Marie-Laure Ryan: Avatars of Story

[Readings] (08.09.08, 9:20 am)


Chapter 1. Narrative, Media and Modes

Opening in Avatars, we see her discuss the birth of narratology, through an issue of the French journal Communications in 1966. It contained articles by Roland Barthes, Claude Bremond, Gerard Genette, and others. This point marked the understanding of narrative as something that transcends medium, and universal across culture.

Subsequently, with the influence of Gerard Genette, narratology became more focused on written literary fiction. Ryan is attempting to argue for the trancendence of narrative, as transmedial and transdiciplinary. She argues that a core of meaning is transferred whole, but how it is rendered may change and be actualized differently. The idea of this core implies the existence of certain essences in narratives.

This viewpoint is countered by a some narratologists, and this derives from the position that defines narrative as speech act or language based. This is represented by Prince, Genette, and Chatman. This discounts many modes of narration, and is also reflected by Aarseth in his quest paper noting that Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture merely scores the battle of 1812, rather than telling its story. Ryan notes that some narratologists use a metaphorical model, where films or plays or overtures are metaphorically referencing speech acts. Advocates of this are Christian Metz, Seymour Chatman, Fancois Jost, and Andre Gaudrault.

Another counterexample to this is what Ryan calls radical media relativism. This is the idea that works are totally different across media, and that adaptations nave no strong relation to their source material. (Strong in this sense evokes a mathematical strongness in definition.) This idea is grounded in semoitics, and implies that the signifier cannot be separated from the signified. This approach misses the effects of remediation, where practices and terminology are borrowed from one media discipline to another. This approach also is one that, in an extreme form, would argue that works are essentially untranslatable. When the idea of audience or affect comes to play, this trend could go down the path of rigid structuralism, or utter alienation of experience with postmodernism.

Ryan looks to define a broad concept of narrative to encompass transmedial narratives, but to keep it focused enough that everything does not turn into a narrative. She adopts the definition defined by H. Porter Abbott: “Story is an event or sequence of events (the action), and narrative discourse is those events as represented.” Narrative is orthogonal to the story then: The narrative is the “textual” story, while story is the “virtual” narrative.

Story is representational, but it is encoded in mental images, not material signs. Narrative has the capacity to evoke stories to the mind. Ryan further sees the narrative capacity of a work as a scalar, rather than binary value. On this, Ryan expands a bullet point definition:

  1. Spatial dimension:
    Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
  2. Temporal dimension:
    This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
  3. The transformations must be caused by nonhabitual physical events.
  4. Mental dimension:
    Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
  5. Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents, motivated by identifiable goals and plans.
  6. Formal and pragmatic dimension:
    The sequence of events must form a unified causal chain and lead to closure.
  7. The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the story world.
  8. The story must communicate something meaningful to the recipient.

This set of points constructs a formal, but curiously focused definition of narrative. Many texts could be construed as satisfying some of the points and not others. (For example, recipes, stories about the Big Bang, etc) The effect of this is to understand narrative as a category with multiple dimensions and open to varying perspectives.

Ryan looks to define modes of narration. She does this by exploring a number of characteristics, or dimensions, that narratives can have or perform:

  • External/Internal. This is explicit textualization, as opposed to internal imagery.
  • Fictional/Nonfictional.
  • Representational/Simulative. Representative illustrates consequences in a world formally, while simulation is seen as more abstract and algorithmic.
  • Diegetic/Mimetic. In representation, diegetic narration is declarative, while mimetic is reproductive of the source material, eg, drama, cinema.
  • Autotelic/Utilitarian. Utilitarian uses the story for a purpose, such as illustrating morals, etcetera.
  • Autonomous/Illustrative. Autonomous stories stand as new and independent examples, while illustrative stories are retellings, or rely on the audience’s knowledge of the plot, such as in illustrations or myths.
  • Scripted/Emergent. Scripted is the reliance on the text. Emergent narratives permit significant variance from that script, such as in live performance and improvisation.
  • Receptive/Participatory. This defines the role of the audience in the story. A participatory narrative is one in which the audience gives feedback to the story itself.
  • Determinate/Indeterminate. This is determinance in interpretation. A determinate narrative is explicit and does not open up interpretation. Indeterminate has sufficient ambiguity (Lady or the Tiger).
  • Retrospective/Simultaneous/Prospective. This is the temporality of a story. A live news feed is a simultaneous narrative.
  • Literal/Metaphorical. Metaphorical narratives relate abstract concepts as agents within a story.

Understanding the transmedial nature of narrative requires an understanding of media itself. Perspectives on media tend to depend heavily on the perceiver’s role with it. Media can be considered channels of communication, or a material or substance for expression. Ryan notes that the first type are conduits, while the second are languages. However, due to the nature of affordances and embedded value systems, media can more broadly be understood as both conduit and language.

Writing and narrative developed and were made complex and refined with the inventions of technologies and the emergence of theories. Walter Ong traces the emergence of narrative writing. Since Aristotle, drama represented a very deliberate and focused rise and fall of tension. With print, novels emerged, and took on new directions of complexity and meaning. Novels gave rise to both an extension of Aristotelian theory (novels with carefully developed tension and plot arcs), as well as an introspection and inward looking at characters. With high modernism, the focus becomes so introspective, that narrative action becomes nearly impossible. New media enables further developments, it but remains to be seen on what those will be.

Ryan outlines some bullet points on qualities of media from the perspective of transmedial narratology:

  1. Spatiotemporal extension.
  2. Kinetic properties.
  3. Number of semiotic channels. (kinetic, temporal, tactile, visual, etc)
  4. Priority of sensory channels.

Chapter 5. Toward an Interactive Narratology

Ryan attempts to return to the application of narrative to cybertext. To do this, she looks at the properties of digital systems and interactive texts.

  • Interactive and reactive. (Responsiveness to the user)
  • Volatile signs and variable display. (Visual representation of changing information)
  • Multiple sensory and semiotic channels.
  • Networking capability.

Interactivity is the most important point in Ryan’s view, and is necessary to justify that a digital text be digital (otherwise it could be transcribed and represented nondigitally). Chris Crawford has championed interactivity and placed it as absolutely grounded in user choice.

I would actually caution this, as there are other means of telling stories nondigitally that are interactive, the most notable of these being tabletop roleplaying.

Interactive narratology requires the modes of simulation, emergence, and participation. Ryan uses some diagrams to illustrate the graphs of plot in non-interactive narratives (p. 101), and then graphs of some interactive forms (p. 103). Notable forms are: network (the classical hypertext), sea-anemone (or tree), vector with side branches (resembling console RPGs), and track switching.

Ryan notes that a diagram that permits return to previous nodes counters the temporal nature of narrative. This aspect leads to problems, though, since nodes could be considered as temporal, and may not need to be seen as absolute. A hypertext fiction that treated each node as an occurrence of the node seems problematic. Further, this treatment of stories as composed of nodes betrays the simulative power of computation. It moves the story from a world to a dot.

Ryan sees to classify several forms of interactivity through the binary pairs internal/external, exploratory/ontological, which were adapted originally by Aarseth’s typology of user functions. Ryan’s approach aims to categorize the user’s relationship to the world. Internal interactivity occurs when a user controls or identifies with an avatar, and external modes place the user detached and outside the world. Exploratory modes are focused on navigation and exploration of a plot, whereas ontological allows the user to change the outcome of the story. It is not exactly clear how the term ontological comes to serve this purpose here.

There’s a note here in the scanned pdf, that describes Ryan as saying that narrative is incompatible with full participation. However, in the actual body of the text, the argument is more subtle. “The Aristotelian plot of interpersonal conflict leading to a climax and resolution does not lend itself easily to active participation because its strength lies in a precise control of emotional response that prevents most forms of user initiative.” (p. 113) This can be interpreted as caution against traditional Aristotelian dramatic structures. Conventional narratives and interactive experiences by far do not need to rely on these dramatic structures anyway, and it’s probably for the best that they don’t. Aristotle is certainly not the have-all and be-all of narrative, so the exclusion of Aristotle is not the end of the world.

Simulations, and specifically the variety of god-games that Ryan looks at (Simcity, Simlife, Caesar, The Sims, Civilization, Babyz, etc), are listed as External/Ontological. These are narratives in the sense that user actions produce coherent development in the system. Players are powerful, but not omnipotent, in that they must abide by the rules of the game world. These straddle an interesting perspective on narrative in their detached external nature, these games are rather systems of objects.

The really rich category of games is that of Internal/Ontological, and most games with direct player agency fall in this category. There is a wide, huge spectrum of these, and it is problematic to attempt to speak of them with any categorical generality. Ryan does note of them (I would say a subcategory of them): “Generally modeled after the nondigital role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons, worlds of this type almost invariably implement the archetypal pattern of the quest, as described by Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp.” (p. 117) Aarseth has made his claims against narratology in understanding of quests, though. But seeing quests as an adaptation of tabletop games can yield more subtle variation.

A final note occurs on the idea of the “ultimate narrative experience”. Ryan works to debunk the idea that becoming a character in a world is the supreme form of narrative (essentially, the holodeck phenomenon). However, in reading of literary fiction, we are divided between identification and external observation. “We simulate mentally the inner life of these characters, we transport ourselves in imagination into their mind, but we remain at the same time conscious of being external witnesses.” (p. 124-125) Ryan also raises a very fascinating question: Would a user rather identify with Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Gregor Samsa, Oedipus, Anna Karenina, or instead Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, or Sherlock Holmes? “If we pick a character from the second list, this means that we prefer identifying with a rather flat but active character whose participation in the plot is not a matter of emotional relation to other characters but a matter of exploring a world, solving problems, performing actions, and competing against enemies.” (p. 125) This is largely the space that games occupy. These types of narratives are largely favored, and relate to the role internality/externality of the user/reader/player within the game or narrative.

I don’t think this means that narratives with characters with strong internal roles are impossible to adapt, but it does introduce a new set of challenges about experience, and what it means to read and recreate and simulate a world, mentally or otherwise.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRyan, Marie-Laure
TitleAvatars of Story
Tagsdms, games, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.