“LOST” and the Very Long Form Story
So yes, I was among the many people avidly watching the “Lost” finale last night. I thought it was well done: good writing, pacing, additional character development, and summing things up in a way that was satisfying narratively and emotionally.
We’ve also been watching the series from the start (DVD and Hulu) and I’ve been impressed by how much of the story was in fact present from the very beginning: seeds of characterization, theme, and even plot points were carefully included from the first episode on. Also how layers of explanation worked to the show’s advantage: polar bears and a smoke monster on a tropical island seem equally improbable, but it turns out only the latter was actually mysterious. As the layers peeled away with time, we gained much more understanding of the island and of the main characters (who thankfully avoided becoming caricatures).
This six-year run of Lost with its successful conclusion brings me back to how such long story arcs are missing in games. Most games (especially online/MMO games) present static worlds or have a single arc often with an unsatisfying end. Can we learn from the success of “very long story forms” like Lost to increase the long-term world and narrative structure in online games?
MMO worlds like World of Warcraft typically present a static world — sure it’s at war, but nothing really ever changes. Other (single-player) games build to a big finish… but only with a single arc sustained over only a few hours of play, and too often (as with Borderlands for example) with a disappointing, even anti-climactic end. We’re held hostage as players by the format of “every level ends with a boss monster, and the last level has the biggest one.”
Yes, a climax is necessary in games that have an end, but we’ve substituted “bigger threat” for “more meaningful” in trying to create the energy for that climax. In on-going world-games, the climax is avoided altogether, substituting instead mini-achievements along the way.
What I believe “Lost” teaches us is that an on-going story — with complex characters, a deep world that seems inscrutable but is in fact (largely) explainable, and interwoven conflicts and events — can provide a strong foundation for a world that people will engage with for years at a time. We see some of this engagement and intricacy now in ARGs, but those are notoriously short-lived. They might be compared to short stories in literary terms; a typical PC or console game might be a novella or novel… but where are our epics? These ought to be where online games with their persistent worlds shine. Unfortunately, after more than thirty years of constructing online worlds, virtually all assume static must be part of persistent.
I think one of the things that Lost shows us is that meaningful characters in an unknown and gradually discovered world can drive significant engagement for many years, over many plot and character arcs, holding the story tension longer than many thought possible.
If there’s any medium that should take advantage of this, it’s online game-worlds. Many have tried providing non-static worlds and walked away stung, content to assume now that it’s too difficult and not worth doing. I think it can be done, and is definitely worth doing. More on how in another post.