digital arts & culture 1998

Raine Koskimaa:

Hypertext Fiction in the Twilight Zone

The first hypertext fictions were written in the early eighties, and the first commercially distributed hypertext fiction was Michael Joyce's Afternoon. A Story. It was published by Eastgate Systems in 1987 - slightly over a decade ago. I would like to take a look at hypertext fiction, its history and present, and try to make some predictions of its future.

In the mid-eighties there were already a number of different kinds of computer based cybertexts (I'm using the term cybertext as defined by Espen Aarseth (1997)) alongside hypertext fiction (especially adventure games and Multi User Domains; the latter being a multifarious upgrade to the first multi user adventure games). Hypertext fiction (hyperfiction), uses hypertext authoring environments to create "interactive" and "non-linear" fictive texts, which were said to offer the reader an unheard of power over the unfolding of the story. The fact that an authoring tool mostly targeted to educational and technical writers also thrilled fiction authors is not a surprise - what is surprising is that it took so long for fiction authors to get interested in a tool which, according to its founder, Ted Nelson, was to transform computers into "literary machines" (Nelson 1993).

According to Ted Nelson, hypertext is "non-sequential writing - text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways." (Nelson 1993, 0/2) From the definition by Nelson, the first type of interaction is clear: the reader can choose between the different paths through the text corpus. When the interaction is limited to this only, we can, as Michael Joyce, speak of "exploratory hypertexts". But there is more to it: some hypertexts allow the reader to rearrange the links, make new links, and even to write his or her own text chunks, usually called lexias. This type of hypertext we call "constructive hypertexts". (Joyce 1994)

A lot of expectations have been put upon hypertext fiction, with its capability to empower readers' interaction with the text, because of the new kind of spatial writing it makes possible (Bolter 1991), and because of the possibility of integrating text with audio-visual materials, thus creating a new kind of "Gesamtdatenwerk" (Rötzer 1995, 127).

Is There a Hypertext In This Class?

Although the significance of hypertext for present society cannot be overestimated (World Wide Web, for example, being based on hypertext techniques), the point of hyperfiction still remains unproven. At the same time as MUDs have been expanding in number, styles, and users, and while adventure games have developed with the aid of the latest computer hard- and software towards interactive cinema and virtual reality, the number of hyperfictions has stayed exceptionally small, their publicity is almost none, and the tools haven't been keeping up with, for example, WWW page composers. The main problem, however, lies in the poor reader interfaces the hyperfictions employ. The interaction happens mainly through anchor words/sentences, and menu windows

We are, in fact, in a situation where we really have to consider the question: has hyperfiction in the ten years from Joyce's Afternoon to Twilight (1997) come to the end of its road. This would not mean the total extinction of the genre, but rather, the shift of focus to different areas, especially towards virtual reality worlds (or, narrative story worlds; see the work of Brenda Laurel and Marie-Laure Ryan especially). With the examples of a couple of more original new (and forthcoming) hyperfictions, I try to sketch an alternative, a kind of hyperfiction which surely tends toward virtual reality, but without losing its characteristic nature as based on language. I would like to take as main my starting point J. David Bolter's article "Ekhprasis, virtual reality, and the future of writing" and polemically confront his opposition between text and image, and, the strenghtening dominance of visual over textual:"Digital graphics call into question the future of alphabetic writing itself" (Bolter 1996, 256)

From Menu Bar to Spatial Navigation

In Joyce's Afternoon (in the original MacIntosh version) the reader interface, or the navigation device, was simple and clearly separated from the fictive content. There was no map for the reader depicting the spatial structure of the text - even though the story was built according to a strict spatial structure as shown in many essays written about Afternoon. The inherent spatiality of Afternoon should not be neglected, though, since Stuart Moulthrop has convincingly argued that many novice readers intuitively employed spatial strategy in reading Afternoon (Moulthrop 1991).

Moulthrop's own hyperfiction, Victory Garden, went one step further. In Victory Garden there is a map of the hypertext - the map isn't too detailed and its worth as a navigation device is almost none, but still, it made explicit the spatial structure behind the text (which, not too surprisingly, can be described as "a garden of forking paths", or better yet, "a garden of intersecting paths").

With Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, we can go still further towards the spatialization of hyperfiction (even though Patchwork Girl's status as "fiction" is not self-evident). In Patchwork Girl the actual spatial and conceptual arrangement of hypertext lexias is made accessible for the reader. The navigation device is now more complex than it was with the previous hyperfictions mentioned here (the situation with Windows versions of these texts is a bit different, since they all employ the same technique) - but here lies unfortunately also one of the main weaknesses of this interface: the toolbar mixes spatial and conceptual functions in a very confusing way. Jackson also employs the spatial map as a site of signification - that is, in some passages the arrangement of lexias and their colors work as a meaningful composite. In Patchwork Girl, which can be best described in terms of postmodernist poetics, the metastructure - that is, the conceptual map - is active part in the reading process. Because of this, the cognitive leap from text to navigation and back is not that big.

The same technique is used by Deena Larsen in her Samplers - nine vicious little hypertexts. This text is based upon a quilt (once again) with nine different images: each of the images lead to their own story, which spatial arrangement more or less resembles the according image.

The new work from Joyce, Twilight. A Symphony has all the benefits - as well as drawbacks - of a spatialized reader interface, and also an amount of audio-visual augmentation. It still somehow fails to expand the limits of hyperfiction in any significant way further than those laid out already in Afternoon. Thus, from Afternoon till Twilight, that seemed to comprise the long days journey for one mode of writing.

Expanding in Space

But then, the possibilities hinted at in Patchwork Girl and Samplers, as well as some qualities borrowed from computer games, have come to enliven the genre in Califia by M.D. Coverley. In Califia there are several ways for navigation: there are star charts, geological maps, timelines etc. all of which structure the text in their own way. Each of the three main characters are also focalizers for different kinds of approaches to the story/stories - that is not to say that there are three different versions of the story from three different point of view, but there are three different ways to approch the totality of the materials in Califia.

The text is augmented with a wealth of images - both pictures and symbolic images, which oftentimes work simultaneously as illustrations and navigating devices. There is the basic Windows-menu bar in the top of the screen, but otherwise the screen is reserved for the content material, which, as mentioned, fulfills almost all the navigation and other meta-functions as well.

This is a very different approach to the spatialization of hypertext as employed in texts mentioned above: instead of relying solely on the spatial aspect of the hypertextual structure, the fictional world is represented as a kind of proto-virtual reality which depicts the hypertextual sub-structures at the same time, in a naturalized way. This is a perfect example of the integration of navigation devices into the (hyper)fictional world.

With Califia as an example we can have a closer look to a crucial question: is hyperfiction heading towards adopting some virtual reality qualities, or is it going to merge to virtual realities? Califia presents us an interactive environment into which the reader can - in a similar way with many computer games not using datahelmets and other VR rigs - get him/herself immersed. A good example for a simple comparison is the Broderbund game Myst by Rand and Robyn Miller. In Myst the reader/player can enter the closed world of an island and wander around there solving numerous problems and fullfilling tasks. It is as close virtual reality as without VR rigs is possible to get. At the same time, however, it has a strong textual element: there are several (partly decayed) books and note slips in the island, which are crucial for the problem solving. But these texts in Myst have another, possibly even more important function: they provide a narrative for the otherwise narrativeless world. The passages in the books are related to different instruments in the island, and in some way they can be said to be hypertextually linked to each other (although the links are not immediate or even obvious), thus, in a polemical manner one could argue that Myst is a hypertext narrative with a very elaborate 3D reader interface...

Put side by side, Califia and Myst clearly show us the difference between hyperfiction and virtual reality: even though the text fragments have an important role in Myst, they are still functioning as one subcategory of effects in that game, and no conclusion can be drawn that text would somehow be necessary in all virtual realities aiming at delivering a narrative. In Califia, on the other hand, everything is language, even though in many instances symbolic one. In Bolter's terms, everything in Califia is simultaneously meant to be looked through (creating a fictional world) and looked at (functioning as a metatextual device), while in VR everything is meant to be looked through.

Language has a special capacity of creating worlds - most often the peculiar power of language has been attributed to its indeterminatedness or opennes or even vagueness: it evokes a world but leaves it open for the human imagination to complete it the proper way. Illustrations, dramatizations and filmatizations of texts always counter the arguments of tying receivers' imagination to a prefab model . One of the central techniques in Califia to avoid this is its use of symbolic language - from astrology and indian mythology, maps etc. - which provide illustrations that are powerful as pictures, but because of their symbolic nature wont have the restrictive role sole illustrations would have. Because of this dual role, it is not surprising to notice that also Samplers is based on symbolic (drawn from Indian mytology) representation - as is Adrianne Wortzel's web-fiction Electronic Chronicles. Maps are naturally one of the most obvious choices for navigating devices, mainly because they are so easily motivated from the fictional world. Califia, though, makes the solution much more interesting in juxtaposing several maps, and then, motivating the whole hypertextual structure through the limitless variations of juxtaposing these maps.

There is also another, very different and very interesting approach to visualisation of hypertext. Jim Rosenberg has written extensively about his idea of "hypertext taken into the lowest level of language" and "channeling the syntax outside of a sentence". In his approach, the visual layout is put to provide a syntax for the hypertext structure. This allows both linguistic structures otherwise impossible (like simultaneity) and the idea of hypertext taken to its logical conclusion: not only linking text lexias which themselves are not hypertextual, but creating texts that are wholly hypertextual. Rosenberg himself has employed this strategy in his Intergrams series of poems, but so far the idea hasn't been truly adapted to hyperfiction - I believe, however, that it could be very useful in poetics of hyperfiction .

Where in time is hyperfiction?

Time and space are two fundamental categories with which we structure the world around us. When the fictional space has been extensively concretized in hyperfiction, it seems odd that temporal issues have been in a sidetrack in the hypertext discussion so far. Thus we should appreciate Marjorie Luesebrink's presentation in Hypertext 98 conference about time in hyperfiction (Luesebrink 1998; M.D. Coverley is Luesebrink's pen name, thus, she is also the author of Califia). She makes a basic distinction between "Interface time" and "Cognitive time", the first describing the real time activities when reading hyperfiction, the latter describing the time in the fictional text. Each of these categories is further divided to three different modes:
Interface time: mechanical (time spent waiting the program to load etc.), reading (the actual time spent reading the text), interactive (the time spent in interaction with the text - navigation etc.)
Cognitive: real (time of narration), narrative (time of narrated), mythic (background historical time)

The category of interface time is good as such, and as simple as it seems, these are necessary and useful distinctions. Cognitive time is also good in principle, the problem being the idiosyncratic and somewhat confusing terminology: real time is, if I have understood it correctly, the time of narration, or, the time of fictional actual world (thus, real time in the fictive world), narrative time is the time of the narrated. The mythic time is a bit more complex: is a mythic time constructed inside the fiction (i.e. the mythology derived from the past of the narrative time) or is the mythic time as understood outside fiction? I would like to make a suggestion which, I'm sure, Luesebrink would accept, that mythic time is a concept which works as a leak between ontological boundaries - it is something shared between the actual world and the worlds of fiction, a zone that is not possible to attribute to each of them alone (this comes close to Thomas G. Pavel's (1986) ideas of different ontological spheres and their changing borders; also Benjamin Harsaw's (1984) "double-decker" model for fictional reference is useful here).

Even with these clarifications we still confront a serious lack in the model: the time of the text. With constructive hypertexts the text may undergo radical changes through different readings - that is, the text itself "lives", or, evolves. In hypertext editor StorySpace this is possible in two ways: first, there are so called guard fields which put conditions to some links (the link will not be activated before a certain lexia is visited first - for reader this means that at some time a link exist, at some time it doesn't). Because of the preplanned and stabile structure of this device its status as a temporal device is weak. In other cases, like with StorySpace Reader for Windows, the reader can make changes to the whole structure of the text, which makes it potentially changeable all the time. This certainly introduces a temporal aspect for the text, but once again, in a limited sense: the changing text is approachable only to the specific reader. Deena Larsen, for example, with her Marble Springs, has rounded this limitation by asking readers to send her their comments and insertions to be included in the upgraded versions of Marble Springs. This quality is probably only fully effective with WWW-based texts.

Web-fictions are always, at least potentially, subject to changes beyond authorial control.For example, if there are links outside the author generated material, the destination page may change (this is nicely used in Matti Niskanen's web-fiction Leporauha, in which, for example, there is a link to the web front page of a Finnish version of Sun, which naturally changes daily). Another web fiction (actually a hybrid of print novel and web fiction) Markku Eskelinen's Interface, grows twice a year by new lexias written by the author or active readers. One especially interesting web fiction is Gonzalo Frasca's web text, which reading is limited to only one session at the time. That is, once you stop reading it, you can never return to the exactly same text - the time of logging in, for example, has effects on the text. This is a very interesting application in its way to fuse real time and narrative time.

In texts like the ones mentioned above, and in all texts subject to considerable change, the text time is the dominating one in relation to cognitive time: at different phases of text time the cognitive time categories may vary even radically. The distinction between interface time, cognitive time and text time may be one of the crucial differences between spatial hypertext and virtual reality, since the latter aims at conflating all of these into one temporal dimension.

Even with this crude outline of different temporalities involved in hyperfiction, it should be clear that there are huge potentialities not yet realized in hyperfiction. Better yet - even though the temporality of hyperfiction is undertheorized, the situation is much better in traditional fiction studies. With all the useful formalisations of narratology in their disposal, the hypertext (fiction and otherwise) tool developers should be able to produce navigation devices which are as capable of manipulating the temporal dimensions as the present devices are in handling spatial ones.

Jay David Bolter claims:"Words no longer seem to carry conviction without the reappearance as pictures of imagery that was latent in the words."(1996, 260) Even if this was a valid description of the overall cultural situation it does not mean that language as such had lost its power to evoke worlds. The visualisation and spatialisation of hyperfiction does not mean its merging into virtual reality - text may maintain its status alongside visual information and in a new symbiotic relation to it. Thus, I think we already have hyperfiction expanding the limits of the genre in spatial terms, and further, I believe we'll see new works expanding the limits also in the field of temporality. And even more, I believe there is space between written traditional narratives and VR narrative story worlds for hyperfiction. After Twilight, there is a new dawn waiting.

Texts discussed here:

Coverley, M. D. (forthcoming) Califia. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Eskelinen, Markku (1997) Interface eli 800 surmanluotia. [Interface, or, 800 Deadly Bullets]. Helsinki: Provosoft. Related web-site:

Jackson, Shelley (199x) Patchwork Girl. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Joyce, Michael (1987) Afternoon. A Story. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Joyce, Michael (1997) Twilight. A Symphony. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Larsen, Deena (199x) Marble Springs. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Larsen, Deena (1997) Samplers. Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Miller, Rand & Miller, Robyn (199x) Myst. Broderbund Software Inc.

Niskanen, Matti (1997) Leporauha.

Rosenberg, Jim (199x) Intergrams. Electronic text. Watertown, Ma: Eastgate Systems.

Wortzel, Adrienne (199x) Electronic Chronicles.

Secondary texts:

Aarseth, Espen J. (1997) Cybertext. Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bolter, Jay David (1991) Writing Space. The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Bolter, Jay David (1996) "Ekhprasis, virtual reality, and the future of writing" in Nunberg (ed.) The Future of the Book, p.253-272.

Harshaw, Benjamin (1984) "Fictionality and the Fields of Reference: Remarks on a Theoretical Framework", Poetics Today 5:2, p.227-251.

Joyce, Michael (1995) "Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts" in Of Two Minds. Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics, 39-60.

Koskimaa, Raine (1997) "Visual Structuring of Hyperfiction Narratives", Electronic Book Review 6. http://www.

Laurel, Brenda & Strickland, Rachel & Tow, Rob (1994) "Placeholder: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments", Computer Graphics 28:2, p.118-126.

Luesebrink, Marjorie C. (1998) "The Moment in Hypertext: A Brief Lexicon of Time" in Groenbaek, Kaj & Mylonas, Elli & Shipman, III, Frank M. (eds.) The Proceedings of the Ninth ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, p.106-112.

Moulthrop, Stuart (1991) "Reading From the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of 'Forking Paths'" in Delany, Paul & Landow, George P. (eds.) Hypermedia and Literary Studies, 119-132.

Nelson, Theodore Holm (1993) Literary Machines. Sausalito, Ca: Mindful Press.

Pavel, Thomas G. (1986) Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Rosenberg, Jim (1996) "The Interactive Diagram Sentence: Hypertext as a Medium for Thought", Visible Language 30:2, p.102-116.

Ryan, Marie-Laure (1997) "Interactive Drama: Narrativity in a Highly Interactive Environment", Modern Fiction Studies 43:3, p.677-707.

Rötzer, Florian (1995) "Virtual Worlds: Fascination and Reactions" in Penny, Simon (ed.) Critical Issues in Electronic Media, p.119-132.

Raine Koskimaa
University of Jyväskylä
Research Unit for Contemporary Culture
P.O.Box 35







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