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  • Narration, Intrigue, and Reader Positioning in Electronic Narratives
  • Daniel Punday (bio)

This article grows out of the intuition that despite important recent contributions to the study of digital textuality, we still have very poor language for discussing the place of the reader in electronic—or computer-mediated—narratives.1 Critics routinely observe that the reader seems more active in these stories, and as N. Katherine Hayles (2008) notes, early criticism was guilty of "extrapolating from the reader's ability to choose which link to follow to make extravagant claims about hypertext as a liberatory mode that would dramatically transform reading and writing" (31). Subsequent commentary has qualified those claims, but little work has been done to evaluate the relevance of core narratological concepts like narrator, narratee, and implied reader as tools to describe the process of reader positioning in electronic narratives.

A significant exception is Espen J. Aarseth's (1997) analysis of the text adventure game; here Aarseth coined the term intrigue to refer to "a sequence of oscillating [End Page 25] activities effectuated (but certainly not controlled) by the user" (112). That is, intrigue describes those actions that a user must perform in order to move the game forward. Aarseth's use of this term is quite narrow: he sees it as a feature that is specific to the games he examines and that replaces the structure of narration central to traditional storytelling. In this essay I argue for the broader applicability of Aarseth's concept of intrigue. Specifically, I show that intrigue is a structure implicit in almost all electronic narratives and that it complements rather than replaces the narration also found in these texts. In other words, I argue that these stories have both narration and intrigue, both narrators and intrigants, narratees and intriguees. Expanding the scope of the concept of intrigue, I suggest, helps to explain the complex nature of our agency as readers in these narrative environments. I show the effectiveness of theorizing this dual structure for electronic narrative by turning to a series of case studies in the second half of my article, including hypertext narratives afternoon (Joyce 1987) and Patchwork Girl (Jackson 1995), the early text adventure game The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Adams and Meretzky 1984), and a narrativized electronic poem Outrances (Ichikawa, Crofts, and Dvorak 2009).

Reader Positioning in Print and Electronic Narratives

A fundamental part of our experience of narrative is extrapolating from the events, settings, and characters described directly to project both the larger story and the moral, philosophical, and social values that define the world in which that story takes place. As H. Porter Abbott (2008) puts it, "We are always called upon to be active participants in narrative, because receiving the story depends on how we in turn construct it from the discourse. Are stories, then, at the mercy of the reader and how diligently he or she reads? To a certain degree this is true. But most stories, if they succeed—that is, if they enjoy an audience or readership—do so because they have to some extent successfully controlled the process of story construction" (21-22). From the beginning of modern narratology, critics have recognized that this control means that readers intuit the values they are expected to hold. Wolfgang Iser (1978) describes our responsibilities as the "implied reader" this way: "He [the [End Page 26] implied reader] embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect—predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself" (34). Discovering these predispositions and using them to interpret the meaning of the work involves a circular process that James Phelan (2005) calls a "feedback loop": "The author designs the textual phenomena for a hypothetical audience [. . .], and the individual rhetorical reader seeks to become part of that audience" (18, 19).

Several theoretical entities, which in turn imply "reception positions that interpreters of narrative must regularly—and simultaneously—occupy" (Herman 2002: 335), are widely accepted as part of current narratology. In Story and Discourse (1978) Seymour Chatman helped to codify narratology's understanding of the various entities involved in narration by distinguishing among the real author, the implied author...