Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thesis Extract: Opening Statements and Background Literature

The subjects of this study are examples of what can generally described as interactive digital works. These works rely on the rapid feedback loops that contemporary computers can provide in order to draw readers into the story in an active and physical sense. The critical evaluation interactive digital works of literature began in the late 1980s as personal computing moved from operating systems that were written code interfaces (e.g. BASIC) to visual and iconic systems (e.g. Windows). In 1990, interactive design theorist Brenda Laurel edited The Art of Human Computer Interface Design, a collection of essays on interaction between digital software and human users sponsored by the Apple Corporation. The Art of Human Computer Interface Design discusses the cultural, social and semiotic meanings of computer programming. Design and art are given equal emphasis in the collection, positioning digital media as not only the result of the media’s material configuration but also as a means of meaning-creation. Despite what was then an innovative approach to digital media, the concept of narrative and digital media is not emphatically established by the Laurel collection.

In 1991, narrative theorist Marie-Laure Ryan published Possible Worlds: Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory, where digital media is examined in terms of narrative systems through the concept of fiction as a means of creating possible worlds. Possible Worlds relies on traditional, structural narrative theory as applied to paper texts, and uses terms centered on possible worlds and textual universes to account for the interactive narratives using artificial intelligence systems. While failing to address the specifics of interactive and design elements of narrative, Possible Worlds came early in a series of influential critical texts that discussed the usefulness of established interdisciplinary tools, particularly from literary studies, in understanding new media, and how stories can be told using interactive digitally mediated language and image systems.

Between 1991 and 1997 the critical writing on digital interactive works was dominated by a series of books that celebrated to a dramatic extent the role of the reader over that of the author/s. During this period Brenda Laurel argued for the digital work itself as a creative meaning-system. In Computers as Theater (1993) Laurel writes that “[a]n interface is not simply the means by which a person and a computer represent themselves to one another, rather it is a shared context for action in which both are agents” (xiv). Interaction in relation to digital works is thus given a context where both the reader/user and the medium are equal in interpretation and manipulation. The “shared context for action” has the potential to open up for reading digital works as narrative texts as well as tools for making stories happen. In Laurel’s evaluation of interactive digital works, a way forward was provided for the critical reception of narrative, which took into account design and language elements in digital story telling. However, in response to the largely speculative criticism of the period, often using theoretical tools appropriated from other disciplines, the publication of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext. Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) changed the entire focus of the field.

Aarseth’s study is recognized as a pivotal work in the critical study of digital interactive works of literature. It is an examination of what constitutes narrative in the Aristotelian sense and examines how close digital narrative works, particularly participatory fiction such as Interactive Fiction (IF), come to it. Aarseth builds a hierarchical model for works based on his own terminology and concentrates on their materials as permitting and forming certain forms of expression. The concept of the reader is abandoned in favour of participation in the cybertext, which requires “non-trivial effort” (1) on the part of the user. Aarseth’s work splits from the narrative pursuits of the majority of the theorists at the time. In so doing, he redefines the role of the reader/user in regards to how digital interactive works can be understood as storytelling media. As an antithesis to Aarseth’s inquiry, the present study outlines what a reader cannot do with these texts and how the resulting restrictions guide reading.

For the decade that followed the publication of Cybertext, a debate ensued between those critics who considered the narrative elements the defining characteristic of interactive stories and those that saw the physical efforts of the user as defining the work. The debate ultimately provided few ways forward in the critical understanding of either narrative or the role of action (including play) in the creation of stories using digital media. However, Cybertext remains highly relevant in that it is the first work to comprehensively examine the same questions this study is concerned with, in relation to how digital media conveys meaning according to the material, legal, authorial and narrative components of the works. Aaseth’s focus is upon the effort of users and how rules based systems result in stories in reception. How these media function as narratives is partly determined by the ways the options for response are directed towards readers. The restrictions that arise from these options, such as the presence of particular gendered or themed characters, restrict the readings of the media.

The close reading of digital interactive narratives was given a powerful model when N. Katherine Hayles began publishing on the materiality of digital literature. In “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” (2004) Hayles refines the concept of materiality. In order to explain the materiality of digital texts as meaningful, Hayles outlines a system of “Media Specific Analysis” (MSA) that involves analyses of digital works in terms of content, contexts (historical, social etc) and material forms. Hayles defines MSA as a strategy that

Reconfigures materiality as the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. (72)

Hayles postulates that “MSA moves from the language of ‘‘text ’’ to a more precise vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue interface, code and ink, mutable image and durably inscribed mark, texton and scripton, computer and book” (69), and as a result “the materiality of those embodiments interacts dynamically with linguistic, rhetorical, and literary practices to create the effects we call literature” (69-70). Following MSA, I understand the process of creating meaning goes on in networks of cultural, social and historical connections that are realized through interaction with the materials of the text. The materials that make up the text are not privileged over semiotic meaning, but the processes that bring about meaning are equally not confined to the semiotic alone.

Based on how selected narrative elements guide reading, this chapter refutes a number of established concepts in the critique of interactive digital works. The concept of readers being made into authors by digital interactive works, advanced in the early theory by George Landow (1991), and continued in variations by researchers such as Espen Aarseth (1997), and in Katherine Hayles’ Writing Machines (2001), does not sufficiently acknowledge how digital works both depart from and adhere to narrative traditions. Rather, narrative is grounded in complex networks of representation that exist between the languages and the materials of representation in the works. The networks between the languages and the materials combine to form what has been termed a narrative architecture (Jenkins 2002), which the reader must both actively navigate and interpret simultaneously, in a type of reading that privileges performance and participation over interpretation.

In the essay “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” Jenkins identifies four narrative elements that are possible in computer games; (i) evocative spaces, (ii) enacting stories, (iii) embedded narratives, and (iv) emergent narratives (see Jenkins 123-129). The concept of narrative architecture is from Jenkins (2004), who describes the general characteristics of the term without providing a concise definition. Jenkins outlines the characteristics of spatial or environmental storytelling that includes evocative spaces as well as enactment of the story and the presence of embedded and emergent narratives (See Jenkins 118-129). I expand on the concept of narrative architecture by investigating the properties that can be attributed to it in the four texts. These include places and stereotypes in the narrative architecture. I develop a finer grained concept of evocative spaces that includes the role of place within narrative. I explore characterization as a means of enacting stories, as well as the use of objects and places to activate embedded and emergent narratives.

Once digital interactive narratives are read as materially specific systems, both the interpretive and material elements of the text are given an equal footing in analyses. With this sentiment in mind Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy’s Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media (2007) is concerned with game theories, while maintaining a strong focus of how digital artifacts are analyzed as new media. Dovey and Kennedy qualify the relationship between the user and the digital artifact as “games [that] are not static media texts – they are activities.” (23). Interactivity is defined in terms of the interaction with the material properties of game as texts and of the cultural experience needed to interpret their meanings. Dovey and Kennedy’s model for analysis leads to the conclusion that “computer games can be seen as prototypical of new media economies insofar as they are an excellent example of the shift from a participatory media culture (see Jenkins 1992) to what games theorist Sue Morris, talking about First Person Shooters (FPS) has termed a ‘co-creative’ media form” (123). With the union of the reader, player or user and the digital interactive text, an investigation can be launched into how reading is guided by this new media form. In my inquiry, the restrictions placed upon the reader by elements within a selection of interactive texts are analyzed according to how they can be interpreted on the level of narrative.

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