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I link, therefore I am

In obnoxiously meta style, this piece about hypertext fiction has been written in a hypertextual way. As such, it is littered with hyperlinks to supplementary material and further reading. Some of these links lead to notes that your author has collated, which are, unfortunately for readers, organised in a chaotic and illogical tangle. Enjoy!
In December last year, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, perhaps the most talked-about work of interactive television to date. Upon its release many people, myself included, excitedly explored the labyrinthine narrative, which was Black Mirror’s first foray into choose-your-own adventure storytelling. Although Bandersnatch wasn’t the first interactive TV experience in recent times, the buzz around it was understandable: Netflix is the ‘juggernaut of entertainment right now’ and Black Mirror is our culture’s darling of dystopian futurology. However, for some enthusiasts, Bandersnatch signified something more: a watershed moment for interactive digital storytelling. ‘The TV of tomorrow is now here’ declared one Guardian reviewer; a ‘genre defining piece of art’ wrote another in the Daily Mail; ‘groundbreaking’ an IndieWire writer crooned. ‘Bandersnatch … might even be, if it has any influence, a brand new visual medium’, enthused another.

For some, the Bandersnatch buzz might have a ring of déjà vu – this wasn’t the first time in living memory that we have supposedly been on the verge of a new era of digital interactivity.

Between the late 1980s and mid 90s, there was a comparable pulse of enthusiasm – within certain lit departments and tech circles, at least – about the arrival of a new genre known as hypertext fiction. Using newly available authoring software, hypertext fictions were stories told through a Wikipedia-esque network of narrative fragments, which the reader navigated via hyperlinks. Hypertext fiction, some theorised, signalled the beginning of the end for traditional storytelling. The computer’s ‘expressive potential for storytelling’ was prophesied to shatter linear narrative and erode the sanctified space between writers and readers, consequently empowering readers to become equal partners in the ordering of narrative. It was touted as the technological realisation of the vision of writers like James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, whose writing strained at the edges of the printed page, and – as a rhizomatic, decentred style of writing that didn’t offer readers questionable literary conventions like a sense of closure or unified meaning – an exemplification of contemporary literary theory.

Most attempts to canonise the early works of hypertext fiction hail its three crowning achievements as Michael Joyce’s ‘granddaddy of hypertext fiction’ afternoon, a story, Shelley Jackson’s biography-memoir of Mary Shelley’s female monster Patchwork Girl and Stuart Moulthrop’s Baudrillardian account of the Gulf War Victory Garden.

Patchwork_Girl_Structure

Unfortunately, changing operating systems have rendered these early hypertext works increasingly inaccessible, but some of them can be experienced vicariously via the Pathfinders project. However, later internet-hosted hypertext works such as the literal train-of thought piece 253, hypermedia rearrangement of the Golem myth GRAMMATRON and the hedonistic hypertext book tour tale The Unknown, can still be read in full. However, not even these internet-hosted works can withstand the ephemerality of the digital sphere. There is currently a rush to preserve digital fiction produced with Adobe Flash before web browsers stop supporting it in 2020. One interesting preservation effort is the Digital Fiction Curios project, which is recreating three flash-based stories as interactive virtual reality environments.

Like Bandersnatch, most hypertext fiction is structured as a labyrinth of branching paths, but the narratives of the latter are usually far less linear. It’s more accurate to think of hypertext fiction works as patchwork quilts of text than digital choose-your own-adventure stories. Unlike Bandersnatch, wrong turns rarely lead to dead ends that prompt a return to an earlier narrative junction. And at any given chunk of text, there might be dozens of paths to take, while in Bandersnatch each junction is like a T-intersection with only two choices.

Hypertexts often immediately branch out in multiple directions. For example, The Unknown begins with: ‘Regarding our hypertext novel for the Millennium, The Unknown, I think we need a home page, a start page, a beginning of some kind’. Victory Garden offers the choice of starting at ‘beginning’ or ‘labyrinth’. If readers choose the latter, they are instructed to construct a sentence from a selection of fragments, with the final configuration determining the place in the novel they are airdropped into. Similarly, the relationship between a link and its destination page is often more cryptic than the choose-your-own-adventure novel’s choice-outcome linkages. The hypertext fiction works that live on the internet are also far more open ended.  The writers of The Unknown encouraged readers to create inbound hyperlinks to their work, hoping that people browsing the internet would accidentally stumble into their labyrinthine story. They also continued adding new material for several years after The Unknown was first released.

Hypertext fiction didn’t end with the second millennium either. An online, interactive text version of Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes was released in 2008 and Mark C Marino has released several interesting works such as A Show of Hands, an electronic narrative that customizes itself around your reading, using an adaptive hypertext system called Literatronic. More recently, writers have also utilised the open-source writing tool Twine – which Charlie Brooker used to draft Bandersnatch – to create hypertext narratives. Some of my favourites are ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III and Howling Dogs by Porpentine,  Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and dan hett’s c ya laterrrr. It’s also worth checking out the winners of annual awards for electronic literature and the three anthologies that the Electronic Literature Organization has published.

Depression quest

Of course, as hypertext fiction’s naysayers point out, the genre hasn’t ever made much of a splash in the wider world. In 2015, Scott Rettberg (one of the authors of The Unknown, so not really one of the naysayers) wrote, ‘In some ways it does seem as if the American hypertext novel is a kind of ghost town – a narrative genre that was quickly discovered, developed, evolved, and then abandoned in pursuit of new territories before it ever reached its full potential.’ Literary critic Andrew Gallix (far more ensconced in the naysayer camp) wrote a much-debated article for the Guardian in 2008, in which he argued that e-lit has never really lived up to the promises made on its behalf.

Various arguments have been made to explain hypertext fiction’s lack of mainstream success: that hypertext narratives impose impossible cognitive demands on readers; that the inability to establish meaning and coherence leaves readers always floating on the surface, never fully immersed; or (to stay on the theme of immersion) that we just want something we can read in the bath. I’m not qualified to offer much insight here, but one counterargument that I’ve heard from several digital media scholars is that interpreting hypertext fiction’s perennial fringe status as a sign of failure is missing the point. Despite the hyperbole of some of its accompanying theory, early generation hypertext fiction ‘never intended to appeal to a mass readership’, Astrid Ensslin tells me, but rather to ‘offer experimental, self- and medium-critical ways of dealing with everyday political and (meta-) fictional themes’ and to create ‘a historical verbal art form that sought and still seeks to exploit the affordances of interactive, multilinear textuality for narrative experimentation rather than for culinary, capitalist purposes.’

This approach reframes hypertext fiction as just one branch among many in a larger underground movement pushing at the boundaries of linear storytelling. And while the moment of early hypertext fiction may have come and gone, the trajectory of experimental, interactive storytelling is continuing to branch out in interesting ways.

One of these branches (which is particularly relevant in the context of Bandersnatch) is literary games – videogames that are as much (or more) about storytelling, drama and poetic expression as they are about solving puzzles or carrying out gameplay tasks. In the popular adventure game Life is Strange, players guide a high school student through a highly complex interactive narrative about choice and consequence. While there are fetch quests and puzzles to solve, the focus of Life is Strange is firmly on storytelling, with character development and narrative arc its most central elements. It also contains a fair amount of text via an evolving protagonist diary, text messages from other characters and posters, which are read to provide background information and illuminate the inner world of the protagonist. Other interesting video games in the interactive storytelling realm include Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable and All These Delicate Duplicates.

In terms of the amount of reading involved, the above titles might seem to be of a different ilk to hypertext fiction. Even compared to other video games (the codices in BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series or the ‘database’ in Assassin’s Creed, for example) the amount of text in most of these ‘literary games’ is relatively minimal. However, digital arts scholar James O’Sullivan argues that ‘they’re all essentially hypertexts, because hypertext is just about creating an aesthetic illusion of choice … if you want to really see the legacy of innovators like Moulthrop and Jackson, these are the titles you need to consider, not Bandersnatch.’ I don’t think I fully understand the argument, but in more textual hypermedia works like Nightingale’s Playground the continuum between hypertext fiction and literary games is a bit easier to see.

delicate

This textual paucity might lead one to agree with Andrew Gallix that new forms of interactive intermedia will have have ‘less and less to do with literature’. This is not to say that a smaller amount of text makes them less worthy in their own right, but perhaps the future of experimental, interactive narrative isn’t in text. Regardless of whatever ‘the future is’, new, exciting text-heavy digital narratives are continuing to be released. One of my favourites is the iOS app Pry, which uses a heady mix of malleable text, video and sound art to portray the struggles of a Gulf War veteran suffering from PTSD and vision impairment. Through swiping and pinching the touchscreen, readers can unfold paragraphs and switch between different levels of the protagonist’s consciousness. A video stream might show you his eye-view, while swiping up will take you to a textual stream depicting his inner monologue.

Like first-gen hypertext fiction, few of these interactive digital works are taking the literary world by storm, but it would be wrong to consider this a definitive judgement about their future. In Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Janet H Murray writes that ‘it would be a mistake to compare the first fruits of a new medium too directly with the accustomed yield of older media.’ New digital art forms, she argues, are best compared to ‘incunabula’ – the term given to books printed before the Gutenberg Press. She writes:

It took fifty years of experimentation and more to establish such conventions as legible typefaces and proof sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together made the published book a coherent means of communication. The garish videogames and tangled Web sites of the current digital environment are part of a similar period of technical evolution, part of a similar struggle for the conventions of coherent communication.

While it’s a compelling comparison, it still leaves the question: after more than 30 years in our so-called sped-up era of technological evolution, just how long is the incunabular phase of digital literature? I’ll leave it to those more qualified than me to answer that, but I think it’s fair to put at least some of the blame for interactive digital literature’s extended adolescence on the fact that there’s never been a lot of money in it. ‘Web hypertext fiction never really had an operable business model,’ as Scott Rettberg writes, so it’s not a mystery why it didn’t attract many writers who were doing fine selling print books. A variant of the money issue exists in the game industry, too. Not that there isn’t enough money to go around, videogame sales have outstripped box office receipts and home video and theatre earnings for over a decade. The problem is that we often get ‘a million-dollar game with a five-dollar script’. This means that graphics, gameplay and technical logistics are put ahead of storytelling, or that writers are only brought in as ‘hired guns’.

This is why Bandersnatch was a significant moment; a giant entertainment company put serious money into developing a high-production-value, seamlessly delivered interactive story experience. And on the basis of its reception, they’ve decided to invest more. ‘[Bandersnatch] was a huge hit around the world,’ Netflix’s Vice-President of Product Innovation Todd Yellin said recently. ‘We realised interactive storytelling was something we want to bet more on.’ Since Bandersnatch’s release, Netflix has released a new season of Bear Grylls’ You vs. Wild that allowed players to make some decisions and the next season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will feature an interactive episode. And Netflix isn’t the only company experimenting with interactivity. User-upload literature sharing site Wattpad raised over 60 million dollars last year to continue their investment into interactive storytelling. And earlier this year, immersive fiction start-up Dorian raised $2 million in seed funding for interactive storytelling development.

Do such investments indicate that we have entered a conducive time for interactive narratives? Astrid Ensslin thinks so. ‘Part of what didn’t work out with the first generation of interactive cinema was the fact that you couldn’t make the choice feature work for large audiences [See the difficulties of Lost getting audiences to vote about plot direction]; now media consumption and interaction behaviours are becoming a lot more varied on the scale between modular-individualized and collective-mass experiences.’ Making a similar argument from a different angle, digital media artist and academic Megan Heyward argues that people nowadays are ‘accustomed to selecting between various options in apps and online sites, therefore they are more acculturated to making choices. They are more open to their TV viewing habits being “interrupted” due to device multitasking – they always watch TV in interruptible, controllable ways (pause, replay etc.) ’ Janet Murray makes the same argument in Hamlet on the Holodeck – that the past two decades have made interactivity second nature.

Regardless of how accustomed we are to our overwhelming plethora of digital choices, when it comes to storytelling, the same basic questions remain: can a story be a labyrinth, or should it be the thread that leads us through? If enough people want to be led through the labyrinth – or if writers and game developers cannot create sufficiently appealing labyrinths – then interactive narratives will remain on the fringe.

Hypertext has changed the world, but it hasn’t changed literature yet. So perhaps the fact that we are still waiting on the prophecies of hypertext fiction’s early heralds is a cautionary parable for those who see Bandersnatch as a watershed moment. Netflix seems to be hedging its bets too. ‘In five years, 10 years, we’ll either say, “Wow, Black Mirror was a real turning point for interactive content,” or we’ll be going, “That was another false start”,’ Yellin said. If we take a longer view, perhaps such ‘false starts’ are just the birth pangs of a new storytelling medium slowly coming into being. On the other hand, perhaps not. For now, I think it’s best to avoid the futile field of cartography for the rapidly shifting terrain of digital media.

 

Image: Rishi Deep / Unsplash

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Zacharias Szumer is a writer and musician who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. Some of his other writings can be seen on his website.

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Comments

  1. Thanks, Zacharias – you have crystallised a lot of my thoughts about this issue into a great article that’s also a resource for exploring the issue. I’ll be bookmarking this (like an oldschool web user) and returning to it for a good explore of the sites, articles and games you’ve recommended.

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