19 March 2014

Inventions #9 26.03.14 Dr Julian Reidy: Computer Games as Narrative Games; George Potts: The Sopranos and the Post Modern Gangster

Dr Julian Reidy is a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with the Thomas Mann archive at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences at ETH, Zürich. In September, Julian will be a one-term visiting professor at the University of Geneva. Julian’s interests cover intergenerational relationships in post 1945 German literature, the semantics of ‘Barbarism’ from the 18th century to the present, Bernward Vesper, and of course Thomas Mann. Julian is the author of two monographs Forget[ting] What Parents Are: A Re-reading and Literary History of 'Vaeterliteratur', and Reconstruction and Postheroism: Paradigms of Generational Novels in Contemporary German Literature.  He is currently working on his Habilitation thesis, which will deal with Interiors and the Semantics of Space in Thomas Mann. Julian has published widely on Mann, Bernward Vesper, and generational/family novels. He also contributed two articles to the forthcoming Thomas-Mann-Handbook. Wednesday’s paper, ‘Narrative Games’,  is a  taster of a forthcoming article. 

„You just complicate the narrative!“ Computer games as ‚Erzählspiele’ (narrative games)

Dr. Julian Reidy, ETH Zürich

The German Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft defines a narrator as “diejenige Instanz, die die Information über die erzählte Welt vermittelt”, that is, the arbiter and intermediator of the information contained within a fictional text. The discipline of narratology provides scholars with the necessary tools to identify narrators in non-interactive media – but things get messy when computer games, a new and by definition interactive medium, come into play. The “task” assigned to a computer game’s ‘reader’ is not merely an “interpretative” one, he or she is actually “responsible for creating the plot” through ludic action. And the plot set in motion by the player was itself already predetermined by the game’s programmers. Who, then, mediates, arbitrates, ‘narrates’ a computer game? Can computer games even be considered to be narratives at all or are they – as Jesper Juul stipulates – mere tests of “performative skills”, lacking the qualities usually ascribed to narratives? By tackling questions such as these, my paper will attempt to clarify the narratological status of computer games. In accordance with Albrecht Koschorke’s recent insights into the connections between ‘narrative’ and ‘play’, the “homo narrans” and the “homo ludens”, I will present a multi-faceted narratological model of the computer game that takes into account the young medium’s aesthetic specificity and its inherent artistic and critical potential.

George Potts is a PhD candidate at University College London, researching the relationship between the writings of John Milton and Geoffrey Hill supervised by Prof. Philip Horne, and funded by a Wolfson Scholarship. He has a strong secondary interest in film and television, is currently running a series of seminars at UCL on contemporary TV drama and is in the early stages of editing a collection of essays on national identity in contemporary TV drama. George has reviewed for the TLS and the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

‘You seen The Godfather?’ – The Sopranos and the postmodern gangster

In recent years, the television drama series has undergone radical development, both in terms of series-creators’ ambitions for the medium and the levels of expectation of the audience. Episodic storylines have increasingly expanded into season-long arcs, allowing for a far greater subtlety to narratives, which are no longer dependent upon satisfying the casual viewer. Instead changes in distribution – DVD boxsets, online viewing and cable networks such as HBO and AMC – have created a culture in which complexity is increasingly important to TV, impacting upon how one should create and watch a series.

Premiering on HBO in 1999, The Sopranos is arguably the most significant television series of the last twenty years. A critical darling as well as the most commercially successful cable series in the history of TV, The Sopranos won 21 Emmy Awards and 5 Golden Globes across its six seasons. The show has been described by The New Yorker as ‘the richest achievement in the history of television’ and was voted the greatest TV drama of all time by the Guardian. It ushered in a new era of drama, in particular a golden age of television for HBO at the turn of the new millennium.

This paper will offer a close reading of the different ways in which The Sopranos consciously engages with the mafia film tradition. Beginning with Sopranos creator David Chase’s assertion that ‘most mob dramas are period pieces … even if they’re set in the present day, they feel like they belong to a different era’, the paper will consider how the series reinvented a dominant strand of American cinema for the small screen. Mob dramas are heavily indebted to generic conceptions, questing back to cinematic masterpieces such as The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990) which loom large over the landscape of cinema history. In attempting to rework the genre for the twenty-first century, any director has to make the difficult transition from a film in which gangsters’ conceptions of themselves are based upon notions of family and honour, passed down through generations, to conceptions that derive from the mafia movie itself.

By considering the metatextual quality of The Sopranos, this paper will explore one way in which the series broke new ground for television drama by aspiring to something that cinema had never attempted. As well as this, it will briefly consider the way in which other HBO television series have achieved critical acclaim by freeing themselves from generic constraints – The Wire and the police procedural, Deadwood and the western – while others, such as Boardwalk Empire, have perhaps been marginalised because they have retreated back into period drama and failed to carry on The Sopranos’ legacy.

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