Beyond Myth and Metaphor: Narrative in Digital Media

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The concept of narrative has been widely invoked by theorists of digital textuality, but the promotion of what is described as the storytelling power of the computer has often relied on shallow metaphors, loose conceptions of narrative, and literary models that ignore the distinctive properties of the digital medium. Two myths have dominated this theorization. The myth of the Aleph (as I call it) presents the digital text as a finite text that contains an infinite number of stories. The myth of the Holodeck envisions digital narrative as a virtual environment in which the user becomes a character in a plot similar to those of Victorian novels or Shakespearean tragedies. Both of these myths rely on questionable assumptions: that any permutation of a collection of lexias results in a coherent story; that it is aesthetically desirable to be the hero of a story; and that digital narrativity should cover the same range of emotional experiences as literary narrative. Here I argue that digital narrative should emancipate itself from literary models. But I also view narrative as a universal structure that transcends media. This article addresses the question of reconciling the inherent linearity of narrative structures with the multiple paths made possible by the interactive nature of the digital text by distinguishing four forms of interactivity, which result from the cross-classification of two binaries: internal versus external interactivity; and exploratory versus ontological. Each of these categories is shown to favor different narrative themes and different variations of the universal narrative structure.

(Source: author's abstract.)

Pull Quotes: 

In this article I would like to investigate one of the most important forms that this advance theorizing of digital textuality has taken, namely, the use of narrative concepts to advertise present and future product. I will approach this topic in three ways: first, through a critique of some of the (mis)uses of the concept of narrative in advertising and theoretical discourse; second, through a taxomony of the various modes of user participations in digital narratives; and third, through a personal assessment of the most efficient way to exploit the resources of hypertext, the most literary form of digital narrative.

As a mental representation, narrative consists of a world (setting), populated by individuals (characters), who participate in actions and happenings (events, plot), through which they undergo change (temporal dimension).

Narrativity is independent of tellability.

For theorists such as George P. Landow, Jay David Bolter, and Michael Joyce, hypertext is a textual object that appears bigger than it is because readers could spend hours—ideally, their entire lifetimes—unraveling new stories from it.

The viability of the concept of the Holodeck as model of digital narrative is questionable for a number of reasons: technological, algorithmic, but above all psychological.

To me the future of digital narrative—or more broadly, the future of digital textuality—lies in the enhancement of verbal storytelling with visual and audio documents.

The truly distinctive feature of digital media is interactivity. This feature enables the user to choose her or his way through the text at run time.

Interactivity does not make it easy to tell stories, because a narrative interpretation is a response to a linear structure that is built into the text, not a type of meaning freely created by the reader out of any set of data.

Yet without some degree of narrativity, digital media cannot become a major presence on the arts and entertainment scene.

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Eric Dean Rasmussen