restricted access Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 402-403

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Marie-Laure Ryan. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 352 pp.

Virtual reality is an immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer—this is the definition that Marie-Laure Ryan says inspired the writing of Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, which is organized around three main tropes: virtuality, immersion, and interactivity. The first section, "Virtuality," begins by looking at the virtual as a philosophical concept; the second and third sections examine the two components of virtual reality as technology—immersion and interactivity respectively; and the fourth and final section, "Reconciling Immersion and Interactivity," concludes the text with what Ryan sees as the ultimate goal of art, the synthesis of immersion and interactivity.

In her explanation of the virtual as a philosophical concept, Ryan's chapter "The Two (and Thousand) Faces of the Virtual" considers the two meanings of virtual, the first which carries the negative connotations of double and illusion and the second which suggests productivity, openness, and diversity. Ryan calls the first of these definitions "the virtual as fake" and relies on Jean Baudrillard's theory of the simulacrum to investigate the relationship between the fake, the real, and the virtual. For the second of these definitions, which Ryan labels "the virtual as potential," she turns to Peter Levy to counter Baudrillard's theory of the virtual as fake and offers a discussion of the virtual as that which "expands the process of creation, opens up the future, injects a core of meaning beneath the platitude of immediate physical presence" (35). In the chapter that follows, "Virtual Reality as Dream and as Technology," Ryan then looks at virtual reality from a technological stance, asking how immersive experiences get produced by digital systems and how the "meat" (or physical body) feels a connection to the virtual.

The second section, which deals with the poetics of immersion, begins with a chapter entitled "The Text as World" and concentrates on the works of literary scholars who focus on immersion in texts by way of bodily projection into the textual world. This section also contains chapters on spatial immersion and temporal and emotional immersion discussing the narrative devices used by authors in order to transport the reader into the text.

In the third section, Ryan turns to the poetics of interactivity and offers three chapters that first look at the transition from immersion (in text) to the interactivity (in games), and then turn to a [End Page 402] consideration of the rhetorical problems associated with interactivity, asking whether or not it is possible to create truly narrative structures in interactive environments. Between several of the "official" chapters of the book, Ryan offers "interludes"—analytical readings of articles written by theorists in the field of technology and narrative as well as authors of novels that deal with the same subject matter. One such interlude focuses on Michael Joyce's theoretical book on hypertext Of Two Minds and his hypertext short story "Twelve Blue: Story in Eight Bars." These interludes do a good job of illustrating some of the occasionally dense theoretical material that is the focus of the main chapters.

The fourth and final section of the book brings the strands of the previous discussion together in an attempt to "reconcile" immersion and interactivity. While the first chapter in this section makes the argument that virtual reality is not the only environment where people can simultaneously experience immersion and interactivity, the final chapter and interlude return to digital technology and look at computer games, Multi-User Domains Object Oriented (MOOs), chatbots, and interactive dramas as things which allow the reader/player to be simultaneously immersed and interactive.

Ryan offers a full discussion of a complex concept, the virtual, and guides the reader through the movement of the virtual into the digital age. While the chapter interludes would sometimes seem to be more adequately placed within the chapters themselves, as a whole Marie...