importantly, it brings the audience into the equation -- if done carefully, a serial story can adapt to an audience’s reactions (or even, in the case of games or D&D, interactions), to make the story stronger overall.


What does this mean for franchises that are meant to spin out over hundreds of properties, like comic book universes? What does it mean for me, as we seek to create one?

The article seems to unreservedly critique such attempts, and I find it hard to find fault with that. Look at the Marvel and DC universes, with their reboots and alternate dimensions and obscure character deaths resulting in “resurrected” heroes. It gets a bit old.

Or look at Star Wars. They keep a very careful continuity bible, but as soon as George stepped in, they were scrambling to fix things. “Midichlorians? Uh, ok.” “Jedi can’t marry or be in love? Better work that in somewhere.” (Allowed in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic [made before the prequels], but not in Star Wars: The Old Republic; therefore, wookiepedia says, the rule must have come into effect in the three centuries between them, and attempts to give an explanation for it.)

The only way to really make a potentially unending franchise work well would be to know that going in, and actually bake it into the setting or structure itself -- perhaps the entire storyline is about the existence of infinite alternate realities. But that would be ham-fisted, too, leaving all but the most ardent fans in the dust, making it hard for new audience to get invested, and forcing the stakes to constantly be risen to the point of absurdity. Which is basically what we’ve seen.

I think the best way to approach it would be, as the article implies, with an ending in mind (and no networks to screw with that). With our Flowforged setting, Silverstring Media is creating a canvas to create dozens of stories, but most of them aiming towards an ultimate goal, an “end state” event. We don’t think of it as a franchise, but rather one single grand transmedia story, on a large scale and timeframe, which we are planning to end.

We know where the story is going. There’s lots of room to explore in the middle, but we know the end. We’re doing what Lost and Battlestar failed to do.

Interactive Media

Finally, what do these ideas mean for interactive media? After all, can you plan an ending and still give players meaningful agency?

At StoryWorld 2013, Elan Lee made the controversial statement that even interactive stories need an ending, and that i love bees would have been better if a player hadn’t completely derailed the intended direction. This is a much larger topic for another discussion (after all, from the player’s perspective (which is arguably the only important one) the ARG much better for reacting so much to a player’s actions), but there’s still a point here about coherent plotlines and thematic development.

This is ultimately a question that we at Silverstring are very interested in delving deeply into, trying to create interactive narratives that are both meaningful as a story but also give the player true agency. Perhaps if the player agency is restricted to the story they’re playing in, without affecting the rest of the “franchise,” the ending of the story could change without affecting the overall narrative arch. But what if they even had true agency in affecting the world beyond that one story?

Perhaps in this way interactive media is best kept to things in which the interactivity, rather than an author-driven “plot,” is the main crux: where the experience is about the exploration of a place, or a theme, or about the theme of interactivity and agency and what that means. Where it’s more about getting players to feel empathy, such as Dys4ia or Lim or Mainichi, by standing in others’ shoes.

But I’ve made the argument before that I still like games like Dragon Age, and I like D&D games in which the players make a social contract with the GM that they’ll follow the story in exchange for some level of agency within it. I think there’s a place for that, a place for interactivity towards an ending.

Like I say, this is a whole separate discussion that I’ve barely opened, but it makes for interesting questions, interesting challenges. In short: I think it can be done, and I think there are many ways of doing it. But as the article suggests, it needs to be done with much care.

 - Lucas