Third Person. Authoring and Exploring in Vast Narratives

by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009
636 pp., illus. 160 b/w. Trade, $40.00/£25.95
ISBN: 10:0-262-23263-4.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This is, after First Person (strongly focused on gaming, 2004) and Second Person (with a great emphasis on interactivity, 2007), the third volume of a triptych on the relationship between narrative and play in 21st-century storytelling. The series, which one hopes to see continued in spite of the exhaustion of the pronominal paradigm for the titles of the volumes, is an impressive achievement, both in book form and in the multimedia environment that has been built at the launch of First Person. Thanks to a collaboration between electronic book review (one of the leading sites on digital culture), the two editors of the series and MIT Press. ebr, which is not organized in issues but in threads (thematic clusters with ongoing discussions on cutting edge topics), has created a thread in which large parts of the content of a book are not only made accessible online but also “substantially expanded via responses to the collection (ripostes) and enriched by incorporation into the ebr database” (http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson). The exciting intellectual results of this collaboration, which apparently do not kill the book format, can be a model for all those eager to explore the future of scholarly publications.

In Third Person, the central notion of “vast narrative” has a quantitative as well as a qualitative aspect. It has to do with extent and size (and we all know that it matters): vast narratives are narratives that are no longer contained within the traditional limits of the two mainstream formats of modern storytelling, the two-hour feature film and the 300-page novel, but which include much more – in certain cases also innumerable – events, plots, storylines, characters, times and places, and fictional universes. But vast narratives are not only a matter of quantity and sheer numbers: at least as important is the potentiality of the narrative, i.e. its mediological capacity to migrate to other media and platforms, its procedural potential so that the rules of the narrative can be (partly) followed, performed, and experienced in various ways; its openness, finally, to reappropriation by reader and player.

One of the most interesting aspects of Third Person is the cross-media approach defended by the editors. The notion of vast narrative is not restricted to the capacities of computer games or the evolution towards complex stories in television shows such as The Sopranos. Corollarily, they also take into account previous forms of vast narratives such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or – and this example is already more astonishing – Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as simple forerunners of what 21st-century techniques and new habits of reading and playing are “finally” discovering. Rather than adopting such a teleological viewpoint, Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin propose a more transhistorical (yet not decontextualized) approach that makes room for many different types of vast narratives, including those created and published in traditional media. This clever decision does not only broaden the field of investigation, it also helps evaluating in a more correct way what is new or less new in today’s technological innovation and transmedial storytelling.

The structure of the book is very simple. Part 1, “Authoring”, brings together a certain number of testimonies made by those who are in the storytelling business. Their first-hand experience and the good balance between no-nonsense description of the things as they are and a good deal of self-analysis and theoretical and historical awareness make this section, which might have become self-complacent or anecdotal, great reading. An essay like the one by Norman M. Klein, who discusses the representation of space, in his “database novel” Bleeding Through. Layers of Los Angeles 1920-1986 (2003), offers fascinating insights in the cultural framework that is both shaping and being shaped by the challenges of new forms of storytelling (in this case an interactive detective story combined with a city symphony using the archives of the Angeles Public Library and the Automobile Club of Southern California and a metanarrative reflection on storytelling in this digital medium). Moreover, the fact that various essays are using the same corpus (Doctor Who being a good example here) or are discussing the same issues (the construction space is undoubtedly the most important of them) guarantees the internal cohesion of the volume and creates a good circulation between the texts. Part 2, “Exploring”, gathers analyses, yet all these readings are proposed by authors having a direct and hands-on experience of the medium they are studying (the reading of one of the comics, for example, is done by comic artist and critic Trina Robbins, the examination of board games by Matthew Kirschenbaum, who reveals himself to be a die-hard boardgamer (which does not surprise us), the close-reading of Watchmen by Stuart Moulthrop, the author and editor of a crucial portal site on this landmark graphic novel, and so on). In this regard, one hardly notices the split between author (part 1) and reader (part 2), and this role-blending is of course a perfect mirroring of what happens in the world of the vast narrative itself, where the positions of those who produce and those who consume are definitely intertwined.

In short, this is an important and very readable collection that helps bridge the gaps between narrative theory (too often limited to a small set of traditional novels) and the world of contemporary storytelling (too often analyzed from the sole viewpoint of media and technology). To be read as soon as possible, and then to be continued on electronic book review.

Last Updated 1 September, 2009

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.info

Contact Leonardo:isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST