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.

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.

Continue reading “The Unknown (1999) and Polyphonic Hypertext”

Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext

Reading Shelley Jackson’s classic 1995 hypertext, from the perspective of the present. Part of a series on literary hypertext.

This is part of an ongoing series of posts looking back at literary hypertext of the 90s and early 2000s, considering both example texts and contemporary scholarship and theory. Here we look at the concept of spatial hypertext.

The move from document-centered hypertext systems to map-based hypertext systems had some unforeseen but far-reaching implications: relationships between nodes could be expressed in more than one way. Maps showed interconnectedness explicitly, usually in the form of a directed graph. But also node proximity came into play; relationships among different nodes or documents could be indicated simply on the basis of their relative location. The use of these map-based hypertext systems to author new information spaces uncovered an interesting phenomenon. Users avoided the explicit linking mechanisms in favor of the more implicit expression of relationships through spatial proximity and visual attributes…

Spatial Hypertext: An Alternative to Navigational and Semantic Links, Frank M. Shipman, III and Catherine C. Marshall, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4), 1999.

“Spatial hypertext,” in this context, does not refer to pieces that map sections of text to a physical geography. There’s a fair amount of that in modern interactive fiction, perhaps because of the cross-pollination of ideas with parser IF. Reed Underwood even wrote an article for Killscreen about spatial hypertext that does use that phrase to mean “hypertext that represents a concrete physical space.”

Here, however, we’re using the older sense: hypertext where the connections between sections are visually represented to the reader in a kind of mindmap construction. Sometimes that mindmap might happen to resemble an object or physical location, but it might just as easily have some entirely different shape, conveying an entirely different kind of relationship between elements. Clicking on different nodes of the map navigates the reader to new contents.

On the screen, spatial hypertext can look a little like a shape poem, except that the blocks themselves contain significant amounts of text, or additional block arrangements of their own. Here is Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, published in 1995:

The cover of Patchwork Girl, its arrangement of text clusters laid out like an anchor.
Continue reading “Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext”

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 10-14

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative is a book I’ve been chewing on now for several months, since it raises a number of issues about how to describe and think about narration but doesn’t (except occasionally and briefly) attempt to apply those terms or concepts to interactive literature. So this series has become less anything resembling a review than a set of responses and observations; although I am still trying to summarize the contents just enough that someone who might not want to read the whole book could come away with a clear sense of its subject matter and purpose.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 10-14”

The Yellow Bowl (Judy Malloy) and Hypertexts of Juxtaposition

The Yellow Bowl is a piece of 1990s hypertext recently rebuilt for the web. Its paradigm of several narrative tracks that we can pursue simultaneously sets it apart from most (but not all) narrative IF.

A screenshot from the reimplementation of The Yellow Bowl by Judy Malloy.
Using the arrow at the top center, the reader may advance the central narrative; the many colored arrows, left and right, advance the adjacent narratives in different ways. The reader has information about the relative primacy of the pieces we’re reading, but little about their content or theme.

Judy Malloy’s The Yellow Bowl is a very early hypertext, originally written in BASIC in 1992, and then a few years ago converted to be accessible on the modern web. In her introduction to the new version, she writes

Welcome to the transmediation — from BASIC to JavaScript in an HTML/CSS environment — of The Yellow Bowl. Originally containing approximately 800 lexias, The Yellow Bowl was first presented at “Hypertext, Hypermedia: Defining a Fictional Form”, a 1992 MLA panel, chaired by Terry Harpold, where I said:

“In my narrabase, The Yellow Bowl, the contrast between the narrator’s ‘true’ memories and the ways she distorts them to shape the story places the reader on the uneasy ground between the narrator and the narrative.”

The piece features three narratives: a main storyline about the protagonist Grace, filling the center of the screen, and then two adjacent narratives, which are speculative fiction/fantasy stories that she is making up about two different women who are trying to escape oppressive environments. All three narratives contain a fair amount of domestic detail, of the preparation of meals and the mundane texture of daily life. In the end, the side narratives will end with the two fictional characters meeting.

The reader may advance any of these three narratives at any time, changing which lexia sit next to which; there’s some basic text animation applied to the left and right text streams, so that they flow into place rather than just appearing. There are also a few clips of sound, passages from the text read aloud.

All of these elements feel very much of 1992 — not because it is unfathomable to have animated text effects now, and indeed inkle have been very eloquent about the value of this kind of technique — but because the implementation emphasizes the computer-nature of the text as though that were a novelty, while doing nothing to ease the human process of reading it. The letters dance up the screen, making you lose your place if you try to read before they have finally settled.

Reading this text, I immediately feel a kind of discomfort I’ve come to recognize. When text is presented to me this densely on a page, and there are this many affordances for things to do, it makes me anxious that I will not be able to read it thoroughly.

Even a printed book can have this effect on me, if there are too many sidebars, and especially the parallel texts run together longer than a page or two. S. caused a bit of it, until I came up with a strategy. Curiously, I usually don’t have this same issue with densely-footnoted books, because the footnote enumerations do suggest a clear reading strategy and promise me a way back into the main text when I am done.

In considering ways to read this work, I found myself considering other juxtaposed or parallel-track pieces I might have encountered before.

Continue reading “The Yellow Bowl (Judy Malloy) and Hypertexts of Juxtaposition”

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

Last month I looked at the first six chapters; now I’m returning to it. As before, I generally found myself reading this overview with an eye to how interactive media tend to compare, since Abbott only examines hypertext to a limited degree, and other interactive narrative very little at all.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9”