When the media scholar Janet H. Murray was asked to write a new preface
to “Hamlet on the Holodeck,” her influential book, from 1997, about digital narrative, she was tempted to make it three words long: “I was right!”
Depending on how generous you want to be, you could say that she
predicted the constructive pleasures of Minecraft, the frustrations of
Apple’s Siri, and the social story-worlds of massive multi-player online
role-playing games (M.M.O.R.P.G.s). Her over-all argument was simple:
though there is a tendency to think of the computer as “the enemy of the
book,” it is in fact “the child of print culture,” a powerful
representational medium of its own that promises to continue the
evolution of storytelling and “reshape the spectrum of narrative
expression.” Books are good at delivering essentially linear stories,
she insists, while computers are good at telling stories of a different
kind: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial. And they’re
particularly good at telling stories that reflect the digital
age—stories about fractured realities, complex systems, and networked
ways of being in the world.

Upon the book’s release, Michiko Kakutani, in the Times, dinged Murray for a “utopianism
that “colors all her arguments in this volume, leading her to ignore or
play down the more disturbing consequences of technology while
unabashedly embracing its possibilities.” Many digital-media scholars,
meanwhile, thought that Murray’s view of the future was too shaped by
the forms of the past: video games are not new kinds of novels, these
critics said, but something entirely different. “Hamlet on the Holodeck”
didn’t sit entirely comfortably with any crowd—but, then, neither did
Murray, a lover of postmodern technology who hates postmodern theory, a
digital-media scholar with the reference points of an old-fashioned
literary critic, a literary critic who writes in the future tense.
Murray began her career, in the sixties, as a systems programmer at
I.B.M. She was only there to save money for graduate school, and she
left as soon as she could to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature, at
Harvard. But, unlike the novelist J. M. Coetzee, who also worked as an I.B.M. programmer in the sixties, she kept a close eye on the world she left behind. She never forgot the time a “hacker” colleague made one of
the room-size behemoths toot an inhuman rendition of the Marine Corps
Hymn.

As Murray told me recently over the phone, her world view as a media
critic is largely shaped by what she learned in graduate school, where
she focussed not on a single literary period but on the novel as it
changed across the centuries. Her research gave her an evolutionary view
of how narrative forms develop: after a new medium is invented,
storytelling conventions don’t crystallize overnight; they get refined
incrementally, often in complex dialogue with the needs, desires, and
problems of the cultures that produce them. But her scholarly career was
also influenced by her experiences at I.B.M.—and by the places where she
ended up being a professor: first M.I.T., then Georgia Tech, places with
an “engineering mentality” and an Enlightenment frame of mind. At
M.I.T., her students showed her ELIZA and Zork, two radically different
experiments in digital narrative: the former was a sophisticated
chatbot; the latter was a text-based adventure game. Murray resolved to
practice literary criticism not just by writing but by prototyping. With
the students in her lab, she started trying to come up with as many new
storytelling forms as possible. The goal was always to see if any of
them might stick.

In other words, Murray became devoted to creating “incunabula,” a term
meaning “swaddling clothes” that is used by book historians to describe
awkward experiments produced just after the invention of the printing
press. Digital incunabula are the main subject of “Hamlet on the
Holodeck.” When Murray analyzes a video game, or a piece of hypertext
fiction, or a primitive A.I. character, she seldom praises it as a
complete or refined narrative experience. What she celebrates is
potential. She compares Myst, for instance, a seminal first-person
adventure game from 1993, to the juvenilia of the Brontë sisters, who
told stories to one another about tense dungeon-crawls in a “regressive,
violent, overheated emotional universe.” Fans of Myst and fans of the
Brontë sisters seem equally likely to resent this comparison. But
Murray’s point is that the juvenilia became “Jane Eyre,” and that
rough-hewn digital stories are best understood as the evolutionary
predecessors of forms that are yet to come.

Revisiting the book two decades later, Murray can assess which of the
awkward amphibians she once championed have turned into stable species.
In the first edition, she celebrated “multi-user
domains”—hacked-together, text-based chat rooms that placed multiple
people in the same fantasy-themed story-world—as a narrative form that
leveraged the computer’s participatory powers. Now we have
M.M.O.R.P.G.s. She celebrated the multiple branching paths of
interactive fiction but lamented that the form was an obscure and mostly
academic pursuit; now platforms such as Twine have made it democratic
and easy to produce. Video-game stories have become richer, their
conventions more recognizable. I asked Murray about “walking
simulators,” a proliferating genre of narrative games that don’t involve
combat but instead unfurl a story as you move through a detailed,
elegiac, usually abandoned space. That the form has become familiar
enough to earn a name seemed to validate her argument about the medium’s
evolution. She agreed—up to a point.

Murray reminded me that the term “walking simulator” was likely
pejorative at first, rooted in a “misconception that there are two
different categories, narrative and game, and you’re either one or the
other.” This is the dichotomy that comes up most often in criticism of
“Hamlet on the Holodeck,” which inadvertently helped spark
a largely tortuous debate in game-studies circles between so-called ludologists and narratologists: people who wanted to study games as abstract systems, on
the one hand, and people who wanted to study them as narrative
experiences on the other. In truth, no one, not even Murray, believed
that games should be studied and valued for their narrative content
alone. But she became the face of that particular straw man. As recently
as this past April, the prominent video-game critic Ian Bogost, a
colleague of Murray’s at Georgia Tech, assailed her book one more
time—without naming her or it directly—in a widely shared piece that was
provocatively, if misleadingly, titled “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.”

In the original version of the book, Murray famously read Tetris as a
narrative experience: a “symbolic drama” that immersed its player in an
abstracted version of the frantic busywork of postindustrial modernity.
To work tirelessly to slot blocks into the right spaces, never
finishing, always failing, is to feel something like the Sisyphean
struggle to complete a mountain of tasks in an ever-shrinking day. Her
interpretation attracted jeers from self-identified ludologists; the
games scholar Markku Eskelinen called it “interpretive violence,” chastising an
apparent “determination” on her part “to find or forge a story at any
cost.” In the new edition, Murray responds by forging a story about her
critics. They want Tetris—or Candy Crush, or perhaps the screen
itself—to be a refuge from narrative, she argues, because they’re
embroiled in too much narrative already. “It’s a seductive fantasy, very
fragile,” Murray told me—the idea that games or other software “can
protect us from any reference to the life world,” and just be “an
immersion in manipulating symbols.” The fantasy is pervasive: she
suggests that GamerGaters, old-school cultural gatekeepers, ludologist
hard-liners, and people on the subway are all alike in their implicit
desire to imagine games as an otherworld, a playground separate from
wider cultural forces.

For some, she writes, “objections to the possibility of deeply
meaningful digital narrative forms” are rooted in “empty expressions of
nostalgia for older media artifacts.” But for others it seems to be
something else: a need to keep digital technology away from “the
cultural and narrative dimensions of representation” altogether, as if
it could remain a realm of pure function. For Murray, digital space must
be understood as deeply enmeshed in the existing cultural terrain—and
the digital moment must be understood as an extension of history, rather
than a new beginning or a terrible end.

While Silicon Valley hubrists and Luddite humanists both see digital
technology as an agent of disruption, Murray tells a story of continuity
and growth, of computers inheriting and expanding, rather than upending,
the landscape of human expression. Like many forward-thinking dispatches
offered during the first dot-com bubble, “Hamlet on the Holodeck” can
feel dated at times, superseded by a future that is, broadly speaking,
darker and stranger than the one Murray anticipated. “I think I must be
by temperament an optimistic person,” she told me. She quickly added,
however, that she does not share the “naïve optimism” of the futurist
Ray Kurzweil, for instance, who heralds the moment when human
intelligence will merge with A.I.—or of the V.R. entrepreneur Chris
Milk, who believes that virtual reality can instill empathy in people
like a moral software update. She prefers the rationalism, and the
humanism, of old-fashioned science fiction.

Even now—especially now—Murray’s book can feel like a lit-crit version
of Spaceship Earth, the ride that chugs its way through the giant golf
ball at the center of Epcot, depicting the history of communication as
one unbroken, magnificent story that begins with cave paintings and
extends through Steve Jobs. I find it hard not to feel a lot of
skepticism when I ride Spaceship Earth. I find it hard not to feel a
little moved at the same time. I know that at some point its creaky
dolls will be replaced by something smooth and branded and full of
ectoplasmic digital projections. And I know that when that happens, I’ll
miss the kind of story it told.

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