A friend of mine made a comment recently that really resonated with me. She commented how she found it frustrating that J.K. Rowling was being asked to “clarify” things about the Harry Potter world, and how asking for that kind of clarity devalued imagination.
It’s a thought that’s stuck with me. I think about the stories I’ve gotten deeply invested in, and I realize that so many of them leave questions unanswered, little details left up to the imagination. If the story and setting are rich enough and robust enough, the actual story told feels like a snapshot, a thin line cutting through a much larger unwoven tapestry. All of this blank space leaves room for the imagination to play, where you can tell stories to yourself or other people about what’s going on in that unseen space. Sometimes this is just your own thoughts on what’s happening over there, or a conversation with a friend. Sometimes it’s more involved: some fanfiction, a fan film, Knights of the Old Republic.
I’ve thought a lot about the settings that really hook me, and they’re often ones where I can feel the story spiraling outwards, beyond the bounds of the actual narrative. In media studies, we refer to that ‘actual narrative’ as the text of the work, the actual, literal words and scenes that are happening on the page, or on the screen, or through whatever medium. That uncharted territory that gets filled in by your imagination is whitespace, a blank canvas for you to fill in your mind, based on the snippets given in the text.
I’ve been watching a lot of anime lately, and it’s striking to me how much whitespace most anime leaves in its worlds. Even very simple worlds are explicit about the scope of their stories, and generate lots of little questions and curiosities that go unanswered– by design. It’s a stark contrast to the way western media does things. We want to know the answers, we want those answers to be the right ones. An offhanded comment by an author about what she thinks might happen off-camera sparks a searing argument, and can drive people from a formerly beloved property. I know many people who were driven away from Star Wars by the prequels. Too much was explained in unsatisfactory ways, and it tainted what had come before; it filled the whitespace when it didn’t need filling.
I think a lot of this was the appeal of early MMOs, and some of what drove that deep attachment I and many others formed. The low fidelity of the storytelling and the world itself left a lot of whitespace for us to fill in our minds, that we could directly play a part in. Even before I started seriously roleplaying, I had an image in my mind of my character– one-dimensional and not fleshed out, but there was a faint persona there that was me filling that whitespace in a small way. In Vanilla WoW, the storytelling was a little more explicit, enough to give me hooks around which to build a fully realized character, and the things I did weaved in and out of the narrative I’d come up with. I felt attached to those characters, enough that I can still tell stories about them, rather than stories about myself as a player.
I find myself sometimes wanting to know too much about a setting, wanting to fill in that whitespace until I’m satisfied that it’s full and “correct”. Sometimes I’m able to do this, and my interest in that setting drops off dramatically. There’s no more room for my imagination to play, and the world seems small. With MMOs, I’ve often felt constrained by the story being told. Rift is a really good example in my case– the introduction of the game establishes a very specific, narrow path that says a lot about my character and his or her background, and separates me from the world. I’m important to the game’s story, but only in the context of me performing heroics and stopping threats; I don’t really belong in that world. As our fidelity in MMO storytelling has risen, we’ve gotten more specific and more personal with our stories, and in so doing we reduce the whitespace we have to play in, and lose that hook that keeps us invested and attached.
It’s been ages since I’ve played an MMO that I’ve seriously roleplayed in, and it’s telling that my attachment to various MMOs has dropped off dramatically. There are other reasons for it, but in the past few months those reasons have evaporated and yet I haven’t returned to one of my favorite hobbies, despite having both the time and the mental energy to do so.
I understand why, from a business standpoint, a lot of MMOs have stopped giving servers explicit “RP” tags, but it’s something I dearly miss. It gave me a space where I knew I could play and fill in that whitespace with my own thoughts. I made a special effort to roll on the (unofficial) RP server in Archeage, just because I think I want to try to find some like-minded folks. I’m a bit worried that I’m coming into things too late to really take part, but the possibility is there.
I like my worlds large, full of uncharted space with stories that are never “officially” told. It sparks the imagination and keeps me thinking about what might be happening elsewhere in that world. I think that’s a big part of why Harry Potter was such a big hit– it painted a small picture of a world that was much, much larger than what you got to see. There were little hints that there was a lot going on that was never explicitly told, so you could fill in those blanks yourself. It’s a world full of stories, in which Harry Potter himself is a relatively small part. It’s a good world, because it’s big. We don’t need that whitespace filled– in fact, it’s better that it’s not filled.
Pursue the stories untold, paint your own pictures in that blank space. Fight the urge to fill it up and make the world you love small and cramped.