Big Worlds 06/07/21

I started playing Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War with my friends online. These are buddies from high school. It’s been a lot of fun to blast zombies and talk shit with them, slip back into our old jokes, and reminisce about the past.

Yesterday as we mowed down a horde of hissing monsters, a friend of mine was telling me all about the upgrades in the game. Every week there are new guns uploaded to the servers. The game works in “seasons,” and there are nearly limitless missions to play on the game’s dozen or so sprawling maps. The furthest he’d ever heard of a team getting was level 999, after nearly a week straight of gaming. Incredible.

This all got me thinking about totalizing worldbuilding and storytelling. There’s a story to CoD, and it keeps going, like a soap opera. The same is true, I think, for games like Fortnite and Destiny. The idea is to keep people in the world and to get them to spend their money on different upgrades, and on that ever-important monthly subscription.

Which dovetails nicely with some thoughts I’ve been having about long-form storytelling, particularly what Jack the Perfume Nationalist has to say about soap operas. Some of these things run for decades, with the longest running soap clocking in at 80 years long. It’s a method of engagement that isn’t for completists. Instead, it rewards people who are comfortable with never getting the full picture of a thing, instead opting for the comfort of knowing that, if they want it, there’s hours and hours of back catalogue they can use to fill their days.

What does this mean for the modern storyteller? I’m of two minds. The past few years I’ve believed that the goal is to make books shorter and shorter, so that people can fit them into their busy schedules. But maybe I’m wrong about that! Maybe maximalism is the way to go. Maybe you should flood a market with book after book, or chapter after chapter of whatever you’re working on. Maybe you should create a huge world that people can lose themselves in, if they so choose. This has held true for me as a reader with my last three binges: Stephen Graham Jones, Philip K. Dick, and now Gene Wolfe. In each case, I did not come close to finishing out the authors’ oeuvres. But there was an appeal to the fact that they each had dozens of books to choose from. Once I was done with the top 5 books or so, as sourced from internet listicles or friend recommendations, it was up to me whether or not I wanted to continue. Contrast that with some books that are coming out of late, where the author has one or two titles to their name. I’m in that club, as an author, by the way (I have like 6). You can exhaust that very quickly, and then it’s done…is that really what you want to do?

Maybe. But I’m beginning to understand the appeal of a dense, impenetrable world that you can dip your toes in and out of as you please. Podcasts work this way, almost by accident. If you record two hours a week, by the end of it you’ll have 100 hours. Someone coming to a podcast that has been running for three years, then, will have 300 hrs of back catalogue to go through. At an hour a day, that’s about ten months of content. If they want it.

These are all very new thoughts that I’m still puzzling over, but definitely worth thinking about. The zeitgeist, or trend of the moment is to ape things like Spotify, YouTube, or some other low-engagement, bite-sized thing. Perhaps going in the opposite direction is the move. Creating a huge, multi-million word epic that you work on every week for 10 years might be worth considering as a project.

Just some thoughts.

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