A Response to "A New 'Gospel of the Three Dimensions'"

A Response to "A New 'Gospel of the Three Dimensions'"

Marie-Laure Ryan

In this riposte, Marie-Laure Ryan suggests Lisa Swanstrom has ‘flattened’ the dimensions of her arguments about digital narrative as well as the dimensions of the digital experience itself.

This riposte to Lisa Swanstrom’s review of Beyond the Screen is made of two distinct parts: some ideas inspired by Swanstrom’s stimulating evocation of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, in the context of her discussion of writing experiments trying to reach beyond the screen; and a reaction to a passage concerning my own work, more particularly ideas expressed in my book Avatars of Story.

Swanstrom’s analogy between Flatland and the writing experiments discussed in Gendolla and Schaefer’s work rests on the fact that they both make visible something that we tend to take for granted, namely the dimensionality of space. To this extent the comparison is fully justified and enlightening. But it also has its limits, like any comparison - for if two phenomena were similar in all respects they would be identical, and comparing them would be as fruitful (pun intended) as comparing oranges to oranges. I believe, however, that there is also something to learn from the difference between Flatland and “beyond the screen” writing experiments, besides the obvious fact that Flatland subtracts one or two dimensions from reality, while beyond-the-screen, or “3D writing,” tries to add a dimension to a normally 2D object. The difference is that Flatland describes 2D or 1D worlds (“Flatland” and “Lineland”) through standard 2D writing, while experiments in 3D writing, such as CAVE writing or Aya Karpinska’s Arrival of the Bee Box, when they describe a world (i.e. when they are representational rather than abstract), most likely will describe a lifelike 3D world. When we speak of spaces of variable dimensions with respect to texts, we can refer to three kinds of space: (1) the space of the reference world, or story space (Abbott’s Flatland); (2) the space taken by the text itself (1D in the case of oral texts, 2D in the case of pages, 3D in the case of engraved inscriptions, and virtual 3D in the case of letters drawn in perspective); and (3) the space in which the text is located, the physical context of the text, which is always 3D, at least in our world (this would be different for the texts found in Abbott’s Flatland!). The locative narrative projects described in the Gendolla and Schaefer collection (for instance in the Balpe and Raley articles) are 3D in the third sense: Balpe describes a computer-generated story of his own creation, which is displayed on flat panels located throughout the town of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, while Raley describes a project called Hundekopf whose constituent elements can be accessed from various stations on the Berlin subway. Both texts emphasize their physical context, but by means of 2D visual signs, and Balpe’s story describes a 3D world. Any serious attempt to discuss digital writing and its experiments with dimensionality should distinguish these three kinds of space and take their relevance into consideration.

My second point of discussion concerns this passage:

By calling our attention to the spatial and experiential nature of such works, Raley takes seriously the importance of user-reader performance and participation. And in contrast to narratologists such as Marie-Laure Ryan, who has suggested that works of digital literature might need to “limit user participation to a largely observatory role” for them to be successful, Raley offers a powerful counter-argument: “Interactive narrative, a broad category that encompasses everything from text-adventure games to mobile narratives, needs to situate the participant as an “experiencer” rather than a voyeur” (313). This is easier said than done, of course, and the challenge that emerges is to craft narratives that lend themselves to meaningful user participation.

I was quite surprised to read that, as a supposed spokesperson for all narratologists, I have suggested that works of digital literature need to “limit user participation to a largely observatory role” for them to be successful.

Raley takes my argument out of context by claiming that I am speaking about electronic literature in general. But there is a difference between “literature” (i.e. language-based, artistic text) and “narrative” which needs to be neither artistic nor language-based. In my view, it is very possible for users to take an active role in electronic literature, for instance in projects that ask them to produce text, but I still have yet to see an example of a digital work where: (1) the user’s performance results in a coherent narrative, (2) the narrative is about the user (or rather about the character impersonated by the user), and (3) this narrative is dynamically produced rather than pre-scripted. Some video games fulfill conditions 1 and 2 but not condition 3 - the player progresses along a pre-determined storyline - or they fulfill conditions 1 and 3 but not condition 2 - as, to some extent, in The Sims. The only examples of works that fulfill all three of these conditions are table-top role-playing games, which rely on improvisation by naturally intelligent humans (see Caïra 2007), but these games use old-fashioned pen and paper, not digital technology. Judging by the description on its website, the Berlin subway event that Raley discusses cannot be described as a story, much less as a story in which the user plays the role of a character. As for other cases of “locative narratives,” for instance murmur or 34 North 118 West by Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman and Jeremy Hight, they may consist of stories, and the user plays an active role in searching for them in real space (what I call in Avatars “exploratory participation”), but the stories concern other people. So it is pointless to apply my remarks to locative narratives, since they do not fulfill condition 2.

The difference, ultimately, is that Raley/Swanstrom take the term “experiencer” and the idea of participation rather loosely while I take them quite literally - experiencing a world and participating in it as an active character, not just as a reader who deploys “non-trivial effort” (to quote Espen Aarseth) to get more of the text. In an afterthought, Swanstrom seems to recognize the utopian character of a literal kind of participation when she writes “this is easier said than done,” a remark that suggest that even the projects described by Raley do not achieve this kind of experience. On the other hand, if we take “experiencer” to mean, more loosely, something like “reacting emotionally or aesthetically to a work,” then any successful narrative (or even non-narrative) text, whatever its medium (film, game, comic, novel) turns its user into an experiencer. This is certainly not a privilege of electronic media.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Caïra, Olivier. Jeux de rôles: les forges de la fiction. Paris : CNRS Editions, 2007. Print.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.