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.

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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.

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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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Get Your Gun, Dragonfly (Palimrya)

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly is a medium-short piece about lovers trying to survive outside a society that has become untenably hostile to them. For starters, our protagonists are trans, and any kind of hormonal therapy has been aggressively outlawed. The viewpoint character also has some significant body modifications (such as a powered arm that constantly needs to be topped up on fuel). Her lover is Hispanic, and neither of those things is seen as acceptable, either.

It is not an entirely easy work to start. The language is poetic, the descriptions often metaphorical. At the same time, the setting is just science-fictional enough to contain literal possibilities that could only possibly be metaphors in our world.

So in the early screens it isn’t always obvious whether a reference to chitin means that something merely looks like chitin or whether you’re talking about someone who is actually part insect, or has a bioengineered exoskeleton of some kind, or…

And, in any case, the style of the writing is often lush to the point of overripeness, an effect that is certainly intentional, but that tends to arouse my suspicion as a reader. When writing is so obviously for effect, I often worry that it is going to be only for effect, with less attention to truth and thoughtfulness. In such situations, I tend to read with my empathy in my back pocket, unwilling to commit emotionally yet when I am not sure that commitment has been earned.

But I found that, if I read slowly and didn’t get too impatient to click the next link, it took only a few minutes to get my bearings with this. I could perceive more emotional nuances, and the pace of the work began to come clear. Major narrative passages tend to be more prosaic, but descriptions of important things and people are frequently poems.

At no point does the text become anything you might accuse of restraint, and there are points where the cadence of a line or the choice of a word felt off to me, but this is a matter as much of taste as of substance.

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly takes place in a dystopic, near-future America in which the camps have become even more brutal, the fascism more aggressive and unchecked. For entertainment, middle school students fly Apple- and Google-branded drones around the countryside, hoping to catch footage of a death in progress.

But it’s not all about the more terrifying aspects of the right in America. Several of the most dry and cutting passages are those that describe “your scene” and its reaction to you and your girlfriend, just before they make sure you have nowhere in town to live:

This is not, not at all, a story that excuses abuse, or that argues it shouldn’t receive some kind of communal response. Your girlfriend has had to do a lot of very serious work on herself, work that she has chosen to undertake and that she’s shown struggling through, in the hope of becoming someone better afterward, and some scars of that process are still evident in your interactions when it’s done. Her patience, so different from her past manner, remains a thing to be pointed out and celebrated.

The piece is also, in title and in function, a call to action. There’s a passage on the acknowledgements page about what you can do, now, to help support and protect immigrants.

It may be over-reading what the author intended, but I perceived a parallel between the two stories, the personal story of the abusive girlfriend who becomes a better person and learns to live her beliefs, and the public story, which extends from the fiction into reality, of a country that mistreats the most vulnerable people in its own borders.

The personal story suggests, by analogy, a kind of hope for the latter, though only with hard work and a collective willingness to own responsibility for who we are.

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.

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Elsinore (Golden Glitch)

A 3D point-and-click adventure offering a huge amount of narrative agency and NPCs who murder each other. A lot.

Hamlet speaks more colloquially in this game than in the original, but he’s just as emo as ever.

Elsinore casts you as Ophelia living the timeloop of Hamlet over and over, trying to find a route through the story that doesn’t end with everyone dead. Life in the castle is an intricate machine which can be perturbed out of its intended schedule by every intervention you make, so your actions have a cascade of consequences.

You have visions of what is to come; you also have a journal and memories of what’s happened the last times through the story. With that information, you’re free to travel all over the castle, listen to conversations, gather news, and pass that data on to others. Even if you die in a given time loop, the information you’ve learned persists, giving you new options in the next playthrough. Structurally, that’s a bit like Hadean Lands, though the type of puzzle you’re solving and the rest of the narrative is very different.

Conversation is organized around events — triggered by time and narrative preconditions, and which allow you to learn things just by being in the right place at the right time — and your inventory of hearsay, provocative things you can tell other characters during the course of play. When you share information with a character, their knowledge and motives are explicitly updated:

In this scene, Ophelia has just listened to an event and learned new information; and Hamlet has updated his own preferences and plans as a result.
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