Monday, November 19, 2012

Place in Digital Narrative

The representation of place in interactive digital texts is an important element in how narrative functions. In examining the literature, Eva Kingsepp (2006) analyzes place according to the narrative of the text in relation to the historical genre of “Nazi-ness” in the computer games Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor: Underground. In Kingsepp’s approach, the representation of place within narrative is dependent upon “locations […] identified through a number of visual signs that together with connotations to other mediated visual representations, such as film and photography, establish a feeling of being in a certain place” (Kingsepp 67). The establishment of place in reading, according to Kingsepp, is dependent on the preexisting narrative associations, which are part of the “connotations to other mediated visual representations” (67). Places in the narrative are not points within the work where features are located, as these are spatial and part of design. A place addresses the reader in a representational sense, according to pre-existing narrative associations, where recognizable features depict or simulate elements of a location, either specifically such as Chicago or Cairo, or in terms of genre. A place that fulfills the requirements of genre functions on the level of depiction, in the sense of ‘village on the Nile’ or ‘a home’. The reader can often interact with these representations according to particular sets of pre-existing narrative elements, such as identifiable places (i.e. bar, lounge, hospital, generic Egypt, home, ancient ruin, colonial hotel).
         Place is not only a semantic label related to genres, even within the representational space of the digital works. Place is experienced and understood in the digital works, as “we tend to identify traces of circumambulatory movements that brings a place into being as boundaries that demarcate the place from its surrounding space” (Ingold 32). Navigation is a central element in this mode of reception. My reading of place in the digital works is profoundly dialogic, in a similar sense to that described by Ingold. When drawing on the work of Christopher Tilley (1994 25) and Lefebvre (1991 117-118), Ingold describes the role of place in human existence as

place-binding. It unfolds not in places but along paths. Proceeding along a path, every inhabitant lays a trail. Where inhabitants meet, trails are entwined, as the life of each becomes bound up with the other. Every entwining is a knot, and the more that life-lines are entwined, the greater the density of the knot. Places, then, are like knots and the threads from which they are tied are lines of wayfaring” (Ingold 33).

These convergences of experience and habitation are named and these names represent the sum total of what makes the place. Places that are both inhabited and imagined in the physical world are represented in the digital works. Interaction (mainly navigation and manipulation of objects), and language are the methods by which the reader inhabits the places within the representational space. Bakhtin in “The Problem of Speech Genres” (95-99) describes the assignment of genres solely based on the perceived identity of the addressee. However, many of the criteria mentioned by Bakhtin, such as social hierarchy, reader, listener, public or private, are contextualized by place. An example of this contextualization is taken up by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson in their use of Bakhtin’s related analytical concept of chronotope, time/space, to unpack the role of place in the hero/heroine trope: Introducing the break with the home as a place introduces the elements of chance in the relationship. (Morson and Emerson 379). In operating outside of genre classifications place is an organizing principle within representational space; it is lived through, understood and negotiated at the same time. In the digital works the representation of elements related to gender and class extends the representational scope of place into the specifics of society, culture, history etc. Close reading place somewhat removes the reader from the experience of the place, and by resorting to such tools as genre, it allows for the representational aspects to be analyzed.
The representation of place in the digital works of this present study is addressive. This addressivity progresses from the iconic elements and first-person perspective dealt with in the previous chapter. In their work with virtual worlds as a means to foster civic engagement, Eric Gordon and Gene Koo draw on the work of Malpas (1999) and Tuan & Mercure (2004), to identify place as “experienced space” (Gordon and Koo 206). As the site of experience, place becomes an organizing principle;

“Place can be produced through happenstance (the space of a first kiss), through narrative (the space of childhood that is persistently articulated with story), through familiarity (the space one lives each day), or through representation (the space of art or advertising). This identification with place is an important method of organizing personal experience and social actions" (Gordon and Koo 206).

In relation to the experience of the digital works as reading, the iconic features described in the previous chapter enter narrative in the representation of place based on reader identification. The experience of space in the works via navigation and the iconic elements in the works, such as virtual objects, create a sense of identification with the elements of place. The experience of the space by the reader is addressive according to the representations of place. An example of this recognition and experience is the lounge area in Façade, as a set of iconic representations, and the source of reader identification with a place. The reader negotiates the space created by design, as a series of interconnected and interrelated places, where space “is created by events, rather than being merely a location where events occur” (Muse 2011 191). The result is the role of place in reading, which is “not the writing of a place, but rather writing with places, spatially realized topics” (Bolter 2001 36). In this sense, place is narrated not as an object, but in the subjectivity gained by the experience of the work. Within its addressive elements the identification with place is associated with genres.
Genres function in reading the digital works by fusing characters with locations. An example of this is how places in Façade feature qualities that are assigned to the feminine and masculine characters as separate and specific places. The result is the infusion of space with meanings that are related to the genres of gender, in specific stereotypical and culturally specific ways. As I explain in the following analysis, the resulting narrative address is composed of coordinated written and visual components, character’s voices, incidental or diegetic sound. Navigation takes on meaning as the character fuse with the places represented in narrative, which in this study include class and gender. Similarly, Jenny Sundén argues in relation to narrative performance in early text-based MultiUser Dungeons (MUDs), “identity is experienced simultaneously as “self ” and “other” in embodied and imagined spaces” (Sundén 2002 80). This split between the subject and object exists in the embodied and imagined spaces of interactive texts. In other words, digital texts are “storied places” consisting of “carefully structured places to explore, and inhabit” (Sundén 2006 281). I argue separation between self and other in relation to reading the digital texts is diminished in the representation of place. The fusion with place is a defining addressive element that guides reading. The characters are fused in narrative with the places they occupy in a similar to how, “the inhabitant of the virtual world is a part of that world almost like a programmed extension” (Muse 205). The character and the program are one in digital interactive narratives.  This fusion includes the representation of place according to gender and socio-economic class.
The representation of place, and its associated elements are frames in reading narrative. Frames take on different meanings specific to the narratives of the works that must be distinguished. The frame is as much about reader contexts as it is about the work itself. As Terry Eagleton points out,

Reading is not a straightforward linear movement, merely a cumulative affair; our initial speculations generate a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding, highlighting some features of it and backgrounding others (Eagleton 67).

Eagleton provides, in “what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding”, a concentrated focus on the interpretive end of the dialogic network in reading. Frames of reference are related to pre-existing narratives within the digital works in the sense of dialogic addressivity. Address in the works establishes pre-existing components for narrative as a frame to events and actions. As I explain in my analysis, place is one such framing technique. To expand my account of place as a framing element in reading, to conclude this chapter I briefly illustrate how this can be applied to another frame for interactive narrative. Colonial nostalgia frames the reading of Egypt by dividing places according to colonial and the Other. These places outside the colonial are an interconnected network of dangerous and unstable sites in the narrative of the work. In both cases context is provided by framing, which controls and directs reader responses to narrative based on the conditions these frames represent in the texts.
Finally in relation to the representation of place in the texts, beyond the spatial dimensions outlined in the previous chapter, sound should also be understood as addressive. In address sound is symbolic representations, one of which is the representation of place. The example I discuss at length in this chapter is the use of accented and gendered voice as audio in Last Meal Requested and Façade, and how each is used to represent place and class. The accents in Last Meal Requested and Façade are attributed to the characters, as well as situating them in the places they occupy in narrative. In Façade recorded speech is standardized North American educated pronunciation, indicating a middle class affluence to the characters and thus establishing that particular context for all reader interaction with them. As a contrast, the accents of recorded speech in Last Meal Requested are linked to representations of South Central Los Angeles and the deep south of the United States. These are non-standardized dialect pronunciations that are connected to lower class and uneducated speakers. Class distinctions are signified by the accents of characters, which positions them in the larger defining category of place. Through references to place, sounds invite particular interpretations in the reading of the narratives.

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