Narrative on the Holodeck: changes in storytelling

Nicholas Friesner '05, Brown University, Spring 2005

The kaleidoscopic power of the computer allows us to tell stories that more truly reflect our turn-of-the-century sensibility. 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 to 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 perspectives – complex and perhaps ultimately unknowable but still coherent. [161-162]

Having already established, for the purposes of the present examination, that the goal of narrative is the exploration and exposition of the “questions of human existence” (280), Janet Murray prompts us to question the devices of our current notions of electronic fiction, hypertext fiction, and new media. The crux of her analysis of fiction lies in the notion of the “kaleidoscopic canvas” that is characteristic of e-fiction (or rather should be the defining characteristic of e-fiction). Like many hypertext theorist, Murray sees the possibility of creating multilateral, telescopic narratives in which there are numerous paths for the reader to progress through the story. Murray's theory is defined by her views about the nature of the "kaleidoscopic" creation of the hypertext and how it relates to the value of narrative. (Recall Murray's definition of the role of narrative in society: the narrative is a "medium in which to confront the unanswerable questions of human existence" (280).) Since we, as Murray believes, have come to the realization that our world is not a single, static interpretation, or a single reality which is true and correct, we eschew the antiquated notion of a single rightful "angle" of perception. But yet we still have the human desire to create the world as a oneness, as something that can be structured and evaluated by a single entity in a holistic manner; we are still moved deeply towards trying to structure our conception of the world as unitary. The standard book, with its linearity, one-sidedness, and singular voice - although certain authors have created books with multivocal structures (a prime example of which is Gilbert Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight), they appear in a linear progression and do not have the feeling of simultaneity present in a hypertext where one can instantaneously change his perspective with ease -- is essentially a misrepresentation of the reality that society has come to adopt.

What Murray terms the "multiform story" is the quintessential form of the hypertext narrative because of its ability to satisfy our turn-of-the-century beliefs about the complex and divergent angles of experience and perception in the world. While at the same time the multiform story exists as a single unified hypertextual structure integrating all of the worldly perspectives together for consumption by the individual. As Murray writes, “I am using the term multiform story to 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” (30). To extend this point even further, the multiform story has the ability to integrate vastly different cultural perspectives about a singular event of idea.

The kaleidoscopic powers the computer offers us, the ability to see multiple patterns in the same elements, might also lead to compelling narratives that capture our new situation as citizens of a global community. [282]

This being said, Murray sees in the possibilities of computerized environments an even greater paradigm shift of the basic tenets of narrative structure. Using the example of Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a hypertext narrative with essentially no end, where instead closure is, as Joyce puts is "a suspect quality". He structures his hypertext such that "when the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends." (Afternoon). Murray uses Joyce's hypertext to put forward her own theories on the "closure" of a hypertextual story and ability to create, because of the rhizomic structure, a story (or storyworld since this includes gaming) that is indefinite. Although at points Murray expresses her concern over hypertexts that are constructed in this way, she seems only to be suffering from a lack of experience with hypertexts. She makes claims such as the lack of a marker identifying links that have already been taken and the inability to return to the overview as possible problems of an indefinite hypertext. But these are clearly possible to create in hypertexts, and many authors have already taken advantage of such tools. Closure is still an important point for Murray, as she claims:

Electronic closure occurs when a work’s structure, though not its plot, is understood. This closure involves a cognitive activity at one remove from the usual pleasures of hearing a story. The story itself has not resolved. It is not judged as consistent or satisfying. Instead, the map of the story inside the head of the reader has become clear. [174]

The electronic text thus involves a dramatic shift in the conception of pleasure and understanding. Instead of closure occurring when the plot is fully understood, as would be found in non-electronic stories, closure in electronic stories occurs only once the structure of the story is understood. Although this seems true of stories like Afternoon, it is obvious that not all hypertextual stories have the same looping, unending, structure. Indeed many hypertexts do end at a specific point. Although Murray's ideas of closure in a work seem to fit specific works, they do not describe a necessary component of all works, especially since her notions of narrative explained above do not necessarily entail this new idea of emphasis on structure over plot. Multiple perspectives can easily be portrayed in a story which has a traditional (non-electronic) plot form, but which requires a hypertextual format in order to portray the array of perspectives that Murray wants narratives to display.


Joyce, Michael. Afternoon. Cambridge: Eastgate Systems. Storyspace hypertext narrative, 1987.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: Free Press, 1997.

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Last Updated February 24, 2005.