Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

НазваCambridge University Press 2002
Дата конвертації01.05.2013
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Is it narrative or is it life itself?

From the point of view of narrative theory, a fascinating hybrid activity is the role-playing game. With the extraordinary success of Dungeons and Drag­ons since it was first published in 1974, role-playing games have proliferated among "gamers," a small but not insignificant game-addicted subset of the global population. The players enter into the game with their characters, but underlying each game is a kind of skeletal story, with critical "plot points," all under the control and the devising of the "Game Master." Here is something that appears to be narrative but that is so free that characters, while they are involved in trying to understand the larger story, have (within a wide range of limits, depending on the game) the capability of introducing events on err own. So the whole thing is a kind of collaborative enterprise in which players and Game Master produce what none of them could have intended he outset. It appears, then, to be narrative that to a degree invents itself. In this it is like theater improv. Since the late 1970s, role-playing games have transited to personal computers, CDs, the Internet, and the Web. One of the more ambitious of these (at this writing!) is Asheron's Call, an MMORPG or "Massive Multi-user Online Role-Playing Game." Evolving month by month with new elements of the master story and new plot points to un­cover, Asheron's Call has some 45,000 subscribers, of whom at any one time at least 2,000 are actively playing on any one of the game's nine servers. They are busy looking for plot-points, trying to uncover the key characters and events that have been loaded into the various servers by non-players who run the whole operation. But at the same time they are meeting together, conversing, and even engaging in pretty extensive subsidiary events. It is not uncommon, for example, for players (that is, the players' characters) to get married, complete with a ceremony and celebration that others join in.

But is this narrative? If things are happening right now for the first time, do we call it narrative? Do we refer to our lives, for example, as narratives? Do we say things like: I wonder what is going to happen next in my narrative? We might do so, but it sounds strange. Also it raises a definitional problem. If there is no difference between narrative and life itself, are we not in danger of exhausting the usefulness of the term "narrative" by making it include so much? And how, then, do we distinguish between life and what we have been referring to as narrative? Do we need yet another term or can we think this through and preserve a more restricted, and therefore useful, meaning of the term "narrative"?

To sort this out, we might start by going back to the distinction between story and narrative. Story, you will remember, is something that is delivered by narrative but seems (important word) to pre-exist it. Narrative, by the same token, is something that always seems (again, an important word) to come after, to be a re-presentation. Narrative, in other words, conveys story, and even if Culler and others are right that the story doesn't really exist until it is conveyed, we still have the sense of story's pre-existence of the narrative that conveys it. If we hold to this useful distinction between story and narrative, then neither life nor role-playing games qualify as narrative, since there is no pre-existing story. In this sense, role-playing games, like theater improv, are like life itself. As in life, we are aware of something happening that has not been planned or written or scripted in advance -something making itself up as it goes along.

But then, if life and role-playing games are not narrative, are they story-This is a tougher question to answer. Given what I have just been arguing, one might first say, no. The logic here is that just as our lives and role-playing games are not narrative, so they are not stories re-presented through narra­tive. Still, if people don't come up to you and ask "What's your narrative? > they do sometimes ask "What's your story?" as if you already had a story, ere involved in one. One way to make sense of this would be to say they are asking you to cast your eye over your day, or month, or year, or life and pick out what's important, that is, its constituent events. Story, as I wrote in Chapter One, is our way of organizing time according to what is important for us. So, if life and role-playing games are not the same thing as stories we might call them the seed-ground of stories — stories that then n be rendered in narrative, the way I might narrate a short story about two players who got married during the game of Asheron's Call.

The problem with this solution is that it still goes against usage. For we do say "Hey, what's the story?" with the same meaning as "Hey, what's happening?" And when historians try to get at the truth of events, they will often say they are trying to expose the real story. In the same way, detectives working on a crime might say they are trying to get at the story of what happened, and cosmologists are trying to reveal the story of the universe. In every case, what is being said is that events really happened, somebody was murdered, the universe evolved in a certain way, Washington crossed the Delaware. In other words, Sartre wasn't right after all. There are true stories. A limb falls from a tree and knocks a love-letter from a lover's hand. The letter blows across the field. Later it is discovered by a young woman who secretly adores this man whom she now learns loves another. In despair, she throws herself in the millrace and drowns. These things happen every day. Life is jammed with events. But call them what you will — stories, latent stories, virtual stories, untold stories — what we are interested in this book is what happens when they are told, or re-told, or staged, or filmed, or mediated in whatever way. In other words, we are interested in narrative, the first rule of which is that it leaves its mark on the stories it tells. So if things are really happening in the world, we nonetheless cannot pick them up with our words, or scripts, or film, or paint without adding, framing, coloring, and generally inflecting those events in a multitude of ways. This is the narrative difference.

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