Notes on Janet H. Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
Key concepts: active audience, agency, chatterbot, constructivism, cyberbard, encyclopedic, hypertext, immersion, kaleidoscopic narrative, lexia, maze, moral physics, multiform story, objective correlative, object-oriented software design, participatory, procedural authorship, rhizome, scrapbook multimedia, simulation, spatial.
Connects electronic media to tradition of novels, drama, and cinema as Manovich does, foregrounding emotional aspects including fear of new representational technologies. Gives a survey of evolution and types of effects and narrative in computer games, and then hypertext fiction. Predictable introduction to Afternoon as first serious hypertext literature, then survey of virtual reality installations and computer models of plot. Computer is performance instrument expertly manipulated by cyberbard, not autonomous source of plot. Recounts ELIZA phenomenon to pose four properties of digital environments: procedural, participatory, spatial, encyclopedic. Differences between compiled and interpreted code; comparison between conversation in ELIZA and programming in Zork as reflecting human-computer relationships. Object orientation implicit in LISP facilitated the game design. Narrative constraints scripting the player necessary to create a virtual world with the available resources. Wardrip-Fruin, Bogost and many other depart from this early conclusion.
Related theorists: Bogost, Borges, Bush, Eco, Jenkins, Michael Joyce, Kolby, Laurel, Lord, Manovich, McLuhan, Minsky, Moulthrop, Nelson, Propp, Turkle, Wardrip-Fruin.
A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama
(4-5) The new theoreticians no longer
saw the novel as the “bright book of life” but as an infinite
regression of words about words about words. Joining in this
conversation involved learning a discourse as arcane as machine code,
and even farther from experience.
(5) I was at that time the humanities faculty member in the [MIT] Experimental Study Group (ESG), in which conventional courses were taught in an individualized manner. . . . They believed the particular programming language they were learning was both the brain's own secret code and a magical method for creating anything on earth out of ordinary English words. They saw themselves as wizards and alchemists, and the computer as a land of enchantment.
(6) The combination of text, video, and navigable space suggested that a computer-based microworld need not be mathematical but could be shaped as a dynamic fictional universe with characters and events.
(6-7) For my experience in humanities computing has convinced me that some kinds of knowledge can be better represented in digital formats than they have been in print. . . . Although the computer is often accused of fragmenting information and overwhelming us, I believe this view is a function of its current undomesticated state. The more we cultivate it as a tool for serious inquiry, the more it will offer itself as both an analytical and a synthetic medium.
Anticipates new storyteller who is both hacker and bard; has the hacker motivation been shunted by availability of cultural software tools?
(9) As I watch the yearly growth in ingenuity among my students, I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard. The spirit of the hacker is one of the great creative wellsprings of our time, causing the inanimate circuits to sing with ever more individualized and quirky voices; the spirit of the bard is eternal and irreplaceable, telling us what we are doing here and what we mean to one another.
A New Medium for Storytelling
Lord Burleigh's Kiss
Universal fantasy machine of Star Trek holodeck to go with Bush memex, Nelson Xanadu and other imagined equipment.
(15) The Star Trek holodeck is a universal fantasy machine, open to individual programming: a vision of the computer as a kind of storytelling genie in the lamp.
The fear accompanying new representational technologies.
The paralyzing alien kiss is the latest embodiment of the fear with
which we have greeted every powerful new representational
technology—from the bardic lyre, to the printing press, to the
secular theater, to the movie camera, to the television screen.
(18) Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), set six hundred years from now, describes a society that science has dehumanized by eliminating love, parenthood, and the family in favor of genetic engineering, test-tube delivery, and state indoctrination.
(21) For Huxley and Bradbury, the more persuasive the medium, the more dangerous it is. As soon as we open ourselves to these illusory environments that are “as real as the world” or even “more real than reality,” we surrender our reason and join with the undifferentiated masses, slavishly wiring ourselves into the stimulation machine at the cost of our very humanity.
Frightening future not of technologized docility but violent fragmentation; compare to Edwards cyborg narratives.
(21-22) Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the same fears provoked by the advent of film and television began to be expressed against videogames, which added interactivity to the sensory allures of sight, sound, and motion. . . . The nightmare vision of a future totalitarian state has been replaced by the equally frightening picture of a violently fragmented world organized around cyberspace, where ruthless international corporations, secret agencies, and criminal conspiracies struggle for control.
The Thinking Woman's Feely
(25) The Star
can be seen as a fable differentiating humane and meaningful digital
storytelling from the dehumanizing illusions that the dystopians warn
(26) Eventually all successful storytelling technologies become “transparent”: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself.
Harbingers of the Holodeck
(28) The garish videogames and tangled Web sites of the current digital environment are part of a similar period of technical evolution, part of a similar struggle for the conventions of coherent communication.
(29) Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques.
(29) Now, in the incunabular days of the narrative computer, we can see how twentieth-century novels, films, and plays have been steadily pushing against the boundaries of linear storytelling.
The Multiform Story
Multiform story presenting single situation in multiple versions has many examples prior to electronic versions.
I am using the term multiform
describe a written or dramatic narrative that presents a single
situation or plotline in multiple versions, versions that would be
mutually exclusive in our ordinary experience. Perhaps the best-known
example of a multiform plot is Frank Capra's beloved Christmas story,
Wonderful Life (1946).
(30) But for many postmodern writers, the quintessential multiform narrative is the much darker story in Jorge Borges's “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941).
(34) Part of the impetus behind the growth of the multiform story is the dizzying physics of the twentieth century, which has told us that our common perceptions of time and space are not the absolute truths we had been assuming them to be.
(38) To be alive in the twentieth century is to be aware of the alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds, and of the limitless intersecting stores of the actual world.
The Active Audience
(40) Nevertheless, calling attention to the process of creation in this way can also enhance the narrative involvement by inviting readers/viewers to imagine themselves in the place of the creator.
(40-41) Although television viewers have long been accused of being less actively engaged than readers or theatergoers, research on fan culture provides considerable evidence that viewers actively appropriate the stories of their favorite series.
Jenkins prosumer texual poaching makes global fanzine of WWW.
This “textual poaching,” as media critic Henry Jenkins
has called it, has become even more
widespread on the World Wide Web, which functions as a global
(42) Role-playing games are theatrical in a nontraditional but thrilling way. Players are both actors and audience for one another, and the events they portray often have the immediacy of personal experience.
(43) In all of these gatherings, the attraction lies in inviting the audience onto the stage, into the realm of illusion. These are all holodeck experiences without the machinery.
Turkle MUD studies reveal evocative environments; one day do a study of the SCA.
(44) As the social psychologist Sherry Turkle has persuasively demonstrated, MUDs are intensely “evocative” environments for fantasy play that allow people to create and sustain elaborate fictional personas over long periods of time.
Movies in Three Dimensions
(49) The three-dimensional sound and images held out the possibility of a dramatic art form that can juxtapose the inner and the outer life as easily and gracefully as prose.
Riding the Movies
(49) The “movie ride” is engineered for strong visceral effects. It combines the surprises of the funhouse with the terrors of the roller coaster.
(50) But the move-rides are providing evidence that audiences are not satisfied by intense sensation alone. . . . Developers have lately been expanding the duration of the rides and are adding more characters and incidents to them to meet the rider's expectation of dramatic action. Most ambitiously, they are giving the rider more freedom to direct the ride and more opportunity to affect the unfolding story.
Dramatic Storytelling in Electronic
(51) The largest commercial success and the greatest creative effort in digital narrative have so far been in the area of computer games.
(52) Although puzzle games can subordinate the story to the game play, just as the fighting games do, many puzzle games take advantage of this slower pace to offer a richer level of story satisfaction.
(53) The death of Floyd [in Planetfall] is a minor milestone on the road from puzzle gaming to an expressive narrative art.
Strategic use of sound and music to achieve immersion in games to be like movie amusement rides.
(53-54) On the other hand, some game designers are making good use of film techniques in enhancing the dramatic power of their games. For instance, the CD-ROM game Myst (1993) achieves much of its immersive power through its sophisticated sound design. . . . The music shapes my experience into a dramatic scene, turning the act of discovery into a moment of dramatic revelation.
(55) Hypertext is a set of documents of any kind (images, text, charts, tables, video clips) connected to one another by links. Stories written in hypertext can be divided into scrolling “pages” (as they are on the World Wide Web) or screen-size “cards” (as they are in a Hypercard stack), but they are best thought of as segmented into generic chunks of information called “lexias” (or reading units).
(55-56) The existence of hypertext has given writers a new means of experimenting with segmentation, juxtaposition, and connectedness.
(56) The first widely successful hypertext narrative is The Spot, a sexually titillating soap opera about a group of West Coast yuppies living in a beach house who post their diary entries regularly on the Web.
Storyspace hypertext system by Bolter and Smith designed for writing narrative as linked text blocks; look for programmer perspective.
The literary publisher Eastgate Systems distinguishes its products
from both pornographic “Web soaps” and games by calling them
“serious hypertext.” The pioneering work in this genre is Michael
Joyce's Afternoon (1987),
written in the Storyspace
which he codesigned with Jay David Bolter and John Smith specifically
for the purpose of writing narrative as a set of linked text
(58) But to the postmodern writer, confusion is not a bug but a feature. In the jargon of the postmodern critics, Joyce is intentionally “problematizing” our expectations of storytelling, challenging us to construct our own text from the fragments he has provided. . . . The architectural playfulness of Afternoon, its construction as a series of discrete lexia linked by overlapping paths, and the poetic shaping of its individual lexia mark it as the first narrative to lay claim to the digital environment as a home for serious literature in new formats.
Computer Scientists as Storytellers
Examples of virtual reality installations, AI experiments, interactive narrative demonstrate storytelling by computer scientists (Laurel and Strickland).
(59) Researchers in fields like
virtual reality and artificial intelligence, who have traditionally
looked to the military for technical challenges and funding, have
recently turned from modeling battlefields and smart weapons to
modeling new entertainment environments and new ways of creating
(59-60) The bicycle interface [at Mitsubishi Electronics Research Laboratory] acts like the vehicles in a movie-ride in that it makes the distances seen on the screen seem much more concrete by tying the visual movement to a kinetic environment. However, here the world is not built for adrenaline rushes but for socializing exploration.
(60-61) One of the most intriguing such installations is the Placeholder world created by Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland for Interval Research Corporation in California. Laurel, who holds the world's first Ph.D. in interactive narrative, has been designing games and user interfaces since the 1970s. . . . Once inside the Placeholder world, they can enter the bodies of virtual animals and move as they move.
(61) Perhaps the least encumbered holodeck experience available right now is in front of the twelve-foot computer screen set up by the ALIVE project of MIT's Media Lab as a “magic mirror” in which interactors see their own reflection placed beside the cartoon images of virtual characters designed in the lab.
(62) When the Media Lab setup is not in use for these advanced projects, graduate students play Doom by projecting its cavelike landscape on the screen and standing in front of it holding a plastic gun.
(62) In addition to creating vivid virtual worlds we can enter and fictional characters we can interact with, researchers are also developing complex computer models of plot.
(64) Judging from the current landscape, we can expect a continued loosening of the traditional boundaries between games and stories, between films and rides, between broadcast media (like television and radio) and archival media (like books or videotape), between narrative forms (like books) and dramatic forms (like theater or film), and even between the audience and the author.
From Additive to Expressive Form
(66) As in the case of the printing press, the invention of the camera led to a period of incunabula, of “cradle films.” . . . The key to this development was seizing on the unique physical properties of film.
(67) The equivalent of the filmed play of the early 1900s is the multimedia scrapbook (on CD-ROM or as a “site” on the World Wide Web), which takes advantage of the novelty of computer delivery without utilizing its intrinsic properties.
(68) Therefore, if we want to see beyond the current horizon of scrapbook multimedia, it is important first to identify the essential properties of digital environments, that is, the qualities comparable to the variability of the lens, the movability of the camera, and the editability of film that will determine the distinctive power and form of a mature electronic narrative art.
ELIZA Comes to Life
(71) Weizenbaum had set out to make a clever computer program and had unwittingly created a believable character. He was so disconcerted by his achievement that he wrote a book warning of the dangers of attributing human thought to machines.
The Four Essential Properties of Digital Environments
Digital Environments Are Procedural
Weizenbaum ELIZA demonstrated procedural property of digital environments.
(72) Weizenbaum stands as the earliest, and still perhaps the
premier, literary artist in the computer medium because he so
successfully applied procedural thinking to the behavior of a
psychotherapist in a clinical interview.
(73-74) The lesson of ELIZA is that the computer can be a compelling medium for storytelling if we can write rules for it that are recognizable as an interpretation of the world. The challenge for the future is how to make such rule writing as available to writers as musical notation is to composers.
Environment Are Participatory
(74) This is what is most often meant when we say that computers are interactive. We mean they create an environment that is both procedural and participatory.
(75) In making a fantasy world that responded to typed commands, the programmers were in part celebrating their pleasure in the increasingly responsive computing environments at their disposal.
Differences between compiled and interpreted code to introduce participatory property of digital environments.
(76) Compiling your code before running it is like writing a book and then hiring someone to translate it for your readers. Using an interpreter is the equivalent of giving a speech with simultaneous translation. It provides more direct feedback from the machine and a more rapid cycle of trail and revision and retrial. . . . Running LISP on a time-sharing system meant that its dynamic “interpreter” could immediately “return” an “evaluation” of any coded statement you typed into it.
Comparison between conversation in ELIZA and programming in Zork as reflecting human-computer relationships.
(76-77) Whereas ELIZA captured the conversational nature of the programmer-machine relationship, Zork transmuted the intellectual challenge and frustrations of programming into a mock-heroic quest filled with enemy trolls, maddening dead ends, vexing riddles, and rewards for strenuous problem solving. . . . In order to succeed, you must orchestrate your actions carefully and learn from repeated trial and error. In the early versions there was no way to save a game in midplay, and therefore a mistake meant repeating the entire correct procedure from the beginning. In a way, the computer was programming the player.
Object orientation implicit in LISP facilitated the game design; also discusses demon processes.
(78) Because LISP programmers were
among the first to practice what is now called object-oriented
software design, they were well prepared to create a magical place
like the world of Zork.
That is, it came naturally to them to create virtual objects such as
swords or bottles because they were using a programming language that
made it particularly easy to define new objects and categories of
objects, each with its own associated properties and procedures.
(78) In fact, most interactive narrative written today still follows a simple branching structure, which limits the interactor's choices to a selection of alternatives from a fixed menu of some kind.
Narrative constraints scripting the player necessary to create a virtual world with the available resources; Wardrip-Fruin, Bogost and many other depart from this early conclusion.
(79) The lesson of Zork is that the first step in making an enticing narrative world is to script the interactor. . . . By using these literary and gaming conventions to constrain the players' behaviors to a dramatically appropriate but limited set of commands, the designers could focus their inventive powers on making the virtual world as responsive as possible to every possible combination of these commands.
Digital Environments Are
(79-80) Linear media such as books and films can portray space, either bay verbal description or image, but only digital environments can present space that we can move through. . . . We recognize the fruit of all of these developments in our conceptualization of the digital domain as “cyberspace,” an environment with its own geography in which we experience a change of documents on our screen as a visit to a distant site on a worldwide web.
Spatial characteristic of digital environments due to both screen display and interactor navigation.
The computer's spatial quality is created by the interactive process
(82) The computer screen is displaying a story that is also a place.
(83) The interactor's navigation of virtual space has been shaped into a dramatic enactment of plot. We are immobilized in the dungeon, we spiral around with the insomniac, we collide into a lexia that shatters like a bomb site. These are the opening steps in an unfolding digital dance. The challenge for the future is to invent an increasingly graceful choreography of navigation to lure the interactor through ever more expressive narrative landscapes.
Digital Environments Are
(84) Just as important as this huge capacity of electronic media is the encyclopedic expectation they induce. . . . It is as if the modern version of the great library of Alexandria, which contained all the knowledge of the ancient world, is about to rematerialize in the infinite expanses of cyberspace.
Encyclopedic characteristic of digital environments evidenced by fan culture.
(84-85) One early indication of the suitability of epic-scale
narrative to digital environments is the active electronic fan
culture surrounding popular television drama series. As an adjunct to
the serial broadcasting of these series, the Internet functions as a
giant bulletin board on which long-term story arcs can be plotted and
episodes from different seasons juxtaposed and compared.
(85) But as the Internet becomes a standard adjunct of broadcast television, all program writers and producers will be aware of a more sophisticated audience, one that can keep track of the story in greater detail and over longer periods of time. . . . In some ways, television dramas seem to be outgrowing broadcast delivery altogether.
(87) Not only does the weblike structure of cyberspace allow for endless expansion possibilities within the fictional world, but in the context of a worldwide web of information these intersecting stories can twine around and through nonfictional documents of real life and make the borders of the fictional universe seem limitless.
(87) Most of what is delivered in hypertext format over the World Wide Web, both fiction and nonfiction, is merely linear writing with table-of-contents links in it. . . . The conventions of segmentation and navigation have not been established well enough for hypertext in general, let alone for narrative.
Authority of constraints bestowed by programmed environment create illusion of complete coverage, but hide political and design assumptions as SimCity critics point out.
Simulations like these take advantage of the authority bestowed by
the computer environment to seem more encyclopedically inclusive than
they really are. As its critics pointed out, the political
assumptions behind SimCity
hidden from the player. . . . Nevertheless, the basic competitive
premise of the game is not emphasized as an interpretive
(89-90) But the encyclopedic capacity of the computer can distract us from asking why things work the way they do and why we are being asked to play one role rather than another. . . . We do not yet have much practice in identifying the underlying values of a multiform story.
Digital Structures of Complexity
Rehearses the story of Bush Memex and Nelson Xanadu.
(91) This earliest
version of hypertext reflects the classic American quest—a charting
of the wilderness, an imposition of order over chaos, and the mastery
of vast resources for concrete, practical purposes.
(91) He [Nelson] sees associated organization as a model of his own creative and distractible consciousness, which he describes as a form of “hummingbird mind.” . . . Nelson's vision of hypertext is akin to William Faulkner's description of novel writing as a futile but noble effort to get the entire world into one sentence.
Eliot objective correlative for capturing emotional experience in cluster of events in literary works; how this operates in hypermeida an gamelike features of simulation remains unstudied and incunabular.
(93) T.S. Eliot
used the term objective correlative to
describe the way in which clusters of events in literary works can
capture emotional experience. . . . The more we see life in terms of
systems, the more we need a system-modeling medium to represent
it—and the less we can dismiss such organized rule systems as mere
(93) Current narrative applications overexploit the digressive possibilities of hypertext and the gamelike features of simulation, but that is not surprising in an incunabular medium.
(94) Every expressive medium has its own unique patterns of desire; its own way of giving pleasure, of creating beauty, of capturing what we feel to be true about life; its own aesthetic. One of the functions of early artifacts is to awaken the public to these new desires, to create the demand for an intensification of the particular pleasures the medium has to offer.
The Aesthetics of the Medium
(98) A stirring narrative in any medium can be experienced as a virtual reality because our brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that can obliterate the world around us. . . . It is what made Cervantes' contemporaries fear the new fad of silent reading.
Learning to swim in participatory immersive environments.
(98-99) The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. We refer to this experience as immersion. . . . But in a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment makes possible.
Entering the Enchanted Place
Turkle research on psychology of cyberspace claims uninhibited access to emotions, thoughts, behaviors closed in real life.
As Sherry Turkle documents
in her perceptive research on the psychology of cyberspace, working
on the computer can give us uninhibited access to emotions, thoughts,
and behaviors that are closed to us in real life.
(100) Because the liminal trance is so inherently fragile, all narrative art forms have developed conventions to sustain it. One of the most important ways they have done this has been to prohibit participation.
(101) Whether or not it is destructive to art, audience participation is also very awkward. . . . When we enter the enchanted world as our actual selves, we risk draining it of its delicious otherness.
Finding the Border
(103) Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of the border between the representational world and the actual world.
(105) In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was common to play with the borders of the illusion by presenting a novel as a collection of actual letters.
Structuring Participation as a
(106) For purposes of experiencing multisensory immersion, one of the simplest ways to structure participation is to adopt the format of a visit.
The Active Creation of Belief
(111) Such immersive stories invite our participation by offering us many things to keep track of and by rewarding our attention with a consistency of imagination.
(112) The great advantage of participatory environments in creating immersion is their capacity to elicit behavior that endows the imaginary objects with life.
Structuring Participation with a
(112) Historically, spectacle tends to move toward participatory narrative in order to retain our attention, to lengthen the immersive experience. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the rituals of the church were extended into a folk dramatic form.
(113) In digital environments we can put on a mask by acting through an avatar.
(113) Virtual reality technology can offer a new kind of costuming and pageantry. Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland have devised “smart costumes” for the virtual playground called Placeholder.
(114) Smart costumes and social avatars are encouraging steps in the direction of a more expressive and less gun-crazy medium.
Structuring Collective Participation with Roles
(119) the objects of the imaginary world should not be too enticing, scary, or real lest the immersive trance be broken.
(121) One solution to the need for boundaries and conventions in participatory narrative is to focus on exhibitionism rather than on simulated sex.
Discussion of LARP mechanics regulating arousal suggest study the SCA as real virtual reality.
In live-action role-playing games, the narrative conventions that
control the boundary between the real world and the illusion are
called “mechanics.” LARP mechanics are
a kind of abstract mimicry for behaviors that would otherwise require
props, danger, or physical involvement.
(125) The computer is providing us with a new stage for the creation of participatory theater. We are gradually learning to do what actors do, to enact emotionally authentic experiences that we know are not “real.”
Aesthetic pleasure of agency, pleasures of navigation, story in mazes (Borges pullulating web), rapture of rhizome are characteristics of electronic narratives and games.
(128-129) Agency, then, goes beyond both participation and activity. As an aesthetic pleasure, as an experience to be savored for its own sake, it is offered to a limited degree in traditional art forms but is more commonly available in the structured activities we call games. Therefore, when we move narrative to the computer, we move it to a realm already shaped by the structures of games. Can we imagine a compelling narrative literature that builds on these game structures without being diminished by them? Or are we merely talking about an expensive way to rewrite Hamlet for the pinball machine?
The Pleasures of Navigation
(130) Electronic environments offer the pleasure of orienteering in two very different configurations, each of which carries its own narrative power: the solvable maze and the tangled rhizome.
The Story in the Maze
(130) The adventure maze embodies a classic fairy-tale narrative of danger and salvation.
(131) In the right hands a maze story could be a melodramatic adventure with complex social subtexts. For instance, instead of a fairy tale palace it could be set in a Kafkaesque city where the secret police are rounding up and deporting citizens with the wrong kind of papers.
(132) However, there is a drawback to the maze orientation: it moves the interactor toward a single solution, toward finding the one way out. . . . We want the “pullulating” web that Borges described, constantly bifurcating, with every branch deeply explorable.
Rapture of the Rhizome
(132) Deleuze used the rhizome root system as a model of connectivity in systems of ideas; critics have applied this notion to allusive text systems that are not linear like a book but boundaryless and without closure.
(133) The indeterminate structure of these hypertexts frustrates our desire for narrational agency, for using the act of navigation to unfold a story that flows from our own meaningful choices.
(134) The boundlessness of the rhizome experience is crucial to its comforting side.
Giving Shape to Anxiety
(135) The key to creating an expressive fictional labyrinth is arousing and regulating the anxiety intrinsic to the form by harnessing it to the act of navigation.
(137) The multithreaded web story achieves coherent dramatic form by shaping our terror into a pattern of exploration and discovery.
The Journey Story and the Pleasure
of Problem Solving
(138) On the computer the journey story emphasizes navigation—the transitions between different places, the arrivals and departures—and the how-to's and the hero's repeated escapes from danger.
(139) The most dramatically satisfying puzzles are those that encourage the interactor to apply real-world thinking to the virtual world.
Games into Stories
(140) In fact, narrative satisfaction can be directly opposed to game satisfaction, as the endings of Myst, widely hailed as the most artistically successful story puzzle of the early 1990s, make clear.
Games as Symbolic Dramas
(142) Every game, electronic or otherwise, can be experienced as a symbolic drama.
(143) In games, therefore, we have a chance to enact our most basic relationship to the world—our desire to prevail over adversity, to survive our inevitable defeats, to shape our environment, to master complexity, and to make our lives fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each move in a game is like a plot event in one of these simple but compelling stories.
(143-144) Games can also be read as texts that offer interpretations of experience. . . . Instead of keeping what you build, as you would in a conventional jigsaw puzzle, in Tetris everything you bring to a shapely completion is swept away from you. Success means just being able to keep up with the flow. This game is a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s.
Games as symbolic dreams include interesting interpretation of Tetris as enactment of overtasked American lives and rain dance of postmodern psyche.
allows us to symbolically experience agency over our lives. It is a
kind of rain dance for the postmodern psyche, meant to allow us to
enact control over things outside our power.
(144-145) The violence and simplistic story structure of computer skill games are therefore a good place to examine the possibilities for building upon the intrinsic symbolic content of gaming to make more expressive narrative forms.
The Context Story
(145) The most common form of game—the agon, or contest between opponents—is also the earliest form of narrative.
(146) These gaming conventions orient the interactor and make the action coherent. They are equivalent to a novelist's care with point of view or a director's attention to staging.
(147) the moral impact of enacting an opposing role is a promising sign of the serious dramatic potential of the fighting game.
(147) We need to find substitutes for shooting off a gun that will offer the same immediacy of effect but allow for more complex and engaging story content.
(148-149) Since objects in a text-based MUD are made out of programming code and words, there is no limit to what can be called into being within the virtual world. . . . The constructivist pleasure is the highest form of narrative agency the medium allows, the ability to build things that display autonomous behavior.
(149) As computer access spreads, it is likely that more and more people will turn from win/lose game playing to the collective construction of elaborate alternate worlds.
Constructivism exemplar MMORPGs virtually instantiate the well-run LARP game; how does her prediction fit with decline in popularity of Second Life and rise of casual construction games?
(151) Perhaps the
most successful model for combining player agency with narrative
coherence is a well-run LARP game.
(152) Producing such systems will require the union of computer science expertise with participatory storytelling artistry.
The Interactor as Author
Attribution of procedural authorship by interactor mistakes agency in digital narrative for content and game mechanics creation.
Authorship in electronic media is procedural. Procedural
authorship means writing the
rules by which the texts appear as well as writing the texts
themselves. . . . The procedural author creates not just a set of
scenes but a world of narrative possibilities.
(153) Contemporary critics are attributing authorship to interactors because they do not understand the procedural basis of electronic composition. The interactor is not the author of the digital narrative, although the interactor can experience one of the most exciting aspects of artistic creation - the thrill of exerting power over enticing and plastic materials. This is not authorship but agency.
(155-156) As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, the communications media of the twentieth century are mosaic rather than linear in structure, as compared to the printed book.
(156) The computer presents us with the spatial mosaic of the newspaper page, the temporal mosaic of film, and the participatory mosaic of TV remote control. But even while it combines the confusing multiplicity of these mosaic media, the computer offers new ways of mastering fragmentation.
(157) One the computer we can lay out all the simultaneous actions in one grid and then allow the interactor to navigate among them. We can have the expansiveness of the novel with the rapid intercutting of the film.
(160-161) By experiencing such interwoven stories as one unit, we can enhance the kaleidoscopic capacity of our minds, our capacity to imagine life from multiple points of view.
Kaleidoscopic subjectivity may be emerging transformation facilitated by computer media experience from print based single perspective fixity.
(161-162) We no longer believe in a single reality, a single integrating view of the world, or even the reliability of a single angle of perception. Yet we retain the core human desire to fix reality on one canvas, to express all of what we see in an integrated and shapely manner. The solution is the kaleidoscopic canvas that can capture the world as it looks from many perspective—complex and perhaps ultimately unknowable but still coherent.
Morphing Story Environments
Virtual Reality in Haworth Parsonage
(166) The regressive, violent, overheated emotional universe of the young Brontes is very like the narrative world of many electronic games.
(169) Projection of highly personal (but universally felt) emotional content onto the figures of the formulaic story moves the content into a field where it is safe to think about it. . . . Because the fantasy has been externalized, it can be manipulated. . . . The experience of closure here may not be in the beauty of the particular story but in the completeness of engagement with the whole range of story possibilities.
(169) D. W. Winnicott described a similar process of imaginative “saturation” in children's play. . . . As a society we use television series in much the same way, asking them to present us with situations that are particularly frightening or appealing and that we have not yet assimilated into our national consciousness. The programs assemble formulaic characters and situations that express our anxieties and desires and then offer variations on the patterns.
Enactment as a Transformational Experience
Compare transformative power of enactment in virtual realities to Gee projective identity.
events have a transformative power that exceeds both narrated and
conventionally dramatized events because we assimilate them as
personal experiences. The emotional impact of enactment within an
immersive environment is so strong that virtual reality installations
have been found to be effective for psychotherapy. . . . The inner
changes brought on by such experiential learning then allow them to
apply the same behaviors to the real world.
(173) The goal of mature fictional environments should not be to exclude antisocial material but to include it in a form in which it can be engaged, remodeled, and worked through.
(174) The question of confused extent and refused closure is explicitly posed by Michael Joyce in his hypertext novel Afternoon, which has no overview of contents and no clearly marked ending.
(175) The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death.
Tragedy in Electronic Narrative
The Mind as Tragic Labyrinth
(177) A labyrinthine hypertext might be the ideal medium for capturing the interior monologue as a sort of snapshot of the mind itself.
The Web of Mourning
Simulation and Destiny
Can there be sense of tragic inevitability in digital narrative, Eco sense of destiny, thinking of Ryan?
(178) Could a digital narrative offer a higher degree of agency while
still preserving the sense of tragic inevitability? Can we have an
interactive story that still retains what Umberto Eco calls its sense
(179-180) What is more, a digital narrative could capture something we have not been able to fix as clearly in linear formats: not just a tragic hero or a tragic choice but a tragic process.
The Multipositional View
(181) On the computer we can reenter the story and experience more than one run of the same simulation. We can play all the parts, exhaust all the possible outcomes.
PART III: Procedural Authorship
The Cyberbard and the Multiform Plot
(186) Many narrative theorists and writers have insisted that there are a limited number of plots in the world, corresponding to the basic patterns of desire, fulfillment, and loss in human life. . . . Ronald B. Tobias, in one of the more competent of the many guidebook for writers, suggests there are twenty “master plots” in all of literature.
The Oral Bard as a Storytelling
(190) But even if a verbal substitution system cannot by itself produce satisfying and coherent digital narratives, it is a useful model for establishing the “primitives” or basic building blocks of a story construction system.
(190) Today's interaction conventions are equivalent to the invention of a few useful epithets for the gods and heroes, basic tools that every storyteller but needs but not enough to get you far with a particular tale.
(191) The next level of patterning after the stock phrase in the bardic storytelling method is what Lord refers to as the theme, that is, a generic narrative unit that can be fit into multiple narratives, a unit such as the departure of a hero, the catalog of ships, the dressing of a hero for battle, the boast of a hero before battle, and the death of a hero.
(192) Genre fiction is appropriate for electronic narrative because it scripts the interactor.
(192) A mature narrative tradition will take advantage of this common base of formulas to refine the scripts, to offer the interactor a richer range of behaviors.
Bardic recreations from underlying pattern better model for cybertexts than fixed work model of print texts; authorship also shifts from individual performer, as IT integration, to milieu of working code.
(194) But what it conserves is not a single particular performance but the underlying patterns from which the bards can create multiple varied performances. Their success in combining the satisfactions of a coherent plot with the pleasures of endless variation is therefore a provocative model of what we might hope to achieve in cyberspace. To do so we must reconceptualize authorship, in the same way Lord did, and think of it not as the inscribing of a fixed written text but as the invention and arrangement of the expressive patterns that constitute a multiform story.
Vladimir Propp and the Bardic
(197) When he finished analyzing all the extant tales, Propp was able to summarize all the variants of the Russian folktale in one inclusive representation. His work suggests that satisfying stories can be generated by substituting and rearranging formulaic units according to rules as precise as a mathematical formula.
The Computer as Storyteller
(198) Several kinds of abstract schema have been proposed by computer scientists as ways of representing stories, many of them based on a model of story structure grounded in cognitive theory. Most of these systems, however, have an unnervingly reductive quality to the humanist.
(201) One way of avoiding the arduous task of teaching the computer to understand the world well enough to make such aesthetic judgments is to code very specific story elements in terms of their dramatic function.
CMU Oz group envisioned by Stephenson in Diamond Age.
(202) The Oz group [at CMU] is attempting to create a system that a writer could use to tell stories that would include an interactor, a story world with its own objects, computer-based characters who act autonomously, and a story controller that would shape the experience from the perspective of the interactor.
The Shaping Role of the Human Storyteller
Computer is performance instrument expertly manipulated by cyberbard following moral physics, not autonomous source of plot.
(207) Since plot
is a function of causality, it is crucial to reinforce the sense that
the interactor's choices have led to the events of the story. . . .
Stories have to have an equivalent “moral physics,” which
indicates what consequences attach to actions, who is rewarded, who
is punished, how fair the world is.
(207-208) By generating multiple stories that look very different on the surface but that derive from the same underlying moral physics, an author-directed cyberdrama could offer an encyclopedic fictional world whose possibilities would only be exhausted at the point of the interactor's saturation with the core conflict. The plots would have coherence not from the artificial intelligence of the machine but from the conscious selection, juxtaposition, and arrangement of elements by the author for whom the procedural power of the computer makes it merely a new kind of performance instrument.
The Coming Cyberbard
(208) Since the
writer's task is analogous to composing a multi-instrument musical
performance, what is needed is a system for specifying story motifs
that is as precise as musical notation and that works something like
the packages now available for arranging music, that is, by letting
the author specify one part at a time and then try out the
combinations and make appropriate adjustments.
(210-211) But suppose we attempted to use the powerful abstraction tool of the frame to represent not the infinitely describable real world but the very limited domains of genre fiction.
(211) The writer would create no only frames to represent all the possible thematic morphemes of the genre but also plot frames to specify all the ways they could be arranged for a single interactor. These frames might include a “mode” terminal containing substitution rules that would allow the same generic elements to be assembled in very different styles.
Compare and contrast cyberbard, cybersage, evacuated individuality argued by Kittler.
(213) None of these formats puts the processing power of the computer directly into the hands of the writer. . . . It seems to me quite possible that a future digital Homer will arise who combines literary ambition, a connection with a wide audience, and computational expertise. But for now we have to listen very, very carefully to hear, amid the cacophony of cyberspace, the first fumbling chords of the awakening bard.
(215) Probably the most famous of Eliza's daughters is the virtuoso character known as Julia, developed by Michael Maudlin of Carnegie Mellon University. Julia is a “chatterbot,” a text-based character like Eliza who carries on conversations with the people around her. Julia was built to live on MUDs, and she has many agreeable social behaviors: she plays the card game hearts, keeps track of other inhabitants, relays messages, remembers things, and gossips.
(217) In order to make query systems succeed, one must limit their domain of expertise and then anticipate the many ways in which questions might be asked.
(219) A conversation with a chatterbot is a kind of improvised skit between human and computer-controlled actors. A successful chatterbot author must therefore script the interactor as well as the program, must establish a dramatic framework in which the human interactor knows what kinds of things to say and is genuinely curious about how the chatterbot might respond.
(220) For any chatterbot, the test of coherency is how it deals with the inevitable problem that arises when the interator's utterance contains no key word.
(222) Computer characters who can carry on persuasive conversations could be an expressive narrative genre in themselves, as well as compelling elements in a larger fictional world.
(225-226) [Psychoanalyst Kenneth] Colby was influenced by theories of cybernetics as well as by Freud in designing his model, and his program traces the patient's moment-to-moment state of mind (as expressed in numbers representing degrees of anxiety, excitation, pleasure, self-esteem, and well-being) through intricate feedback mechanisms that regulate the degree of distortion applied to any potential statement. . . . Since the goal of the interaction is to enable the simulated patient to express her hatred of her father directly and thereby abandon her neurotic belief system, Colby can be credited as the first person to conceive of an automated fictional character with an inner self that is capable of change and growth.
(226-227) Leading engineers turned from building all-encompassing centrally controlled systems to designing worlds made from a collection of “intelligent agents,” each of whom was pursuing its own goals. This change in computer architecture has an equivalent effect for the creation of digital narrative. It is as if computer scientists stopped trying to build a world by coming up with an omniscient storyteller and decided instead to create it out of a collection of autonomous characters.
(230-231) His [Oz group's Lyotard virtual cat] inner life is built on an intricate but precise calculus in which events are compared against goals, actions are compared against standards, and objects are compared against attitudes; Lyotard's psyche is a giant emotional algebra equation in which all the values are changing all the time. . . . A Tolstoy of the next century could hardly model Anna Karenina's conflict between her love for the passionate Vronsky and her love of her son by setting a panel of affect sliders and filling in a template with her goals and standards.
(232) In other words, Lyotard's most dramatically interesting behavior arises from a specific personality structure the authors improvised, on top of the more generic model, just for him.
(233) We need to place the formulaic elements, the stenciled images, within an idiosyncratic arrangement based not on science but on an interpretation of the world.
(235) In other words, in addition to performing one's own character's repertoire of actions, deploying them appropriately and responding to the other characters in a multicharacter world, one must have a way of synchronizing these individual actions with the general action so that one is presented with a coherent picture.
(237) With this degree of formulaic patterning in mind, it becomes possible to think of generating scenes between procedurally described characters.
Pulling the Strings of the Digital Puppet
Emergence as Animation
Cybernetic paradigms from central command, finite state automata, to decentered emergent systems require shifting paradigms of analysis.
In the first cybernetic models, systems were thought of as being
under a central command structure, like a thermostat, and computer
programs were built in simple hierarchies with one master program
that controlled other programs, or subroutines. Later systems were
often based on the notion of a “finite state automaton” that
chugged from one complex state to another in sequences that could be
charted in an neat map of circles connected by lines. But as our
models of the world have become more complex, systems have become
decentered: their processing operations are distributed among many
entities, none of which is in central control, and the possible
states of the system as a whole are no longer thought of as finite.
The new emergent systems have reached such a degree of intricacy that
they are their own description; there is no other way to predict
everything they are likely to do than to run them in every possible
(243) What we look for in a created character is not mere surprise but revelation. . . . A truly round character would surprise the interactor by acting in a way that is consistent with its known behavior but that takes it to a new level.
(245-246) Such modest incunabular creatures may seem hopelessly far from what we can achieve with Forster's “word masses,” but they are nonetheless part of the same effort at understanding what it means to be human. Twentieth-century science has taught us that an important part of the answer to that question lies in understanding how complex systems like the ones the computer can embody for us resemble living things. . . . With oddly celebratory bravado, the computer scientist Marvin Minsky is found of proclaiming that human brains, in fact, human beings altogether, are simply “meat machines.” But if we are merely meat machines, how are we to value ourselves and one another?
(246-247) Digital dogs and cats invert the notion of a meat machine by turning an automaton into a pet. They make the idea of the mechanical less frightening by bringing it into our cultural space and domesticating it, just as our distant ancestors made the frightening world of the beasts less so by turning the wolf into a watchdog.
PART IV: New Beauty, New Truth
Digital TV and the Emerging Formats of Cyberdrama
(252) Although science fiction and fantasy narratives will always remain strong in cyberspace, the documentary elements of the Web—the family albums, travel diaries, and visual autobiographies of the current environment—are pushing digital narrative closer to the mainstream.
Hyperserial: TV Meets the Internet
(253) The merger that Nicholas Negroponte has long been predicting is upon us: the computer, television, and telephone are becoming a single home appliance.
(254) The more closely the new home digital medium is wedded to television, the more likely it will be that its major form of storytelling will be the serial drama.
(254) Probably the first steps toward a new hypererial format will be the close integration of a digital archive, such as a Web site, with a broadcast television program.
(257) The encyclopedic capacity of the computer allows for storytelling on the Faulknerian scale and invites writers to come up with similar contextualizing devices—color-coded paths, time lines, family trees, maps, clocks, calendars, and so on—to enable the viewer to grasp dense psychological and cultural spaces without becoming disoriented.
(258) The ending of a hyperserial would not be a single note, as in a standard adventure drama, but a resolving chord, the sensation of several overlapping viewpoints coming into focus.
(259) Glorianna Davenport's Interactive Cinema Group at the MIT Media Lab has come up with several graceful alternate presentation styles in which a continuous movie plays before the viewer, offering automatic default sequences when no choice is made or responding to the suggestive positioning of a cursor by displaying an appropriate alternative selection in a non-interruptive, seamless manner.
(260) This multidirectional audio, an enhancement of existing sound technology, would serve to make the perception of three-dimensional space much more concrete.
(260) This mobile viewer format would be very well suited to the current television genre of the problem drama, which addresses a socially charged issue, like racism or abortion, on which viewers hold very different views.
(261) The creation of a commentary space within the fictional universe would put the viewer in the role of a member of a Greek chorus, a sounding board for the concerns of the protagonists.
and Fictional Neighborhoods
(262-263) In the next decade, as the dungeons and forests of the MUDs are translated from words into three-dimensional images, more and more users may find themselves residing in such shared fantasy kingdoms.
(264) Gradually these lushly realized places will turn from spectacle experiences to dramatic stages. We will move from the pleasures of immersion and navigational agency to increasingly active and transformational experiences.
(265) Rebel Assault is even more exciting because it allows players to have their own adventures, parallel to those in the movies and carefully woven into the same event sequence and time frame.
(265) As 3-D environments become more detailed, children and adolescents will be increasingly drawn into virtual environments that function as satellites of the communities described in movies, comic books, and, most compellingly, broadcast television series.
Role-Playing in an Authored World
Multiuser worlds without such external authoring run into trouble in
establishing the boundaries of the illusion.
(267) A cyberdrama that combines a strong central story with active role-playing would need clear conventions to separate the area in which the interactors are free to invent their own actions from areas over which they cannot expect to have control.
(269) Highly ritualized interactions can actually increase the participants' freedom, rather than limiting it, by offering them more choices of coherent action.
(270-271) Solo play would allow the interactor to explore all the stories within the limits of the world and to play all the parts until they had exhausted all the possibilities of personal imaginative engagement within a nostalgically charged situation. Although the connective and collaborative pleasures of the digital environment are the focus of much current attention, the private pleasures, like those of reading, are also likely to continue to attract us. As a domain in which we can actively participate in a responsive environment without consequence in the real world, the desktop story would may, like the novel, engage our most compelling transformational fantasies.
The Emerging Cyberdrama
Over a decade later this prediction has not been realized; instead, non-immersive social media forms an accompaniment rather than replacement reality.
(271-272) As the virtual world takes on increasing expressiveness, we will slowly get used to living in a fantasy environment that now strikes us as frighteningly real. But at some point we will find ourselves looking through the medium instead of at it. . . . At that point, when the medium itself melts away into transparency, we will be lost in the make-believe and care only about the story.
Hamlet on the Holodeck
(274) The real literary hierarchy is not of medium but of meaning.
(274) I am asking if we can hope to capture in cyberdrama something as true to the human condition, as as beautifully expressed, as the life that Shakespeare captured on the Elizabethan stage.
(275) Just as we have only recently learned to think of the solitary reader as playing an active role through imaginative engagement with the story, so too are we just beginning to understand that the interactor in digital environments can be the recipient of an externally authored world.
(276) Cyberdramatists will exercise authorial control through the techniques of procedural authorship, which would let them dictate not just the words and images of the story but they rules by which the words and images would appear.
(278) The stories that people make up collaboratively in virtual environments are of this tribal nature; they may seem trite or derivative to an outsider, but they can be riveting and emotionally resonant for the participants.
Invention and Originality
(278-279) Literary stereotypes are like rough sketches of the world, which the next generation of the more capable artist can modify and elaborate. . . . Formulaic entertainment and form-shattering art are both embedded in a cultural repertoire for story patterns. Electronic narrative will only translate that repertoire into a new arena.
New Beauty, New Truth
Her vision of Hamlet on the holodeck is stories emerging from whole system simulation.
The most ambitious promise of the new narrative medium is its
potential for telling stories about whole systems. The format that
most fully exploits the properties of digital environments is not the
hypertext or the fighting game but the simulation: the virtual
world full of interrelated entities, a world we can enter,
manipulate, and observe in process. We might therefore expect the
virtuosos of cyberdrama to create simulated environments that capture
behavioral patterns and patterns of interrelationships with a new
(281) But twentieth-century science has challenged our image of ourselves and has perhaps outrun our ability to imagine our inner life. A linear medium cannot represent the simultaneity of processing that goes on in the brain—the mixture of language and image, the intimation of diverging possibilities that we experience as free will.
(282) The narrative imagination has the power to play leapfrog with analytical modes of understanding. . . . the coming cyberdrama may help us reconcile our subjective experience of ourselves with our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge of biology. . . . A computer-based literature might help us recognize ourselves in the machine without a sense of degradation.
(283) Finally, the experience of the Habitat community described in chapter 9 suggests that the collective virtuosity of the role-playing worlds may provide a tradition of stories around the themes of violence and community.
(284) But it is first and foremost a representational medium, a means for modeling the world that adds its own potent properties to the traditional media it has assimilated so quickly.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck : The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997. Print.