Some anthropologists believe that interactive stories were invented alongside the campfire, when the elders of the tribe would incorporate audience suggestions and reactions into their performance. If this is true, then the idea of a singular author dictating the narrative is a more modern invention.1
The author has been sitting alone in his chair for quite some time now, comfortably narrating the epics of great Heroes, Kings, Warriors. Of Achilleses and Parises, Kenobis and Palpatines, Potters and Voldemorts, Disneys and Bezoses. Before we knew it, our "stories had all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero."2 But it was never really our story, it's always been his. In it, we, the audience, are to grow from the story, but never make the story grow.
We are entering an age where the audience, again, can transform the underlying structures and narrative logics of the worlds they inhabit. Real-time rendering engines have offered a first glance into these worlds; onchain autonomy will slam their gates open.
To help dissipate the thick fog of war blanketing this new era, we have begun to map its fruitful yet labyrinthine lands, and compiled an archaeological record of the times preceding it.
The Era of Worldbuilding
Disney (and it is no accident that his films are drawn) is a complete return to a world of complete freedom (not accidentally fictitious), freed from the necessity of another primal extinction... A fictitious world. A world of lines and colours which subjugates and alters itself to your [the animator's] command. You tell a mountain: move, and it moves. You tell an octopus: be an elephant, and the octopus becomes an elephant. You ask the sun to stop, and it stops.3
The Era of Worldbuilding is characterized by the prerendered and steadily progressing arrow of the Hero's Journey: a circular narrative starting from the beginning and, intuitively, finishing at the end. It is a centralized, top-down model of creation, one in which the author acts as a supreme gatekeeper of what can and cannot enter the world's walls. The author is a genius sculpting the world out of time—to use Andrei Tarkovsky's analogy4—the only individual with agency and control over his creation. The world itself has no autonomy to change or evolve. It remains immutable, preserved through aeons in an amber shell.
These are the immortal worlds of Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter, and Lara Croft, hosting audiences as temporary inhabitants—or rather tourists—eager to consume their epic narratives. Worldbuilding is an activity streamlined for success and capitalization at the expense of the inhabitants' agency, which is reduced to the mere passive consumption of the world's events. While this consumption might induce some emotional assimilation and produce byproducts (think of "apocryphal" fanfiction) these will never be accepted as canon to be reintegrated into the world itself.
The Era of Worlding
[Worlding is] the art of devising a World: by choosing its dysfunctional present, maintaining its habitable past, aiming at its transformative future, and ultimately, letting it outlive your authorial control.5
We can trace the emergence of the Era of Worlding around the 1960s, when artists began to notice the potential for narratives to shift from "the interiority of the individual [...] into a communitarian field."6 Characteristic of this era is the explosive, outwards motion of lightning-bolt7 narratives—multiply authored, horizontally organized, and endlessly mutating compositions that enable a leveling, even democratizing creative process aimed at including and activating the audience. The narrative still has a beginning, but one that can now fork into myriad possible endings. With great prescience, Umberto Eco described the act of worlding in his essay The Open Work,8 where he draws on information theory to describe open artworks as those containing a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Eco's open work emphasizes the plurality of meaning, in which the author spawns a field of possibilities rather than a definitive work of art.
Through this process, the world breaks free of its amber shell, dispelling the curse that has kept it frozen in time. It becomes alive, evolving, welcoming, and attentive to the wills of its inhabitants. This ambition becomes, to us, most articulated in recent MMOs such as Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and the work of artist Ian Cheng.
In these worlds, the narrative space is opened into a communitarian field of interactions. This shift seemingly lives up to the promise of a potential return to collective authorship. And yet, the underlying logics which define the interactions, the ruleset, and virtual economies remain set in stone according to the will of their authors (now replaced with a new organizational form, the so-called game studio).
We argue that interaction by itself does not fulfill the promises of participatory agency if the underlying rules of a world remain unchangeable to its inhabitants. Instead of interacting with lively worlds with real stakes and sustainable economies, players are placed in a confined sandbox, reacting to pre-established and inalterable inputs. This mirrors current critiques of and calls to democratize web platforms which, under the narrative of individual sovereignty and decentralized production of content, also prohibit the influence of underlying (often economically extractive) rulesets. A similar frustration led Vitalik Buterin to create Ethereum: a group of game developers changing the world ruleset of World of Warcraft, and the resulting extreme feeling of inadequacy that came from it.9
The Era of World-Weaving
[...] Against a frequent misunderstanding of the notion of 'creation', cosmogony (world-generation) isn't an event that took place once and for all at the earliest point in time. The activity of worlding is repeated at every instant, in the same way that Ash'arite theologians described the world as the fragile outcome of God's continuous and arbitrary re-creation. Even the most seemingly solid and undisputable thing in the world remains vulnerable to be eradicated at any point by the twisting and turning of a subject's own metaphysical narration.10
This is how the philosopher Federico Campagna describes a slightly different act of worlding, one generated through the lens of the prophet rather than the one of the author. "A prophet," Campagna argues, "is not an author: it is a position towards worlding. It is a certain metaphysics, filtered through lived existence and projected as a narrative atmosphere. [...] A prophet is a place where prophecy can make itself manifest." Blockchain world has many of these figures. Think of Satoshi: "rendered larger than life by his anonymity, he appeared briefly as a Genesis figure and likely died a few years later. He triggered a slow revolution peopled by relatively ordinary types who bicker on Twitter and Reddit, and lack an epic center like Mecca, Silicon Valley, or Washington, DC."11 Here, epics are replaced by lore, in the form of reins that more or less gently guide the formation of a world. The world itself emerges when a set of rules laid down by the prophet are acted upon, interpreted, and reimagined by its inhabitants. The narration of these worlds is a chaotic and decentralized one, mostly archived in wikis, discords, and game mods. The origin myth, a beginning, is still there, but instead of one or multiple ends, we might find entropy.12
We believe the outcome of this world-weaving to be fitting for Autonomous Worlds, a concept introduced by ludens.13 An Autonomous World is a world with "a clear, unalterable canon, formalized introduction rules, and no need for privileged individuals to keep it alive." Autonomous Worlds, to us, allow a reinterpretation of the roles of Author and Audience, two roles that begin to merge into one position.
In the Worldbuilding and Worlding eras, when the inhabitants of a world misbehaved and tried to smuggle homebrew narratives into the world, the creators policed them to reestablish order.14 In the World-Weaving Era, homebrew narrative is treated not as a threat to a world's order, but as the source of its renewal and continued vitality. Rather than working with scripted storylines that rigidly define a world's trajectory and harshly divide the boundaries between creators and enjoyers, we should create lore-pills and origin myths—what Ludens defines as digital physics—that can be assembled by the world's inhabitants and that will evolve through the tension between structure and agency.
These tensions (often used interchangeably with the concept of freedom) are a dominant theme at the center of political philosophy: from Hobbes' argument of the necessity of social order which restricts the agency of some to liberate others, to Rousseau's critique of the limits placed on agency by civil society, to Marx's arguments that social and economic structures such as class are fundamentally limiting.
How we design Autonomous Worlds, and according to which relation of structure and agency, ultimately becomes a political question. As the monolithic heroes and myths of the previous eras fall, so fall the systems and ideologies they were vehicles for, creating an urgency for reimagining a new politics that promotes a practice of designing worlds where the resulting relation between structure and agency enables the value that the world produces to be captured by those whose fate is bound up with it.
This text was originally published in Autonomous Worlds N1, 2023.
- Tanya X. Short and Tarn Adams, Procedural Storytelling in Game Design, A K Peters/CRC Press, 2019.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ignota Books, 2020.
- Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney, Seagull Books, 2017.
- “[T]he film-maker from a ’lump of Time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.” Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, University of Texas Press, 1989.
- This is how the Italian critic, curator, and historian Umbro Apollonio recognized the essential characteristic of Arte Programmata in the 1962 exhibition “Arte programmata: Arte cinetica, opere moltiplicate, opera aperta” (Programmed art: kinetic art, multiple works, open work).
- Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Federico Campagna, Prophetic Culture, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.