03 Mar

Early Attempts at New Media Stories

Part one of an investigation into the kinds of storytelling that are currently thriving in our digital age.

These days in America, nonfiction outsells fiction by a factor of three to one, I’ve heard. And any avid web surfer can tell you that nonfiction is way more popular on the net. Still, I don’t think fiction will go away. Imaginative narratives are hardwired into us. We live nonfiction; we dream in fiction. And we’ve been telling made-up stories to each other for millenia. It’s part of what it means to be human.

That said, there’s no denying that fiction has changed and evolved over the years. And it will continue to do so. Writing was invented some 5000 years ago, and since then, various new technologies have had huge impacts on the kinds of stories told. For instance, the novel exists primarily because of the printing press, though other factors like a growing middle class — with increased leisure time — come into play. But just think about plays, radio drama, movies, television series — all of these were the results of technological advancements.

There’s no doubt that the computer and the internet are also having their effects on the way stories are told. New media interfaces like web browsers, gaming consoles, mobile devices, embedded video, and in at least one case, google maps are becoming the new stages on which our current tales are being acted out. But what do these current tales look like? And are they really any different from fictions we’ve seen in the past? Today, I’ll look at two of the earlier pioneers of the new fiction frontier.

The first computer-aided attempts at interactive storytelling predated the internet, but you can find plenty of those early experiments online. Interactive fiction began sometime in the 70s, I think. Maybe even earlier. The phrase “interactive fiction” is actually a pretty specific type of story, one in which the reader types commands to determine what elements of the narrative will be described next. So, for example, you might encounter a scene like this: “You walk into the room to find a table on which rests an unopened letter and a strange looking box.” You would then type “open letter” or “open box” to expose the next block of text, telling you about the contents of the letter or whatever. I find it a little frustrating since it’s not always completely intuitive and since it ends up delivering plot quite slowly. Take a look at my feeble attempt to navigate one of these things.

Another early foray was hypertext fiction, which basically consisted of a simpler sort of reader involvement than interactive fiction. In hypertext fiction, you just click on links to get to the next section of the story. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure novel on the computer. And its heyday was in the 90s. Here’s me navigating the “Starry Pipe Book,” which is typical of simplistic hypertext fiction.

Nowadays, hypertext fiction has gotten a little more sophisticated. They’re often displayed in Flash and include some nice graphics and sometimes audio, so they are truly multi-media. The story “Inanimate Alice” is an example. It provides a very multi-media experience but is still essentially about just clicking to navigate pages.

Inanimate Alice

We can ask the readers to do things other than just clicking on links, though. And many have tackled more experimental/artistic ways of incorporating reader interaction. Ideally, the interaction and the multi-media components have some thematic or narrative purpose. But at this relatively early stage of tweaking story form and structure, you’re bound to get some pretty artsy, postmodern stuff. That’s cool and all, but what you end up with is not really story. Instead, it’s a lot of poetry and experimental writing.

The poem “Cruising” is a good example of a piece of writing that uses its Flash interactivity effectively, even if it’s only a minor supplement to the already-good poem. As the blurb at the ELO Collection states, “Cruising is an excellent example of a Flash poem that, while primarily linear and cinematic, makes use of interactivity in a limited way that complements the subject of the poem, the coming-of-age ritual cruising, with hormones raging, in small town America.”


But then there’s other stuff, like “Soliloquy,” which is “an unedited document of every word [the author] spoke during the week of April 15-21, 1996, from the moment [he] woke up Monday morning to the moment [he] went to sleep on Sunday night.” It took him 8 weeks of working 8 hours a day to transcribe the whole thing. And the end result is something that’s an intriguing postmodern work of art, I suppose. But definitely not something I want to actually read.


And that’s the problem with much of this hypertext stuff. It doesn’t have much mainstream appeal. Not that mainstream appeal is a prerequisite for quality (see American Idol), but it is pretty important in determining what direction fiction will take in the next few decades or centuries. Interactive fiction and hypertext fiction are both intriguing forms of storytelling, but they’re not the next it.

02 Mar

Is Paper Dead?

More expert analysis coming your way. This time, I tackle the death of the novel and new media fiction.

I’ve been flirting with interactive stories for the past year or so. And my goal in doing so was pretty simple: I just wanted to make the process of reading a little more fun. People don’t read a lot of fiction on the web. And I have some theories on why that is.

It’s tempting to say that the computer screen is just too tough on the eyes and to blame the current technology for scaring off potential readers. Certainly, the Kindle has used such logic in making their product as printed-page-like as possible. But I have spent multiple hours reading text on the computer screen, and I know that most of my students have also done so.

It seems, then, that the real problem is not the amount of time spent reading a computer screen. The problem is rather the type of reading done.

Web reading is not static. It involves a lot of navigation, a mixture of image and text, and interactivity. Such reading is easier on the eyes than the long-session strain of novel-reading. And it’s also a fundamentally different type of brain engagement.

To begin with, we approach the web with the understanding that we’ll be looking at chunks of meaning. A classic example is the experience that most people have had of getting lost in wikipedia linking. You look up one topic, like, say, “pawn,” which you’ve been hearing the kids say, and the next thing you know, you’re reading about leetspeak and hacking and lolcats and memes and viral propagation. We can end up reading several chapters’ worth of information, but we get tricked into doing so because we have calibrated our brains for small units of meaning. High school students can spend hours on Facebook, but they’re examining chunks of information — status reports, pictures, videos.

A related issue is limited attention: we usually approach internet content as a temporary thing. Seldom do I ever sit down at the computer thinking that I’ll read for the next hour. It’s usually more a matter of checking in, skimming headlines, reading blurbs, etc. Sometimes, I’ll discover an interesting video online, but if it’s over 10 minutes long, I’m hesitant to start watching. Essentially, the internet reader’s mindset is in ADD mode.

Is the web making us ADD? Or does it just cater to that ADD part of us that already exists? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a venue conducive to mixed media. Web reading is usually accompanied by images and increasingly offers video links. Many wikipedia pages (and I keep using wikipedia as an example because it’s one of the most-read site on the web) have charts, bullet point lists, and images in their margins.

All in all, web content resembles magazine or newspaper reading more than it does novel-reading. The reason the internet is killing print media like newspapers is that the web reads exactly like a newspaper. It does absolutely everything a newspaper can do, but it also allows greater ease of navigation.

I would guess that the web will not kill novels; it simply can’t replace the novel. The Kindle, and products like it, may indeed end up killing paper novels — though I don’t really see that happening soon. But at this point in our history, we simply don’t read internet content like we read novels.

Another way of saying the same thing is to say that novels won’t survive on the internet. Sure, they’ll be available online, but unless our interface with the web changes drastically (and it may do so some time within the next decade or two), they won’t be nearly as popular as other types of reading.

So the question becomes, what type of fiction will thrive in the new media environments currently facing our technologically advanced societies? That’s the issue I’ll explore next time.