[Please note that this information is preserved exactly as presented on the walls of the gallery, so instructions on ‘How to read this text’ refer to the stations as they appeared during the exhibition.]
Arguably we interact with any medium we come across in some way, shape, or form. We turn the pages of print novels, newspapers, or glossy magazines; we zap between TV channels and tune in and out of radio stations. However, when it comes to reading digital media, we are looking at a far wider range of interactivity. This is because we have to interact with hardware and software at the same time. We use the computer mouse by clicking, rolling, hovering, scrolling, dragging and dropping. We manipulate the computer’s interface by pressing keys to write text, take screenshots or navigate documents. We use our fingers on touchscreen technologies to tap, swipe, switch, and zoom. Some applications even allow us to use our voices to search for information, to record messages, or to produce texts via voice recognition. We might say that interacting with digital media embeds us physically in a communication circuit with the machine we’re using, and the skills we use to read digital literature involve cognitive and kinetic elements.
The exhibits in this gallery reflect this wide range of interactivity. One station focuses on hyperlinks as connections between documents. Another features so-called literary games, which quite literally combine reading and rule-based gameplay. The ‘Breath’ station showcases how respiration can become part of our physical connection with the medium. Finally, you can explore how digital literature talks to ‘you’ as a reader and drags you into the storyworld to make you feel like – or almost like – a fictional character.
Station 6: Breath
Some digital fiction writers have experimented with the ways in which readers can feel physically embodied in the so-called cybernetic feedback loop, i.e., the connections we form with the technologies we interact with. By default we use our hands and fingers to operate the mouse or keyboard, and more recently even the screen itself via touch-screen technologies. A radically less common way of interacting with computer software is via breath – perhaps because breathing is hard to control and having to breathe in certain ways may become tiring in the long run. Yet the vital link between breath, life, physicality, and virtuality has inspired some digital fiction writers.
The Breathing Wall, Kate Pullinger, Chris Joseph, Stefan Schemat (2004)
The Breathing Wall is a gothic murder mystery that tells the story of Lana, who communicates with her boyfriend, Michael, through the wall of his prison cell. She is dead; he’s been falsely convicted of her murder. The Breathing Wall is a unique digital fiction because the narrative responds to and advances with the reader’s rate of breathing. The innovative software used in this work enables the computer to register the physiological effect of the story on the reader and to alter the experience accordingly. The more relaxed the reader becomes, the deeper they enter into the piece.
How to read this text: The story is told in parts, alternating between day-dreams and night-dreams. Click the icon on the desktop and select a Day-dream or Night-dream from the menu. When you have finished reading a ‘dream’ you will need to return to the menu to select another. The day-dreams use image, text, and sound to uncover the tale through a linear multimedia narrative. The night-dreams use video and sound loops. To experience the night-dreams, you will need to use the headset with earphones and a microphone (but placing the microphone under your nose rather than to your mouth). By positioning the microphone under your nose, the night-dreams respond to your breathing. In order to progress the narrative, your breathing rate needs to be slow and calm. Thus the goal of these sections is to induce a hypnotic or meditative state in the reader, allowing her or him to enter The Breathing Wall’s dream sequence.
Station 7: ‘You’
Much like game or software instruction manuals, digital fictions often make extensive use of the second person pronoun, ‘you’. This is because we as readers or players need to interact physically with the software and hardware of the computer to be able to navigate the narrative, and the system tells us what to do whenever this isn’t obvious. Some digital fiction writers have experimented with the effects that different uses of ‘you’ can have on readers: we may either be addressed as readers outside the storyworld, being asked to set specific parameters for reading, such as switching on the computer’s sound or the webcam. But in some uses of ‘you’ we can also be made to feel like we’re part of the storyworld – almost like a character – or somewhere between ourselves and that character, making our world and that of the story blur and flicker. Is this fiction or reality, or both? It is for you to decide.
The Princess Murderer, geniwate, Deena Larsen (2003)
Warning: Due to numerous references to sex and violence, this text is not suitable for readers under the age of 16.
The [somewhat disturbing but highly improbable] Princess Murderer (2003) is a digital fiction made using Flash animation software. It is an adaptation of the 17th century French folk tale, ‘Bluebeard’, in which the wife of a violent aristocrat, Bluebeard, attempts to avoid the murderous fate of her predecessors. The Princess Murderer explores the hypocrisy and misogyny of the original tale via the mindless killing and raping of princesses in the digital storyworld. In this contemporary critique, every click the reader performs with the mouse equals the murder of one princess, and we navigate click-by-click until the Princess Census has fallen to zero. At this point the reader has to start ‘breeding’ princesses by clicking and finding a way through the textual maze of the narrative. Yet what if there are too many princesses in the castle because we’ve bred too many?
This text satirises stereotypical representations of damsels in distress often found in computer games, where typically male heroes have to save typically female victims from typically male monsters. By clicking our way from page to page, we as readers become complicit in the fictional murders and our guilt becomes part of what the text sets out to communicate – after all, we’re directly addressed as ‘you’ by the text and thus partly drawn into the storyworld.
How to read this text: It is important to note that there is no right and no wrong way of navigating this text, and that the narrative is open-ended and multilinear (there are numerous possible reading paths through it). Clues given by the interface are deliberately misleading, and we’re meant to lose ourselves in a maze of signs, images, and symbols. There’s no other way of moving forward than by clicking the left mouse button almost randomly on the image and text links available on the interface. Hint: see what happens as you reach both end points of the Princess Census, and listen out for the sound effects accompanying your reading experience.
Opacity, Serge Bouchardon, Léonard Dumas, Vincent Volckaert, Hervé Zénouda (2012)
Opacity is a four-part narrative which examines the protagonist’s (and possibly our) contradictory desires for transparency and opacity in life. The narrator begins by searching for clarity through complete omniscience and, ultimately, control of his virtual and real existences. Through questioning his own motives for transparency, however, the narrator concludes that some level of opacity and mystery is necessary if intimate relationships are to be maintained.
In this digital context, the motifs of opacity and transparency are enacted visually and gesturally as the reader moves the mouse over parts of the screen to expose images and text and thus progress the narrative. While we are not necessarily invited to sympathise with the narrator, the use of the second person in the third part of the text draws the reader into the narrator’s deliberations. The ‘you’ of the text could be at times the narrator’s wife, the reader at the computer terminal, or a combination of both.
How to read this text: Throughout Opacity, you will need to move the mouse cursor over images and text to advance the narrative. It is a relatively short text and can be read in less than ten minutes.
Station 8: Literary Games
Literary games combine digital gameplay with literary reading. Reader/players must carry out actions that are characteristic of playing computer games: scoring points, collecting items, navigating 2D and 3D gameworlds using avatars, shooting, fighting, dodging, jumping, walking, and running. These activities follow rules which determine what types of goals players have to pursue, and what types of skills they need to develop to level up and win. In literary games, these actions, goals, and skills are interwoven with literary elements such as poetic language (Arteroids) and written narrative segments (The Path).
The Path, Tale of Tales (2009)
Warning: Due to numerous allusions to violence and sex, this game is not suitable for readers under the age of 16.
The Path is a short horror game inspired by older versions of Little Red Ridinghood but set in the modern day. It offers an atmospheric experience of exploration, discovery and introspection through a unique form of gameplay, designed to immerse players deeply into its dark themes. The six protagonists each have their own age and personality and allow the player to live through the tale in different ways. Some of the girls’ thoughts whilst meandering through the endless forest are displayed in the form of interior monologues, much as in narrative fiction. Most of the story, however, relies on the player’s active imagination – what exactly happens when the girls meet ‘their’ wolves, and why are these encounters as inevitable as they are tragic?
How to ‘play’ this text: You can move your avatar forward using your left mouse button. To turn, press the right mouse button. To run, press both mouse buttons at the same time. You can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate your avatar. When you want your avatar to interact with something (an object, plant, animal, or human being) in the forest, simply position her near your target, let go of the controls and see what happens. To access the game menu, press ESC. To access your basket, press the SPACE key. To access your objects map, press CTRL.
Arteroids, Jim Andrews (2006)
Arteroids, a pun on Atari’s blockbuster arcade Asteroids (1979), is a shoot-em-up poetry game. According to its author, Jim Andrews, it’s about ‘the battle of poetry against itself and the forces of dullness’. Players steer their text avatar (the word ‘poetry’) using the arrow keys and shoot approaching fragments of texts with the x key. In ‘play mode’, players can enter their own words to play against their own texts, shoot them, or be killed by them. The goal is to max out the ‘meanometer’, which gets higher with each text you shoot. In ‘play mode’ you can adjust various parameters such as the density of the texts organised against you, the fictive friction, the speed with which the murderous texts travel towards you, and whether you are mortal or deathless. In ‘game mode’, you simply play what you are given and try to survive the textual onslaught. Scores in ‘game mode’ are saved. Arteroids explores the tension between poetry and shoot-em-up video games and attempts to pass itself off as indeed a poem.
How to ‘play’ this text: Enter a player ID of your choice using the keyboard as prompted (max. 6 characters). Use the arrow keys to navigate your avatar word and press the ‘X’ key to shoot. Experiment between Play and Game mode by choosing from the main menu and reading the instructions for each.
Station 9: Hyperlinks
Many digital fictions use hyperlinks as a means of navigation. Unlike in informational hypertext, however, where the linked term is more often than not suggestive of what the reader will find at the destination screen, the linked term in a digital fiction might not always directly indicate what will be found when it is clicked. The two works at this station use hyperlinks to play with the reader’s expectations and also to make new or ‘defamiliarising’ associations between the hyperlink term and the destination to which it leads.
10:01, Lance Olsen, Tim Guthrie (2005)
10:01 focuses on what goes through the minds of the audience members in an AMC cinema at the Mall of America ten minutes and one second before the feature film commences. The narrative is primarily concerned with the internal musings, memories, and speculations of the cinema goers as they contemplate their place in contemporary American society.
10:01 is a good example of avant-pop – a postmodernist movement in which materials from mass media (e.g. pop music, television, film, comic books, photographs, adverts) are incorporated into literary texts. Published in the same year as the complementary print version of Olsen’s 10:01 (Chiasmus, 2005), this Web-based version of 10:01 is able to incorporate mass media literally by using hyperlinks. Leading to a range of external websites including commercial, tourist, religious, and literary sites, hyperlinks are used both to locate the narrative within its geographical setting and also to explore the characters’ and the ironic, third-person narrator’s views on life.
How to read this text: Readers can experience the narrative chronologically by following the time line at the bottom of the screen or they can navigate the text by following individual characters, clicking on their silhouette on the screen. The text is accompanied by occasional music and/or sound effects, still and moving images, and hyperlinks to external websites.
The Jew’s Daughter, Judd Morrissey, Lori Talley (2006)
The Jew’s Daughter is an interactive, non-linear narrative with multiple meanings and possible reading paths – a storyworld that is dynamic and unstable but nonetheless remains organically intact, progressively weaving itself together by way of subtle transformations on a single virtual page. It is an innovative and unique example of hypertext – one that transforms as you read it. The central story is narrated by a male student reflecting on his complex and often problematic relationship with his partner Eva, his neighbour Richard Nuxman, his landlord Josephine, and others. Yet speakers change throughout this meditative, impressionistic narrative, and we experience several (textual) voices at the same time, echoing in the mind of the protagonist. Like the materiality of the text, the characters portrayed in this narrative are fluid and unstable.
How to read this text: Position the cursor over the page and roll-over the blue words to trigger new text.
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