Hypertext fiction is one of those things that hasn’t ever really hit the common consciousness. In fact it seems that more discussion of the material than material itself exists at the moment. This is strange because we’re all so completely inured to the concept by using the internet every single day. However, despite this examples of non-linear narratives that really make the most of digital formats are few and far between.
This is in part because of the pertinent observation from Steven Johnson in Wired that, ‘It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write.’ But people have persevered including what Johnson picks out as the first example, Afternoon, A Story by Michael Joyce which was written on a floppy disk. As in one of the old bendy ones!
Perhaps the defining characteristic of hypertext fiction is that readers move from point to point based on links given in the text, and not necessarily in a linear fashion. This was already brought into existence decades ago by game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, and more. It’s not as simple as turning a page, it’s turning the right page. With gamefication rampant these days, and challenge/reward mechanics entering every aspect of life the question arises - why isn’t there more hypertext fiction?
I refuse to believe it’s just because it’s hard to write. People make games for fun, Doug Dorst wrote S., Wikipedia exists and endless other examples abound. It’s not that people are put off by game mechanics either. There’s a revival community around the old interactive fiction games, such as the BBC's 30th anniversary version of the fiendishly difficult Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it’s certainly not that the technology doesn’t exist. It’s never been easier!
Looking over the landscape Eastgate publish a range of hypertext fiction, both fiction and non-fiction, including a current and useable version of Afternoon, A Story. But they also produce content and writing assistance software which leads me to wonder how much it’s a passion more than a lucrative part of their business. With prices from $25-50 they also sound more like proprietary databases or encyclopaedias. This is all entirely admirable, but what does this mean for humble non-linear stories?
It seems like a pressing question in a world full of people falsely claiming the death of publishing and the book. Progressive publishers are heading towards digital and embracing apps, games are becoming increasingly complex and well-written artefacts, but users are much more tech savvy than the industry.
Ultimately, this article exists to praise two (ok, three, but I don’t want to spend all my time raving about the SCP Foundation) particular examples, the first of which is Instant Mess. Of all things, Instant Mess is written on Tumblr. Yes, Tumblr!
It’s billed as an ‘online musical love story’. It’s about Ben who makes music and his relationship online with Cat, told mostly through IM logs. You have to work out how to find the story by guessing the key words so it’s best to assume you won’t get it all in order. They give you just one to begin with, ‘Start’, along with the titles of Ben’s songs.
It plays on our familiarity with the web, integrates a range of media and even external sites and from the little I have found so far tells a complex story of love and how we form relationships today. Whilst the embedded music doesn’t always work, the point is the concept and construction are excellent.
The other great example I've found is the app, Device 6. This is another one that brings the game mechanic to the fore. It's a text-based story, but one that 'entwines story with geography and blends puzzle and novella, to draw players into an intriguing mystery of technology and neuroscience'.
What this means is you read it, but the text progresses along the page more like a game of snake than anything, chaging direction all the time. Add in the atmospheric soundtrack and parallax animation and it becomes a full sensory experience.
The story involves Anna, who wakes up in a castle on a remote island, with little recollection of how she got there. All she remembers is an unusually unpleasant doll. The narrative progresses as quickly as you solve the puzzles, and these are suitably abstracted so a degree of head-scratching is required. It is perhaps too hard to be simply enjoyed as you would a story, but it's also fascinating.