This article proposes to assess and compare the capacities of unnatural and cognitive narratology in dealing with the theoretical and interpretive challenges posed by digital narratives. We argue for an inherent compatibility between, on the one hand, some central conceptual concerns of unnatural approaches—narrative impossibilities and violations of mimesis and conventionality—and, on the other, cognitive approaches to narrative reception and literary experience. Taking our cue from the phenomena unnatural narratologists have highlighted, we arrange the violations of narrative conventions and mimetic principles that result in various types of impossibilities along a continuum, with mimesis at one end and conventionality at the other. These are discussed with respect to four multimodal and interactive digital narratives drawn from the realm of video games and webcomics. Our analysis draws upon and adapts Jan Alber’s cognitive reading strategies, already integral to unnatural narratology, while also taking into account new developments in cognitive approaches, notably those focused on reading as an embodied experience. In sum, we contend that the concepts foregrounded by unnatural approaches may serve to pinpoint where digital narratives create impossibilities in their departure from older media, or where they adopt impossible configurations that are part of particular narrative traditions. In turn, cognitive-theoretical approaches help us see how embodied recipients link the nonmimetic and/or anticonventional features in digital narrative artifacts to familiar forms, without rationalizing or explaining away the impossibilities of digital narrative, or how the features draw recipients’ attention to specific new media affordances.
Narrative Media: The Impossibilities of Digital Storytelling
Jeff Thoss is an independent scholar based in Berlin, Germany. His research interests comprise narrative theory and intermediality studies, in particular text-image relations. Publications include the monograph When Storyworlds Collide: Metalepsis in Popular Fiction, Film and Comics (2015) and essays on such topics as ekphrasis, adaptation, the paragone, nonlinear narrative, metareference and the mediality of comics.
Astrid Ensslin is professor of digital humanities and game studies at the University of Alberta. Her books include Literary Gaming (2014), Analyzing Digital Fiction (2013), The Language of Gaming (2011), Creating Second Lives: Community, Identity, and Spatiality as Constructions of the Virtual (2011), Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions (2007), and Language in the Media: Representations, Identity, Ideology (2007).
David Ciccoricco is a member of the Department of English and Linguistics faculty at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. His research focuses on literary and narrative theory with an emphasis on emergent forms of digital literature, as well as digital culture and posthumanism more generally. He is the author of Reading Network Fiction (2007), a book on the first and second waves of digital fiction, and Refiguring Minds in Narrative Media (2015), which focuses on cognitive approaches to narrative and literary theory in print novels, digital narratives, and story-driven video games.