The Unknown (1999) and Polyphonic Hypertext

The Unknown is a multi-author hypertext about the three creators going on a book tour.

A screen of The Unknown, explaining as a dialogue between the authors what the project of The Unknown will be.

The Unknown (1999) begins with a page in which its authors are arguing with each other about how to write their new project.

Next, the authors offer a tutorial for interaction, by stating that they don’t want the kind of reader who would require such a tutorial.

Then we discover that the content of this book is a series of vignettes from an imaginary drug-fueled tour in which they’re terrorizing bookstores around the country by reading from their work, The Unknown. A lot of the specific incidents involve getting drunk, or taking drugs, or having a bit of a Hunter S. Thompson ramble; making sure, also, to instruct the reader that this is what they are up to:

A variant of this work, sort of, is now available in print form, as a bound book, thus bringing to life the thing they claimed to have been hawking all over the country. This fact is also documented inside The Unknown, because the documentary about The Unknown is incorporated into The Unknown as part of its substance.

A clickable map of all the places the protagonists speak on their book tour.

This particular piece is available to play, free, online, and you can link into any page of it, which is a convenience.

It’s also a bit friendlier to play than many of its contemporaries. Aside from the links between lexia, the authors offer several indices to the work: a map, a list of the bookstores around the country at which (fictionally) they presented The Unknown, a list of people who are mentioned somewhere in the work. Then there are also six colored “lines,” thematic organizations of material, which bear names like “Parts of Their Story” and “Metafictional Bullshit”.

Perhaps this makes me precisely the sort of reader too amateur for their work, but I was grateful for the structural help.

So in fact, for me, The Unknown does succeed — albeit perhaps in the most self-conscious way imaginable — at being more accessible than many other literary hypertexts of the 1990s. I feel like I understand where this hypertext comes from and what it was trying to do, and I have several available strategies for reading it and theorizing about it. At the same time, it remains very very very inside baseball.


I’ve written before about how embedded early hypertext was in a set of concerns about canonical literature.

The Unknown may be less humorless, but it’s still a bit wrapped up in the same set of anxieties. From the incidents and indeed their own self-descriptions, we find that the authors feel they’ve missed out, that literary culture used to exist, but Barnes & Noble is killing the independent bookstores, and something awful is happening to publishing, and it is too late for them to get onto the same train with David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon.

The most endearing aspect of the project, from my point of view, is when it serves as a documentary about what it’s like to be someone hung up on how one is never going to be Hunter S. Thompson. The Unknown‘s contents include email exchanges, diary entries, even recordings, and the portrayal of this human reality is more appealing to me than the passages in which the authors are engaged in their parodic endeavor.


Another of The Unknown‘s (possibly tongue-in-cheek) assertions is that hypertext shouldn’t be written by a single author, and that having multiple authors frees it from another of the unsavory limitations of literature.

Having multiple authors isn’t, of course, the only sense in which a piece of IF could be considered polyphonic. Judy Malloy’s The Yellow Bowl presents the stories of three characters, two of them invented by the third. People + Places’ Life in a Northern Town presents as a series of stories in different authoring media by different viewpoint characters; if not us does something similar with a collection of Inform and Twine elements.

And there are also ways to have multiple authors work on the same material that don’t involve them sharing the story space: IF has a tradition of pieces that partially or completely reimplement other pieces in order to perform criticism of them — Re: Dragon recently, the MST3K series back in the 90s, a few others in between. There are also anthology pieces in which a group of authors all contribute distinct but related stories: ShuffleComp, the They Might Be Giants tribute album.


I find particularly interesting, though, the cases in which multiple authors — sometimes very many authors indeed — are all contributing to the same piece of interactive narrative, where their contributions may affect the meaning, reception, or even accessibility of the elements contributed by other authors. I’ve meant for some time to write about this phenomenon.


Fallen London. In the beginning, Fallen London’s storylets were all signed with the name of the person who had written them. There also weren’t very many authors seriously writing for it. Consequently, in the early days, it was easy for players to come to recognize the different authorial voices in the work, and distinguish one author from another.

Later, as the storyworld grew and as its commercial requirements shifted, Failbetter brought in more authors, both internal and freelancing, and at the same time removed the signatures from storylets, so that any individual storylet doesn’t proclaim its origins. There are still some contexts — Exceptional Friends stories, which are the main source of fresh content for subscribers — where the author of a particular narrative arc is named and advertised to players. But for the most part Fallen London has now become a storyworld in which it is possible to wander from one person’s fiction to another’s and back again without realizing it; where these fictions are interoperable.

The same applies to Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, where a single author might be responsible for most of the content of a given port, but other authors’ stories might intersect that same port.

This is both an enjoyable and a disconcerting context to write in. Any storylet can change the world state in essentially arbitrary ways, rendering other storylets by other authors accessible or inaccessible, easy or difficult. The system avoids chaos (mostly) because there are now carefully defined conventions about what authors are allowed to add and how they should scope their work; and this is combined with editing and QA testing to keep the lore consistent and the experience as-intended.


Alabaster. Alabaster was a project in which about a dozen authors contributed dialogue based on a premise and conversation structure that I provided.

I had intended it to be a conversation with a single character, Snow White; though no plan survives contact with the enemy, and one of the participants wrote in the existence of a second character, which necessitated quite an irritating amount of extra coding after I thought I’d provided myself with a neatly contained project.

The form of collaboration was as follows: I would post a build of the game, potential authors would download and play it, and then when they hit a moment where they wanted to ask or tell the character something that had not been accounted for, they could draft a new piece of dialogue for that spot themselves, and the game would automatically generate the source code for this dialogue, which they could mail to me. Every day or two, I recompiled the project with the latest source code and posted it again.

This iterative approach meant that there was no convenient way for an author to write many consecutive lines of dialogue. Instead, each author was constrained to create just a little more content at the edges of the story. Some authors found this frustrating, but I think in this particular case it may have been helpful: it meant that there was a natural constraint that kept the tree of content growing evenly, rather than allowing it to send off energetic runners in any direction. It also encouraged authors to explore and build on one another’s work, since building only upon their own would be a fairly limiting experience.


Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. This piece invited writing from many authors in order to create a story about the multiple voices and varied experiences in the history of America. For all of the major characters, there was one author per character; we were each given a structure to write for, which worked as a series of micro-prompts.


Cragne Manor. Perhaps the most structurally ambitious of all the projects documented here, Cragne Manor incorporates not just text but actual code contributed by most of its authors. (Some of the 84 participants submitted text and a specification for their rooms instead, which the editors of Cragne then devotedly turned into something playable.)


There are also quite a few projects in this space that were intended playfully, more for the social amusement of the participants than for the benefit of future readers. The IF Whispers series are exquisite corpse-style games where the participants built on each other’s work without being able to see all the rest of the game. Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle was written on a group vacation, as another distraction alongside board games and barbecuing.

I recognize quite a bit of this quality in The Unknown: it’s partly documenting a social phenomenon, consisting of the friendship of the authors, and their connection to the various people who invited them to come and give readings, as well as other individuals who eventually wrote to them or responded to the work.

There is something about this which I find both attractive and distancing at the same time. Distancing, because such a document comes to resemble an aged high school yearbook, recording interpersonal minutiae mostly interesting to the participants. But attractive, also, because it captures accurately the way that authorship and art are not always solitary enterprises, but activities undertaken playfully and socially, as a way of bouncing ideas off colleagues who share your interests and concerns.

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