Narrative on the Holodeck: storyworlds and the author

Nicholas Friesner '05, Brown University, Spring 2005

Whereas novels allow us to explore character and drama allows us to explore action, simulation narrative can allow us to explore process. [Hamlet, 181]

Although the computer provides the possibility of a wide array of mediums through which to have discourse about the human experience, Murray, as many other theorist have done, places more emphasis on "simulation narrative", or narrative that engages the reader by giving her a certain amount of power over the story and efficacy in the story. The prototypical example, and the media form that Murray seems most encouraging of, is the game, or storyworld. George P. Landow defines the storyworld as "[containing] multiple narratives" and demanding "active readers because they only disclose their stories in response to the reader's actions" (Hypertext 3.0, 349). The storyworld is essentially the immersive environment of a narrative. It is because of the immersive nature of the storyworld that Murray gives it prominence over other forms of narrative. Since the reader is inside the text, making decisions that effect the outcome of the story, the reader engages the text moreso than if he were a passive observer of a uni-dimensional world, like that of the novel. The heightened engagement of the reader creates a larger affect on the reader's own perception of the narrative, and thus, in theory, he should receive more from the text. This heightened engagement allows the narrative to serve its purpose, as proposed by Murray. Thus, according to Murray, the narrative takes on a different meaning for the individual in the storyworld: “Whereas novels allow us to explore character and drama allows us to explore action, simulation narrative can allow us to explore process” (181). But this portrayal of the storyworld requires an entirely different type of reader; in other words, storyworlds "take the active, aggressive, intrusive critic as the paradigm of the ideal reader" (Hypertext 3.0, 352).

Since the storyworld requires that the reader take his own initiative in exploring the storyspace and coming to construct a narrative out of his actions within that world, the passive reader will never progress through the world, and subsequently will never engage a narrative. The onus on constructing the story has shifted from being solely the job of the author to becoming a collaboration between the author, who creates the bare elements of the storyworld, and the reader who engages those elements and creates a narrative with them. This is especially evident in MUDs and all multi-user games: the story is a collaboration between many "readers" (perhaps the word "reader" is wrong in this context) who act within a loose set of rules and situations created by the author. MUDs are good exemplars of the unending plot, creating pleasure in the text through engagement. In Murray's words: “Because of its ability to both offer and withhold, the computer is a seductive medium in which much of the pleasure lies in the sustained engagement, the refusal of climax” (174). Although she makes very interesting points about the structure of narrative in electronic media, she greatly reduces the role of the author in the narrative, and in many ways reduces the artistry of the author's work to that of creating elements of a potential story. If Murray's claims about the power of the reader within a story are correct, we would expect to see a trend throughout literature where the so-called great works of literature, those that satisfy the aspects of narrative that make is valuable to society, are valued more highly than those that do not give the reader power. But this does not seem to be the case. Instead, we value literature based on the abilities of the author to craft a story that, first, shows she has the ability to create and structure a plot that is interesting and which the reader will enjoy, and second, has a message or some theme that is applicable to the world. It seems that these two criteria for evaluating narrative are the common conceptions of an influential and powerful story. To adopt Murray's views on narrative would be a near complete reversal of the current value of the author and the narrative. The idea of a narrative created by many is interesting, but it is the equivalent of the mural painted by hundreds of people: the mural as a whole may be interesting to look at, but the wide range of styles and techniques makes it somewhat disjointed and hard to contemplate as a unified work.


Landow, George. Hypertext 3.0. Publication Forthcoming on Hopkins University Press.

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

Cyberspace Web Main screen critical theory
Last Updated February 24, 2005.