May 11, 2003

Hypertext Fiction Never Tried?

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:20 pm

I just got back from eNarrative 5, part of the last weekend of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. One of the most interesting moments for me was this morning, when longtime hypertext scholar George Landow said (to my ear) that we haven’t really tried hypertext fiction.

He said most hypertext fictions that we see as successful really use hypertext as their container, not as their fundamental structure. Works like afternoon and Patchwork Girl use links as the connections between narrative loops. Landow’s done a lot of work in non-fiction hypertext (e.g., The Victorian Web) and in these works such loops don’t tend to exist — instead each page stands nonlinearly related to many others in the work. He speculated, building upon a comment he attributed to Robert Coover, that such total nonlinearity in literature might actually be more appropriate for what we think of as poetry (functioning by analogy) than for fiction.

I find the implicit challenge in Landow’s remarks interesting — that we should try to imagine what a hypertext fiction would be that was deeply nonlinear. (Though I suspect there’s some prior conversation on this topic I should be remembering and referencing here.) At the same time, it also occurs to me that The Victorian Web contains “pages” (hypertext nodes) that are the length of book chapters — which might be serving purposes quite similar to those of narrative loops in fictional works. Also, I feel compelled to point out that a mixture of non-linear and looping behaviors within a document is perfectly hypertextual by Nelson’s definitions (about which I’ll no doubt post more before long).

Lots of other stuff I could write about from eNarrative as well – especially meeting and hearing for the first time interesting people like Meg Hourihan, Scot Osterweil, and Cati Vaucelle – but the best thing would probably be for people to follow the links that I’m sure will appear on the website soon (Mark Bernstein, the organizer, tends to be diligent about such things).

On a related electronic writing note, the materials from the excellent e(X)literature conference are now online (and also check out Matt Kirshenbaum’s trip report).

9 Responses to “Hypertext Fiction Never Tried?”

  1. andrew Says:

    That’s an interesting comment, that hypertext fiction hasn’t really been tried. Hmm. Frankly I’m often wondering what practitioners of hypertext fiction _really_ think about the promise of the format. What is the general mood among hypertext fiction writers nowadays — e.g., the honeymoon is over, and now we’ve got to figure out how to make this marriage work? :-)

    Personally, I’ve always been very optimistic that the form holds a lot of potential. But while I have enjoyed some hypertext fictions here and there, I’m still waiting to be dazzled.

    What was the response in the community to Mark Bernstein’s 1999 plea, Where are the hypertexts?

  2. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Andrew: wrong decade. “Where are the hypertexts?” was 1989, not 1999; 1999 was the anniversary. Frankly, afternoon is pretty dazzling, as is Victory Garden. In Small & Large Pieces. Lust. Hell — there’s a lot of dazzle.

    I believe George cited _afternoon_ as an EXCEPTION to the general structural tendency of hypertext fiction.

    On poetry and hypertext, the best treatment is Tosca (HT99, I think?) in “The Lyrical Nature of Links”.

  3. noah Says:

    Ah, so George was using the afternoon and Patchwork Girl examples in opposition to one another? Somehow I didn’t catch that, but it would make sense.

    Andrew, I imagine you’ve read a number of the things on Mark’s list here — but if you haven’t looked at Lust I think that’s one that you’d like (though some might argue that its movements are more poetic than fictional).

    One thing I should also have mentioned from eNarrative is that we talked about non-fiction narratives. I’m quite impressed, for instance, by Rod Coover’s Cultures in Webs — which is one of Eastgate’s most recent titles. It strikes me as one of the few truly ambitious, successful essayistic new media projects I’ve seen.

  4. andrew Says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for clarifying that for me. On the list you mention, I have not yet played In Small & Large Pieces or Lust, I’ll make an effort to check them out.

    I will say that when I played afternoon and Victory Garden (I purchased them in sometime the early nineties, when I was in my early twenties, about ten years ago now), I was very excited by them. They instilled a sense of potential for this form in me that has not gone away — and that has greatly influenced me in my efforts on interactive narrative by way of animated AI-based characters. (fyi, these and more seminal hypertext fiction works are still available for purchase, at, a company Mark helped found and operate.)

    The community of digital fiction-makers is diverse, encompassing many forms, as exemplified by our blog description on the front page. I worry that the gamers in this set may disregard or even look down on any digital fiction that is not animated, fast-paced, flashy — or to put it more bluntly, to look down on text-based works, including interactive fiction (a term I find too general to describe what people mean by it, by the way).

    I think this would be a big mistake. That would be the equivalent of looking down on books because you really like movies.

    As for me, if I ever sound dissatisfied or crotchety about hypertext fiction, it’s because I’m dissatisfied and crotchety about almost all digital fiction these days, including games. I don’t feel we’ve yet tapped the potential of what this medium is capable of. These early works are good stuff, working pretty well within constraints (I know, constraints are a *good* thing), but still, they feel like early works to me. I guess I’m impatient.

  5. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Dissatisfied and crotchety — I suppose those are the cultural signs of the critic. Are we less willing to be impressed by digital narrative as we age, and as digital culture becomes more commonplace, and therefore less rare, and our encounters with it less magical?

    Andrew, I understand your reaction to the limited definition of “interactive fiction”. It reminds me of terms such as “early modern” to define Shakespeare, and “modern” to define early and mid-20th century. When I was encoding texts as a grad student at the U of Toronto, in one scheme that was suggested, the category “Victorian” was to be applied to 19th-century American texts.

    I do enjoy definitions.

    A few months ago, Nick provided some important feedback on a collaborative definition of interactive fiction, to be used in the glossary for a forthcoming book on interactive fiction (the editor-in-chief is Emily Short).

    Andrew, and everyone else, I’d welcome your feedback.

  6. Millie Niss Says:

    I think one needs programming to fully realize the hypertext fiction. Even if we have the very simple structure where nodes are fairly large chunks of narrative, selected by user choices at the end of each node, a fiction would need to have the plot depend on previous events, so that in addition to the user choices the program would have to modify elements to be presented in accordance with which previous nodes have been visited. If you envision a plotless kind fo fiction which functions as a series of juxtaposed narrative elements, phrases, events and so forth, you don’t need this kind of programming, but I think the result is poetry, not fiction, although when the nodes contain prose that is arguable.

    The basic problem with hypertext is that if the outcome really depended on every user choice, you’d need an axponential number of nodes. So you need loops which essentially provide fake interactivity, wherte the user’s decisions bring up some nodes but don’t actually affect the structure or outcome of the narrative.

    The only way to solve this problem would seem to be with AI techniques in whcih the program actually “understands” the story to some degree, and can manipulate smaller semantic pieces of story, and recombine them in new ways, not all laid out by the writer, thus saving the writer from having to create many times more nodes than the number of nodes which actually will occur in any reading of the work.

    Has this AI-like work been applied in IF?


  7. Peter Weyhrauch Says:


    Some of us have tried for a good many years to apply AI to interactive entertainment, including interactive fiction. I am working at Zoesis Studios ( and was a graduate student in the now-ended Oz Project at CMU (

    As you can see, Michael was also a member of the Oz Project.

    Peter Weyhrauch

  8. jill/txt Says:
    An email yesterday announced an interesting new blog, run by Michael Mateas, Nick Montfort, Stuart Moulthrop, Andrew Stern and Noah Wardrip-Fruin: is about computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms, including intera…

  9. Fred Redden Says:

    The Lost Keys
    Interactive fictional blog about living in south Florida. Pick up on a story line of character and start your own narrative. Keep in south Florida to the most part. I’m using Minor as my point of view. The first section titled The Lost Keys is a backgrounder. Use what you like to build on.

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