Textual Simulation

Below is an attempt at converging two of my main interests, metafiction and simulation, with Alternate Reality Games, my main focus. Many of the ideas are rough, and the seams are jagged, but it is a first attempt!


Narratives and games have enjoyed a close, if contentious, relationship over the past decade.  With the increased adoption of digital technology into games—whether digital remediations of board games like checkers, chess, or Monopoly, or games developed solely for a digital platform, such as Asteroids, Pac-Man, or Grand Theft Auto 3—the convergence, as Henry Jenkins describes it, of what is more traditionally seen as narrative media (print, film, television, etc.) and interactive video games has led to many new possibilities.  With the increase in computing speed and power, more and more complex narrative elements, such as photo-realistic animated “cut scenes” that serve as interstitial narrative guideposts between the “playable” segments of many digital games, are appearing in video games.  Most recently, these cut scenes have been integrated into the playable interactive user interface. One such example is with Quantic Dream’s recent title Heavy Rain, which has been described in the New York Times as “a brilliantly engaging example of nonlinear storytelling” and compared, not unfavorably, to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch (Schiesel).  With the increasing convergence of games and narrative, it is no wonder that narratology is a popular tool for the academic study of video games.

The 2004 critical essay collection First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game showcases many of the narratological approaches to video games.  Janet Murray and Ken Perlin, in separate essays, situate interactive video games as an extension of narrative, applying the aesthetics of storytelling to games.  In the same volume, however, Espen Aarseth passionately argues against the narratological colonization of games, stating that “games are not ‘textual’ or at least not primarily textual,” questioning “why aesthetics would be the most relevant perspective” for the study of games, and finally, plainly stating that “games are games”—with the strong implication that games are not stories (“Genre Trouble” 46-9).  While this dialogue serves an important purpose for the foundation of video game studies as a distinct discipline, as well as a primer for constructive critical approaches to video games and storytelling in what Lev Manovich calls the “database logic” of new media in The Language of New Media, the particular question of whether games are narratives is not the central focus of this critical assessment.  Rather, Gonzalo Frasca’s response to this debate provides a framework from which I explore narrative text in terms of a specific type of game, the simulation—an approach that is perhaps a reversal of what Aarseth finds so polemical about narratologists infringing upon the field of ludology.  I will argue, that by considering the aesthetics of simulation and the shortcomings of hypertext, the metafiction of a group of Argentine writers—Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and, most importantly, Macedonio Fernandez—can be understood as offering readers an interactive, generative framework to realize the possibilities of narrative form. The aesthetics of this type of metafiction interrogate the distinction between the real and the fictional, a perspective that is increasingly relevant to an everyday life imbued with digital telecommunication technology.


In “Simulation versus Narrative,” Frasca provides a working definition of the simulation: “to simulate is to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains (for somebody) some of the behaviors of the original system” (223). According to Frasca, the distinguishing feature of a simulation is that it “does not simply retain the…characteristics of the object but it also includes a model of its behaviors.” Therefore, it is important to note the distinction between the model and the simulation, a relationship that I would like to describe as a system of orders.  A model, in this case, consists of a representation of the characteristics of an object or system. A model can represent the attributes of an object, such as—in terms that might help to strategically confuse the boundary of game and narrative—the appearance, the belief system, or physical capabilities of a character. For instance, a model of the main character from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the “reader,” might consist of his gender (male), his reading style (careful and thorough reading of the texts he encounters, seeking completion, yet willing to explore the various threads he encounters), and his motivation (a romantic attraction for the female reader, Ludmilla; completing the text). This representation can be understood as a first-order system, a more or less static set of variables.

The simulation can be understood as a second order system: it is, as Jon Dovey describes, a “mode based on making models of complex structures and behaviours, models that consist of dynamic rule-based systems” (Dovey 233, emphasis original). While Dovey incorporates “model” into his definition of simulation, the distinction between model and simulation can be ascertained by noting the reliance of the second-order model (the simulation) upon the first order model(s) in Frasca’s definition. The simulation incorporates the static model (our character, the reader, for example), applying a dynamic system of rules to these static variables (the characteristics of the reader, of Ludmilla, and of other characters), producing unique probabilistic models of outcomes. Thus, the first order system(s) (the models of characters) are processed through a second order system (the dynamic rules) that can be adjusted by the simulator to produce a variety of outcomes.

However, despite my using the example of character models from Calvino’s If on a winter’s night to understand the first order of models in a theoretical simulation, it is important to note that Frasca does not see narrative as the same as simulation for a few specific and important reasons. In the debate on simulation and narrative, Frasca believes that “video games are just a particular way of structuring simulation, just like narrative is a form of structuring representation” (224).  Rather, video games, while they might incorporate narrative elements, are fundamentally different from narratives, an assertion based on the distinction of differing semiotic structures of the simulation and the narrative.

Sign-generation and interactive narratives

The difference in semiotic structures Frasca alludes to are based on Espen Aarseth’s claim that “electronic texts can be better understood if they are analyzed as cybernetic systems” (Aarseth, via Frasca 223). The benefit of this analytical approach is that electronic or digital texts[1] can be examined as “sign-generators.” Whereas the fixedness and linearity of narrative present the reader or viewer with a series of signs that, while they can remain open to individual hermeneutics, are more or less static: a beginning, middle, and end that is pre-conceived and ordered by narrative authors, or, as Frasca terms them, “narrauthors.” Simulations, however, allow the user/reader to determine a variety of individual outcomes based on the the manipulation of the dynamic rules of the system. In other words, “simauthors” can generate unique patterns of signs, patterns that constantly shift from one iteration (or replay) of the simulation to another.

One potential exception lies between Aarseth’s electronic text and Frasca’s simulation: the hypertext. Hypertexts are electronic texts that offer a navigable link from one texton (a portion of a narrative’s text) to another (Aarseth 67). These electronic texts[2] offer the reader the ability to assemble the order of the text; it is possible for many readers or a single reader to assemble the order of the text as they choose.

While this would seem to offer the dynamism of a simulation, hypertexts are inscribed by a rule system that is less dynamic than appears. In “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?”, Marie-Laure Ryan confronts what she terms the “Alephic conception of hypertext”—or that “since every reading follows a different path, hypertext is capable of endless self-generation” (340).  In her critique of this position, Ryan points to Michael Joyce’s hypertext afternoon, a story, a hypertext that offers sometimes-contradictory views of an accident, the narrative’s central incident. Ryan’s smart argument rests on two points: Joyce chose to create a text that can be read in a divergent manner upon multiple readers/reads; the consideration of hypertext as an interactive process of links and textons that can exist, in their individual state as a type of data in a database, independent of a preconceived order “puts questionable emphasis on linear sequence and the narrative significance of the link” (Ryan 341). It is this last point that is most relevant to problematizing hypertexts as sign-generator. Ryan identifies that individual textons, while perhaps encountered out of a traditionally linear sequence, retain contextual clues and hues that cannot be ignored outside of a temporal structure, or outside of the individual reader’s conception of the aesthetics and logos of narrative and character. As Ryan states, textons are “implicitly ordered by relations of presupposition, material causality, psychological motivation, and temporal sequence.” While the signs might be jumbled, they are not necessarily generated by the simulator, reader, or a unique ordering of the hypertext.

Ryan’s critique of hypertext, as viewed through the dynamics of systems of simulations and sign-generation, however, do provide a resonance to another potential type of narrative that might benefit from analysis as a simulation: metafiction. In discussion hypertext, Ryan notes that “classical hypertext is better suited for self-referential fiction than for narrative worlds that hold the reader under their spell for the sake of what happens in them” (343).  I will briefly confront the latter half of Ryan’s claim dealing with immersion, in terms of  the potential for the narrative and simulation to erode the boundary between game and narrative, at the end of this discussion. I first want to focus on the self-referentiality she notes in metafiction. Understood literally, this back-and-forth reading that takes place within a defined narrative harkens back to Aarseth’s dismissal of hypertextual metahpors for a “skipping” type of  reading practice. If we are to consider the simulation as a potential lens to view narrative, we must return more closely to its terms. Similar to the earlier hypothetical simulation, we can understand the first order model (again) as the characters, while the dynamic system (or not-so-dynamic, as Ryan suggests) is the linearity of the narrative. Within this understanding, the place of self-referentiality is the impetus for traversing textons by means of links; in order to move form one texton to another via a link, the text must reference itself in a manner that calls the reader to connect the textons into some composite narrative.

Simulating Metafictional Possibilities

In metafiction, specifically that of Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges, Macedonio Fernandez, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, self-referentiality takes on a sometimes slightly different approach. While not immune from referencing the text itself, these writers reference the form and genre of their narratives: the novel, the short story, the fantasy. By focusing on the form itself, these self-referncing texts reveal themselves as constructed, much as the order-ability of hypertext reveals itself as a constructed (and arguably interactive) narrative. The focus on form, however, as opposed to linearity, allows for a different relationship to the simulation.

For the specific group of metafiction writers mentioned, the novel itself becomes the dynamic rules that the model is subjected to. In The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), Fernandez presents the novel and its narrative as constructed by placing 123 pages of fifty-some prologues—ending with one entitled “Were those prologues? And is this the novel?”—before the “novel” itself begins, a moment announced by the text “Awakening. Novel-time begins” (Fernandez 123-5). By transparently positioning the narrative as constructed, it destabilizes the traditional realism of the text, or that the narrative framed by the form’s boundaries (cloth boards, half title pages, tables of contents, or endpapers) should be considered as real, due to a “suspension of disbelief.” That the reader is forced to confront the artifice of both the narrative and its form encourages The Museum of Eterna’s Novel to be seen as one—or perhaps, due to Fernandez’s prologues and suggestion that the novel should have been something else (the “novel that went out into the street”), a few—possible novels out of many (Fernandez 12). This potential allows for an open consideration of differing permutations of the narrative, considering the narrative incidents of the print novel and the possibilities directly presented by Fernandez’s text as a set of simulated outcomes based on the character models and the dynamic rules of the novel-as-form system.

Fernandez further opens up the dynamic system of possible novels by directly confronting the many types of reader through his multiple prologues. Much like Calvino’s exploration of reading styles in If on a winter’s night, Fernandez both writes directly to various types of readers, as well as incorporating them as characters, in his system of prefaces. These readers range from those “who will perish if they do not know what the novel is about” to those that seek ambiguity, from the “skip-around” reader—perhaps a note to future hypertext readers—to the orderly (Fernandez 22-3). By approaching varieties in reading styles in an open manner, Fernandez, in addition to revealing the artifice of the narrative, accomplishes two things of concern to simulation. First, the admission that there are many possible ways to encounter the metafictional novel’s narrative encourages the process of reading to be seen as dynamic, not static. That there are multiple readers and approaches to reading gives rise to multiple experiences and outcomes.  Second, by describing a set of potential reading practices in the text, he provides the dynamic system of rules for the reader to explore multiple, unique outcomes to the act of reading Eterna. Thus, in terms of simulation, the metafictional aesthetic of revealing the artifice of narrative, specifically including the varieties of dynamic readerly experiences, provides both the models[3] (characters, actions, narrative structures) and the dynamic rule system (varieties of readers and approaches) that are particular to the simulation.

This is not to claim that metafictional narratives are simulations or even that Eterna is a simulation; moreover, this is not to claim that simulations are narratives or that games are narratives. Rather, by exploring the convergence of the simulation and metafiction, we might come to understand the cultural significance of metafiction in a new, productive manner.  To risk simplifying the gains from this critical approach, I would like to first consider what Frasca above referred to as the alternate semiotic structures of simulation, then consider how both metafiction and the simulation produce a sense of the alternate possibility—and how the latter might be particularly relevant to contemporary humanities and culture.

As mentioned, Frasca and Aarseth draw a distinction between narrative as a sequence of signs and simulations and electronic texts, such as hypertext, as sign-generators. Taking into consideration Ryan’s excellent problematization of the “Alephic” fallacy of hypertexts, let us proceed with the simulation as sign-generator. As the result of simulations are determined by how the simulator (or reader) manipulates the system of rules outlined by the simauthor, the simulators choices determine the signs that are read during the duration of the simulation. Taking Frasca’s and Aarseth’s claims into consideration then, traditional novel-based narratives are static sequences of signs, with the control of signs placed largely in the hands of the narrauthor, who determines what signs appear and when. While there is certainly room for individual readers to interpret traditional novels in a variety of rich ways, unlike simulations, novels have predetermined, static events and characters. No matter how much interpretation is open to the reader, the outcome is static: Jane is always an orphan who marries Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. At the risk of making large claims about genre and what I’ve referred to as traditional novel-based narrative, the genres of realism, fantasy, and science fiction all use signs in this manner: they are given to the reader, not generated by the reader. In a realist aesthetic, such as the Victorian Middlemarch, signs and characters represent the familiar in familiar terms; in fantasy, signs and characters might serve as metaphors for representations of the real; in science fiction, no matter how unique the novum[4], signs and characters again recall our sense of reality. Metafiction, specifically that of Borges, Fernandez, and Bioy Casares, expressly engages in a new realism, what Adam Thirwell refers to as “fictional reality” in his preface to Eterna (v).

This vein of literature seeks to confuse the boundaries of the real and the fictional. Resultantly, the works of these authors employs a metafictional approach, in which, as mentioned above, the artifice of the narrative is transparently revealed to the reader and becomes a central aesthetic of the novel. This metafictional approach to a fictional reality allows for the generation of signs about how to read novels, in general. By critiquing the novel, these examples of metafiction make the invention of the new fictional reality a requisite experience for the reader, yet one that is not determined by the narrauthor, as the critique lies outside the bounds of the page. The answer of how to read the novel, rather, is determined by the readers experiencing the novel-about-the-novel. The narrauthor sets the foundation of the            first order model, but the reader acts as simulator, applying the dynamic varieties of reading approaches to the text to determine a unique and critical outcome. Furthermore, as Borges writes in his prologue to Bioy Casare’s The Invention of Morel, this new literature “does not propose to be a transcription of reality,” but is instead an apologetically artificial object, “no part of which lacks justification” (“Prologue” 243-4). This mention of justification recalls not necessarily the causality of the realist novel, but instead the product of an application of a system of knowledge production: the dynamic rules of the simulation.

Another way of understanding fictional reality is by positioning it as a possible iteration of reality: the result is of the real, in that it is possible, yet fictional due to its not having occurred. In simulation theory, this is referred to as probability, the possibility of a reality occurring. Or, as Frasca writes, simauthors “are not only able to state if [a reality] is possible or not, but they have a chance of expressing how likely they think it may be” (Frasca 228). Within this framework, the fictional reality of metafiction and the simulation operate on the same territory: they interrogate possible, yet alternate, realities.

Real Fictional Implications

In a larger cultural context, the ability to see the overlap of reality and fiction as a possible reality is seen by Paul Virilio as a condition precipitated and necessitated by the evolution of modern telecommunications technology; furthermore, this development in perception is associated with the “meta”—metacities, metageophysics, objects and terms that are both real and virtual conceptions of their former selves.  According to Virilio, “the new-found importance of this world time, a time whose instantaneity definitely cancels the reality of [geographic and temporal] distances,” requiring a “field effect” point of view to navigate the simultaneous dimensionality of the real and the virtual (Virilio 8, 43). In a similar manner, simulation and the metafiction discussed here ask the same viewpoint from their simulator/reader: the simultaneity of the real and the fictional into what might understand as the possible or the alternate reality. The simulation and the metafictional novel are both individual experiences and the impetus for theoretical conceptions of themselves.  Fernandez himself in the firs half of the twentieth century presages Virilio’s writing in 2000, seeing space, time, and distance as an “effect” in an attempt to open up the traditionally exclusive categories of reality and fiction, inserting Eterna into the interstice between the two (60-1).  In this manner, the metafiction of Buenos Aires in the first half of the twentieth century aligns with the cybernetic theory of the current century. Though through different media—the computer code and user interface of the video game simulation and the text and meta-text of the metafictional novel—both seek to expose the artificial boundaries that separate fiction and reality, inserting the simulator and reader into the realm of possible and alternate realities.

Coming to a view of how we might understand the cultural implications of metafiction by applying simulation theory allows us to see the open and interactive potential of the novel as a sign-generator relevant to our contemporary everyday life. While I do not claim that metafiction is the metaphorical “missing link” that answer the question of a form between narrative and game, a question posed by a critical inquiry such as First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, a focus on possible or alternate realities might lead us closer to a new form that might span the ludological and narratological divide, such as the Alternate Reality Game. This form of transmedia narrative entertainment offers the players a chance to shape the narrative by their collective and individual actions, as well as overlaying the fictional narrative onto the real world of everyday life, by embedding clues necessary to advance the narrative in multiple media channels. As Ryan noted in her critique of new media narratives, the ARG provides a truly immersive environment for the participant—their “real” world of web content, video, print, locative media, and more.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper / Text / Theory. George P.

Landow, ed.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994.

–. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person: New

Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Noah Waldrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds. Cambridge: MIT, 2004. 45-54.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Prologue.” Selected Non-Fictions. New York: Viking, 1999.

Dovey, Jon.  “It’s Only a Game Show: Big Brother and the Theatre of Spontaneity.” Big

Brother International. Eds. E. Mathijs and J. Jones.  London: Wallflower Pres,

2004. 232-249.

Fernandez, Macedonio. The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel). Margaret

Schwartz, trans. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2010.

Frasca, Gonzalvo. “Simulation versus Narrative.” The Video Game Reader. Mark J.P.

Wolf and Bernard Perron, eds. New York: Routledge, 2003. 221-235.

Jenkins, Henry.  Convergence Culture.  New York: New York UP, 2008.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2007.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” Narrative Across

Media: The Language of Storytelling. Marie-Laure Ryan, ed. Lincoln, NE:

University of Nebraska, 2004. 337-359.

Schiesel, Seth. “Murderer’s Young Prey; A Father’s Torment.” New York Times. 26

February, 2010. Online.

Suvin, Darko.  “Estrangement and Cognition.”  Speculations on Speculation:

Theories of Science Fiction.  Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria.  Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005. 23-35.

Thirwell, Adam. “Preface.” The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel).

Margaret Schwartz, trans. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2010.

Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Chris Turner, trans. London: Verso, 2000.

[1] Though, the use of that term seems to reflect a narrative approach to considering electronic and digital systems, such as simulations or video games.

[2] It is important to note that Aarseth, whose definition I’ve adopted for this discussion, does distinguish hypertexts as electronic texts, as opposed to a reading practice that can be used as a metaphor for intertextual allusions and other reading practices that send readers back-and-forth through a paper text.

[3] Or, as Fernandez writes in yet another prologue, “we are now able to present the model novel” (50).

[4] The “exclusive interest in a strange newness, a novum” that is particular to Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction literature (Suvin 24).

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