Digital Literature Part 2 - Non-linear Lit.

The most important question you must ask before doing an interactive project is, why do it this way? In the context of the book the answer might be: If literature were supposed to be interactive Dickens would have done it, or Homer. Likewise, Shakespeare, the great narrative innovator, never tried a choose-your-own adventure. Interactivity might be useful in cook books, but in literature there is little pre-computer precedent. 

There is a strong and unstoppable drive towards digital literature. It makes great sense to have thousands of books available to you wherever you are. But is there any reason for publishers and authors to do anything more than deliver the same linear narratives they have always delivered? Is there a creative or market need for interactive, cross-platform or non-linear fiction? The publishing industry is conservative. It has a longstanding understanding of what readers want and interactivity is not something anyone has ever demanded of them. 

I like to think that if Borges or Calvino were writing today they would be early adopters of interactive storytelling. Indeed, there already exists a history of interactive literature that is older than the internet itself. Here I offer some random and fleeting examples as markers of possibility. I don't expect non-lin-lit to grow to the size of the computer games industry, but it is possible to envisage it as a significant and valuable sub-culture and a source of great creativity. 

1. Moooks

Mifiction offer Moooks - entertaining digital choose-your-own adventures for your laptop or mobile device at 25p a chapter. The experience of reading a moook is fun, but a fundamentally adolescent literary experience. I find myself too aware of the process of choosing - it removes me from immersion. All the moooks listed on the site are in the genres of crime, sci-fi, fantasy and teen. This form of interactivity - the branching narrative - is, for me, level one interactivity. It's the first thing people think of when they think of interactivity, "you know, like those choose-your-own adventure books." Having said that, when I get time I may well keep going with the zombie detective story I started. There may be niche for them.

2. Hypertext narratives.

These predate the internet and perhaps emerge from an idea of language as code. In computer code the words, grammar and punctuation can send the reader to different places on the page or within the text. The majority of hypertext literature is from the 1990's and much is dominated by platforms devised by publishing company, Eastgate Systems. Hypertexts published by them retail at around $25. I will have to put my money where my mouth is soon, meanwhile...

A more recent piece is Alabaster, a fairytale that is read through an interpreter programme that lets you navigate the story by asking questions - a dialogue tree. You play a hunter who has taken Snow White as a hostage into the heart of the forest. Using commands such as DISCUSS, ASK, TOUCH, EXAMINE you try to discover who Snow White really is, what her relationship with the Wicked Queen is, why there is a slaughtered Hart at your feet and so on. Further commands such as KISS, CUT, BURN or SMELL temp you into unusual actions that push the story in unusual directions. It lasts perhaps forty minutes and has multiple possible outcomes based on your responses to the things you discover. Part game, part story, it is well written and thought provoking. There is a blog by Emily Short for those interested in the process by which this was made. It is a fun process, though marred by the need to use computer code-like terms, such as ASK to interrogate the characters. A smoother interface is much more possible today.

Paul McCann's Schroedinger's Man is a post-modern exploration of the implications of Scroedinger's Cat theory. It is as much about the process of telling the story as it is the story itself. It offers few branching choices to the reader (except to give you options to fill in your knowledge gaps about the theory) instead mousing over hyperlinks offers subtext insights in a 'context box'. It is a linear story that is non-linear within individual pages. It's an entertaining short tale and the strategy of optional subtext is a satisfying one.

Lies by Rick Pryll (1994) is a series of observations on a relationship that has been going for a year. You can optionally select truth or lies which contradict and build on each other. What is the truth? Perhaps a combination of all the small deceptions and self-deceit that create a relationship. It's well written and the interactivity (choosing truth and lies) is intrinsic to the story he is telling.

A superb resource of links, discussions and insights into current hypertext literature is HTLIT
Other useful references: Hyperizons
Hypertext Fiction Sites
Trace Archive .

3. Transmedia Books

Personal Effects - Dark Arts by J.C. Hutchins is a conventional novel in which an art therapist in a lunatic asylum races against time and a complex array of forces against him to unlock the mind of a criminally insane murderer before…(etc). Inside the jacket of the book are the personal effects of the psycho - his fake ID, his birth certificate, his CIA discharge papers. They are beautifully made and reasonably authentic, lovely objects to get with a book, that resonate with the story. Within the text and amongst the effect are phone numbers and web addresses that lead to many websites - the intranet of the asylum, a website dedicated to the family history of a set of the characters and so on. Beyond the linear narrative it is possible to listen to phone messages between the characters of read more about their backgrounds. This is fun as far as it goes, and it does require some skill to work out passwords and usernames. The weakness for me, just like with Dark Origins is that the narrative is linear with some non-essential extras on the side. I'd love for the extras to be the pathway into gaps in the linear narrative. Don't give is the whole thing in the book, make us work a little to construct the full story.

Another excellent example in this genre is Cathy's Book, reviewed elsewhere in its app form. This teen novel contains a collection of Cathy's drawings, notes, web addresses and phone numbers. The entire narrative is contained in the book text and, as above, the extras simply highlight and wrap around the story rather than offering narrative insight.

Many in publishing believe that the book will survive the onslaught of digital convenience by becoming more desirable objects. These two are highly desirable objects and I hope we see more to follow.

4. Conclusion

I've enjoyed my superficial trawl of digital literature and have found some inspiring forms of interactivity. Inanimate Alice is a great illustrated book experience - linear but beautiful. Personal Effects - Dark Arts is a very desirable object, a tentative step towards transmedia lit. Lies offers a literary experience made up of fragments, appropriate in that it is looking at the nature of truth and lies in relationships. Schroedinger's Man playfully explores subtext - little diversions into deeper characterisation that don't disrupt the forward flow of the story.

I shall have to keep searching because I haven't found the great interactive novel. Not a choose-your-own, not a post-modern experiment in the future of literature, but an interactive classic, a beautifully written and elegantly encoded classic.

This blog was moved in January 2016 from it's original location on where it had received 113 views.

Rik Lander

Rik Lander makes interactive and participatory narratives. Website

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