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Electric Text

A White Paper by ,

Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends.

Michael Joyce, afternoon - a story.


When hyperfiction writers elucidate their work as interactive fiction or interactive narrative, a loss of clarity often ensues as to how this term is intended. First coined by Bob Liddil in a Byte article (1981), interactive fiction is paradigmatic of mercantile expression being accepted by "academics with little concern for precise definitions or implicit ideologies" (Aarseth,  Cybertext). The term also procreates the binary opposition of interactive and non-interactive, implying that other forms of narrative and fiction possess no traits of interactivity; yet, this is not always the case.

All artworks are interactive - from cubist paintings to constructivist sculpture; from classical literature to chamber music; from contemporary cinema to comic books - in that we engage with them, projecting our ideas, memories and prejudices on to these bespoke forms in order to generate meaning. In spite of this, these art forms often remain predefined and autonomous in their nature; their material or ephemeral forms do not change in response to our discourse.

An interactive work is a work where the reader can physically change the discourse in a way that is interpretable and produces meaning within the discourse itself. An interactive work is a work where the reader's interaction is an integrated part of the sign production of the work, in which the interaction is an object-sign indicating the same theme as the other signs, not a meta-sign that indicates the signs of the discourse.

Peter Bogh Anderson, The Computer as Medium

Peter Bogh Anderson argues that true interactive work requires a signifying processing of the user's input; hence, turning the page of a paperback or pressing the 'Next Page' button on a Kindle cannot be considered interactivity as the act has no meaning within the book itself. A canonical hyperfiction, Michael Joyce's afternoon - a story, is therefore a true interactive narrative as the choices the reader/user makes are consequential in the world of the text. In this sense, computer games are also interactive, for the actions a player makes are critical when determining events, be it driving a vehicle in Grand Theft Auto or climbing through a slightly ajar window in Zork.

Converse to Anderson's definition of interactivity is Michael Joyce's argument that "no truly interactive system exists" (Of Two Minds), as true interaction requires both networking parties to respond to each others actions in tandem, and that behaviours performed by either party should directly affect the operation of the other. In Joyce's mind, the artefacts closest to true interactivity are implanted pacemakers and defibrillators.

Michael Joyce makes an interesting scrutiny of text-based editors and databases, which could be considered "interactive fictions" (Of Two Minds); for during the time we spend inputting the stories from our minds, the program continues to remind us that we do not know its representation: as we begin to enter our text, the application responds by displaying the letters on screen. Yet, by the same token, is the true interactivity that Joyce suggests any different to playing a computer game such as Quake? For instance, when we physically move the mouse two millimetres to the right, John Carmack's fluid game engine responds by gliding our field-of-view twenty degrees starboard: we accommodate our thoughts to the confines of the system, and the system responds by moving our avatar: we interact.

One foresight into future interactive fictions is that in order to be more open they will "appear more closed" (Joyce, Of Two Minds). By this, Joyce means that in order to increase their interactivity and equal the feeling of being present in a world (agency, Brenda Laurel), hyperfictions will need to be more like printed fictions and less like contemporary interactive fictions. In many ways, Joyce's statement pays homage to the French OuLiPo writers, who "championed the invention of constraints as key elements in literary composition" (Symes, Writing By Numbers), and in this sense, the joy of interactive narrative will come from the mind play, rather than the playing of text.


Works of arts are monuments, and the author who creates monuments is, as the etymology suggests, an authority.

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space

Some of the most intriguing issues surrounding interactive narrative are concerns of authority, authorship and participation. Indeed, the authority of the written word, along with stability and monumentality, having long been seen as a quality of good literature, now comes under threat from digital media; a medium with potential great enough to knock down the canon of great literature itself. It is the non-linear nature of hypertext that is slowly causing the rescinding of the author's authority.

Jay David Bolter once proposed that through use of the electronic medium, the author no longer assumes the mantle of the orderly lawman "laying down the law" (Writing Space). A popular misinterpretation of Bolter's claim is that through his or her actions the reader of the hypertext becomes the author; obnubilating the writer of the fragments, and it is easy to see just how this misconception can arise. Non-linear narratives, meaning texts and occurrences chosen by the reader that do not necessarily follow the same sequence each time ("ergodic" (Aarseth, Cybertext)), can assign a great deal of power to the reader, allowing them to explore forking paths and influence the outcome of the tale. The experience of interaction, whereby the reader manipulates the discourse, can give the illusion of freedom; yet, the original author ultimately determines the actions that the user makes.

"The electronic author assumes once again the role of a craftsman, working with defined materials and limited goals."

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space

Using the limited tools of hypertext, hyperfiction writers fashion a set of rules within which the "reader is free to play" (Bolter, Writing Space). By feeding the reader with limited portions of text, the author thereby encourages the reader to engage in the creation of meaning through arrangement of these fragments. From this logic, authorship transcends to collaboration between the writer of the fragments and the reader.

"Text is not simply an expression of the author's emotion, for the reader helps to make the text."

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space

In a hyperfiction, the reader becomes a necessary element, not in the sense of art requiring an audience, but in the outcome of the tale itself; for an interactive narrative cannot be formed without direct manipulation. The reader is no longer the eavesdropper in the "Romantic" sense (Bolter, Writing Space), but instead performs the text, bringing about a new level of creativity. By compromising authority and fixity of text, hyperfiction readers have the ability to transform the text into a manner the original creator perhaps didn't see. Providing one is given a rich enough set of tools, the reader not only has power over the narrative's structure, but over its very genre, and because of this, hyperfiction authors such as Michael Joyce are not only opening "new modes of discourse, but also, through their innovations, new media" (Aarseth, Cybertext).


"The computer gives the reader the opportunity to touch the text itself, an opportunity never available in print, where the text lies on a plane inaccessible to the reader. Readers of a printed book can write over of deface text, but they cannot write in it. In the electronic medium readers cannot avoid writing the text itself, since every choice they make is the act of writing."

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space

Non-linear connectivity, a recurrent technique of hyperfiction, is not a concept born from hypertext, but one invented long before the advent of the Internet and (possibly) even the computer itself.

OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature) was a predominantly French movement, comprising of writers and poets who sought to create new forms of literature through mathematical, logical and language systems. The movement was at its most prevalent during the 1960s; key figures being Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau.

Queneau's Cent Mille Milliard de Poems (1961) is arguably the most famous exponent of OuLiPo. Translating into 100 Trillion Poems, the work consists of ten sonnets; each sonnet containing fourteen lines; each line totalling ten syllables. Through direct intervention, the reader is encouraged to rework the text on a line-by-line basis, folding the lines in the book to "compose sonnets" (Aarseth, Cybertext). The rich tools provided by Queneau allow us to perform 100,000,000,000,000 different sonnets. By minimizing the choices, Queneau consequently maximised the options for the reader's, which can be seen in Michael Joyce's theory that future hyperfictions will need to appear more closed to in actual fact be more open.

Queneau's narrative, Un Conte a Votre Facon (A Fairytale as you like it) (1967) begins with the question: "Would you like to hear the story of the three alert peas?" This enquiry is indicative of the entire novel, where the reader is presented with small fragments of text and then asked how they wish for the story to continue, for instance, they can choose from whether the peas should dream to what colour gloves the peas should wear. Upon redirection to the pre-determined part of the book, the story continues and the process of negotiation begins anew.

The extranoematic (Aarseth, Cybertext) actions required when reading/using Cent Mille… means that performance not only takes place in the reader's mind (the discourse), but also physically; imposing extranoematic responsibilities upon the reader. For this reason, the corporeal performance of Cent Mille Milliard de Poems falls into Anderson's definition of interactivity, as the process of interaction affects the discourse itself (unlike the arbitrary acts of turning pages and eye movement across pages, which do not change the discourse and have no meaning within the narrative itself). In this fashion, OuLiPo conflicts with Bolter's assertion that being able to write the text is a trait unique to the electronic medium, for every choice we make when using Cent Mille… is an act of writing.

Essentially, the OuLiPo writers were creating literary works that would act as precursors to contemporary interactive fictions. Arguable, their techniques would have been better suited to an electronic environment, due to hypertext's potential for creating new "textual technologies" (Aarseth, Cybertext). Present day computer technology now offers the Queneausian writer more powerful and flexible tools in which to script ergodic narratives.


One modality of Bolter and Grusin's theory of remediation (in the book of the same name) is that when new media technologies emerge, old ones seek to reaffirm their status by reinventing themselves, thereby becoming more like the new. With digital technology and the Internet now ubiquitous in Western society, one can observe the growing trend of filmmakers who reinvent their film's narrative structure; turning the work into something distinctly hypermediated; moving away from traditional linear narrative continuity and instead to non-linear narratives; to skipping/discontinuous narratives ("tmesis" (Aarseth, Cybertext)); to vast "multiform stories" (Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck), so that stories and fragments, which constitute the overall film, are interwoven in a similar fashion to hypertext. As a result, the audience, no longer the passive viewer fed perfectly linear stories, are now encouraged to piece together narratives, much like a puzzle.

The multiform story was a term Janet H. Murray once used to describe a "written or dramatic narrative that presents a single situation of plotline in multiple version that would be mutually exclusive in our ordinary experience" (Hamlet on the Holodeck): Queneau's Exercices de style (1947) being the perfect example of this narrative technique. Although this is not a new concept in film (Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon was first delivered in 1950) it is one being increasingly adopted by Western filmmakers. Famous examples of multiform narrative include Groundhog Day (1993), Sliding Doors (1997) and Lola Rennt (1998).

Lola Rennt, or Run Lola Run (1998), is a German film portraying the life of two young lovers, Lola and Manni. The film's central plot involves Lola running across Berlin in twenty minutes whilst trying to find the 100,000 DM that her boyfriend, Manni, owes to a drug dealer. If Lola doesn't succeed in getting the money in time, then Manni will die. Rather than map the film's single storyline out across the film's entire duration, director Tom Tykwer instead juxtaposes three retellings of the same event back to back: each tale lasting roughly twenty minutes in real time.

Lola Rennt's first telling ends with Lola's untimely death at the hands of the police; thus, the subsequent repetition tries to avoid the events that lead to this unfavourable ending.

Lola Rennt's second telling ends with Manni's unfortunate death via an ambulance driver; thus, the subsequent instalment tries to avoid the events that lead to these unfavourable endings.

Lola Rennt's third and final telling, ends with the debt being paid; with Manni and Lola walking safely away together with an extra 100,000 DM, and with the additional subplots resolved. Yet, as soon as the final tale has been told and the end credits appear, the film automatically accepts a fixed beginning, middle and end. This repression is due to film having a finite time span, unlike a typical hyperfiction, which rarely involves the concept of time.

For all its narrative ingenuity and structural divergence from mainstream cinema, the viewer's experience of Lola Rentt or any film for that matter, will be passive. Save for a truly interactive film that requires extranoematic responsibilities on behalf of the audience (an audience choosing the discourse of a film by pressing buttons on a remote control being a good example), viewers have no control over a film's outcome. "Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player" (Aarseth, Cybertext). Consequently, the viewer's pleasure derives from being a voyeur, "safe, but impotent" (Aarseth, Cybertext).




Electric Text

White Paper
Peter Burch, 2011

Electric Text examines several issues surrounding hypertext and, in particular, hypertext-based fictions.

The paper explores authority and authorship, the nature of interactivity, literary precursors and the influence of hypertext in other media forms.