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Will New Media Produce New Narratives?

Marie-Laure Ryan !

From the very beginning of the revolution that turned computers from li~ II

business machines into poetry engines, the relation between narrative and
digital media has been the object of contradictory opinions. Who should
we follow: George Landow, who claims that hypertext will reconfigure the
narrative experience by turning readers into coauthors; Janet Murray, who
regards digital media as a new stage on which old narratives will be re-
played in new dimensions (as the title ofher book, Hamlet on the Holodeck,
suggests); Espen Aarseth, who thinks that the future of cybertexts lies not
in storytelling but in computer games; or Katherine Hayles, who equates
digital meaning with complexity, fragmentation, 8uidity, resistance to to-
talization, aporia, paradox, emergence, or self-organizing capabilities-
features more likely to bring in a post-narrative, post-human literature than
to transform the basic conditions of narrativity?
To start this discussion of the narrative potential of digital media on solid
ground, three issues must be covered. First, we need to define narrative.
Here I will work from the definition outlined in the introduction to this
volume: a narrative text is one that brings a world to the mind (setting) and
pop~ates it with intelligent agents (charactersl' These ag~!lts participate
in actions and happenings (events, plot), which cause global changes in
the nãrratjve world. Narrative is thus a mental representation of causally
connected states and~v~nts that captures a segment in the history of a world
and ~ fts members.This logico-semanticcharacterizationof narrative is
sufilciently abstract to be regarded as a cognitive universal but 8exible
enough to tolerate a wide range of variations: simple plots, complex plots,
parallel plots, epic plots, Russian doll plots (that is, recursivelyembedded
stories), dramatic plots, and so on. Ir is on me level of these variations,
as well as on the level of thematic content, that narrative is affected by
historical, cultural, and medial factors.
338 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 339

The second preliminary issue concerns the distinctive properties of dig- its narra tive potential. But, when interactiviry is added to the text or the
ital media. To make a list of these properties does not mean that digital movie, its abiliry to telI stories, and the stories it can telI, are deeply affected.
media form a unified field and that each of their idiosyncratic features The third issue to be addressed before we can begin our discussion is
is available to every application. On the contrary, there are several genres the refinement of the concept of interactiviry. This essay will be based
within digital textualiry, and different genres exploit different properties. I on a rypology of user participation in digital media that involves two
would like to single out the folIowing five properties of digital media as tht' dichotomies, internal versus external involvement and exploratory versus
most fundamental. I These properties affect narrativiry in either a positiw ontological involvement.3
or a negative way. Internal/External involvement

I. Reactive and interactive nature, By this I mean the abiliry of dig In the internal mo de users project themselves as members of a virtual (or
ital media to respond to changing conditions. Reactivity refers \O fictional) world, either by identifying with an avatar or by apprehending
the virtual world from a first-person perspective. In the external mo de
responses to changes in the environment or to nonintentional US('j
actions; interactivity is a response to a deliberate user action. readers situate themselves outside the virtual world. They either play
the role of a god who controls the fictional world from above, or they
2. Multiple sensory and semiotic channels, or what we may call "mul
conceptualize their activiry as navigating a database. This opposition is
timedia capabilities," if we are not afraid of the apparent paradox 01
not strictly binary: the position of the user may be more or less inter-
talking about multimedia media.
nal or external, or the same text may give rise to different imaginative
3. Networking capabilities. Digital media connect machines and peoplr
acts. Some users will spontaneously situate themselves inside the textual
across space and bring them together in virtual environments. '1'111_
world; others prefer a distanced point of view.
opens the possibiliry of multi-user systems and live ("real-time") ,I~
welI as delayed communication.
Exploratory/Ontological involvement
4. Volatile signs. Computer memory is made of bits whose value l.11I
In the exploratory mode users are free to move around the database,
switch back and forth between positive and negative. Unlike book~
but this activiry does not make history, nor does it alter the plot; users
or paintings, digital texts can be refreshed and rewritten, widlOUI
have no impact on the destiny of the virtual world. In the ontological
having to throw away the material support. This properry explaillL
mode, by contrast, the decisions of the user send the history of the virtual
the unparalleled fI.uidiryand dynamic nature of digital images.
world on different forking paths. These decisions are ontological in the
5. Modulariry. Because the compute r makes it so easy to reprodu"
sense that they determine which possible world, and consequently which
data, digital works tend to be composed of many autonomous 01,
story, will develop from the situation in which the choice presents itself.
jects. These objects can be used in many different contexts and ('0111
This opposition is much more binary than the preceding one, though a
binations, and undergo various transformations, during the 1"1I11 01
the work. hybrid case will also be discussed here.

The cross-classification of these two dichotomies yields four rypes of user

While the fulI expressive power of digital media cannot be dcsnilll d participation in the text: internal/exploratory, internallontological, exter-
without mentioning alI of these properties, I believe that the fil'sl 0111, nallexploratory, and external/ontological. I do not claim that my rypology
interactiviry, is the truly distinctive, and consequently fundamenlal. 0111 cxhausts the field of possibilities; for instance, interactiviry can be described
A novel can be digitized, made available on the Internet (propeny I). ,11111 as either selective (clicking on a link) or productive (participating in a nar-
even daily updated (properry 4) while remaining a traditional 110vd, ... rative action through dialogue and gestures). Nor do I wish to say that every
the recent publishing experiment by Stephen King has shown. Sifllilollh' tcxt fits neady imo one of these classes:sometimes the user's role changes in
cinema offersmultiple channels (properry2) and fluid imagcs rh:1I11,,,11111 rhe run of the pro~rarni somctimes the user's mode of participation can be
one another easily on the screen (properry 4) j2 morcovcr. :1 movi(' 1.111I" ways.I
vicwcd ill IWo «1111"1"'111 have chosen these four categoriesbecause
shown on the Internet (property J) withOlH signifit'aIU ('011$('<)111'1111
1111 thcy providC'.I"IIIV, 1111'111
for tht' prcscnrarion ofthc various modes
II i/I Nr'/I' M,.,It" 1'/'(I(/lIrrNr/lJ Nrll'nlll/ 34 I

ofimcraclivc narrativity. 1krc: I will dis('uss fiw digital w..nn's: hY!'I'III-1 lhe idc:l of ali Opt'lI, 1IIlIM;llItly Iil,lf.transforming work?-it cannot be
text-based virtual environmcnts, interactivc drama, compUll'" 1-\,11111'\, 11111 takcn lilcrally, Fil'sl, il is 1101so much because of the interactive nature
live Internet image transmission tluough Wcbcams. IIf hypertcxt Ihm (iftt'rnoon proposes different versions of the same evenr
bllt because Michael Joyce deliberately chose to include lexia with contra-
Hypertext dictory content in his database. He could have done the same thing in a
print environment. There are indeed many postmodern novels that refuse
By now the idea of hypertext should be quite familiar to studcl1ls 01111.I to construct a solid actual world based on an authoritative version of facts.
ature: hypertexts are netWorks of textual fragments, called "Icxia" 01 11. Second, the conception of hypertext as a story-generating machine purs
trons," connected by links. Readersmove through the text by cliddllV,1111 lJuestionable emphasis on linear sequence and the narrative significance of
buttons, and, since most fragments contain many buttons, reaclcrsh.,VI" lhe link. If we take literally the claim that every traversal of the database
choice of many different itineraries. The significance of this multiplllll\ determines a different story, readers who encounter three segments in the
has been an object of endless theorizing. Of special relevance to our 10l'h order A then B then c will construct a different story than readers who
is the claim that, since every reading follows a different path, hypl'nol 1\ cncounter the same segments in the order B then A then c. If readers
capable of endless self-regeneration. I call this interpretation thc AI('phit could place the information given by each lexia wherever they wanted in a
conception ofhypertext, by analogy with "The Aleph," the short slmy I'1 developing narrative partern, ir would not matter in which order they visit
Jorge Luis Borges in which the scrutiny of a cabalistic symbol enab"" dll the lexia themselves, and the sequences AB C would yield the same Story as
experiencer to contemplate the whole of history and of reality, dowlI 111 Bc A.Take the case of readers who first encounter a lexia telling them that a
its most minute details.The Aleph is a small, bound object that CXP:IIIII., certain character is dead and later discover another lexia in which the same
into an infinity of spectacles, and the experiencer could therefore dcvolI ,I character is still alive. Readers have tWo choices. If linking and sequencing
lifetime to its contemplation. Similarly, hypertext has been conceivcd ,1\ ,I are narratively significant, they will assume that the character has been
matrix that expands into a multitude of texts, as readers unravel new siri 111-',' resurrected-an interpretation that presupposes a supernatural world that
of signs from its finite database of discrete lexia. may clash with the semantics of the text as a whole. (There is nothing
If we equate these strings of signs with "narrative," hypertext beco11H". supernatural about the world of afternoon, for instance.) Alternatively, they
a machine for the production of stories, just as the grammar of a langw'r\1 may decide that the sequence established by the links does not represent
is a machine for the production of sentences. It is in these terms 11..11 causal and temporal order. They will then treat the lexia telling of the death
Michael Joyce envisions the novelty of hypertext with respect to prilll as a prolepsis (flash-forward), and they will reconstruCt the same story as
narra tive: "Reordering requires a new text; every reading thus becornt's ti teaders who encounter the tWo fragments in the opposite order.
new text . . . Hypertext narratives become virtual storytellers" (193).Joyn"~ If narrativity is a mental representation constrained by logical principIes,
now classichypertext novelafternoonallegorizesthis idea of hypertext as .1 it is simply not possible to construCt a coherent Story out of every permuta-
matrix of different stories by proposing several different versions of dll tion of a set of textual fragments, because fragments are implicidy ordered
fictional world. The common theme of ali these variations is the narralOl\ by relations of presupposition, material causality, psychological motivation,
witnessing of a cal' accident. In one version the accident is fatal, and tlH' and temporal sequence.1t is only in hypertexts with a very simple map, such
narrator's ex-wife and son are the victims. In another version the victirm as the tree-shaped diagram that underlies the children's stories known as
are strangers. In a third the accident is not serious. In a fourth the narrallll Choose Your Own Adventures, that narrative continuity can be maintained
himself causes the accident. 01' everything could have been dreamed 01 for every traversal. On a tree diagram different readings follow different
hallucinated. For those who endorse the Alephic interpretation of hypcl' branches, but on a given branch a lexia is always preceded and followed by
text, every reading session leads to different lexia, creates different semantil the same lexia. This makes it easy for the author to control the progression
connections between them, and consequendy construCts a different story of the reader and consequendy to guarantee proper logical sequence. But
around the theme of the accident. the vast majoriry ofliterary hypertexts are based on more complex netWorks
As seductive as this conception appears-aren't we alI enamoured with that make it possible for a given lexia to appear in different contexts. The
342 Ryan Will New Media ProduceNew Narratives? 343

author may control the path of the reader out of a cerrain node, but aftc'l Thematically speaking, the external/ exploratory interactivity of classical
a few transitions the path becomes unpredictable. hyperrext is better suited for self-referential fiction than for narra tive worlds
In keeping with his well-known theory of readers as coauehors, Georw that hold the reader under their spell for the sake of what happens in them.
Landow puts the burden of filling in the logical gaps between fragments 011 Ir promotes a metafictional stance, at the expense of immersion in the
readers' imaginations: "In a hyperrext environment a lack of linearity doc'\ fictional world. This explains in part why so many literary hyperrexts offer
not destroy narrative. In fact, since readers always, bue particularly in 11m a collage of literary theory and narrative fragments.5
environment, fabricate their own structures, sequences or meanings, the'~ In recent years, however, hyperrext has taken a new direction that shifts
have surprisingly litde trouble reading a story or reading for a story" (11)7) its conceptualization from the model of the scrambled narrative to what
But it would take a mind with angelic-or, rather, post-human-powc'l ~ Raine Koskimaa has called the model of the searchable archive. This new
to fit lexia in a narratively coherent pattern for every order of appearamt' direction is tied to the improving multimedia capabilities of digital sys-
For merely human minds what hyperrext offers is not a story-generatill~, tems.6 In the multimedia phase hyperrext can retUrn to more solid narrative
machine but something much closer to the narrative equivalent of a jigs:ly, structures, and to a more linear presentation, without reverring to the mode
puzzle: readers try to construct a narrative image from fragments that COlHI' of signification of the standard novel, because interactivity can now take
to them in a more or lessrandom order, by fitting each lexiainto a gloh.d the form of moving from one medi um to another, rather than jumping
pattern that slowly takes shape in the mind. Just as we can work for a tilHl around a texto Here I must fundamentally disagree with Roberr Coover,
on a puzzle, leave it, and come back to it later, readers of hyperrexl dll who thinks that rhe golden age of digitalliteratUre carne to an end when
not starr a new story from scratch every time they open the program 11111. hyperrext ceased to be purely verbal. Hyperrext can learn from the arrist's
rather, construe a mental representation over many sessions, compk'líIlV. book, pop-up children's books, activity books, advent's calendar, and arr
or amending the pictUre pue together so faroIr is by creating what Espe'lI CD-ROMS to spread many surprises along the visitor's way. Visible or hidden
Aarseth has called a "game of narration" (94), a scrambled picture Ih.1I links can be used to give the tactile pleasure of mousing over hot spots and
readers try to put back together, that hyperrext narrative takes advantagc'III of making something happen-the expansion of the textual world into a
the interactive properries of its medium. Out of new syntactic featUr('~ diversified sensory experience. Readers of these texts will be cast into the
fragmentation and linking-hyperrext thus creates a new type of discolIr'r role of an investigator who digs into the history of the textUal world by
The role of readers in this game of narration caI}be described by the' ptl freely exploring a collection of documents. The type of topic and structUre
rameters of external and exploratory interactivity. Involvement is extl'f'IIód. best suited to this idea of searching an archive will be collections of litde
because readers are not cast as members of the textual world and becall~('11 stories, such as family sagas, narratives of cultUral memory, local history
takes a perspective akin to a god's-eye view to appreciate the design 01 lIu (for instance, the communal story of a village) or biography. These subjects
textual network. Readers regard the text more as a database to be seard1('d lend themselves parricularly well to the relatively free browsing ofhyperrext
than as a world in which to be immersed.4 And, in spite ofGeorge Landow', because the story of a life or a community is not a dramatic narrative aimed
theory of readers as coauthors, involvement is exploratory, rathl'r 1111111 at a climax but an episodic narrative made of many self-sufficient units that
ontological, because readers' paths of navigation affect not the narrallVI can be read in many orders.
events themselves bue only the way in which the global narrative palle'II'
(if there is one at all) emerges in the mind. Similarly, with a jigsaw 1'111/1. Text-Based Virtual Environments (Moas and MUDS)
the dynamics of the discovery differ for every player, but they do nOIaIJc'l1
the structure that is pue together. Just as the jigsaw puzzle subordinalc', Ilu A text-based virrual environment is a social meeting place accessible
image to the construction process, external/exploratory interactivilY di through a network. Users log on to the system and interact with one an-
emphasizes the narrative itself in favor of the game of its discoV('ry.f\.tllH other undcr the mask of a fictional character. This character, known in
scholars (for example, Davenporr and Sloane) havc inclt'(.'dohsl'!'wd 111111 the jargon as "avatar," is created by posting its description, just as a novelist
hyperrextis not a good medillm for lhe crcation of comlwlling plol\ 11,,11 crcates cha r.1eIc'" 1li 1'011gh lhe performative valuc of fictional discoursc. Thc
live fcom sllspcnsl' and emmional p:lflicip:ltion in Ih(' lill(' 0(' dlillólelei samc' 1I\('lIulIl" 11\1'.1 !ly IIH'Imildl'rs of the systelll to Cfl'all' a "crmanent
344 Ryan Will New Media ProduceNew Narratives? 345

setting, typically a large building with many rooms furnished with textualJy singularity of the MOOexperience can be described as an alternation be-
described objects. In both the building of the setting and the performancc tween three different forms of interactivity:
of identities, MOOSare largely dominated by fantastic themes.7 When they
are not used as platforms for serious business, they provide a forum for · Ontological-external: creating a character or building a room by post-
ing its description. (Out-of-character behavior)
free flights of fancy, black humor, and surrealist incongruities. Most 01'
the interaction that takes place on the MOOSconsists of small talk and · Ontological-internal: interacting with other users by performing ac-
tions or posting dialogue. (In-character behavior)
gestures, hardly the stuff of narrative, but this small talk easily develops
into conversational storytelling: · Exploratory-internal: wandering around the MOO,visiting rooms, and
looking at objects. (Neutral behavior)
Carrot grins
Carrot waves Can we call MOOSa new form of narrative? The problem does not reside
Turnip waves to Carrot with the very obvious novelty of the platform but with the narrativity of
Carrot says Hi the performance. MOOSreadily offer two of the three basic elements of
Turnip says What's up narrative: setting and characters. The question mark concerns the plot:
Carrot says Want to hear a good joke :-; as Elizabeth Reid has suggested, MOOScreate a stage but not a script. 8
Turnip says Most of the time MOOvisitors are satisfied with small talk. Ir is up to the
Carrot tells joke improvisational skills, willingness to pay roles, and cooperativeness of the
participants to produce a dramatic trajectory retellable as a story.
The joke told by Carrot to Turnip is a standard example of diegetic sto
rytelling. Ir is told in writing but according to the real-time pressures alld
Interactive Drama in VREnvironments
stylistic conventions of oral interaction: you have to be a fast typist as wdl
as a fast mind to be a good performer on the MOOS.Even the gestul'l" While text-based virtual environments are multi-users platforms, virtual re-
that traditionally accompany storytelling can be textually simulated. Frolll ality installations can only accommodate a limited number of participants.
a discourse point of view, this hybrid status between oral and wriu('1I If the technology is ever perfected, VRwill enable users to take their body
communication is the truly distinctive feature of MOOstorytelling. WlwlI into three-dimensional simulated worlds and to experience these worlds
the users are sufficiently imaginative, however,'MOOinteraction rises to 1lu through most of their senses. In the wildest dreams of developers these sim-
level of a dramatically enacted narra tive. For instance: ulated environments will support an interactive form of drama. According
to Brenda Laurel, "The user of such systems [will be] like audience mem-
Bek throws Panther a box, wrapped prettily. "Open ir! I bought ir jml
for you." bers who can march up onto a stage and beco me various characters by what
Lilypad gets the box open and takes out a puppy. they say and do in their roles" (16).Janet Murray conceives the future drama
form on the model of the Holodeck of the popular TVshow "Star Trek." The
Lilypad (to Bek): She's a wonderful puppy . . . Where did you gCI11("~
Bek (to Lilypad): I found her in an old warehouse. I took her hOJ11l';llId Holodeck is a kind of VRcave, in which the crew members of the starship
cleaned her up. I hope you like her. Here, I have a toy for her, (Adnpll'd Enterpriseretreat for relaxation and entertainment. In this cave a computer
from Kolko II5) runs a three-dimensional simulation of a fictional world, and visitors-Iet's
calI them "interactors"-become a character in a digital novel. The plot
MOO participants have been known to construct imaginary objccrs. h('" of this novel is generated live, through the interaction between human
the puppy-and to build elaborate scenarios around these props, WIIC'II participants and computer-created, AI-operated virtual characters. In the
this creative role playing actually takes place, MOOS becomc rhc SI;lI-\(111 cxample discusscd by Murray, Kathryn Janeway, the female commander
a collaborativelycreatednarrative performance,Sincc rhe panicipalll' 1111 ar rhc srarship VtJY(lgc'r, sneaksinto rhe Holodeck and becomesLucy,rhe
provise this script for their own gratificarion. rhey are ai Ih(' snll1(' 111111 gOVl"'l1l'SS of ti" ,l1l1dl'l'lIil1.111
aristOcraric Vicrorian houschold. Lucy f.'llIs
authors and specmtors. acrors and characlers, On tlll' prngm.1I il k'Vl'1ti" ill loVl' wit h tllI 1.11111'1
111tlH' (hildn'l1. Lord Burll'y, :lnd Ihcy cxchangc
346 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 347

passionate kisses, but the very responsible Kathryn realizes that this lovC' cracks, what is revealed, and the final disposition of Grace and Trip's
for a virtual human is detrimental to the fulfilIment of her duties in tht' marriage, and Grace and Trip's relationship, depends on the actions of
real world, and she eventually orders the computer to delete the charactl'l, the player. (Mateas and Stern 2)
Murray interprets this action as evidence that vR-based interactive drama
can match both the entertainment and the educational value ofliterary naI' This plot evidently strives toward high emotional drama, but its feasibility
rative: "The Holodeck, like any literary experience, is potentially valuahlc is questionable: how could a lifelong relationship be resolved in the fifteen
in exactly this way. It provides a safe place in which to confront disturbil1~ minutes allowed for the project? In Whos Afraid ofVirginia WóolfEdward
feelings we would otherwise suppress; it allows us to recognize our mOM Albee needed no less than two hours to break down a marriage.1t is admit-
threatening fantasies without becoming paralyzed by them" (25). tedly the essence of dramatic art to make long-simmering problems reach
The viability of the concept of the Holodeck as a model of a digil'll a crisis and resolution in the limited time frame of the stage action. But it
narrative is questionable for both technological and algorithmic reasom, would be an extraordinary achievement to bring the marital problems of
we don't have the hardware to produce truly lifelike three-dimensiol1,d Grace and Trip to an outcome, and to do so in a believable manner, in a
virtual worlds, and we don't have the AIto produce complex charactcr~,v fraction of Albee's time.
The closest attempts so far to implement the Holodeck experiencc a"c The predominantly affective nature of the plots suggested by Murray
the projects in interactive drama currently developed at Carnegie Mcllol1 and Mateas presents a serious emotional problem: what kind of gratifi-
University,under the direction of Joseph Bates(until 1999)and MichuC'1 cation wilI experiencers receive from becoming a character in a drama
Mateas. These projects use a strongly Aristotelian script (folIowing tlu or a story? The entertainment value of the experience depends on how
curve prescribed by the Feytag triangle), and they are meant for a fiftcc'll interactors relate to their avatar: will they be like an actor playing a role,
minute visit of intense emotional involvement by a single human playcl' (II~ internalIy distanciated from their character and simulating emotions they
Mateas calls the visitor). Anything longer would strain the system as nlllcli do not really have, or will they experience their character in the first-person
as the participant. Players impersonate a character and interact, mmtll' mo de, actually feeling the love, hate, fears, and hopes that motivate the
through dialogue, with AI-animated characters. The system allows a hull character's behavior? The destiny of most literary characters is so unpleas-
dozen plot variations, alI triggered by the behavior of the player. Mter ti111 1 ant that interactors would have to be out of their mind-literally and
many visits, the player will consequently feel that alI the narrative possihil figuratively-to voluntarily experience it in the first person mode. If we
ities are exhausted. Although the ultimate goal of developers is to stagl' tllI derive aesthetic pleasure from the tragic fate of Anna Karenina, Hamlet,
projects in three-dimensional VRenvironments with fulI-body immcrsic"', or Madame Bovary, if we cry for them and fulIy enjoy our tears (as welI as
at the present time the interface is a computer screen, a keyboard, alld ,I theirs), it is because our participation in the plot is a compromise between
mouse. (See Mateas and Stern for a technical description; and Ryan, chill' the first-person and the third-person perspective. We simulate mentally the
10, for a narratological discussion.) Here is the plot of Mateas's ClII'IC'II , inner life of these characters, we transport ourselves in imagination into
project. their mind, but we remain at the same time conscious of being external
observers. Any attempt to turn empathy, which relies on self-conscious
Grace and Trip are apparentlya model couple, socialIyand final1li,tll~ mental simulation, into first-person, genuinely felt emotion would in the
successful, welI-liked byall. Grace and Trip both know the plaYI'"11'11111 vast majority of cases trespass the fragile boundary that separates pleasure
work. Trip and the player are friends; Grace and the player have gOIIC"'I'1 from pain. I suspect, therefore, that the aesthetic gratification of players
know each other only fairly recently. Shortly after arriving at thei.. ho,", of Mateas's project will be less a matter of emotional involvement than a
for dinner, Grace confesses to the player that she has fallen il1lovc'wlIl, matter of curiosity about the cleverness of the system. It will take the fulI
him. Throughout the restof the evening,the playerdiscoversIhm ( ;'111 1 six or SCVCI1 visits for playersto appreciatethe dramatic architectureof the
and Trip's marriage is actualIy falling apart. Their marriage has hC'c'11 MIIII project,
for years; deep differences, buried frustrations, anel lInspol<c'l1il1lidrllllc An l'VC'11 1111111
\('110'" pl'llhk'm with the idea ofbecoming a character in
have killcd their love for each orher, Ilow lhe VC'!1l't'1'or dwir 111111" hltll 1111oVt'I 01 dlllllhl 1_tI'I li" Olllili.l\iol1or IIsc:rs'frccdom or action wilh lhe

" j
348 Ryan Will New Media ProduceNew Narratives? 349

creation of an aesthetically enjoyable plot. A plot is a global design, imposed in VRenvironments, interactors will be better off playing the marginal role
top down on the 6ctional world by a godlike author, while the actions ar of observer. They will exercise their agency by navigating the virtual world
characters write the story of the fictional world from within this world and by selecting their point of view on the events that unfold in it, rather
itself. Characters live their life looking forward, while the author arrangcs than by being existentially entangled in these events. I see, therefore, two
their destinies with an eye on the global trajectory of the plot. How can possibilities for interactive drama in VRenvironments: ontological/internal 'I

interactors be coaxed into maintaining the plot on a proper aesthetic coursc involvement when the plot focuses on adventure and problem solvingj or II

while acting in the name of a 6ctional persona whose concern is survival in exploratory/internal participation when the plot focuses on interpersonal
a material world, rather than living their life according to the demands 01' relations and deeply affective experiences.
aesthetic teleology? ]oseph Bates and his colleagues (Kelso and others) haw
argued that interactive drama is meant to be played, not to be spectated. Computer Games
and that we judge a plot in which we participate by different standards
than a plot that we watch. This could mean that the criteria applying to The third geme, compUter games, may be the least adventurous in the
interactive drama may not be as strict as those through which we judgt' domain of narra tive theme and structure, bUt, as millions of game addicts
literature and traditional drama. BUt the problem of how to script uscrs' have proven, it is the most successful in terms of tUrning users into char-
actions in VRenvironments and gendy guide participants onto the path (li' acters. The secret to the narra tive success of games lies in their ability to
aesthetic gratifications is far from being resolved. exploit the most fundamental of the forces that move a plot forward: the I
I believe that both the emotional and the design problem of interactiw solving of problems. The player pursues the goal speci6ed by the game by
drama can be minimized by abandoning the idea of building a full-Aedgt'd performing a series of moves that determine the destiny of the gameworld.
dramatic (that is, Aristotelian) plot around the persona of the interactOl. This destiny is created dramatically, by being enacted, rather than diegeti-
Most dramatic plots featUre the mind of their characters as the thealt'r cally, by being narrated. But, in contrast to standard drama, the enactment
of uncontrollable passions, and their fate as a struggle against the blind is autotelic, rather than being directed at an observer: performing actions is
forces of destiny. But, if we are going to enter a virtual world, it is to 1)(' the point of the game and the main source of the player's pleasure. Players
agents and not patients. This means that only selected types of emotional are usually toa deeply absorbed in their task to reAect on the 1'101'that I~
experiences, and consequently selected types of participation, will It.'nd they write through her actions, but, when people describe their sessions
themselves to the 6rst-person perspective bfinteractive drama. Rather thall with compUter games, their reports typically take the form of a story.
becoming a character in a novel or a drama-and thereby losing tlwil Consider, for instance, this review by Peter Olafson of the game Combat
identity-interactors could play a counterpart of themselves in a forcign Mission, which simulates the German campaign in Russia during World
environment. If we consider the whole gamut of 6ctional characters, wh ilh War 11:"My two panzer IVGtanks gol' lucky. Approaching the crossroads,
ones would we rather emulate: (I) Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Gregor Sams,1 they deared a rise and caught two Sherman tanks oUt of position, one
in The Metamorphosis, Oedipus, Anna Karenina, the betrayer Brutlls ill obstructing the aim of the orher. Concentrating rheir fire, they quickly
Ju/ius Ceasar;or (2) the dragon-slaying hero ofRussian fairy tales, AIÍt'c In took oUt rhe Allied unirs and rhe surviving crews abandoned rhe Aaming
Wonderland, Harry Potter, or Sherlock Holmes? As far as I am conccrr1t'd, hulks and rerreared into rhe woods nearby" (New J0rk Times, Ocrober 5,
I would pick a character from list (b), which means a rather fIat chal'at 1"1 2000). Many people will righdy argue rhar computer games are played for
whose contribution to the plot is not a matter of rich inner !ife and illlt'lI\I rhe sake of solving problems and defeating opponents, of re6ning srraregic
affective experience but, rather, a matter of exploring a world, pcdlll'lll skills and of participaring in online communities, and nor for rhe purpose
ing actions, solving problems, competing against enemies. and, ahovt .dl. of crearing a trace rhar reads like a story. In contras r 1'0rhe gemes discussed
dealing with interesting objects in a visually stimulating environmc'nl, "'h I~ so far (with Ihc' possihle exceprion of social MOas), rhe narrarivity of games
kind ofinvolvement is much doser to playing a compUteI' gamc Ihanlollv is not an t'nd in Ílsdfhm a means toward a goal.lOThe most sophisticated
ing a Victorian novelor a Shakcspcarcandrama. 011Iht:(>lht'rhand. ir 1111 gamcs do nol IIl'l'd 10 dre'ss 111'in narrative garb to attracr players OlHO
aUthors of thc fUture insist 011staging lhe' c'(]lIivak'llIof high lilc'rary plol~ Ihei.. fi,,1I1.In ,11"~h II.IIIIC'~mdl ;ISCO, 'It,tris, Chcss, and Pac-Man lISl'rs
350 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 351

manipulate wholIy or partly abstract objects, and the game lives from thc a character in the fictional world, and their playing skilIs determine the
strategic eleverness ofits design, rather than from the imaginative impact 01' fate of their avatar. The interaction betWeen users and the fictional world
its world. The purpose of narrative scenarios is to make up for the absenct' produces a new life for the character, and consequently a new life story,
of an original, truly superior design by providing what Kendall Walton ha~ for every run of the system. The preferred narrative structure of the ad-
called "a prop in a game of make-believe." Scenarios create diversity Ol! venture game is the archetypal plot of the quest of the hero, as described
the level of the imaginative experience, when rules fail to create sufficienl by Vladimir Propp and Joseph Campbell. As Torben Grodal has observed,
diversity or novelty on the level of strategy. these games stretch their plot endlessly in time through the piling up of
The importance of the narrative background varies with the geme of th{' levels, episodes, and action cyeles with similar structures. Because of their
game. There is in principIe no reason whya complex fictional plot cOllld repeti tive nature, the narrative scripts of typical adventure games would
not be presented in game form and constitute the focus of playerlreadt'l'\' never sustain interest in a nonparticipatory environment, but in this case
interest. Players would be solving problems or accomplishing certain t:I~ll' repetitiveness is an asset, since it is by performing the same actions over
to be allowed to get to the next episode. Experience has shown, hOWl'YrI and over again that players acquire the physical skilIs necessary to excel at
that the formula is not very successful. When readers are really intercsl!.d the game.
in "what happens next," they do not want to find unnecessary obstadc'- Repetition, in its modular form, is also the adventure game's solution to
thrown in their way. The narrative element of computer games is therefoll the conflict betWeen user freedom and narrative designo Ir is because users'
typically subordinated to the playing action. Plot is the most visiblc, alld choices are quite limited in every situation and because every opportunity
elaborate, in the so-called RPG(role-playing) games to which I alludc ill 1111 for action forms a relatively self-contained episode that games maintain the
MOOsection. In these games participants spend a lot of time creating .11111 plot on the proper trajectory. In a shooting game, for instance, the choices
customizing their own character, they encounter many "NPGS"(nonplnYII'~, of players consist of the directions in which to move, of deciding whether
characters) during their wandering in the fictional world, and the gallll ~ to shoot or to flee when an enemy appears, and, in the former case, of
present many "cut-scenes," that is, lengthy movie elips. But the d('ve.lo!, selecting and aiming weapons; The only memory needed by the system
ment of an elaborate plot cuts into the player action time, sinc{' 11111\'1.' in computing these choices is keeping track of the resources available to
elips and the dialogue of nonplaying characters can only be speclale.d 111 players: how many weapons, how many soldiers, are left? In the complex
the pure action games plot is merely a pretext for fast-paced action (havllll4 plots of novels, by contrast, the options of characters at every decision
something to do alI the time seems to be a prerequisitefor succcs~),,11111 point are both much richer and much more tighdy constrained-richer
players quickly forget, in the fire of combat, the narrative purpOSl'01 IIlIlt because their range is that of life itself but also more constrained because
moves. Since the narrative scenario of action games is dictated by SII.IIII,I, the future is produced by the past and because every life intersects with,
design and since design types are limited, action games offcr 111<'1111111,. and is influenced by, multiple other destiny lines.
variations of the same master plots: rescue the princess from Iht' dl.I~I,OI'1
save the earth from evil aliens; disarm terrorists or be a terrorist YOIII'\df I. Simulation Games
is indeed an urgent problem in the game industry to gain largl'l' alldll'llI The elassics of simulation games are Simcity, Civilization, Caesar, Babyz,
by developing new narrative schemes. and The Sims. Here participation is ontological and external. Users are
Computer games represent several distinct gemes, and ('hc is~1IC' 01 11,',. cast as a powerful but not quite omnipotent god who holds the strings
rative configuration and mo de of participation must be trl'all,d "'Ihll 11..1, of the members of a complex and dynamic system, such as a city, an
for each of them. Let me briefly discuss the three princip~1 typn, l'mpire, or a hllman group. The elements of the system react to players'
dccisions accordil1g to bllilr-in behaviors specified by artificial intelligence
Adventure Games
.dgorithms. Thl'OlIp,hdlC'I11nniplllationof individual objects players wrire
The best-known representatives of advenrure games are tlll' .~oI ,alk.! "I~" thl' history 01',I I olle'(IIVI t'lIlÍty. Thc true hero of rhe srory has no COI1-
person shooters, such as Doam, QlIake, and II:tIr.l.ife, AdVC'lIlllIt I' IllItiI sdollsness 01' 11' O\VII 11 I~ 1"\1 11\('1\11111
of Inllltiple microprocesses, TI\t'
iIIlIstrate the case ofinll'l'I1al and onwloHkal pnnidpatioll, PI.I}/III 111'" ti' plll'pOSt' 01' pl,IY('I'~' ,li 11011' I II I IIhlllllaill IIlt' systc'l11 in a ,~ta(t' 01' 1'('1.11
352 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 353

equilibrium and to avoid steering the fictional world toward disaster, but 41). They do so by retrieving the pages of a book that tells the story of the
the number of variables is toa Iarge for players to anticipate alI possibilities. fictional world. Depending on how they pIay the game, one of two endings
The computer complicates matters by throwing in random events. Players takes place: in one ending players free Atrus; in another they free one of
cannot win, since the fictional world is in perpetual evolution, but they the evil brothers, who quickly imprisons the player. The narrative of the
derive satisfaction from competent management and from observing tht' past thus extends into a player's present, and players determine the destiny
relatively unpredictable behavior of the system. of the fictional world without being aware of the ontological consequences
of their actions.
While the operation of a simulation system requires a godlike position of'
power, many of the games mentioned here try to increase dramatic intereSI
by casting users as a member of the fictional world. In Caesar, for instanct', Webcams
users are the ruler of the Roman Empire; in Simcity, the mayor of the city.
The emperor or the mayor do not exist in the same space and time as their A narrative phenomenon that takes uni que advantage of properties 3 (net-
subjects. They rule the system from above, as the god's-eye perspective of working) and 4 (volatile signs) is rhe live recording of the evolution of
the graphic display indicates, and they do not operate in a simulacrum of a miniature world through a Web camera. Aimed at a particular setting,
real time, since they have alI the time in the world to make their decisions, Webcams capture images at regular intervals and post them on the Internet
AlI these features categorize them as external interactors. But, insofar as for everybody to see. The most successful of these shows, needless to say,are
the personal fate of these characters is at stake in the way they govern, those that focus on potential sites of sexual activities, such as the Webcams
they are also internal participants. The mayor will be voted out of offict, if associated with RealityTV ("Big Brother," "Loft Story"), but truly dedicated
his administration of the city does not please his constituents, and Cacsal digital voyeurs seem to find rewards in much less exotic subject matters,
will be dethroned if the Barbarians invade his empire. This combination of such as the utterly ordinary daily life of the family of a California hacker
features pIaces the games in question halfway between external and interna 1 displayed on There are even Webcams that show corn
participation. growing in Iowa.
No matter how banal their capture, however, Webcams provide a brand
Mystery Games new twist on the idea of narrativity-if we loosen the concept to mean an
Mystery games foreground what Roland Barthes has called the "hermen!;lI episodic series of events featuring a specific group ofindividuals. Webcams
tic code": the goal of the player is to solve an enigma. This geme allow,\ do not tell stories, since all they do is pIace a location under surveillance,
greater narrative sophistication than the others because it connects IWII but they provide a constant srream of potentially narrative material. Their
narrative levels: one constituted by actions of users, as they wander throllglt capture is the visual equivalent of what Hayden White calls a chronide:
the fictional world in search for dues, and the other by the story 10 (u a chronological list of events that presents neither the dosure nor the
reconstructed. Since the story of this second level is independent of' Iltl' causality nor the formal organization of a plot. Ir is up to the viewer to
actions of users, it can be as fully controlled by the authorldesignl" il\ construct a story out of this material. The output ofWebcams is not meant
the plot of a novel. This geme illustrates the case of internal/explol'iIlOI)' for lengthy viewings but for quick visits, known in the jargon as "grabs." 11
participation. But the game architecture may occasionally blur the Jisl ÍlH By studying the habits of the creatures under surveillance, dever cyber-
tion between ontological and exploratory involvement. Imagine a gallll voyeurs will quickly learn when to check the Web site to catch the most
in which users receive the mission of investigating the pasto Imagine "11 interesting action. In the Nerdman game, for instance, players "score," in
ther that, depending on the actions users take, one of two possibll' p.IHI', their own mind, by spotting the ghosts that occasionally traverse the screen.
is implemented, while the other branch is relegated to the rcall11o/ 1111 The biggest reward is to meet a human being, but in this dramatically im-
counterfactual. Unbeknownst to them, users have writtcn the pasl ltiMol\ poverishcd environment-as in minimal art-the smallest change of state
of the fictional world. Something of thar order happcns in lhe classit )l,illlll becomcs a n:-1I'1':lIiVl'
t'Vl'nl':a shadow stroking a linoleum Roor, a cal'leaving
Myst. Players must decipher the evcnts lha I Icd t"olhe il11l'ri.~onllll'lIl01 rhc omc(' p.llltlllg 101.01 a dUlngc 01'pattcm in the sand of the cat box.
tWOevil brothers anel rheir (.1I'ht'r, I'ht' good wi1.ardAlrllS (MIIITay li" JUSI ns lIoVI,I"i' 111111111 dl'.llIlIlIit highlighls rrorn tht' continllolls F.lbric
354 Ryan

of their characters' lives, viewers sample the steady output of Webcams

in the hope of catching the truly exciting episodes-the moments when "'ê
memorable events "walk," so to speak, into the cameràs field of vision. cu
"'ê E
While checking is spotty, the lives we imagine from our peeks into the cu 5
system are continuous and full; the members of the world facing the camera U ]
may not always be visible, but they are always, in some sense, available,
since we can always visit their living space and look at the traces of their
presence. The Webcam narrative experience can be pragmatically described
as running in real time and customized by users grabbing images from ali
archive of transitory materiaIs. Its interactivity is exploratory and external,
since users look in from the outside and do not control the fate of tht'
denizens of the fishbowl.


If we opt for a universalist conception of narra tive and if we think 01

narra tive in terms of semantic requirements, the answer to the question th:1I
forms the tide of this essay is purely rhetorical: digital media have no moI'('
impact on the cognitive model through which we filter texts and malH'
sense of human action than the experiments of postmodern fiction. Th('
texts supported by digital media may satisfy to various degrees the universal
cognitive model, or they may produce creative alternatives to a narratiVl'
experience, but they do not and cannot change the basic conditions (lf
But there is more to narrative theory than the formulation of basil
conditions. A complete grammar 2f lang!l\lge C~P1:ises tb.ree elemCllI\:
semantics, syntax, and .E!ag,p,atics.In narra tive theory semantics beCOI1H'~
th~-s~dy ;f plot, or story; syntax beco~e~ the study ofdisc;urse, 01'1111I j
rãtí~~ techniques; and pragmatics becomes the~tudy of the u~es of story §
telling and of the mod,e of participatiort of llUman ag~nts in the narratiw oS
c .5
performance. Digital media affect narra tive in three ways. (See tabk' I), I
for a summary.) .g
On the pragmatic levei they offer new modes of user involvemel1t alui c
u~ b.O bO
u C
new things to do with narrative: exchange stories in real time; imperS0I1,1I1 .~
.-~=u o
a character; participate in the collective creation of a story; and explort II a..=:. ti>
world in the pursuit of a story. (See the columns labeled "type of irlln
activity" and "user role" in table 12.1.)They also attributc variolls dt'WI'c.~
of prominence to narrative in the total communicativc CVCIlt(sC't'1111' LI~I
column in the table). 11'
On thc discoursc levei they produce I1CW
ways 10 IH('S('nlstoriC',\,Wllhli
356 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 357

necessitate new interpretive strategies on the part of users. For instance, the (27-48). Which properties are considered essential depends on the purpose of the
"chunking-linking" technique of hypertext, as Hayles calls it, leads to the writer as well as on the criteria used in the selection: should these lists be restricted
jigsaw puzzle mode of reading. (See the column labe!ed "discourseltech- to properties unique to digital media, or should they include features that these
niques.") media implement particularly efficiently but share with other media (for example,
On the semantic leve!, finally, the impact of digitality on narrative is Murray's spatiality and encyclopedic scope); should they be concerned with aspects
of technological implementation hidden from the user (for example, numerical
not a matter of deve!oping a new logic but, rather, a matter of finding
representation); or should they limit themselves to openly displayed features? In
the right fit between the medi um and the form and substance of the
my own list I favor features that have an impact on narrativity; that are either
narrative contento Each medi um has particular affinities for certain themes
unique to digital media or taken by them to a new levei; and that the user can
and certain types of plot: you cannot tell the same type of story on the perceive directly.
stage and in writing, during conversation and in a thousand-page nove!, in 2. This holds of the screen image; the film from which the image is projected
a two-hour movie and in a TV seria! that runs for many years. The most cannot be easily updated, unless it is a compute r file.
urgent of the issues that faces deve!opers of new media narrative is to find 3. These two pairs are adapted from Espen Aarseth's typology of user functions
what themes and what kinds of plots take proper advantage of the built- and perspectives in cybertexts, which is itself part of a broader cybertext typology
in properties of the medium. The fourth column of the table, themes and (Cybertexts 62-65). But I use different labels that shift the emphasis toward the
structures, proposes the beginning of an answer to this questiono As my user's relation to the virtual world.
survey has shown, combining the inherent linearity of narrative structures 4. See Lev Manovich's definition of a database in the introduction to this
with interactive protocols is not an easy thing to do, bur the task will
5. For instance, Michael Joyce, afternoon; or Mark Amerika, Grammatron.
be much less daunting if we remember that there is no need for digital
6. The best examples of this type ofwork are two hypertexts by M. D. Coverley,
narrative to emulate Victorian nove!s or Shakespearian drama.
Califia (Eastgate, 2000), and the work in progress The Book ofGoing Forth By Day.
If we look back at the history of narrative, we can see it has survived the
7. MUDstands for Multi-User Dungeon and MOOfor Multi-User Dungeon,
transition from orality to writing, from manuscript to print, from book to
Object Oriented. Object Oriented refers to the programming technique.
multimedia, and from the stage to moving pictures. Each of these techno- 8. The earliest MUDSwere textual game environments with a built-in plot. (The
logical innovations has liberated new narrative energies and exploited new acronym refers indeed to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.) In the
possibilities. Given its well-demonstrated resiliency, narrative should easily I980s and I990S MOOSdeveloped into chatrooms and social meeting places, and
weather the digital revolution. Bur I may be asking the wrong questiono the system-defined plot was lost. But the idea of a combination of goal-driven,
The surviva! of narrative does not depend on its ability to adapt itse!f to emplotted game action and free talk was resurrected in the late I990S with enor-
new media; narrative has been around so long that it has little to fear from mously popular games, the so-called massively multi-player role-playing games,
compurers. Rather, it is the future of new media as a form of entertainment such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. In contrast to the earliest MUDS,these
that depends on their ability to deve!op their own forms of narrativity. environments offer textual communication in a graphically represented world.
Players, who number in the hundred thousands, no longer need to create their
Notes characters through verbal description; they can construct the appearance of their
avatar from a menu of visual elements.
I. Many theorists of digital media have proposed lists of distinctive propertics, 9. Selmer Bringsjord, a computer scientist who has developed a state-of-the-
and each of them comes up with a different list. But the different labels oftl'lI art story-generating program called Brutus, has argued, with the support of log-
cover related ideas. Janet Murray lists, for instance, the "four essential propertics 01 ical proofs, that AI will never produce characters approaching the complexity of
digital environments" as being (I) procedural (that is, being operated by computl'1' human-generated literary characters. His argument offers a sobering rebuttal to thc
code); (2) participatory (my "interactive"); (3) spatial (but why single out spatialily prophecies of cyber gurus such as Ray Kurzweil, who claims that by 2029 many
and omit temporality?); and (4) encyclopedic (71-90). Lev Manovich lists: (I) of the lcading artists, including novelists, will be machines (223). For Kunwcil.
numerical representation; (2) modularity (a category I borrow dirccdy from hinl): howcVl'r, tlw mll"hincs mkc a shortcut that renders thc dcvdopmcnt of AI algo.
(3) automation (Murray's "procedural"); (4) variability (my "volatility"); and (~) rithms unlll'\ "~~IIIy tllI YIII'Cahle to writc novcls bccausl.' n:1no(ed1l1olo!-;yallowb
transcoding (the technical property responsible for my "mulriplicilY or chanllc'ls") the dOWlllollllillJ101 tlu 11111111111hl',till imo dil-liral dl'('lIilS, TIIl' miml 01' PI'OIISI
358 Ryan Will New Media Produce New Narratives? 359

preserved in silicon will be able to create literary masterpieces forever. But will this Kurzweil, Ray. The Age olSpiritual Machines. New York: Viking, 1999.
silicon Proust qualify as a machine? Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The ConvergenceolContemporary Critical Theory
10. Not alI game developers would agree with this statemem. For Brenda Laurel, and Technology.1992.Reprim. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
whose now defunct company Purple Moon developed games for girls that tried to Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. Menlo Park CA:Addison- Wesley, 1991.
address issues specific to the experience of growing up female, narrative content is -. Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge: MITPress, 2001.
not instrumental but cemral to the gaming experience. The ultimate purpose 01' Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern. "Towards Imegrating Plot and Character for
the Purple Moon games was to provide "cultural comem" through stories, as did Imeractive Drama." Working Notes of the Social Imelligence Agems: The Hu-
myth in ancient societies (Utopian Entrepreneur 61). man in the Loop Symposium. AAAIFalI Symposium Series. Menlo Park CA:AAAI
11.Theresa Senft's term (qtd. by McLemee 7). Press, 2000. Version used here online at: <
publicationslsIA2ooo.pdJ>(April 24, 2002).
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