April 25, 2004

Computer Games at SSNL’s Narrative Conference

by Nick Montfort · , 7:53 pm

I made it to the conference just in time for my own panel, walking in at the minute we were supposed to start and no doubt leaving panel organizer Marie-Laure Ryan quite fretful in the minutes beforehand. Because I was a latecomer to the conference, and tired from my trip, I made it to only one other panel besides this one. And, most bitterly, I didn’t even get to have any Magic Hat. To begin with something relevant, a report on the panel on computer games. The section headings are my own titles, not the official titles of the talks:

Against “Tetris Studies”

Colorado-based independent scholar Marie-Laure Ryan, author of Narrative as Virtual Reality and editor, most recently, of Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, who has offered comments here at GTxA, spoke about the ludology vs. narratology debate, admitting that she was preaching to the converted, not to the heathens…

She took on the anti-narrativst arguments advanced by Aarseth, Eskelinen, Frasca, and Juul and offered convincing answers to them. All right, I admit: I was already convinced. She suggested that a cognitive approach to narrative, which saw story as a world that had characters and objects undertaking meaningful actions, actions that had consequences in a system with rules and laws, was particularly amenable for use in understanding some computer games.

My basic reaction was, Yes! Personally, I think the anti-narrativist arguments are correct for particular games — I disputed the idea that Combat could usefully be seen in narrative or dramatic terms at the Princeton video game conference. They’re also not useful for understanding many particular aspects of other games. But really, I’d rather that we talk about theories that actually work, theories that demonstratably better our understanding of games, instead of crying out that other people’s theories won’t work. If we ban all narrativist consideration of computer games and only look at things that apply to Tetris, I’m afraid we will get a useless new field that, rather than being called game studies, should probably be called “Tetris studies.”

Suture Self

Next was Daniel Punday, associate professor of English at Purdue University Calumet, author of Narrative After Deconstruction and Narrative Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Narratology and a fellow ebr reviewer. He looked at the representations of material texts in video games (a burning Lewis Carrol book at the beginning of American McGee’s Alice, briefing papers displayed on a desk with other paperwork) and discussed the use of Lacanian suture, as understood in film theory, to consider computer games as well as Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Talan Memmott’s “Lolli’s Apartment.” The burning book in Alice brought to mind for me the book falling into the chasm at the beginning of Myst … and I think the theme of discarding the book has been used in earlier media, e.g., The Tempest. (The one by Shakespeare, not the one by Graham Nelson.)


My own talk covered the main points of my article “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” and tried to provide some very specific and concrete instances of the general idea that Marie-Laure talked about: that narratology can be useful in considering a specific computer game/electronic literature form. To introduce interactive fiction and demonstrate the use of narratology at the same time, I showed and typed to these works: Crowther and Woods’s Adventure (Fortran 77 version); Emily Short’s Galatea; Anderson, Blank, Daniels, and Lebling’s Zork (zdungeon.z5 port); Adam Cadre’s Varicella; and Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging.

I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging or trying to credential myself at the conference by thanking Gerald Prince (who was at the panel) for closely reading “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” and providing me detailed and thoughtful advice, but I don’t mind bragging here, so I’ll thank him.

The Bluebeard Panel: Listening for the Plot

Sunday morning I only (barely) had time to make it to one panel, one that considered reworkings of the Bluebeard fairy tale. I have to admit that the main thing I took away from the panel — not the only thing, I hope, but the main thing — was on the level of plot summary, the tellings within the talks that related some inventive pieces of writing. (It was probably partly a result of my not being properly calibrated for Narrative panels, and partly a result of the literature that was being discussed being so marvelous: writers who work with fairy tales are often interested in innovating on the level of story and plot, and interesting things about their works can be heard in summaries of their plots at conferences.) Pamela Cooper of UNC Chapel Hill spoke erotics and work in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and in the work of Margaret Atwood. Heta Pyrhonen of the University of Helsinki discussed “Angela Carter and the Marquis de Sade,” referring to The Bloody Chamber and additionally discussing The Magic Toyshop (the one by Angela Carter, not the one by Gareth Rees.) She described how Carter reworked Barthes’ reading of de Sade’s writing practice, which described the essential constraints of exhaustion (every orifice filled, every sexual organ used) and reciprocity (every person assuming both active and passive roles). Patricia Smith of Hofstra University discussed the Bluebeard tale in Fay Weldon’s Little Sisters, which sounds dazzlingly metafictional. (I don’t know Weldon’s work at all, while I’ve read two of Carter’s books, thanks in part to Robert Coover’s published comments on her work.)

Ludological Summary

This is what the conference would have looked like to Gonzalo Frasca:

Not actually a Penn professor and narratologist
Gerald Prince

Not actually the author of Narrative as Virtual Reality
Marie-Laure Ryan

More Doom monstersMore Doom monsters
Some graduate students have a few questions

I hate to think about how Gonzalo would have reacted! But really, I wish I had gotten to attend more of the conference, and I’m glad I made the trip to present there and get a taste of what Narrative (without the “@”) was like. Not that I regret having gone to Los Angeles for Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling. Perhaps future years will allow me more time at Narrative.