Fluid Imaginalphabet: H is for Hypertext Fiction

I am not an electronic artist. I can’t construct a poem that both comments on and is presented through the tyranny of the computer screen, as Justin Katko does with “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” nor can I build a Google Map to tell the story of gentrifaction, as J.R. Carpenter does with “In Absentia,” nor construct an immersive document that investigates the risks of reading, as Stuart Moulthrop does in “Deep Surface.”

What I can do is say that I have yet to be moved by any of my experiences with hypertext literature (or more generally, electronic literature).

But I want to be. I desperately want to be.

We live in amazing times. As a man in his mid-thirties, I’ve lived through the birth and development of the digital revolution. And as a creative writer, I’ve yearned to explore the openings created by that revolution.

But my art form, my skill set, is the manipulation of the English language — not Flash, not JavaScript, but English.

A vast, but limited, tool chest indeed.

My experience with creating electronic fiction does not go beyond the shallow waters of the hyperlink, and I struggle with the desire to create something more engaging than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure story.

The difficulty of hypertext fiction is similar to the difficulty of narrative storytelling in video games (and to be sure, hypertext fiction can be considered a form of the video game). In his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissel explains the root of that difficulty:

Games with any kind of narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and traditionally doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as the “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined — the “fun” portions of the “played” game — and usually amounts to some frenetic conception of getting from point A to point B. The differences between the framed narrative and ludonarrative are what make story in games so unmanageable: One is fixed, the other is fluid, and yet they are intended, however notionally, to work together.

To some extent, what Bissel is talking about here is authorial control. The game designers maintain authorial control over the framed narrative, but they give up much of that control during the ludonarrative. Quoting Clint Hocking, a famous game designer, Bissel writes:

The very nature of drama, as we understand it, is authored. Period. The problem is, once you give up control of that to a player, authorial control gets broken. Things like pacing and flow and rhythm — all these things that are important to maintaining the emotional impact of narrative — go all will-nilly.

As in video games, hypertext fiction gives the readers control over what words they’ll read next, what information they’ll find next, what scenes they’ll enjoy next (of course, writers can always reduce their use of the hyperlink to glorified footnotes or page turns, but that’s not exactly hypertext fiction; that’s just fiction being printed in hypertext).

The trick to maintaining the necessary narrative momentum, as in video games, is constraining the possibilities of reader control without the reader feeling as if she’s being constrained.

That’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet. But if you’re going to be a creative writer in the twenty-first century, it’s a trick worth learning.