January 13, 2005

Narrative across Media

by Nick Montfort · , 4:57 pm

Narrative across Media book coverA Review of Narrative across Media
edited by Marie-Laure Ryan
University of Nebraska Press
422 pp.

This collection of essays, framed by Marie-Laure Ryan’s clear explanations of narratology and its application to different media, is an indispensable resource for those interested in how narrative and digital media interrelate. Without ever making the assertion that narratology will offer the dominant or controlling means of understanding video games or other computer works, the essays included explain how the approaches of narratology can work across different media to inform many different sorts of investigations. Ryan’s writing – the overall introduction, and introduction to each of the five sections, and an article on narrative in digital media – makes the volume particularly useful to the narratology newcomer and to those interested in digital media.

The introduction by Ryan explains the essentials of narratology and the project of transmedial narratology – actually applying the supposedly medium-neutral approach of narratology to works of many different sorts. Ryan describes a course between the looming Scylla and Charybdis: the idea, on one hand, that narrative is completely separate and stable from its representation in particular media (a “segregationist” perspective), and, on the other, that narrative is so completely intertwined with all other qualities of expression, so medium-specific, that it makes no sense to talk about it as a separate aspect at all (the extreme “integrationist” view). In other words, the introduction presents narrative as one important structure of spoken communication, still images, moving images, music, and digital media, an aspect that does vary with medium but which also evokes the same sort of cognitive processes and works similarly across media. While narrative may not mean the same thing in a painting, a conversation, and a novel, there are reasons to consider this sort of structure both generally and in media-specific ways. Understanding the separation between the telling and the things that are told allows for additional insights when considering many sorts of media.

Ryan’s specific approach departs from the structuralist concept of narrative to “regard narrative meaning as a cognitive construct, or mental image, built by the interpreter in response to the text.” To qualify as narrative, a text must bring to mind (1) a world with characters and objects, (2) nonhabitual changes of state in that world, which cause it to enter history, and (3) an implicit network of psychological motivations, goals, plans, and causes. We can say of some object that is created to evoke such a narrative script that it “is a narrative,” but even things that are not intentionally created to be narratives can “have narrativity” if they are capable of evoking such a script. This allows narratology to discuss cases of mimetic presentation, in which a story is not “told” but shown; it also allows for consideration of computer games and digital media as objects that have a participatory narrativity. Ryan’s introduction goes on to distinguish medium from genre (“genre defined by more or less freely adopted conventions, chosen for both personal and cultural reasons, medium imposes its possibilities and limitations on the user”) and to explain what allows a medium to be narrative, distinguishing temporal, spatial, and spatio-temporal media with channels of different sorts. For instance, all-text IF seems to fit in the temporal (one-channel: linguistic) category, while artists’ books are spatio-temporal (both read in time and seen in space) and multi-channel.

The first essay, “Toward a Transmedial Narratoloy” by David Herman, begins the section on face-to-face communication while continuing to explain the project of the book, this time drawing a specific comparison between two narratives in different media: one oral story and one written story, both dealing with a shape-shifting human being. The oral story, transcribed in an appendix, is from a resident of rural North Carolina and relates how her grandfather shot a squirrel which he believed was a shape-shifting human being. The written story is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I believe this is the book’s only detailed comparison of a narrative in one medium to a narrative in another – although I didn’t read the articles in the Moving Pictures and Music sections, and the article on movie adaptations of books certainly deals with this issue and no doubt considers specific works at some level of detail. This study is a great contribution, making clear how strategies for narrating events differ (and, in some cases, are similar) in these two neighboring but distinct narrative media. Also in this section is “Frame and Boundary in the Phenomenology of Narrative” by Katharine Young, describing the rather intricate process by which storytelling is initiated in conversation and the teller moves the discourse into the “taleworld” and back out of it. The section’s last article, “Gesture and the Poetics of Prose,” is by my old advisor from MIT, Justine Cassell, and David McNeill. Focusing on the narrative function of gesture, it provides a typology of the natural, unwitting gestures that people make in conversation – not emblematic gestures such as the “thumbs up” sign, but the sort of gestures that we do not normally remark upon but which are usually present in conversation.

Wendy Steiner’s article on “Pictorial Narrativity” finally explained to me how narratology can be usefully applied to paintings, something that really hadn’t managed to enter my structuralist and textually-oriented consciousness. Noting that it is not enough for a narrative to represent events that occur at different times, but that “Events must also be susceptible to a double ordering,” she goes on to show how paintings such as Sesseta’s Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul and Gozzoli’s The Dance of Salome and Beheading of St. John the Baptist do present a double ordering, placing the same figures in temporally distinct sub-scenes that are perceived in different orders, whether you consider the left-to-right reading path of the eye or the way the eye moves first to the focal point of the painting and the prominent instance of the figure. The contest between narrative and realism (which came to require a single particular scene, not several embedded ones from different times) is discussed, with Gozzoli’s painting noted as one in which realist and narrative traditions intersected. The section also contains “Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Graphic Narrative,” by Jeanne Ewert, which explains how the work of the graphics in Maus supplements the text and contributes to the overall narrative effect of the two books.

Of the three remaining sections, the only one I have managed to dive into is the final one on Digital Media, although I am sure there are helpful lessons for me and other new media scholars in the sections on Moving Image and Music. Ryan’s article in the Digital Media section, “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” lists five important properties of the computer that may affect its use as a narrative medium. (Computation, interestingly, is absent from the list, but the aspects Ryan brings up are salient: interactivity, multimedia capability, networking capability, fluidity, and modularity. Computation plays an implicit role in many of these, but it cannot really be located in any one, and certainly is an aspect that also deserves discussion.) Using this categorization and considering properties related to narrative, display, and user role, Ryan considers hypertext, MOOs, interactive drama, computer games of several sorts, and even the telematic webcam. Prying apart the particular genre tendencies of some authors (hypertext must be postmodern, etc.) from the more formal aspects of these different digital frameworks, Ryan points out some of the ways narrative is involved in the experience of these systems. I have already mentioned a good bit about Espen Aarseth’s “Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse,” but I’ll repeat that the model of the quest, whether seen as a challenger to the model of narrative or as a form inspired by it, is an interesting perspective on many sorts of goal-based play, one which I hope will be developed further. The final article in the section is Peter Lunenfeld’s “The Myths of Interactive Cinema,” which looks at the few interactive cinema works and discusses how they seem to show that “the real impact of digital technologies was not to strengthen narrative – linear or not – but to contribute to its decimation.”

The book closes with a coda, “Textual Theory and Blind Spots in Media Studies,” by Liv Hausken. Hausken points out cases of both media blindness and text blindness, inviting additional reflection on the different aspects of narrative works in different media. For those interested in the narrative aspects of digital media, this invitation will be worth accepting, and there will be several things in this volume worth reading. It’s clear that more than the book’s Digital Media section will be useful to those studying computer narratives: the other essays provide not only specific insights but also welcome illustrations of how to study narrative beyond the written text, and the introductory articles are a great help for those who haven’t taken narratology courses. I hope the book will help to foster some more “progressive narrativist” thought about video games and other digital works.