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Beyond Myth and Metaphor -The Case of Narrative in Digital Media

October 14, 2012

This caught my eye because I’m still thinking about VM Jones’s use of computer games in her Karazan Quartet…

Beyond Myth and Metaphor

-The Case of Narrative in Digital Media

by Marie-Laure Ryan Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research 1(1)July 2001, online

(full text at )

“If we compare the field of digital textuality to other areas of study in the humanities, its most striking feature is the precedence of theory over the object of study. Most of us read novels and see movies before we consult literary criticism and cinema studies, but it seems safe to assume that a vast majority of people read George Landow before they read any work of hypertext fiction. In this paper I would like to investigate one of the most important forms that this advance theorizing of digital textuality has taken, namely the use of narrative concepts to advertise present and future product. In recent years, the concept of narrative has caught like fire in cultural discourse, and the software industry has duly followed suit by turning the metaphors of narrative interface and of the storytelling computer into advertising buzzwords. Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple, talks for instance about “the importance of stories, of marrying technology and storytelling skills ” (1); Steven Johnson concludes his popular bookInterface Culture with the pronouncement: “Our interfaces are stories we tell ourselves to ward off senselessness”; Abbe Don titles an influential article “Narrative and the Interface,” in which she argues that computers can play in modern societies the role of the storyteller of oral cultures; and Brenda Laurel envisions computers as theater, a metaphor that presupposes a dramatic plot. When these grandiose metaphors are put to the test of software design, however, they yield rather meager results:

  1. The creation of a character who guides the user through the program, offers personalized help, and provides comic relief, such as the Office Assistant of Microsoft Office.
  2. The development of a metaphorical setting or script, such as the Supermarket shopping theme of, or the movie-making environment of Macromedia Director.

Of the three traditional components of narrative-setting, character, action-only the first two provide useful design elements. The third, action, is left to the user. It is by listening to the advice of the Office Assistant of Microsoft, or by manipulating the cast members, scripts, and score of Director that the user metaphorically participates in a narrative script.

Whereas software developers adapt narrative concepts to business programs, in a typically metaphorical transfer, media theorists invoke what I will call “narrative myths” to promote literary or entertainment forms of digital textuality. These myths, which present an idealized representation of the genre they describe, serve the useful purpose of energizing the imagination of the public, but they may also stand for impossible or ill-conceived goals that raise false expectations. Here I will discuss two of these myths: the myth of the Aleph, and the myth of the Holodeck. But to clear any misunderstanding as to what I mean with narrative, let me begin with the sketch of a definition.

What is narrative?

  • Narrativity is independent of the question of fictionality.
  • Narrativity is not coextensive with literature nor the novel.
  • Narrativity is independent of tellability.
  • A narrative is a sign with a signifier (discourse) and a signified (story, mental image, semantic representation). The signifier can have many different semiotic manifestations. It can consist for instance of a verbal act of story-telling (diegetic narration), or of gestures and dialogue performed by actors (mimetic, or dramatic narration).
  • The narrativity of a text is located on the level of the signified. Narrativity should therefore be defined in semantic terms. The definition should be medium-free.
  • Narrativity is a matter of degree. Postmodern novels are less narrative than simple forms such as fables or fairy tales; popular literature is usually more narrative than avant-garde fiction.
  • Narrative representation is constructed by the reader on the basis of the text. Not all texts lend themselves to a narrative interpretation.
  • Narrative representation consists of a world (setting) situated in time, populated by individuals (characters), who participate in actions and happenings (events, plot) and undergo change.
  • The most prominent reason for acting in life is problem-solving. It is therefore the most fundamental narrative pattern.
  • Narrative representations must be thematically unified and logically coherent. Their elements cannot be freely permuted, because they are held together in a sequence by relations of cause and effect, and because temporal order is meaningful. The propositions of a narrative representation must be about a common set of referents (= the characters).” (from above cited article)

From → Jones V.M.

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