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

cambridgeIntroToNarrative

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”

Links and Structures from Michael Joyce to Twine

A look at some articles from the scholarship of literary hypertext, and thoughts about how their concerns and terms relate to current work in Twine and other procedural literature.

Recently I’ve been including some coverage here of academic materials that might be of interest to industry or hobbyist readers. Some of that’s been focused on recent work in story generation or interactive narrative in some way.

Today’s example, by contrast, begins with a reading from a rather older paper: A Nonce Upon Some Times, by Michael Joyce in 1997. (If you want a proper citation: Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997) 579-597.)

This article came to my attention because when I was responding to Mark Bernstein’s piece The Fellow Who Caught Fire, he called out that I was unfamiliar with something he considers to be essential reading in the field of literary hypertext.

“A Nonce Upon Some Times” raises questions about how we categorize hypertext structures, and what we understand from the meaning of these structures. Occasionally this is reminiscent of Sam Kabo Ashwell’s work or perhaps my own on small-scale structures in CYOA: what does it communicate when the author chooses a particular relationship between the available lexia?

Joyce, however, is overtly contemptuous of branching narrative:

The workshop exercise with which I began this essay seeks to isolate a set of primitive choices that both prompt the visual kinetic of rereading in hypertext and, at the same time, isolate the elements of what Douglas calls “a narrative of possibilities.”… It engages working writers with aesthetic and readerly questions about linking rather than encouraging a choose-your-own-adventure sort of drearily branching fiction.

…and what interests him is not the question of how one might project oneself into the role of a protagonist; not how one might experience agency, constraint, or non-agency through this pattern of links.

Joyce’s taxonomy is easier to diagram than to explain in words. He proposes that one start with a four part structure, linked linearly, which ends by going back to one of the earlier texts. I would diagram it like this:

Now: what happens next, after we have re-entered the second of the four texts? Where do we go from there, and is it different from where we might have gone the first time around, and what do these different arrangements mean?

Continue reading “Links and Structures from Michael Joyce to Twine”

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6

cambridgeIntroToNarrative.jpg

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.

I’m covering this one in some depth, because I think it’s interesting to compare the terminology it uses with the terms common in other types of writing and game writing and interactive fiction guidance. So this post will cover the first portion of the book, and I’ll cover (roughly) the second half next month.

Chapter 1, Narrative and Life, speaks to the idea that narrative is a fundamental human function, that we possibly can’t even form memories without making stories about the events that happened to us, and that we have an instinct to try to work out the history or past narrative of things when we encounter them. Abbott ends this section with a few paintings that challenge us to understand them narratively but also resist casual interpretation.

Among other things, the chapter rather inverts the idea of environmental storytelling as a technique by suggesting that we are constantly making up stories about our environments, and that any space we might enter in a game would be read in this way by players, whether we wanted that or not.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6”