May 26, 2003

Narrative as Virtual Reality

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 9:53 pm

I’ve been working on a review of Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality for Computers and the Humanities, the journal of the Association for Computers and the Humanities. It needs to be short, explain why the journal’s audience might be interested in Ryan’s topic, and also give my personal take on the book. I’d be very interested to hear comments on the draft below.

Last year Andrew Stern sent out an enthusiastic email message about Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality. He called it one of the best books to address interactive drama.

Interactive drama is an area of investigation that attracts scholarly and popular audiences. At its broadest, it covers the wide range of computer experiences that have story content, some form of performative enactment, and a means for the audience (whether a full theatre or a single person in front of their PC) to alter some aspect of this story or enactment. The group interested in interactive drama includes English professors who see it as a future form of literature, media scholars who see it as an approach for understanding computer games, computer scientists who see it as the next major application for artificial intelligence, and entertainment executives who see it as the next stage of cinema. Interest in interactive drama has contributed to the success of past books such as Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre, Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext, and Mark Stephen Meadows’s Pause and Effect.

Stern is one of the leading practitioners in the area of interactive character and drama. After getting his email I decided to do a web search and see what else I could learn about Narrative as Virtual Reality. To my surprise, I found almost nothing. There were some weblog comments, but few did more than mention the book’s existence. I didn’t find a single online review, and I found few references to offline ones. At the end of this process, my interest was piqued. A book came out from a major academic publisher on a topic of current interest — and to someone as well informed as Stern it was an exciting addition to the literature, but the field as a whole had largely ignored it. It was a bit of a mystery. And so, in order to have a reason to delve into this mystery myself, I set out to review this volume.

My conclusion: the field is missing out. Ryan’s writing holds ideas that should be part of our discussion of interactive drama. I can only speculate as to why this book hasn’t garnered more attention, but I do have a theory. Upon initial perusal, it’s not clear that this is a book about interactive drama, or that it contains many original ideas. It’s frontloaded with chapters that review the ideas of others in a not-especially-gripping and frankly sometimes questionable manner. This book would, I think, be a touchstone for the field if it were a svelte monograph like Cybertext (also, as it happens, from Johns Hopkins) rather than nearly 400 pages long.

For the rest of my review I’m going to pretend that Ryan’s book is that svelte volume. I’m taking this unusual approach for two reasons. First, it would be little service to go over the less-interesting parts of the book in this review. Second, I’m hoping this review can be used as a set of suggestions for potential readers. If one reads the chapters of Ryan’s book as presented here, and reads only the chapters mentioned, I think there’s much to gain from the book. I certainly don’t agree with everything Ryan argues in these chapters, but every one of them is rewarding.

A general introduction to the concepts of virtual reality is found in chapter 2. This is useful for those who aren’t already familiar, but it also holds some attractions for those who know the field well. For example, Ryan’s well-executed breakdown of the vision of the holodeck (beginning on page 51) is one of the best introductions I’ve seen and looks quite appropriate for classroom use. Later in the chapter, the section on “Simulation as Narrative” (page 62) makes the first moves toward the ideas Ryan will explore in Chapters 8 and 10.

The book begins in earnest with chapter 7 — unfortunately titled “Hypertext.” This titling is unfortunate both because Ryan’s approach to hypertext is the volume’s greatest weakness (a topic returned to below) and because hypertext is not her primary subject in this chapter. Instead, chapter 7 is when Ryan begins to deploy her specific ideas about interactivity. She introduces the concept of “ergodic design” (building on Aarseth) in order to discuss work that includes a feedback loop in its design, causing the act of reading/viewing to produce alterations in the work “so that the reader will encounter different sequences of signs during different reading sessions” (206).

The standout feature of Chapter 8 is “The Structures of Interactive Narrativity.” This section, which describes and diagrams twelve varieties of interactive story structure, will find immediate use in my teaching. At a minimum it dispels the notion that all types of reader choice are the same. But more broadly its survey and categories will be useful for budding artists trying to think through a project, as well as for young critics seeking a way into discussing a particular work’s structures. Perhaps most importantly, these categories should be a useful bridge vocabulary for the two groups to share. Ryan also draws some controversial conclusions from her diagrams (e.g., “the potential of a network to generated well-formed stories for every traversal is inversely proportional to its degree of connectivity”) which should provide grist for heated classroom discussion.

Following a strong case study of the “interactive movie” I’m Your Man, chapter 9 is an opinionated survey of possible predecessors to interactive drama — from baroque art to children’s games to theatre. In the last of these the work of Augusto Boal is puzzlingly omitted, which leads to the unfortunate conclusion that the “vicarious interactivity” of Artaud (304) is the maximum point of interactivity before we see “the actors becoming their own audience” (305). Nonetheless, it’s a generally good survey, and notable for discussing erotic scenarios as a type of embodied immersive dramatic experience. It also lays the groundwork for the final chapter, during which Ryan deals most directly with the material about which she seems passionate. In this chapter’s strongest section, she offers the VR artwork Placeholder and the CMU Oz Project as two differing models of interactive drama. Placeholder focuses on the spatial immersion and bodily issues that are, in some sense, the baseline of VR, while the Oz project’s goals were more temporal and narrative. In concluding the chapter Ryan offers some interesting speculation as to how these strands may move into the future.

Before I offer my own conclusion, however, I must address the one shortcoming of this book that will remain glaring even if one reads only those sections I have recommended: Ryan likes to talk about hypertext, but clearly hasn’t done her homework. Hypertext comes out of the work of people such as Ted Nelson, Doug Engelbart, and Andries van Dam. But none of their names appear in Ryan’s index. Ryan writes about 1990s hypertext theorists — lumping Moulthrop, Joyce, Bolter, and Landow together as though they argued the same position — and discusses the idea that the hypertext experience blurs the lines between reader and writer. She demeans this position repeatedly, but apparently without awareness that the hypertext systems these theorists were using (e.g., Intermedia, Storyspace with the full application) made movement between reading and writing smooth, and also allowed one author to place links in the writing of another author. Neither is true of her hypertext examples (e.g., the Web, Storyspace files in stand-alone “reader” form). While her historical research in other areas seems fine, when hypertext is the subject it’s like reading a book that talks repeatedly about psychoanalysis and yet is written by someone who hasn’t read Freud. Or like reading a book that continually returns to natural selection by an author who thinks the phrase comes from Dawkins rather than Darwin. I found I could only enjoy the book if I mentally replaced each use of the word “hypertext” with a phrase like “read-only, link-and-node hypertext.”

Of course, the root of this difficulty was probably in Ryan trying to cover too much, leading her to address an area (hypertext) that wasn’t close to primary work, and so didn’t get researched as much as it should have. This doesn’t in any way lessen the contributions she’s made in other areas, and I heartily recommend this volume to anyone with an interest in what we mean by drama, performance, and narrative in connection with new technologies.