Digital vs Print Hypertext Fiction

Part 1 of an analysis I wrote for my interdisciplinary research class, “World Building.” I looked at several works and mulled over whether or not the medium makes a difference. Answer: Yes it does! More →

Print and digital hypertexts follow certain core principles but differ in how authors construct and readers experience them. Nonlinearity, branching paths, and reader participation are shared across works in digital and print, including 253 and The Cavern of Doom. But by examining the role that medium plays in Afternoon, A Humument, House of Leaves, Miriam, and other hypertextual works, it becomes clear that their medium imposes a set of advantages and limitations on narratives.

What is this “hypertext fiction” you speak of?

It’s that fuzzy area where literature & art meet game mechanics & interactivity. Ever played a game where you have you piece together what happens? Or a story that lets you choose your own adventure, or used a Wiki? Take a look at this interactive novel made by Geoff Ryman.

There are 252 passengers and 1 driver aboard the Bakerloo line train. In the profile of journalist Valerie Tuck, one can find a phrase linked to Tom McHugh, who works at the same company, and another to Oliver Maskey, who stole that company’s computer chips. More phrases can be found in both of their profiles that link to other passengers, and on and on. By “the end of the line,” the characters and events come together in a terrible crash. This begs the question, what should this odd piece of work be defined as? Not a game or a novel, but Geoff Ryman’s 253 is what academics call hypertext fiction.

Where did this niche genre come from?

Hint: it had a lot to do with websites like this.

The last half of the twentieth century saw rapid developments in web technology. With new tools and capabilities came new ideas on how to organize information, writers and artists soon began to use them as a means for creative ends. In his 1991 essay, professor Robert Coover speculates on the great potential of hypertext to transform reading and writing as his generation knew it.

Narratives that have for centuries abided by the linear format of printed books are now free from the “tyranny of the line” (Coover 1). They can now be broken up into multiple paths and can be navigated through with the click of a mouse. Concerns and challenges, from potential issues with navigation to closure, are raised as well.

While it seems that for most people, hypertext is all about the link, its definition has evolved since it was first coined by Ted Nelson. He originally defined it in 1965 as a form of writing interconnected in a way that “could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper” (Wardrip-Fruin 127) but clarified it in 1970 to be forms of writing “which branch or perform on request” (127). Separate chunks of text connected by links can be called “discrete or chuck-style” hypertext, which is the predominant system underlying today’s world wide web (127).

What Defines Hypertext Fiction

Although hypertexts according to Nelson “are best presented on computer display screens,” they do not have to be (127). Print works that share the fundamental principles of nonlinearity, multiple reading paths, and reader participation have long existed before electronic platforms like Storyspace or HTML. The linking mechanism that the literary community tends to focus on may take on different forms in print, but the essential principles remain.

Take, for example, the Choose Your Own Adventure book series popularized during the late 1900s. In Zork, The Cavern Of Doom, the reader follows Bivotar and Juranda as they explore the cave and encounter anything from warlocks to dragons. At the end of each section, the reader turns to a specific page depending on which of the 2 to 4 options is chosen. This allows the storyline to branch into separate paths so that the same book can be read differently and yield 17 possible outcomes. Reminiscent of playing a game, the reader is encouraged go back and exhaust every option to find the path to the ending with 10 out of 10 points.

In the same way, Ryman does not require readers to navigate 253 linearly. He encourages from the start, “Nothing much happens in this novel. It is ideal fare for invalids. Those seeking sensation are advised to select the End of the Line option” (Ryman). But to make sense of what is happening in the ending, the reader must jump from page to page to learn about the passengers involved and how they relate to each other. It is up to the reader how much to read about each passenger, whether to skip over ones entirely, indulge in footnotes on real places or events referenced, or use the “Previous / Next passenger” links provided to read the conventional way. Providing this choice, however, is one of the qualities that is consistent in hypertexts across mediums

Pay Attention to the Medium

It would, however, be unwise to lump all hypertexts together without regard to how the medium affects the way they are constructed by authors and experienced by readers. According to Katherine Hayles, many literary scholars today still see literature as “immaterial verbal constructions” and overlook how the meaning and interpretation of a text is intrinsically shaped by its materiality (Hayles 19). As a property that “emerges from interactions between physical properties and a work’s artistic strategies,” materiality can be powerfully entwined with narratives (33).

This is best seen in certain children’s picture books, where the reader is made to perform the narrative through her interactions with the book as a physical object. The pages of the Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?, for instance, contain illustrated food stains and actual holes to demonstrate how the protagonist vandalizes the book of fairytales he fell into (Do-Rozario 158).

While much critical analysis has revolved around how hypertext differ from conventional narratives, my goal is to compare hypertext fiction in print and digital mediums.

(To be continued in Part 2 and 3)


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Revisiting DOET

Over winter break, I decided to revisit the 2013 edition of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. More →

It’s been almost three decades since it first appeared as The Psychology of Everyday Things (or POET, which I think sounds way better than DOET). The heart of this book is bringing human psychology into engineering. So much has changed, yet I think these ideas on how to build systems and products are as relevant as ever. And like Norman predicted, design is finally catching up to everyone else:

“The academic discipline of computer science, psychology, human factors and ergonomics all knew of one another’s existence and often worked together, but design was not included. Why not design?”

My favorite chapters are the newly written “Design Thinking” and “Design in the World of Business.” Norman shared his thoughts about the future of this ever-changing profession.

Later this year, I got to introduce design thinking to my peers with this presentation I put together:

I wanted them to understand that, beneath all the business jargon, they’ve been doing it all along. Take the “double diamond” model for example. Probably familiar to anyone with an arts background: Gather research. Try this! Did it work? Get feedback. Refine! Try that! I like to tell people who ask me about my classes how messy the process is. You can put hours into a project and get nothing done!

In my studio classes, we’d brainstorm a ton of ideas, then narrow down to one conceptual direction in critiques. We’d diverge again as we explore ways to bring the concept to life, then converge to execute to final finish. Chaos, then control (haha, STH reference).

People are starting to apply this to solve business problems, but design thinking can sometimes be more of a mindset than a methodology. So it’s not always easy.

I remember doing a brainstorming activity at an Entrepreneurial Student Association meeting. I was filling my paper with any and all ideas as fast as I could. But it turns out nobody else in my group drew anything. The whole time they were trying to think of a good idea, hoping for inspiration to hit. It’s not the norm to embrace failure as a normal part of getting to a solution. Which is why it makes sense for designers advocate for and demystify this process to others.


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Some warm regards from my time as a design intern abroad. More →

Paradigm is a small communications agency based in Osaki district that specializes in branding and publishing. Formed in 1992, they have historical ties with international business community in Japan, currently publishing the EURObiz Japan magazine.

A big draw for me to intern at here was their range of projects – bilingual publications and interactive work like websites and apps, for both Japanese and non-Japanese clients. I really wanted to see what it’s like for a company like this.

I was able to contribute to on-going projects overseen by the production team, both internal and external. Better yet, I got to interact with a talented group of people from different cultural backgrounds – Irish, Australian, French, New Zealand, Japanese, and American. Along with me, a Chinese American, it made for an incredibly diverse workplace.

My time here has shown me the value of seeking out a diverse team. As the world becomes more and more globalized, having a diverse team able to work with clients from all kinds of backgrounds, and deliver bilingual products that appeal to multiple audiences, is a big advantage.


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Photo Projects

Going around exploring Tokyo, I shot photos with an eye for concept, color, and composition for my photography class at TUJ. More →

This is my first attempt at thinking critically about photography as an art. Using the camera as a creative tool was different from other mediums – instead of looking for scenes that would make an interesting photo, I realized that every place at every moment had the potential to be an interesting photo. The key is be sensitive to my surroundings and notice things people normally would not.

For my final project, I decided to document the curious systems and products – big and small – that have delighted me as an American living in Tokyo. Hence, “They do this better than we do” is my homage to Japanese product and service design that applies to everything from yogurt lids to bathroom stalls.


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