The Future of Storytelling is Interactive. Or is it? (part deux)

As I noted before, the model for story-telling that was presented in the panel called “The Future of Story-telling is Interactive. Or is it?” was quite inadequate in expressing the diverse options that narrative can develop into and collapsed the entire discussion in a binary model where the one end of the spectrum indicated nonlinear narratives that were assumed to be for passive consumption and the other end indicated interactive narratives that, for some reason, was labeled as open-ended. My main issue with this presentation is that even the most linear narratives, such as novels, are not really passive and even the most interactive works, such as games, aren’t as open-ended as they are assumed to be. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the reason why I insisted on beginning my dissertation, Business of Story-telling, Production of Works, Poaching Communities, Creation of Stories, with a chapter that investigated these tendencies in print fiction. This initial chapter, which analyzed works such as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire, and Exit Strategy, served mainly to dissipate the outdated notion that print narratives are passive. They are anything but. Granted, the panelists were not arguing that the two ends of the spectrum were mutually exclusive, in that any linear work does embody some kind of interactive elements or vice versa.

The existence of purely passive audiences, whether it be in print or in film, has long been questioned at least twenty years ago by the likes of Wolfgang Iser (The Act of Reading, 1978), Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in this Class?, 1980), and Umberto Eco (The Role of the Reader, 1979), not to mention deconstructionist and postmodern theorists like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, etc. This reminded me of the long-since defunct debate about the existence of interactivity in narratives or the existence of narratives in new media platforms. Agreeing that the most problematic aspect of electronic media in discussing narrative is the interactivity that it brings into the picture, game theorists argued that by introducing user input, interactivity significantly undermines the classical notion of narrative which is defined by authorial intention, linearity, and plot development.  This was the primary point of contention that was at the heart of the heated debates between narrativists and ludologists surrounding videogame studies in the late 90s and early 2000s. In their eagerness to establish videogame studies as a distinct field of study on its own right, gaming scholars argued for the absence of narrative in videogames and contended that narratology provides no useful way of discussing games in general. In this debate scholars were using a model based on the binary of narrative vesus interactivity, and I was sad to see that this was the very same mistake that these panelists in SxSW were gloriously making in their presentation. Even if one doesn’t believe that these two opposites are mutually exclusive (as the panelists have clearly stated in answer of my objections), the fact that one designs a spectrum-based model traps the discussion of narrative in the same impasse that the aforementioned scholars have long since discussed. So can we, in good faith, call this the “future of visual story-telling”? Or that this particular panel problematized the notion of whether it is interactive or not as suggested by its title? I think not.

Critics have long since tried to pull the discussion outside of the linear vs interactive binary. Scholars who were reluctant to shut narrative out of interactive media have maintained that ludologists use a narrow definition of narrative, one that primarily emerged from print culture and therefore is limited in its capacity to discuss new textualities that electronic media elicit. Henry Jenkins, for example, in “Game Design and Narrative Architecture,” notes that “the discussion operates with too narrow a model of narrative, one preoccupied with the rules and conventions of classical linear storytelling at the expense of consideration of other kinds of narratives, not only the modernist and postmodernist experimentation that inspired the hypertext theorists, but also popular traditions that emphasize spatial exploration over causal event chains or which seek to balance between the competing demands of narrative and spectacle.” Similarly, Marie-Laure Ryan, in Avatars of Story, states that “[i]nsofar as the actions of the player cause [the gaming] world to evolve, computer games present all the basic ingredients of narrative: characters, events, setting, and trajectories leading from a beginning state to an end state” (182). Arguing that the debate evolves around the scope of the term narrative more than anything else, Ryan states that “[f]or a narratologist…capturing a fictional world that evolves in time under the action of intelligent agents is all it takes for a semiotic artifact to fulfill semantic conditions of narrativity” (200). For a study of narrative across media, one that focuses on the embodiment (i.e. the particular semiotic substance) and the technological mode of transmission of narrative, Ryan contends that a distinction between being a narrative and possessing narrativity is particularly useful. In Narrative across Media, she elaborates on this distinction as follows:

The property of “being” a narrative can be predicated on any semiotic object produced with the intent of evoking a narrative script in the mind of the audience. “Having narrativity,” on the other hand, means being able to evoke such a script. In addition to life itself, pictures, music, or dance can have narrativity without being narratives in a literal sense. (9)

The degree of narrativity varies even in linguistic texts depending on the amount of properly narrative sentences present. Narrative sentences, Ryan explains, are those that imply a temporal succession of their referents—as in the case of events and actions. The distinction between being a narrative and possessing narrativity is especially significant in non-linguistic texts in which narrative is not constructed as a linguistic object but a mental image. While Ryan acknowledges that only language can express the casual relationship that holds the narrative scripts together, she explains that the text does not need to represent these relationships explicitly to be interpreted as narrative (Narrative across Media 11). As apparent in films, any set of images can become a narrative sequence if the spectator establishes the logical connections.

Although the ability to infer causal relations is essential to narrative understanding, reader’s mental images of stories could be as elliptic as the texts themselves. It seems unlikely that narratives will be internalized as fully connected networked of logical relations. The mind is notoriously capable of emergent behavior—of creating new connections and of forming new patterns of ideas in response to certain stimuli. It is much more efficient to store an incomplete version of a given narrative and to flesh it out when the need arises than to clutter memory with all the details of its logical armature. (12)

Focusing on narrativity as an emergent property of any given text necessitates the reformulation of our understanding of narrative as a finished product made up of a well-defined plot displaying a temporal flow with fully-fleshed characters, but rather to consider it as a process that takes place during the reader’s interaction with the text. Viewing narrative as a process becomes crucial in analyzing alternative textualities that emerged as a result of media convergence where numerous media are simultaneously employed to tell the story. In investigating how the properties of digital media determine the narrative design principles behind story-telling in the age of media convergence, the incorporation of interactivity within the context of world building or designing worlds becomes indispensable in presenting a functional model of narrative. Marie-Laure Ryan, in Narrative as Virtual Reality, develops a theory of narrative in immersive environments as well as in other textualities that incorporate interactivity. She explains that the ingredients of story-telling are present in textual worlds and they are mobilized by the reader into constructing environments:

Whether textual worlds functions as imaginary counterparts or as models of the real world, they are mentally constructed by the reader as environments that stretch in space, exist in time, and serve as a habitat for a population of animate agents. These three dimensions correspond to what have long been recognized as the three basic components of narrative grammar: setting, plot, and characters. (Narrative as Virtual Reality 15)

Furthermore, by defining interactivity as the collaboration between the reader and the text in the production of meaning, Ryan suggests that interactivity exists even in traditional forms of narrative. Referencing Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser, she maintains that “the construction of a textual world or message is an active process through which the reader provides as much material as he derives from the text” (17). The reader’s proficiency in performing the necessary world-building operations has obscured the inherently interactive nature of the reading process. As a reader, our familiarity with the reading of traditional narrative texts and their conventions allows us to convert the temporal flow of language into a global image that exists in mind without noticing the interactive process behind it (17). Interactivity, then, is not a new attribute introduced by electronic technologies, but rather, is an innate component of constructing environments that facilitates the production of narratives. Looking at it through this angle, scholars were able to overcome the model that embodies spectrum with two opposing ends that raised my objections. And the panel, by reinforcing the idea that there is indeed a hypothetical audience either in print or in film reinforced this outdated binary.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Storytelling is Interactive. Or is it? (part deux)

  1. Pingback: Future of Visual Story-telling (part trois) - Bring back Grimmy!

  2. Pingback: Story-telling as experiences - Bring back Grimmy!

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