Academic journal article Criticism

Medium Envy: A Response to Marcie Frank's "At the Intersections of Mode, Genre, and Media: A Dossier of Essays on Melodrama"

Academic journal article Criticism

Medium Envy: A Response to Marcie Frank's "At the Intersections of Mode, Genre, and Media: A Dossier of Essays on Melodrama"

Article excerpt

The main thing is to tell a story. / It is almost / very important.

-Frank O'Hara, "Fantasy" (1964)'

A leading designer of video games might seem an unlikely exponent of the purity of genres and media (attitudes more commonly associated, as Marcie Frank notes in her introduction to this issue, with high modernism), but Jeffrey Kaplan, former design-team chief of the extremely successful video game World of Warcraft, sounded very much like an advocate of just such separatisms as he reproved his fellow game makers for what he called their "medium envy" at the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Rather than concentrating on what he sees as the specific and singular capacities of the video game, Kaplan argued, his colleagues were allowing their work to be driven by their alleged envy of writers and writing, consequently "drowning the player[s]" of their games in "reams of dialogue and narrative." Kaplan stated bluntly, "[W]e need to stop writing a fucking book . . . [when we design a] game because nobody wants to read it," and concluded, "We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game."2

It is striking that despite Kaplan's disdain for print narrative as a model for video-game design, story is still his way of specifying what it is that he and his fellow designers have to offer those who play their games. This is consonant with Walter Benjamin's pronouncement in "The Storyteller" that "what distinguishes the novel from the story ... is its [i.e., the novel's] essential dependence on the book," on the medium of bound print. "The dissemination of the novel becomes possible only with the invention of printing," Benjamin goes on. For Benjamin, no such relation of medium dependence binds "story" to (printed) book. In the mediascape that emerged in the twentieth century, novels-remediated as films, television series, graphic narratives, etc.-frequently became something other than their native genre. "Story" generally names a number of the kinds of things that novels became. As Kaplan presents it, "story" is entirely compatible with what he calls "uniquely video game" modes of production-what he argues his fellow designers will have succeeded in doing when they have "stop[ped] writing a fucking book."

Story is also a term that has circulated widely in the twentieth century for screenplay, soap opera, and other extended nonnovel narrative forms. It is the long-arc serial narrative-as it has informed a number of genres across several media, ranging from the seventeenthand eighteenth-century comedy of intrigue to nineteenth-century melodrama to twentieth-century sitcom and soap opera-that I intend to focus on in these pages. In looking at a somewhat different (although at some points overlapping) set of media archives from those that Frank considers in her introductory essay, I want to consider some of the ways in which certain genres and media forms have drawn extensively on the traditions of melodrama production, performance, and reception: both those that we ordinarily think of as obviously and essentially melodramatic (radio and TV soap operas, for chief examples) and those that we tend to think of as distinctly other to and different from melodrama (radio and TV sitcoms and newspaper comic strips).

One route that I want to follow takes up the distinction that Frank discusses in her introduction-the distinction made by Gilbert Seldes in 1924 between early cinema, which he saw as emerging from melodrama and newspaper comic strips, and the cinema that succeeded it. As Seldes sees it, film took a catastrophically wrong turn in shifting away from the most popular entertainment forms of the time toward putatively prestigious forms of drama and "serious" theater for its models. In saying this, Seldes sounds somewhat like Kaplan at the Game Developers Conference in 2009, warning his fellow designers away from a tendency to imitate print too closely, urging his colleagues to "accept that we are not Shakespeare [or] Tolstoy. …

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