The (Eventual) Sense of an Ending

10:00 AM, Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 (1 hour)

We don’t expect every loose end to always be tied up — even though it would be nice — but you do, I think, have the right to expect some understanding of why.” (Ross 2017)

This reaction to the end of the film The Sense of an Ending (Batra 2017) captures the expectation for closure or the feeling that we “get it” when we reach the end of our current experience of a text. However, we often do not get this traditional sense of closure - instead, we are drawn back to re-experience and try to make sense of what we just experienced. This can be seen in films such as Inception (Nolan 2010), where viewers are left uncertain as to how to make sense of the exact nature of the events in the film even after repeat viewings, but still find this lack of closure and the need for repeat engagement satisfying in its own way.

This raises the question of whether it actually makes sense to talk about endings as closing off a reader’s experience. It may, instead, be more productive to consider what readers do after they complete a traversal of a text and then return to that text, either literally or by mentally reviewing the just-ended experience in an ongoing process of (re)interpretation. In particular, in the context of electronic narrative literature where there are potentially “multiple and therefore highly indeterminate endings” (Douglas 1994), and where there is no guarantee that the surface text encountered on multiple readings will be the same, it is worth considering what it means to reread to look for closure or a sense of an ending (Mitchell and McGee 2012).

By examining texts that make use of differing degrees of narrative variation and coherence across readings, I argue that despite readers’ familiarity with the lack of clear endings in texts, there is still a desire for some form of closure, if not within a single reading, then at least across readings. In The Ice-Bound Concordance (Reed and Garbe 2016), for example, on repeat readings there is the feeling that you “get the gist” of how the story-system works, even if specific narrative events are different in each reading. Similarly, in Aisle (Barlow 1999), although there are clear contradictions that break narrative coherence between readings, there is still a sense of a consistent morality underlying the outcomes of player actions (Douglass 2007). In both of these examples there is a satisfying experience of what Murray (1998) calls “second- order closure”. In other works, however, readers are unable to achieve this type of closure. For

example, in Symon (Gambit Game Lab 2010), procedurally generated scenarios reuse common narrative elements, but while these elements are coherent at the level of the game’s object-based puzzles, there is a frustrating lack of narrative coherence across readings. This frustration suggests that, even in works that make use of procedural systems to create potentially endless variations on a narrative, readers still expect to eventually achieve some narrative understanding of the work.

National University of Singapore
Assistant Professor