Marie-Laure Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2015) 291pp. $34.95 Pb. ISBN: 978-1-4241-1797-4
Narrative as Virtual Reality was first published in 2001, the same year as the original Xbox console, three years before Facebook, and well before the Oculus Rift finally brought virtual reality to the sitting room. These contexts remind as if we needed it of just how far digital technologies have progressed, how difficult it is for printed academic work to keep pace with them, and how necessary it might be for a key text like Narrative as Virtual Reality to receive a second edition in 2015.
Yet what is especially interesting about Ryan's partly rewritten and significantly restructured book is not that she has needed to rethread the wires of her simile from the stable pole of literature to the ever-moving pole of technology. Rather, it is that literary criticism has itself shifted in the last two decades, both driven by and independent from technological developments. In particular, in 2001 the emergence of hypertext seemed to vindicate the postmodern definition of the text as unstable and self-referential. For postmodern theorists, 'signs must be made visible for their role in the construction of reality to be recognised' (117), and the then-new media of the web drew handy attention to this constructivity. Going against this fashionable grain, Ryan's original argument was that hypertext, while interactive, was just a stepping stone towards the immersive experience of virtual reality, and that while immersive experiences might be dangerous when they run 'so deep that [they preclude] a return to the surface' (118), we should celebrate the partially immersive quality of literature and related narrative media. By 2015, this claim is more in vogue. Schools such as cognitive poetics have made it more acceptable to talk again about readerly feeling, while the advancement of video games has reopened a debate as to how far immersion and interactivity allow for compelling storytelling. Even readers familiar with Ryan's original text might therefore find this second edition valuable as a waypoint in the history of digital-literary scholarship.
Ryan's interest in virtual reality lies less in how this particular technology renders narratives, and more in how the concept provides a flexible semiotic to map onto narratives of all kinds: from VR and video games to electronic and conventional literature. From a literary point of view, the theme manifests itself most strongly in the poetics of immersion: how does a written text, through mere verbal signifiers, absorb the reader into believable worlds? Here, Ryan is able to supplement her original chapter on Possible Worlds theories of meaning construction (Chapter Three) with more recent ideas in cognitive science. Readers placed in MRI scanners reveal that similar brain regions relating to spatial movement, affect, haptic responses etc are stimulated by reading as they would be in the real world. Ryan's use of the virtual as measuring stick allows her to critique this approach. As Ryan implies by founding her argument on Merleau-Ponty, when cognitive researchers claim that literature can 'simulate' real sensations, this is problematic given that such sensations are not stimulated by the reader's embodied participation in events, unlike in true VR. One subtext running through Ryan's work is the danger of mapping terms unreflectively from one domain onto another: just as the 'virtual' has been variously defined throughout history and theory, so if literature can 'simulate' then this leaves no scope for defining what might be achieved by other forms of digital media 'simulation' (or stimulation).
That is not to suggest that literature is lacking in formal techniques that can generate convincing views of other worlds. Repeatedly Ryan celebrates the rewards of close reading. In Chapter Four (which merges two chapters from the original) she takes us through the formal mechanisms by which literature can inculcate immersion. Here again we see how the 'virtual' is a usefully varied lens. Whereas it means one thing when thinking about how readers may bring the geography and space of a story to mind, it means another when applied to plot wherein it denotes the possible outcomes of facts that the author lets the reader know about at a given time, generating suspense as to what might (virtually) happen next. Of course, any explanation of how readers are motivated by plot has to account for the rereading problem: how can rereading be just as deeply immersive as the näive reading? Again, she draws on more recent cognitive theory to argue that on a subsequent reading we are more inclined to emotional rather than temporal immersion. On rereading we may know what happens next in plot, but we are now more concerned for the reactions and status of the hero who remains näive. These observations, while not necessarily news to narratologists, are presented in Ryan's compellingly lucid fashion, with the lurking analogy of the virtual helping to convey them.
The limitations of this second edition emerge more through the second half of the book, on the theme of interactivity. Her chapters on interactive fiction, ludic poetics, digital art etc. are strong on these specific genres. However, although Ryan's new preface claims she now has 'experience with a vastly expanded range of digital texts, especially video games' (x), her examples are still mainly hypertext works from the late 1990s, and she misrepresents this new canon. The first issue of the leading journal Game Studies, a landmark in its emergence as a discipline, was published the same year as Ryan's first edition; anyone who comes to Virtual Reality 2 from a background of game studies as it has developed since then may find aspects of her older work problematic, although her new Chapter Ten and Conclusion are more nuanced.
Chapter Seven, for example, is more a reorganisation of her earlier material than a rewriting and it shows. Examining the many forms of interactive fictions, Ryan divides them into categories like the branching tree or the maze, which usefully model the hypertextual and postmodern stories circulating in 2001. However, she now labels modern multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft as examples of Action-Space stories in which there is no overarching story, only micro stories that players encounter in the world's geography. This seems deficient on three levels. Firstly, there are many examples of Action-Space games that do also feature overarching stories and name-dropping one game cannot do justice to the genre as it has diversified since 2001. Secondly, in more open-world games players may choose to enact narrative in ways that move between Ryan's categories (I can play Skyrim via its overarching story; explore it like a maze; or simply role-play as a woodsman who potters around his cottage). Thirdly, as ludological theorists have emphasised, the most significant 'story' in games is not necessarily that preconceived by the designer but the one that emerges in the process of play, as players tell themselves stories about their encounter with the games mechanics (such as a particularly intense battle with limited ammunition). Ryan bemoans the lack of 'truly interactive, generated-on-the-fly narrative' (181), but this seems wedded to a view of narrative as a character and event driven plot that betrays Ryan's literary roots, and that misses (oddly, given her general attentiveness to etymology across disciplines) the ways 'narrative' is construed within game studies today in terms of emergent mechanics. It is notable that Chapter Ten, which is wholly new, adopts a more flexible approach by categorising games broadly as bottom-up (emergent narratives) and top-down (driven narratives). Even more objectionable will be her claims that 'many hard-core players do not play for the story but for the […] thrill of beating the game' and that 'it will take lots of imagination on the part of game designers to make games worth playing for the sake of the story' (181). Given the intensely negative reactions to recent games like No Man's Sky, which centred around its lack of story, or the lauded storytelling of games like Life is Strange, this is a very pejorative assumption. It is one that was perhaps just about sustainable in game culture in 2001, but it needs further justification in 2015.
Ryan's revised work is at its best and most valuable, then, not when engaging directly with the newest digital incarnations of narrative (although despite the caveats above, much of her earlier work on hypertexts remains an essential analysis of this particular sub-genre), but when using the concept of the virtual as a way to navigate the complex formal techniques and effects of conventional literature. The revised structure of this second edition helps us navigate the various stops on the tour of virtual narratives on which Ryan energetically and lucidly leads us. As with the first edition, this should be vital reading for anyone interested in fiction and technology, and the technologies of fiction.
Alistair Brown, University of Durham