Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

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Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:

Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.

In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.

But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.

Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).

There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read:

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But despite the map, I found Those Trojan Girls more disorienting to navigate than the average Twine piece, because there isn’t a clear back button, and occasionally I would click a link that popped me clear out of the flow of narrative and into some completely different place. For example, clicking a link about a girl’s collection of school books whisked me away to a bibliography, from which there was no obvious return to the story flow I’d been in previously.

Actually, if I clicked again anywhere in the bibliography page, I would be sent back to where I came from — but that wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps this is because I just haven’t been accustomed to play a lot of Storyspace work, and haven’t previously tried anything in Storyspace 3. Likewise, command-apostrophe does function as Back, but I find this unintuitive and didn’t realize it during my first five attempts to read the book.

As a rule, clicking on the page you’re currently reading, even if there’s no visible link, is likely to advance things in some fashion. This might sound not much different from a Twine piece with a lot of pages that end in a single forward link, but in practice I felt as though I had much less agency as a reader. This practice also thwarts any attempt to copy and paste text from the book.

At “sculptural hypertext” points in the narrative, the map is also the main thing that tells you you’re experiencing something sculptural. Here, for instance, is a segment where I believe I could have wound up seeing any of four text passages depending on how I’d reached this point in the narrative. The map indicated the existence of the other three possible passages, while clicking forward through the pages carried me automatically to the one that Storyspace had selected for me:

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I don’t know why I got “individualism” rather than “honor,” “money,” or “learning,” though if I want to insist, I can use the map to navigate to and read the alternative passages. In that respect, the piece is less transparent about its sculptural narrative mechanics than anything written in StoryNexus, where it’s typically overtly stated which qualities you need to have in order to unlock a particular storylet.

Meanwhile, the Storyspace Reader leaves in a lot of features of the authoring tool, and it’s not immediately obvious, if you’re a reader, what if anything you’re supposed to be doing with those. For instance, here I’ve somehow lost my position in the text entirely, and then clicked on a button that looked like it might possibly take me back somewhere; but instead it offers me the option of “parking” a link. Is this an authorial thing to do? A readerly one? I am not sure. I don’t know what it does, and I don’t know how to go back to reading, or in what order I was supposed to be reading to start with. Maybe veteran Storyspace users will be scoffing at my total hypertext illiteracy at this point.

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So the effect of all this, at least for me, is of an anti-curated reading experience: a machine that makes me responsible for ordering its various passages, and for understanding the meaning of its mechanics, but refuses to authorize any of those strategies as the correct official strategy and from time to time sends indications that I am doing it Wrong. I was fighting the thing trying to extract a story from it, and mostly losing that fight. If there is a way to save your place in the Storyspace Reader, I didn’t find it; there is a “save” option in the menu, but that’s clearly meant for authors to save their work in progress, and this proved to be locked. Once it crashed to desktop and lost my place as well, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an intended part of the experience.

There’s loads of UI, much more than with pretty much any other IF reading system I can think of. I can show or hide the map view, enlarge it or shrink it, “focus” it, set it to standard size; I can rotate through assorted alternative ways of looking at it, named things like “treemap” and “roadmap” and “outline” and “chart.” Here are some states I got the screen into, by accident, while trying to figure out how to find a part of the text that might be chronologically related to the part of the text I had been reading immediately previously:

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What I cannot get it to do: tell me how to read this story. I mean, really tell me. There’s a whole instructional how-to-read passage at the start of Those Trojan Girls, and I wondered that it should be necessary to have such a thing at the beginning of a hypertext novel, but after I’d tried to make some headway, I realized it was not only necessary but insufficient.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to see the point of all this. In order to read a Storyspace piece (or at least this one), you are first supposed to be a Storyspace author. You’re supposed to know this tool already, intimately, and not be flummoxed by the numerous features that have nothing to do with reading. People who are not Storyspace authors are not the intended audience and are unlikely to get the work at all. It’s as though, to play an Inform game, you got sent the whole Inform 7 IDE complete with source code (locked so you wouldn’t accidentally change anything) and were then expected to play it in the built-in Inform game screen, figuring out how to bypass otherwise impenetrable puzzles by looking at Inform’s built-in index screens and auto-generated maps.

I was warned. “First: the work is very much an insider argument,” Bernstein told me in email: it’s to and for its own small community. 

When I asked, he said that he felt that it would be best if the reader didn’t rely on the map too much. But without the map, because there are so few overt links in the text, most of the experience is tapping one’s current page to continue to another, without necessarily knowing whether the transition is randomized, dependent on past choices, or fixed. For long stretches of the book, it’s like reading a shuffle text where the pages have already been shuffled and then bound into a conventional book before you receive it.

Even with the map, sometimes I just got confused, felt that I’d stepped out of sequence somehow, and wandered into a part of the story I wasn’t ready for yet, and wasn’t sure how to get back again. There are a lot of characters in Those Trojan Girls, and many passages narrate as though you’ve already been introduced to particular characters, even when that isn’t the case. There are long pages of dialogue in which none of the lines are attributed to speakers. Even when I tried to stay on-track and just tap forward to the next passage over and over, I would now and then get marooned and confused and feel like I should have read something else first.

So I read a significant amount of the text in the story, but because of the organizational challenges, I can’t say that I ever experienced it as a full and straightforward arc. I probably read less of the text associated with the end than with the beginning, inasmuch as those are even meaningful categories for this piece. Some passages I read, or at least tapped through, three or four times over the course of my multiple attempts to read the text from the beginning.

Enough of structure: what about content? Those Trojan Girls is a riff on Trojan Women by way of British boarding school novels. The inspiration is explicitly books, not the rather more mechanics-heavy tradition of school IF and visual novels. The girls have loads of sex, drink champagne, refer to their fathers as pater, play lawn games on their estates; critique the wines served at their school dining hall; discuss, with naive anthropological curiosity, the characteristics of the far-away city of Milwaukee, or the purpose of wearing school uniforms. They talk about French foods, not in the style of people who genuinely enjoy those things and take pleasure in discussing them, but as markers: certain sorts of people eat confit de canard. They have names like Cassie (Cassandra, obviously) and Polly Xena and Brianna Helena. Brianna happens to be sleeping with Mr. Paris: science teacher, first name Eric.

Trojan Women is about what happens to women on the losing end of a war, and how they are defenseless against violence, rape, abduction, the destruction of their families and the loss of their children; playwrights since Euripides have drawn from its material to comment on European imperialism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the war in Iraq. Those Trojan Girls deploys the names but not the themes.

In an interview, Bernstein talks about the story as a pot-boiler, aiming at excitement of a kind of often missing in literary hypertext narrative, but also avoiding the branching narrative he associates with Twine stories. That description oversimplifies the range of narrative agency in choice-based IF, as there’s plenty of non-Storyspace hypertext in which the reader can’t ultimately change the course of the narrative: Stone Harbor and Mere Anarchy allow the reader to explore corners of the story world without altering the main arc; Birdland always tells the same romance story but with lots of different angles on the protagonist’s self-performance and the details of dialogue.

Those Trojan Girls may figure itself as a demonstration to other literary hypertext authors of how, in theory, to do outreach towards a more low-brow, plot-hungry audience. But it never felt like a pot-boiler to me. The text is constantly posing tests to the reader (do you get this allusion? what about this one? do you understand why you are seeing this piece of text? do you know how to find another related piece of text?). The characters are constantly testing one another as well: do you understand your place in this social hierarchy, and how to navigate it? At one point, one student bequeaths another an old family ring and invites her to make use of it if she can. The recipient, not being an aristocrat by birth, might or might not be able to pull off the claim to inherited power and culture. But to what end? I wasn’t able to find out. If that character ever does use the ring, I don’t know how, or why.

Those Trojan Girls sells for $14.95, a reduction from its initial list price of $24.95.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this work. For additional reference, there’s a conversation between Bernstein and Stacey Mason about the piece as well, here. For school-oriented interactive fiction and visual novels, see also Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s in-progress Known Unknowns; Hanako Games’ Magical Diary and Black Closet.

4 thoughts on “Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

  1. I enjoy snarky school stories, but I feel uncomfortable about taking references from Trojan Women, which is a heavy and sad piece about very serious issues, and turning it into yet another story about how annoyingly self-obsessed rich girls are. That may or may not be the actual point of this work, but it’s the feeling I’m getting. There are far, far better sources to draw on for that kind of story.

    (I originally clicked on this review because I saw the Trojan name, thought it might be related to Trojan Women, and was expecting something VERY different. Considering the sheer amount of under-reported and overlooked suffering going on in the world…)

    • Those Trojan Girls does depart from these serious issues, and though perhaps it follows Seneca more closely than Euripides, Seneca is also sad.

      A central problem in The Trojan Women (as in all new media) is agency: the conquered women have none (or think, at times, they have none), and yet this is their tragedy. Among many other changes, Seneca gives us Polyxena, who accepts her sacrificial fate, comforts her mother, and preserves her modesty in the face of the intolerable. Euripides gives us infant Astyanax, who is a pure victim. My Polly plays a longer game.

      More interesting, perhaps, is the problem of Helen. What are we to do about her? The Greeks could (possibly) believe that all of this was her fault — or at least that the Trojans might have thought so. We can’t do that: whatever people say, The Occupation is not actually the fault of a schoolgirl. And yet – and yet. She knows that she is free to make her own choices, to assert her sexual autonomy as she pleases; her choices are not convenient, but they are not hers alone. Her lover knows both that this is wrong and that it will end in his ruin, but Love Conquers All.

      Love led Mary MacGregor to Franco’s Spain, which in due course led Sandy to put an end to Miss Brodie’s prime. Neither Mary nor Sandy were rich, and you’d likely consider most of my protagonists to be far from wealthy if you bumped into them (as you might) at Schipol. What romantic protagonist is not self-obsessed? “It is a far, far better thing I do…”: me, me, me.

      Finally, the whole highbrow/lowbrow business is antique and freighted with class antagonism which the historical (and, in my opinion, entirely regrettable) antagonism between IF and hypertext exacerbates.

      Yes, this *is* also a story about books, and yes, it’s a challenge to the reader.

  2. I’m kind of mystified by the charge (from the interview) that what turned people off literary hypertext was postmodernism, considering that postmodernism was decently popular and successful both in conventional literature and in IF at various times. The list of successful IF pieces that have some combination of limited/no reader agency and plotlessness is pretty long; 500 Apocalypses and Howling Dogs come to mind, but there are definitely many many others.

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