Narrative Across Media: The Language of Storytelling – Marie-Laure Ryan

In her introduction to Narrative Across Media: the languages of storytelling, Marie-Laure Ryan provides her working definitions for both “narrative” and “media.” Ryan begins by summarizing how narrative has been viewed historically through existential, cognitive, aesthetic, sociological, and technical studies. For her own purposes, narrative is a cognitive concept that transcends genre and the confines of structure that genres impose (6). Freed from the structures of genre, Ryan provides a list of the three criteria necessary for a medium to be considered narrative: it must create a world and populate it with characters, that world must undergo change caused by non-habitual physical events, and it must allow for the re/construction of goals, plans, casual relations, and psychological motivations around narrated events.  Following this list of criteria Ryan proposes a if narrative is understood as a cognitive construct, then a split in understanding between “narrative” (which is composed with intent) and “narrativity” (has the ability to evoke story) is useful because it enables us to perceive narrative even where there was no narrative intent (9). The problem, as Ryan notes, is that the only explicit way to convey a narrative experience is through language. While music or still images can possess narrativity, the only way to explicitly convey their stories is through language. Thus, “if narratology is to expand into a medium-free model, the first step is to recognize narrative modes, that is to say, other ways of evoking narrative scripts” (13). In order to do this, Ryan provides a paired list of forms in which one item in the pair is narrative, while the other possess narrativity: Digetic/Mimetic, Autonomous/Ancillary, Receptive/Participatory, Determinate/Indeterminate, Literal/Metaphorical. Finally, Ryan concludes her discussion of what a narrative is by proposing it is a medium-independent phenomenon which can be studied both in verbal and non-verbal; manifestations without applying the communicative models of verbal narration (15).

Ryan’s definition of narrative is clearly useful in terms of video game analysis as it supports the argument that all games are narrative because they possess narrativity. Games like Journey, which contains no speech acts, remains a highly narrative game because it evokes a clear narrative according to Ryan’s criteria.

Interestingly, the distinction Ryan makes between explicit and implicit narratives makes me question how important explicitness is in the formation of a narrative. I begin to wonder whether explicitness is an authorial concern that gives the author agency and the ability to control the story, but is an implicit narrative better for the player’s agency? In other words, do implicit narratives allow for a higher level of cognitive participation?

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