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book cover
A Bard Reign Is Gonna Fall: The computer revolution changes everything, including the way we tell stories, imagine characters and construct fictional narratives.




Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
By Janet H. Murray
Free Press, 24 pages, $25 cloth

Can the tales of the past survive in the wired world of the future?

By Paul Rosenberg

THE VAST MAJORITY of both popular cyber-hype and cyber-cynicism today agrees on at least one thing: the irrelevance of traditional narrative in the coming culture of the computer screen. Thankfully, Janet H. Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace provides ample evidence that the trend-trackers are wrong, pointing to a wide range of narrative structures and storytelling strategies in computer games and programs and on the Internet.

With a dual background as a systems programmer and a scholar of Victorian literature, plus experience teaching interactive fiction writing at MIT, Murray is particularly able to make sense of evolving computer media in terms of both earlier traditions and truly innovative developments.

Yes, the computer is radically transforming the nature of narrative, but so did Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and the Lumiere brothers' invention of film. Both new media took decades to develop their own vocabulary. Books published before 1501 are called "incunabula"--"from the Latin for swaddling clothes," Murray explains. "It took 50 years of experimentation and more to establish such conventions as legible typefaces and proof-sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together make a book a coherent means of communications."

Much of narrative poverty and confusion in cybernetic media today can thus be seen as part of a natural developmental stage. Even the fears of virtual reality heralding a collapse of social connections are prefigured in Don Quixote, the first modern novel, which tells us that "from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits." Film developed from what Murray identifies as the "additive form" of photography plus theater to become a medium with its own "expressive form"--narrative conventions (such as montage) intrinsic to its expressive power.

Of course, the fledgling computer media embody the convergence of a multitude of forms--not just two. To cope with this multiplicity, Murray focuses on the broad characteristics of the computer and the potential it holds for creating new kinds of experience.

One key feature she stresses is that computers are procedural, capable of carrying out instructions. Thus, they are ideal vehicles for expanding on a trend that preceded them: the multiform story, in which more than one version of events occurs. This form blossomed with high-art short stories such as Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" and Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" but also appears in films such as It's a Wonderful Life and Roshomon.

In fact, Murray brings up two much older versions of the multiform story. The first is the epic poem in the bardic tradition, which employs a wide variety of "devices for patterning language into units that make it easier for bards to memorize and recall," but that make it possible for performances to be improvised on the spot, so that they are essentially multiform, with "no single canonical version."

A second kind of multiform story can be found in Russian folk tales, which have been analyzed "into variants of a single core tale composed of 25 basic 'functions,' or plot events." A study of 450 such tales produced an algorithm encompassing all of them--and capable of generating new tales in the same traditional form. Thus, in terms of deep structure, all the tales were multiform versions of a single story.

In light of these two ancient examples, the computer's fitness for handling multiform stories can be seen as a natural extension of a deeply rooted aspect of human consciousness.

ANOTHER KEY feature of computers is their ability to simulate characters. The earliest example is Eliza, the 30-year old program that emulates a nondirective therapist; the simplest example is the fixed characters in a videogame.

Then there are game environments, like MUDs, where characters can develop powers or attributes and interact with "chatterbots," computer-based characters that are the virtual descendants of Eliza. The problem of getting two or more chatterbots to interact successfully requires guidance in the art of dramatic improvisation, a skill that goes back to the tradition of commedia dell'arte in the Italian Renaissance, a continuing influence on improvisational theater to this day.

Yet another approach to the variety of new computer-based forms of narrative lies in aesthetics. The middle third of Hamlet on the Holodeck consists of three chapters dealing with the aesthetic properties of narrative: immersion, agency and transformation.

Immersion--to inhabit a narrative so completely that it becomes a substitute for reality--certainly isn't peculiar to computer media, but it plays a particularly prominent role as degrees of immersion and the means for enhancing and mediating it become primary concerns for programmers. Immersion leads naturally to agency: the response to a convincing cybernetic elsewhere is to do something, to act, not just to turn the pages faster.

The aesthetic property of transformation is more problematic. One changes in the course of online role playing, for example, but such transformations can be dead ends as well. Of course, there's never a guarantee an aesthetic dimension will be realized in any art form, and Murray's exploration of the challenges involved in achieving the potential of transformation is deeply thought-provoking.

By focusing on essential properties of computer media, Murray illuminates deep issues that will continue to confront pioneers in the development of cybernarratives. Her command of examples from past and present will inspire others in the process of creating future forms to look for deeper continuities with the past as sources of inspiration to be cherished, rather than chains to be broken.

And Murray provides an intelligent, historically informed foundation for responding to recurring hysterical attacks mounted against Dungeons and Dragons, videogames and now the Internet. Immediately useful, Hamlet on the Holodeck is bound to become a seminal book in the midst of a shape-shifting landscape at the unfolding intersection of new technologies and human eternals.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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