On Marie-Lynn Ryan’s Narrative Across Media

The title of Marie-Laure Ryan’s 2004 volume, Narrative Across Media: The Language of Storytelling, seems to promise new and innovative perspectives on narrative and media. The editor’s introduction, as well as the table of contents, promises to take the reader on a voyage that shows how narrative functions in face to face narration, images, film, music, and digital media. Perhaps because of my expectations coming to the volume, or because of the limited scope of the text (can one really hope to encompass everything that involves face to face narrative theory in a mere 60 pages?), despite it offering good perspectives on narrativity and how it applies to different media, I must say that I found the volume a bit lacking.
Now, before continuing, allow me to state that as I quickly discovered that the volume did not offer up the theoretical paradigm I was hoping it would, I didn’t focus too much on the sections outside of my area. And so, in this review I will go over the non-digital media with a quick overview of the entire area and then discuss the digital media pieces with a bit more depth. And so, we move on to the first section…

David Herman’s essay promises to offer a theory of transmediated narrative – a term which brings Henrey Jenkins to mind. Despite his many postulations on how narrativity is not text-specific, his essay at times reads like a “oh wouldn’t it be wonderful if” piece where we should all look forward to a future where narrative transcends medium. The two following essays, Young’s Frame and Boundary in the Phenomenology of Narrative and Cassell and McNeill’s Gesture and Poetic of Prose offer great overviews and examples of narrative theory within the context of their work – face to face narration. Overall, the essays in this section work to show readers a basic primer on narrativity.
The second section, titled Still Pictures, is the one that I found the most lacking. As I previously mentioned, the main flaw of this text is the spatial limitation. This is specially eminent in this section, as it only has two essays – Steiner’s Pictorial Narrativity and Ewert’s Art Spigleman’s Maus and the Graphic Narrative. Even though these essays are no doubt useful for scholars of visual narrative, they don’t fit with the spirit of the rest of the volume, which seems to offer more general images of narrative than the ones exposed here.
The following section focuses on “moving pictures”, or film and TV. The essays here focus on neo-structuralist storytelling in film (Bordwell), film adaptations (Elliott), and reality TV (Freeland). Each of these essays is compelling and interesting, and they give the reader an overview of the discussed topics that is comprehensive enough for the reader to be able to speak about them eloquently.
The section on music as narrative was at the same time brilliant and deranged. Its essays ranged from highly technical, to the point where I had to grapple with one of them, to simply lunatic. Kafalenos’ essay attempts to give an overview of narrative in the field of music. I think that the overview does its purpose, but the way that the essay is written makes it highly inaccessible to anyone without formal training in music and / or narrative theory. In my case, I used my knowledge of narrative theory to fill in the gaps left by the music theory jargon. Now, outside of one idea proposed by James P. Gee in Why Videogames Are Good For Your Soul where he talks about the narrative of the music in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I have been largely unacquainted with the idea of music as narrative. This essay does a good job of introducing it. The two following essays – Music as Narrative Art (Tanasti) and Music, Genre, and Narrative Theory (Rabinowits) make various claims about how specific musical genres and individual pieces are narratives. They make an adequate case for the realm of theory, but not one strong enough to persuade those who (like me) don’t already see music itself (not the story told through lyrics, but the musical arrangement) as a narrative.
And so, we move on to digital media.
The editor’s essay – Will New Media Produce New Narratives – actually raises more questions than offer answers to existing ones. After giving an overview of some of the major contemporary new media theories, the author proceeds to ask – and offer preliminary answers – to questions such as do we need a new theory of narrative for a new medium? and can there be a medium-independent narrative theory? It seemed to me as if this essay – the highlight of the volume – was trying to set up questions for the following essay to answer. But then came the following essay.
Written by one of the rock and roll star of the field of game studies – Espen Aarseth – the essay Quest Games as Post Narrative Discourse opens up with one of Espen’s usual rants about how video games are not narrative and how even when scholars point to games like Final Fantasy as examples of narrative in games, what they should be pointing at is the mechanics of the game. For a few pages Aarseth whines about those evil academic film and English academic colonialists who want to claim territory on game studies and whatever. This part is, honestly, nothing more than an edited version of his editorial from the first issue of Game Studies. The rest of his essay, building on this idea, is hit-or-miss.
I could write some intellectual-sounding thing, but I’ve gotten a bit more laid back about my writing on the blog, so instead I’ll write here my margin notes:
Whenever I read Espen Aarseth I want to bang my head against a concrete wall full of metal spikes. For every one correct [and obvious] thing he says – for example: “Games exist in a spectrum. On one end there is a purely narrative game. On the other end there are purely ludic games like Tetris. Adventure games are somewhere in the middle” -, he says at least one thing that goes counter to the correct statement – for example: “We should stop thinking of adventure games as having narratives”- and three incredibly stupid things like “quests are not narratives”, “games that are touted as example of narrative in games, like RPGs, are not examples of narrative”, and “we should not look at what the narrative in narrative games say because the authors’ messages can only be seen through the mechanics” [Emphasis on ONLY].
It seems like no one ever played those wonderful RPG games that only used mechanics and threw out most of (if not all) the narrative, like:
Linear RPG

Satan 1:

The Most Amazing RPG Adventure: Stat Builder:

Or the best one (It has some story!) Turn Based Battle:

So yeah, that’s my reply to Espen in a nutshell.

The last essay, written by Lunesfeld, focuses on the myth of interactive film. He basically makes the argument that interactive film is impossible. As someone who played bad interactive films back in the hayday of the Sega CD, I disagree. They were BAD interactive films, but they were interactive films nonetheless. He then takes it a step further and talk about how holodeck-like experiences (see Murray, 1998) will never reach the deep level of emotional involvement as traditional texts. Once again I disagree, but I can still be proven wrong and only time will tell.

The last essay by Hausken basically says “all theories of media are incomplete and have a blind spot, let’s work to find them”.

Overall, the text is a useful book for young scholars looking to wet their feet in the various fields of narrative or for scholars who have focused on the narrative aspects of one field and are seeking to expand their horizons. Someone who might be looking for the latest groundbreaking chapter on the narrative of X field, however, would be better served by finding an area-specific anthology.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 25, 2012, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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