Introduction to Narrative – Abbott

Abott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Second. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

H. Porter Abbott’s definition of narrative is perhaps the most simplistic I have come across; he states, “as soon as we follow a subject with a verb, there is a good chance we are engaged in narrative discourse” (1).  The smallest narrative then, is the combination of a subject with a verb, which Abbott refers to as a “micronarrative” (2). Not only is Abbott’s definition a simple one, but he also keeps it broad by stating that any material is fit to receive man’s stories (1). Narrative for Abbott is not confined, however, to stories – many materials contain “narrativity” which Abbott states is a “matter of degree that does not correlate to the number of devices, qualities, or for that matter, words that are employed in the narrative” (25).  Thus, the difference between story and narrative discourse is that a story is a representation of an event or a sequence of events while narrative discourse is how the story is conveyed. What Abbott is suggesting is that many stories live outside a particular narrative discourse. There are countless Cinderella narratives, but there is essentially only one Cinderella story – the narrative discourse accounts for the particular way a story is conveyed in a single instance.

Despite how broadly Abbott defines narrative, he – wrongly, I believe –  suggests that games are not narrative. He bases this claim on the argument provided above that stories exist outside of narrative confines, but also don’t exist until placed within them. Additionally, Abbott states that while codes and formulas can be applied to our expectations of a story, code and formula cannot be applied to narrative itself. He states, “for there to be any kind of success in narrative, the code and formulas that go into it have to be sufficiently flexible to permit all kinds of variations in the details” (59). I believe, however, that Abbott is thinking of games as more stringent and inflexible than they necessarily are. While code is strict, it is not necessarily inflexible: it can allow for a great deal of variation. It can allow for so much variation, indeed, that all players experience the same story without having experienced the same narrative, per Abbott’s distinction. Each player plays and navigates through the game uniquely. In other words, the story can be freed of the narrative in games, too. The game, therefore, can be considered as the narrative vessel for the story.  Furthermore, Abbott’s descriptions of narrative and what constitute them are often times perfect definitions for games as well. While Abbott claims narratives are the “central function of instance of the human mind” (1) Johan Huizinga claims something similar by saying games are the basic human need to play them. In other words, Abbott and Huizinga are working on two sides of the same coin. But, along the ridges of that coin, there exist striking similarities between the two. At the smallest level of a micronarrative, Abbott attests that narrative is about action. It needs a verb. It needs doing. Certainly this is true of games, also. Abbott also contends that “conflict structures narrative” while a game also depends on either an internal or external conflict too (55).

Not only does Abbott provide criteria that are applicable to both narrative and to games, he also provides important arguments (without realizing it) for specifically digital interactive narratives. Abbott at one point states, “when you narrate you construct” (69) and at another points says, “is the art of making and understanding a world” (165). These two statements conform not only to digital narrative games on the design side, but on the player side also. A key difference is that in games, not only have the designers constructed a world built for understanding, but the players have also, through the act of play, re-constructed and understood that world for themselves.

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