Category Archives: storytelling


We were recently alerted, via Grand Text Auto, to a new hypertext fiction environment on the Web called Hypertextopia:

Hypertextopia is a space where you can read and write stories for the internet. On the surface, it looks like a mind-map, but it embeds a word-processor, and allows you to publish your stories like a blog.

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems. The authoring tools they’ve developed are simple and elegant, allowing you to write “axial hypertexts”: narratives with a clear beginning and end but with multiple pathways and digressions in between. You read them as a series of textual screens, which can include beautiful fold-out boxes for annotations and illustrations, and various color-coded links (the colors denote different types of internal links, which the author describes). You also have the option of viewing stories as nodal maps, which show the story’s underlying structure. This is part of the map of “The Butterfly Boy” by William Vollmann (by all indications, the William Vollmann):
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the central character, a Chinese double agent in WWI being pursued by a British assassin who has learned of his treachery, recalls a lost, unfinished novel written by a distant ancestor. It is an infinte story that encompasses every possible event and outcome for its characters: a labyrinth, not in space but in time. Borges meant the novel not as a prescription for a new literary form but as a metaphor of parallel worlds, yet many have cited this story as among the conceptual forebears of hypertext fiction, and Borges is much revered generally among technophiles for writing fables that eerily prefigure the digital age.
I’ve always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext -? insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices -? possible pathways though the maze -? soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.
I can, however, see the appeal of hypertext fictions as puzzles or games. In fact, this may be their true significance in the evolution of storytelling (and perhaps why I don’t get them, because I’m not a gamer). Thought of this way, it’s more about the experience of navigating a narrative landscape than the narrative itself. The story is a sort of alibi, a pretext, for engaging with a particular kind of form, a form which bears far more resemblance to a game than to any kind of prose fiction predecessor. That, at any rate, is how I’ve chosen to situate hypertext. To me, it’s a napkin sketch of a genuinely new form -? video games -? that has little directly to do with writing or reading in the traditional sense. Hypertext was not the true garden of forking paths (which we would never truly want anyway), but a small box of finite options. To sift through them dutifully was about as fun as the lab rat’s journey through the maze. You need a bigger algorithmic engine and the sensory fascinations of graphics (and probably a larger pool of authors and co-creators too) to generate a topography vast enough to hide, at least for a while, its finiteness -? long enough to feel mysterious. That’s what games do, and do well.
I’m sure this isn’t an original observation, but it’s baggage I felt like unloading since classical hypertext is a topic we’ve largely skirted around here at the Institute. Grumbling aside though, Hypertextopia offers much to ponder. Recontextualizing a pre-Web form in the Web is a worthwhile experiment and is bound to shed some light. I’m thinking about how we might play around in it…

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

the alternate universe algorithm

“What if you could travel to parallel worlds: the same year, the same earth, only different dimensions…?”

That’s the opening line to one of my favorite science fiction shows in the 90s called “Sliders.” The premise of the show was simple: a group of lost travelers traverse through different dimensions where history has played itself out differently, and need to navigate through unfamiliar cultural norms, values and beliefs. What if the United States lost the American Revolutionary War? Penicillin was never discovered? or gender roles reversed?
An aspect of the show that I found interesting was in how our protagonists quickly adapted to subtly different worlds and developed a method for exploration: after their initial reconnaissance, they’d reconvene in a hotel room (when it existed) and assess their – often dire – situation.
The way they “browsed” these alternate worlds stuck with me when reading Mary’s recent posts on new forms of fiction on the web:

Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter.

Browsing takes us to unexpected places, but what about the starting point? Browsing does not begin arbitrarily. It usually begins in a trusted location, like a homepage or series of pages that you can easily refer back to or branch out from. But ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), like World Without Oil, which Ben wrote about recently, require you to go some obscure corner of the internet and engage with it as if it was trusted source. What if the alternate world existed everywhere you went, like in Sliders?
In college, a friend of mine mirrored and replaced key words and phrases with terms he thought were more fitting. For example, “congressmen” was replaced by “oil-men” and “dollars” with “petro-dollars.” He had a clear idea of the world he wanted people to interact with (knowingly or not). The changes were subtle and website looked legitimate it and ultimately garnered lots of attention. Those who understood what was going on sent their praise and those who did not, sent confused and sometimes angry emails about their experience. A
(I believe he eventually he blocked the domain because he found it disconcerting that most traffic came from the military)
Although we’ll need very sophisticated technology to apply more interesting filters across large portions of the internet, I think “Fiction Portals”, engines that could alter the web slightly according to the “author” needs, could change the role of an author in an interesting way.
I want to play with the this idea of an author: Like a scientist, the author would need to understand how minor changes to society would manifest themselves across real content, tweaking words and ideas ever so slightly to produce a world that is that is vast, believable, and could be engaged from any direction, hopefully revealing some interesting truths about the real world.
So, after playing around with this idea for a bit, I threw together a very primitive prototype that alters the internet in a subtle way (maybe too subtle?) but I think hints at a form that could eventually allow us to Slide.

it’s multimedia, jim, but not as we know it

I spent yesterday evening in a visitors’ centre for a country that doesn’t exist. Kymaerica is a parallel universe with its own artefacts, stories, history and geography, roughly coexistent with this world (the ‘linear’ world) but not identical to it.
The central space for exploring Kymaerican history and heritage is online, but it erupts into the ‘linear’ world here and there. There is a permanent installation in Paris, Illinois; there are now five plaques in the UK: during the London exhibition there was a bus tour around Kymaerican sites corresponding with Central London.
The creator of this Borghesian experience is Eames Demetrios, designer, writer, filmmaker and Kymaerica’s ‘geographer-at-large’. I was struck by the parallels between his work, and some aspects of alternate reality gaming (ARGing), which I’ve argued here recently represents the emergence of a new genre of genuinely Web-native fiction (see Ben’s post below about World Without Oil for recent if:book discussion of this form). Though Kymaerica is presented as a piece of art, and alternate reality gaming generally thinks of itself more as entertainment, they have much in common. And this provides some intriguing insights into how, when thinking about the relationships in storytelling between form and content, the nature of the Web requires a radical rethinking of what fiction is. So my apologies in advance for the way this first attempt to do just that has turned into a longish post.
Eames calls what he does ‘three-dimensional storytelling’. I want to call the genre of which I believe that Kymaerica and ARGs are both instances ‘multimedia storytelling’. ‘Storytelling’, as opposed to ‘fiction’, because the notion of fiction belongs with the print book and is arguably inseparable from a series of relatively recent conventions around suspension of disbelief. And genuinely ‘multimedia’ in the sense that it uses multiple delivery mechanisms online but is not confined to the Web – indeed, is most successful when it escapes its boundaries.
People have been telling stories since the first humans sat round a culture. Narratives are fundamental to how we make sense of our world. But the print industry is such that otherwise highly-educated publishers, writers and so on talk as if no-one knew anything about works of the imagination before the novel appeared, along with the category of ‘fiction’ and all the cognitive conventions that entails. Why is this?
The novel is one delivery mechanism for storytelling, that emerged under specific social and cultural conditions. The economic, cultural and social structures created by and creating the novel hold up the commodification of individual imaginations (the convention of ‘original’ work, the idea of ‘great’ authors and so on) as their ideological and idealised centrepiece. The novel was for a long time the crown jewel of the literate culture industry. But it remains only one way of telling stories. And part of its conventions derive from the nature of the book as physical object: boundedness, fixity, authorship.
Meanwhile, many of us live now in a networked, post-industrial era, where many of the things that seemed so certain to a Dickens or Trollope no longer seem as reliable. And, perhaps fittingly, we have a new delivery mechanism for content. But unlike the book, which is bounded, fixed, authored, the Web is boundless, mutable, multi-authored and deeply unreliable. So the conception of singly-authored ‘fiction’ may not work any more. Hence I prefer the term ‘storytelling’: it is older than ‘fiction’, and less complicit in the conceptual framework that produced the novel. And as Ben has just suggested, the Web in many ways recalls oral storytelling much more than modern conceptions of fiction.
I also want to be clear about what I mean by ‘multimedia’, as the word is often used in contexts that replicate much of the print era’s mindset and as such, at a fundamental, misunderstand something about the Web. On the basis of experiments in this form to date, Multimedia fiction’ evokes something digital but book-like: bounded, authored, fixed like a book, just with extra visual stimuli and maybe some superficially interactive bells and whistles. I have yet to come across a piece, in this sense, of ‘multimedia fiction’ that’s as compelling as a book.
But the Web isn’t a book. Its formal nature is radically different. It’s boundless, mutable, multi-authored. So if the concrete physical form and economic conditions of a book’s production make certain demands of a story, and reciprocally shape its reading public, then what equivalent demands do the Web make?
Gamer Theory and Mediacommons demonstrate the potential for a ‘networked book’ to become a site of conversation, networked debate and dynamic exploration. But these are discursive rather than imaginative works. If the generic markers of a novel are fairly recognisable, what are the equivalent markers of a networked story? Drawing out the parallels between Kymaerica and an ARG, I want to suggest a concept of ‘multimedia storytelling’ characterised by the following qualities:
1) fragmentation,
2) a rebalancing of authorship with collaboration, and
3) a dissolution of the boundary between fact and fiction, and attendant replacement of ‘suspension of disbelief’ with play.
Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter. And multimedia storytelling mimics this reading practice. The reader’s activity consists not in turning pages but in following clues, leads, associative echos and lateral leaps, and reconstructing sense from the fragments. It is pleasurable precisely because it offers a souped-up, pre-authored and more rewarding (because fantastic) version of the usual site-hopping experience. A typical ARG may include many different websites along with emails, IM chats, live action and other media. Part of the pleasure is derived from an experience that requires the ‘reader’ to sift through a fragmented body of information and reassemble the story.
Kymaerica is not fragmented across the Web like an ARG: the bulk of the story archive is available through the eponymous site. But the offline, physical traces of its story can be found in Texas, Illinois, London, Oxfordshire and elsewheres. And the story itself is deliberately fragmented. The way Eames explains it, he has the entire history of this world worked out in detail, but deliberately only reveals tiny parts of it through supposedly ‘factual’ tools such as plaques, guides and the kinds of snippet you might find in a museum dealing with the ‘real’ or factual world. “I always want to hint at something that’s just out of reach,” he told me. “It’s like writing a novel so you can publish a haiku.”
So just as an ARG offers fragments of the story for the players to reconstitute, for Eames it’s up to the audience to join the dots. This fragmented delivery then requires a radical rebalancing of the relationship between the author and the reader.
Whereas the relationship between a print author and a novel reader might be characterised as serial imaginative monogamy, the relationship between multimedia storytelling and its readers is fragmented, multiple, polyamorous, mutable. Again, this mimics the multiplicity, interactivity and mutability of Web reading, along with its greater reliance on user-generated content. ARG stories play out in time and, while the core story is worked out in advance, are highly improvisatory on the edges. Players work together on fora, or even – as in WWO – write additional imaginative content for the story. Interaction with characters in the story may take place in real time, either in the flesh or by IM or email; mistakes may generate whole new storylines; the players collaborate to solve puzzles and progress the story.
Eames’ three-dimensional storytelling remains similarly improvisatory. The back story is worked out ahead of schedule; but every conversation he has with others expands the story further, and needs to be incorporated into the archives. He’s keen to get the world well enough established to invite others to contribute material to the archives. And the experience is highly absorbing, even for the initially sceptical: in Paris, Illinois, the local townsfolk now hold a Kymaerican Spelling Bee as part of the town’s annual festival. Neither ARGs nor Kymaerica have entirely abandoned the notion of sustained authorship, as in different ways Ficlets or the Million Penguins wiki experiment attempt to do. Rather, it has been resituated in a context where the reader or listener has been recast as something more like a player. The story is a game; the game structure already exists; but the game is not there until it is played.
The replacement of ‘reading’ or ‘listening’ with ‘playing’ is the final characteristic I associate with multimedia storytelling, and is inseparable from the existence of Web stories in a network rather than a bounded artefact, whether print book or CD-ROM. A networked story is porous at the edges, inviting participation, comment and contribution; this renders the notion of ‘suspension of disbelief’ useless.
The first books represented a revered source of ancient authority: the Bible, the classical philosophers, the theologians. And even when telling stories, books provide a conceptual proscenium arch. Opening the covers of a book, like seeing the lights go down in a theatre, conveys a clear signal to begin your ‘suspension of disbelief’. But the Web gives no such clear signals. The Web is all that is not authoritative: it is a white noise of opinion, bias, speculation, argument and debate. Story, in essence. Even the facts on the Web are more like narratives than any reliable truth. The Web won’t tell you which sites you can take seriously and which not; there are no boundary markers between suspending disbelief and taking things literally. Instead of establishing clear conventions for which books are to be taken as ‘authoritative’ and read literally, and which to be treated as pure imagination, the Web invites the reader to half-believe everything all the time, and believe nothing at the same time. To play a game of ‘What if this were true’?
Again, multimedia storytelling mimics this experience. Is this site in-game, or just the product of some crazy people? Was there really a Great Dangaroo Flood on Old Compton St? It uses familiar tools conventionally used to communicate ‘real world’ information: email, IM, the semiotic register of tourist guides, plaques, visitors’ centres. It hands the responsibility for deciding on when to suspend disbelief back to the individual. And in doing so, it transforms this from ‘suspension of disbelief’ to an active choice: to a kind of performed imaginative participation best described as ‘play’.
Multimedia stories are not ‘read’: they are played. And unlike a suspension of disbelief, which contains within itself the assumption that we will afterwards revert to a condition of lucid rationality, play has a tendency to overspill its boundaries. The Parisian Embassy in Illinois is beginning to have a reciprocal effect on its surroundings: a street in the town has been renamed in line with Kymaerican history. The Florida authority responsible for historic sites has received at least one complaint about Kymaerican plaques, which they sensibly just said were not their responsibility. Take away the proscenium arch and fact and fiction begin dancing in ways that either exhilarate or terrify you.
Reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated. Multimedia storytelling in the form I’ve just tried to outline does not compete with the novel, for reasons which I hope I’ve made clear. But the Web as storytelling medium deserves better than misguided attempts either to claim its ascendancy over previous forms, or else to force it to deliver against ideas of ‘fiction’ that do not reflect its nature. The interlocking qualities of fragmentation, collaboration and boundlessness mimic the experiences of reading on the Web and require a different kind of participation than ‘reading’. Suspension of disbelief becomes deliberately-performed play, collaborative reconstruction of the story is essential to the experience, and an ongoing improvisatory dance takes place between author and readership.