Little Emperor Syndrome (David Thomas Henry Wright)

Little Emperor Syndrome is a hypertext that won an honorable mention, in 2019, from the Electronic Literature Organization’s Robert Coover prize: a piece contemporary with a great deal of Twine work, or with Liza Daly’s beautiful morphing text interfaces, but one that shows more of an affinity with the literary hypertext community of the 90s.

Specifically, this is something like a stretchtext, and one that starts out fully stretched. Each chapter starts out at full length on the page, weaving together events from different points in the viewpoint character’s life, reminiscence and present moment. As the reader, you can turn on or off the coloring scheme that distinguishes these segments from one another. You can elect not to view certain periods at all. Or you can shuffle the order in which they’re presented to you, going for something more chronological or more randomized.

In the same settings interface, you can change the font size.

This fact irked me, the way an obtrusive clothing tag or an insect bite might irk. It seemed to say that the affordance of changing font size — a question of accessibility and ease of reading — was equivalent to the affordances of turning on and off different aspects of the protagonist viewpoint.

More broadly, I felt that the creator of this piece hadn’t really thought through how he wanted or expected the reader to encounter those affordances; or else that he was operating from a tradition very distant from the traditions of hypertext reading in which I am most comfortable.

In theory, I actively like the idea of being able to turn on certain perspectives and mute others, or the idea of being able to explore how the present narration evokes past events in the protagonist’s life.

The practical experience of reading this particular piece, though, felt backward. Because all the text is visible at the outset, I felt encouraged — almost required — to read all the text through in its original order, before experimenting with its concealment; and this concealment, when it happened, could only ever be a brief toying with the portrayal of words I’d already read. This interactivity was appended to the linear text, a minimally-functional gloss.

By contrast, if the words had started out not fully stretched, I would have had to seek the meaning between meanings, gradually opening it out, exploring, and allowing my exploration to be guided by readerly interest, in an experience perhaps reminiscent of PRY or its ilk. I would have had the opportunity to be curious, and to satisfy that curiosity through interaction.

As for the content — again, there are things here to like, even to admire, and at the same time I find myself recoiling quite frequently. For instance: Chapter Two of the story concerns a westerner teaching English and Art History in China. He finds China affordable but repellent; he dislikes everything from the food to the manners. It rings true, as a depiction of a particular experience of alienation in a foreign country. At the same time, it wasn’t a mindset I really wanted to inhabit for very long; a perspective that was un-empathetic towards everyone, beginning with himself.

2 thoughts on “Little Emperor Syndrome (David Thomas Henry Wright)”

  1. I’ve never played this, but judging from the screenshot, I don’t think the author intended anything by putting the font size bar on the same side as the interface where you dicker with the text output. I think the goal there was to put it in a convenient place where the reader was likely to see it. Considering how there are many games, even text games, that don’t have font scaling at all, I found that complaint puzzling.

    1. I definitely don’t object to the *existence* of accessibility affordances — being able to change font size is unquestionably useful. But I felt like putting the text size next to “what chapter do you want to read” and the ordering options implied that all of these choices were the same type of choice.

      This felt wrong to me because, from my perspective, the text size choice does not fundamentally alter the meaning of what is being read; it’s a purely incidental feature. (Yes, you could imagine circumstances where the lettering was extravagantly large or small and that was in itself part of the point — but that’s not what’s going on here.) On the other hand, the reordering and/or suppression of text elements feels more consequential, like a different type of interaction with the content.

      This isn’t so much a case of “this is wrong,” but I found it jarring in almost a cultural way. The conventions of literacy that I apply when reading a hypertext tend to assume that presentational aspects such as font size and sound effects will be relegated to a settings panel or otherwise tucked out of the way a bit; that the amount of text on the screen at a time will probably be kept very very much shorter than this; that there will be fewer colors on the screen at once; that the linked portions of a page may visually distinguish between links that advance the story and links that simply replace or stretch the text that is currently shown; and so on. Many of those conventions arise from the unspoken evolution of Twine work, and I’ve read plenty of pieces that ignore some of them. This piece felt like it was making use of almost none of the conventions I’m used to.

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