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.
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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.

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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?

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The Fellow Who Caught Fire (Mark Bernstein)

At NarraScope last weekend, Mark Bernstein (“Those Trojan Girls”, previous observations on hypertext narrative) was passing out a booklet entitled “The Fellow Who Caught Fire.” On the left-side pages are sections of a story; on the right-side pages, commentary about how stories are presented. Some of the areas for discussion are familiar from non-interactive literature, such as framing, tense, and person. Others dig into topics like explicit choice and link placement in hypertext narrative.

Since not everyone will have access to these, I thought I’d talk a little about what it contains, and some thoughts I had in response to Bernstein’s questions and provocations.

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Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.09.05 AM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.24.02 AM.png

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