> interactive fiction & e-lit > dac2000

DAC 2000

A Choose-Your-Own-Trip-Report!

A Hypertext Fiction Perspective, by Nick Montfort

I've recently returned to Boston from a great conference, Digital Arts and Culture. I've been running around with my brass lantern, telling my pallid fellow interactive fiction creators that I consider it the most interesting academic conference for those of us putting together Zork-like literature. Although I met a bunch of great people at ACM Hypertext, and that conference brought together a lot of software developers and writers, I have to say I found DAC to also be of greater interest than any other conference to electronic literature creators in general. Although it can't offer as much colloquy between hypertext systems people and hypertext authors as does ACM Hypertext, it is host to a wide array of digital artists - as well as critics and writers (such as myself!) who work in non-hypertext digital forms. Digital Arts and Culture has been going for three years now. Last year the conference was in Atlanta, and I participated by showing a new IF work in the art gallery. (I also met two of my current collaborators there.) This year, the conference was back at the University of Bergen, where it started off three years ago.

My excuse for flying myself to Norway was that I read with my co-author William Gillespie from The Ed Report, a hypertext epic and fake government report at <> that we crafted with designer Dylan Meissner. The real reason, of course, what that I wanted to hear presentations (which were excellent) and get a chance to talk with luminaries in the electronic literary field (which - despite my persistent jet lag - I did get to do, sometimes coherently). This report isn't comprehensive, but it does describe a few of my reactions to panels, presentations, and conversations at DAC 2000.

Mark Amerika (head of, author of Grammatron and two print fiction books) was the first day's keynote speaker, and the voice of avant-garde electronic literature. Amerika began by offering a meta-tag summary of the conference - an actual set of meta tags that summarized, in keywords, what was being talked about at DAC. He offered this for the DAC program coordinator to use on the main conference Web page. This gift reminded me how common it is for interactive fiction authors, down in their caves and dungeons, to share code that they've created when putting together their works. Copious code, including some libraries I made use of in Winchester's Nightmare and other bits I'm employing in Objectphile, are offered freely for re-use, by their creators. I'm glad hypertext authors are being introduced to the idea of code- and text-swapping - but it's no an Amerikan innovation. This sort of thing has been the norm in the Great Underground for almost a decade.

Amerika's call for "collective playgirism" (the subversive appropriation of text and systems by groups of writers, for playful purposes) is timely. As an example, he read some texts produced by a sort of surrealist telephone game, with Altavista's Babelfish playing the translator. Charles Hartman has been using computer-generated texts in his poetry for a while now, and his success has come from mercilessly throwing away what sucks and keeping only the 5% or so of the output that strikes him as beautiful. While we hear Amerika's call for the subversion of existing technologies, we should also remember not to privilege our cleverly subverted technologies. The beauty of having one's name translated into "the signifier Amerika" doesn't depend on keeping the whole, sometimes insipid, output of the translating machine. Although my interactive fiction colleagues haven't yet fully seized upon the possibilities of "playgirism" (except, perhaps, in Graham Nelson's IF version of Shakespeare's Tempest), or of "collective" authorship, for that matter, they certainly know how to bend programs to their purposes. Programmatic elements such as the parser and world-model were borrowed from artificial intelligence systems to serve in a new context, involving writing and playful intentions.

With reference to the avant-pop and design writing movements, Amerika asked what literature's "exit strategy" might be, that is, what do do we (new media writers) do when me move beyond the literary? I think the terrain of "new media writing" certainly includes literature and things narrative, although not all such interesting digital activity will be "literature" in any meaningful sense. The question is, which of us will be exploring literary aspects of new media, and which will be focusing their work on other aspects? I suspect that America, anti-novelist that he is, will remain very interested in the literary in years to come, even if his efforts remain fixed on interesting ways to break the literary apart. Just as visual artists have used text and writing for non-literary purposes, online artists will use text in this way, too. I think it unlikely that there will be any truly "post-literary" writing, any more than there are post-photographic movies or (declarations to the contrary notwithstanding) post-book Web pages. Non-literary and anti-literary writing will be seen, but some writers will continue to occupy the digital literary ground - and not just occupy it, but cultivate it and cause it to bring forth fruits.

Also that day, Marjorie Luesebrink, in "Play On: Plot and Pause Points in Hypermedia Literature," spoke about how changes in graphical layout and different sets of link options can modulate the rhythm of a hypertext reading. Luesebrink writes under the pen name of M.D. Coverly. She's written many hypertext fiction works that are online. Her hypertext novel Califia, relating five epic Californian journeys, is the latest publication of Eastgate Systems. The talk was of great value, but upon thinking further about the whole idea of the reader's action and the flow of the reading, I realized, once again, that I don't have the slightest clue about how people actually read hypertext. I hungered for a deep analysis of server logs (to which I don't even have access, in the case of The Ed Report) that would reveal how certain Web-readers, at least, read. I thought of Rob Witting's discussion, in Invisible Rendezvous, of how flawed our concept of book-reading actually is. Where are the ethnographers of electronic literature?

Stephanie Strickland spoke about hypertext aesthetics in "Dali's Clocks." Strickland, a poet, is the author of several award-winning works, including True North and "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot," which are both published in print and hypertext form. She distinguished scale (in time or space, the different temporal or spatial orders of magnitude) from level (a realm in which certain laws and properties apply). An entity with fractal qualities will remain similar at different scales, but there might still be a break between different levels at certain points. These are essential concepts if one hopes to be able to navigate hypertext without applying any easily decipherable semantics to the clicking of links.

Rob Swigart described how reading/playing his Portal on the Commodore 64 was profoundly different than experiencing it on the Amiga, because the delay in moving between screens was so great in the former case. He also showed how the pace of reading his Downtime Interactive (forthcoming from Eastgate) off the screen was different than that of listening to his recorded voice reading it (a complete audio reading, with music, keyed to each section, is included on the CD-ROM), and how this made the experience with and without sound qualitatively very different. Swigart is from the non-serious branch of hypertext, having written Portal in the early 1980s. The work was then published by Activision. Swigart's work isn't very concerned with the link, factors like discovery and unlocking taking the upper hand in the database-structured Portal and audio narration and search-engine assembly being more important in Downtime Interactive. Being a xenophile, I think this sort of now-unusual approach is excellent, of course.

A brief note on our session, the first one of the second day. We presented The Ed Report during the first session of day two. Beginning the actual report summary with an invocation ("Sing to us, highly placed anonymous source!") William and I read a greatly shortened version of everything that transpired in The Ed Report, expanding on two themes (selected by the audience) by reading from the Web report itself at two points. It was a lot of fun - I think for the audience, too. Also in our session, Sue Thomas described some interesting results from the trAce online writing community's survey, conducted mainly in the U.K.. The largest group of online writers who responded to their survey were women of age 50-65. trAce sponsors an annual electronic literature competition along with I was pleased to learn (being a writer of non-hypertext electronic literature) that the prize they award will no longer be called the "hypertext" prize, but the "new media writing" prize. Then came the disappointment: the prize is pretty exclusively for Web stuff, with factors such as "groundbreaking web design and site navigation" being mentioned as criteria. This means that certain prize-winning, brilliant electronic literature writers who happen to create interactive fiction instead of Web sites probably won't fare well. The Residents probably wouldn't rank very high on that Web-centric scale, either, were they to create work like Freak Show and enter it. Nor would Stuart Moulthrop, if he decided to shuck off his HTML coil and create an cybertext that is based around a 3-D world, with no surrounding Web page.

Speaking of Stuart Moulthrop, the author of Victory Garden and Reagan Library discussed the need to preserve and sustain our information culture in "After the Gold Rush." I can't agree with his call for micro-payments and unique digital identification for intellectual properties - I still prefer the micro-patronage model of NPR, and hope for a solution that allows free libraries to exist. Moulthrop is certainly right, though, in saying that the context of digital art and writing, and the early formative efforts in the field, are essential and should be preserved. He mentioned Steven Hawking's question, "Why do we remember the past and not the future?" It's often the other way around on the Web, of course. Here, I think the hypertext community has a lot to learn from the efforts of this community, which is making available (freely and openly) interpreters and code to keep programs from 25 years ago alive on every conceivable platform. To give a specific example, a series of fairly obscure IF games from the early 1980s that were written for British mainframe computers can now be played on the Psion handheld, the PalmPilot, and the GameBoy. No joke. Meanwhile, the dominant format for hypertext literature is proprietary, commercial, and barely runs on both Macs and Windows. Major and often-discussed works like John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse were only published for Mac and won't run on modern Macs. The company largely responsible for this situation has also done a huge amount to publish the form to those who otherwise wouldn't be exposed to it and to give hypertext literature the desperately needed credibility it has in the academy, and should be applauded for that. Technologically, however, the situation is indefensible. This should definitely be added as an agenda item for the community.

A panel headed by Adrian Miles discussed how (and whether) hypertext poetics can benefit from using concepts from cinema to understand how text can be "cut" and how transitions can be made between it. Although the fit isn't perfect, I think it's a useful perspective in terms of one's practice. Maybe hypertext authors should also take a look at programmatic media such as (gasp!) interactive fiction, a medium in which text is arranged based on a spatial, map-like layout, and about a dozen or more obvious similarities spring to mind...

On the final day, during the opening session, there was a great panel unfortunately entitled "SurREAL: Dramatis Personae on the Digital Stage." I say unfortunately because the title mangled together the novelistic and dramatic concepts of character, concepts which (as was later pointed out) are not the same.

Lisbeth Klastrup described the program itself as a character that has discernable personality and traits, as when Graham Nelson's Curses will paternalistically not let you continue until you atone for your bad language. Whether this is best considered as an aspect of point of view or one of character is not exactly clear to me, however. Susana Tosca then made some excellent points about "The Player Character in Computer Games," acknowledging that trying to force the player into a "character" role in every sort of game (including, to take an example from Janet Murray, Tetris) is simply not useful. She mentioned how actions are not associated with any symbolic meaning in adventure games (neglecting, I think, several games - virtues must be maintained by one's actions in some of the Ultima games, for instance, and doesn't Curses assign some symbolic value to your uttering foul language?) and pointed out that physical settings can be mapped to other elements of the story, as in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (something that actually was done to great effect by Robert Pinsky in Mindwheel.) Her typology of player character interaction is a good beginning for understanding how PCs differ - when there is an actual player character to consider, as is usually the case in IF. That the player character may be a limiting entity, causing one to consider one type of interaction as the only possible type, is a problem for another discussion.

Jill Walker discussed the second person in electronic fiction, eliciting a grin from me as she referenced Blank and Lebling's Zork I and Afternoon side by side. The "you," she explained, is a rhetorical device in printed fiction, but in hypertext and IF, it can be answered, so it becomes a real form of address. Exquisite use of the second person by Calvino and Brontė was discussed. It's worthwhile to compare certain forms of interactive fiction that don't use the second person, although the second person is the norm. Other examples are the first-person games from Adventure International, and some interactive fiction couched in the third person - for instance, my Winchester's Nightmare. The second-person address clearly isn't a requirement of the IF form, but it can have a very powerful effect - as, I think, at the beginning of Tom Disch's IF work Amnesia.

I've omitted mention of many interesting presentations, and apologize to those presenters. One presentation, by Jay Bolter, I particularly hoped to hear but couldn't, as I was presenting at that time. One presentation I did attend, benefited from, and should have written about was by Gonzalo Fresca on immersive and non-immersive theater. I strongly encourage you to read the Web version (along with looking at the other presentations I've mentioned) when it appears. Outside the sessions I had the opportunity to speak with and learn from some great writers. I spoke with many critics at DAC as well, gaining some new insights that will aid my practice of IF authorship. I also saw some great digital art and learned about what's going out outside the literary realm.

In closing, let me mention that DAC 2001 will be taking place in Providence, Rhode Island at the end of April. It will be hosted by Brown University - the cradle of hypertext! Of course, I hope to see you there.

-Nick Montfort

nm 2000-08