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)