Reflecting on my Blog Posts

After reading over my blog posts from throughout the semester, I had a few different observations. First of all, I noticed that in virtually all of my posts, a reoccurring factor was that I often connected my own personal experience to the readings and works of electronic literature that we examined in class. Most of my posts consisted of a short summary of a work we looked at for the day’s class, followed by a deeper analysis linking the work to a class reading, a central theme, another work of electronic literature, or all three.

An observation I had about my blog posts that somewhat surprised me was that for all of my blog posts except my post about DAKOTA, where I embedded a YouTube video, the piece of illustrative media I used was either a screenshot or an image taken from Google, meaning that I never utilized a GIF or an audio file in my posts. This was a bit surprising because I knew that I was a visual learner, which probably explains my constant use of images as opposed to other forms of media, but I hadn’t taken the time to examine all my blog posts as a single entity before.

Overall, I think the blog posts were a helpful way to process the different works we examined over the course of the semester and tie them into both our class readings and our personal experiences. They were also a good way to get us thinking about the material in an academic manner, and helped me personally to move beyond the simple question of whether I liked or disliked a text.

“Pry” Port Project Artist Statement

For my project, I chose to convert Chapter 2 of the interactive novella app “Pry” into Twine. This chapter of “Pry” follows the protagonist, James, a war veteran who works at a demolition site with his boss and former squadron member, Luke, while experiencing visions and flashbacks of his time in The Gulf War and dealing with PTSD, increased vision problems, and self-induced guilt over the death of his friend and crush, Jessie. I figured it would be interesting to do a close reading of this specific chapter of “Pry” because it includes many different visual and audible elements that I thought would be a challenge to port into Twine while still attempting to retain the core elements of the original story and having humility towards the text.

In the original version of Chapter 2 of “Pry,” the player has limited agency, and can only choose between two repeated actions: opening and closing the narrator/protagonist’s eyes. I decided to replicate this limited agency by solely allowing the reader the same two choices after every scene, and I made this conscious choice because it seemed to me like an integral part of the experience of playing through “Pry.” Another choice I made was not including any sounds or images. In order for the reader and for myself as the creator to get the full port-to-Twine experience, I chose to omit sounds and images and to recreate the experience of playing through Chapter 2 using only text. But in order to take away these two essential elements of the original novella, it was necessary to replace them with something; therefore, I also chose to write my own textual descriptions of the visual and audio elements of “Pry,” shown in the plain, non-italicized text in each scene of my project. A further choice that I made was styling the font to make it look more similar to the thin serif font of “Pry,” rather than the thick default Twine font. Finally, in an attempt to retain the interactive feel of “Pry,” I utilized second-person pronouns instead of first-person pronouns for the narration of James’ actions and thoughts.

Visually, my port project is drastically different from the original app, but the Twine version of “Pry” reveals some important observations about the original work. Firstly, one of the effects of porting the app to Twine is that it allows the player to undo choices they have made, by way of the sidebar. This makes for a loss of the player’s curiosity that was alive in the original work; the fact that you had to restart the entire chapter of “Pry” in the app in order to make different choices was frustrating, but it also sparked an interest and drive to replay each segment until the player earned all four completion diamonds for every chapter. The creation of the undo button may have made for a more pleasant experience when reading Chapter 2, but it lost some of its intrinsic meaning as well.

Secondly, the addition of audio and video is truly essential to the essence of “Pry,” and this was something that could not be translated through a port to Twine. These interactive elements make the work much more immersive and interactive than the Twine version, despite the inclusion of choices between different actions. In the words of Janet Murray in Chapter 3 of her work, Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), the removal of these ways of experiencing the work change the story’s spatial quality (one of the four essential properties of digital environments), which is “created by the interactive process of navigation.” It does not abolish that property entirely, however, but merely adjusts it, since my addition of narrative text serves as a replacement to help the reader feel as if they are moving through the story world.

Another essential property of digital environments that my port of “Pry” fulfilled was the procedural property, or, as Murray denotes, the “defining ability to execute a series of rules.” This property can be well visualized through a medium such as Twine, because both in the creation of the game and the execution of it, the process is very formulaic. When creating a Twine game, the actions are very repetitive—write a new passage, create links for the end of the passage, and write a new passage that corresponds to the last one—and the same is true for playing a Twine game, where the actions include reading the text and clicking on the different links within it.

Furthermore, my port of “Pry” fulfilled the participatory property, meaning that it is responsive to the reader’s input. It is impossible for the story to move forward and advance without the reader clicking through the choices, and this melding of the procedural and participatory elements means that the work is also interactive. This participatory quality is, in my opinion, one of the appealing things about utilizing Twine as a platform, especially when a Twine game contains a number of different endings, as it lends an endearing sense of replayability to the works. 

The fourth and final property of digital environments that my port of “Pry” fulfilled is the encyclopedic property, which allows for large amounts of data and information to be stored. My project accomplishes this through the Twine program itself; there is no limit to the number of passages the author can write or to the number of connections that can be made between passages. The encyclopedic element of digital environments, as Murray explains, makes them “a compelling medium for narrative art,” because the creator is not restricted by any limits, from number of pages to file size. 

Another reading from our class that ties into my port project is Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality 2 (2015), specifically the chapter entitled “The Many Forms of Interactivity.” In this work, the author goes into detail about each of what she calls the levels of interactivity, and both the original version of “Pry” and my port of it are examples of Ryan’s second level of interactivity: Interactivity Affecting Narrative Discourse and the Presentation of the Story. “On this level,” writes Ryan, “the materials that constitute the story are fully predetermined, but here the order in which the story is told is highly variable.” When moving through the story of “Pry” and through my project, the reader, by making choices, can alter the order of the different scenes (by prolonging or speeding up the “now” scenes, for example), but they cannot fundamentally change the story or the events that occur within it, and will reach the same ending each time they go through the chapter.

In porting this text from an interactive novella/game to a Twine game, I ended up doing a close reading of Chapter 2 of “Pry” and taking a hard look at what I thought of as its “essence” to see whether it was truly translatable into another medium. After going through the chapter many times, I concluded that the essence of the work included not only the thoughts that James had in text form, the subconscious images and words, and the outward vision of his surroundings in the present, but also the emotional effect that the story had on the player, which was definitely the most laborious aspect to translate from one medium to another. It is difficult, furthermore, to calculate the different levels of emotional effects this work has from person to person, since such an effect is extremely subjective. Therefore, it is even more complicated to attempt to create a narrative solely through the use of text that is as impactful and meaningful as the narrative involving audio, visuals, and a first-person perspective. However, despite these obstacles, I tried my best to make the descriptions as similar as possible to the original multimedia aspects of the chapter in order to fully capture the “essence” of this section of “Pry.”

To synthesize, the process of this port project taught me firsthand how incredibly challenging it is to try to produce something radically different from an original work while still having, as Eliot Weinberger so eloquently states in his book, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987), “absolute humility toward the text.” Furthermore, this project revealed to me how incredibly fine the line is between making a port, based on a prior work, that is new and bold, and creating something that is no longer recognizable as the source material it was based on. This brings up the question of authorship we discussed various times earlier this semester, but this time with a second human “author” or “creator” instead of a robotic or digital one: am I, and all of us who ported a work into another medium, true “authors,” or are we co-creators, and is there a difference between the two? To sum up, the experience of porting this work from one medium to another was incredibly valuable because it gave me the opportunity to apply everything we learned in this course to the experience of creating a single work, and by doing so, delve deeper into the inner workings of both the Twine program and the “Pry” story.

Works Cited

Murray, Janet H. “Chapter 3.” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997, pp. 65–94.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “The Many Forms of Interactivity.” Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2015, pp. 160–185.

Dysfunctionality and a Lack of Player Agency

It occurred to me while reading the description for “Perfect World” that, in all the works that we’ve looked at so far that fall under the “dysfunctional” category, there has been a distinctive lack of player agency. In 17776, all you as the reader had to do was scroll through the story, watch the videos, and click “continue” to progress to the next chapter, but there were no player choices that would impact the final outcome or change the story in any way. In The Gathering Cloud, all you did was mouse over the words in red to reveal mysterious sentences and click through to each of the “plates,” but again, with no choices to make or ways to impact the text. These two works seemed to be more about creating texts that people could read rather than games where the player could change the story by interacting with it.

On the other hand, “Perfect World,” being a Twine game, gave off the illusion of player agency, since there were different choices to make that changed the storyline somewhat, but it ended the same every time, with a sense of defeat and sadness and a thoroughly glitched page of unreadable text. After going through the work a couple of times, trying and failing to get a different ending, I ended up scrolling down to read the author’s description of the work, and found an interesting statement within it.

The author says in the description that “Perfect World” is one of his works that is “built around deconstructing player agency in different ways.” I thought this was interesting on its own, since the use of Twine gives the player choices, but your agency is compromised since the endings are all the same no matter what choices you make along the way. However, later I started thinking about the other “dysfunctional” works we’ve looked at this week, and I realized that this lack of player agency applied to all of them. My question is, is it merely a coincidence that all these works lack player agency, or is it part of what makes a work dysfunctional?

Screenshot of the description beneath “Perfect World.” (Click image for source)

“Horse Master” and The Power of Twine

When we mentioned Twine in class this past week, it sounded a bit boring or uniform to me; after all, how different could individual stories be if they always followed the same text-based format?

The obvious answer to this question, after exploring various Twine works such as “My Father’s Long, Long Legs,” “Hana Feels,” and “Horse Master,” is that Twine stories can indeed be very different from each other. Each of the different works we had to explore for Monday’s class had an impact on me, but “Horse Master” in particular is one that I’m sure will stay with me for a long time to come. The game’s strange use of language and pet simulator-type gameplay eventually morphs into a strange perversion of a horse show, which is equal parts exciting  (because this is what the entire act of raising your horse leads up to) and horrifying (due to its gruesome events). I went into this game knowing no background about it, which I’m glad for; I didn’t know what to expect, and this made the experience even more memorable and powerful.

The game’s title screen features an innocent pixelated image of a cowboy riding his horse in a desert, which, after a playthrough of the game, seems to be either an entirely unrelated concept or a sly way to twist the player’s expectations before beginning the game.

The simple pixel art image that appears on the game’s title page. (Click image for source)

After playing through these works, I’ve certainly changed my mind about Twine; it’s a simple, but incredibly powerful tool that utilizes the game creator’s imagination and use of language to build characters, stories, and even entire worlds. The program only requires text, and this is precisely what makes it so fascinating. There’s no need for graphics or fancy CSS coding, just the author’s story and the reader’s imagination, and they can be as interactive as a video game or as passive as reading a novel. The fact that Twine has no boundaries, demands no coding experience, and allows for anyone to create a work are three factors that prove its universal appeal, and it has even inspired me to (perhaps someday) create a Twine work myself.

Let’s Play Project: Queerskins

For my Let’s Play Project, I chose the work “Queerskins” by Illya Szilak. “Queerskins” is a digital novel that integrates multiple forms of media, including audio files, video files, text files, and photography, to create a narrative story centered around a gay physician named Sebastian, who comes from a rural Missouri Catholic family and dies at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

“Marble Springs” and the Database as Sublime

When I started going through the 1993 version of “Marble Springs,” I quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that was available on every character, location, connection, and storyline the work contained. I wanted an easy way to gain information about the narrative of the work, without having to go through and click each link to slowly and patiently collect bits and pieces of the narrative. My attempt at navigating through the 2013 wiki version, however, yielded even less satisfaction, and merely served to heighten my sense of being lost in the story. The amount of text that “Marble Springs” encapsulates intimidated me, and this is where the aspect of the database as sublime came in. “Marble Springs” is a man-made, technological, fictional creation, and its immensity, precisely because it is man-made, is what makes it sublime.

As Lev Manovich explains in his chapter on “The Database” in his book, The Language of New Media, “the database represents the world as a list of items,” while “a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies” (225). This is certainly true for “Marble Springs”; the database format of the work makes it almost impossible for the reader to grasp the overarching narrative of the story without having to go through all, or almost all, of the entries. Reading only a few of the individual characters’ chronicles and poems is not enough to gain a thorough understanding of the themes and importance of the full narrative; gaining a deeper understanding of the work requires, in the case of “Marble Springs,” dedicated hours of going through the text or the wiki by clicking from link to link, and this large amount of time such an endeavor demands is precisely why the database is considered sublime.

A screenshot from the 1993 “Marble Springs” that shows the “connections” between characters. (Source)

Andy Campbell, Stephen King, and the Unease in Uncertainty

While exploring both of Andy Campbell’s works for today’s class, Changed and Dim O’Gauble, I was simultaneously intrigued by their concepts and frustrated at their ambiguity. I wanted to know more information than the works seemed to be revealing (at least on the surface), and despite multiple playthroughs and repeated exploration of the texts, I eventually had to content myself with the knowledge that I wouldn’t fully understand the author’s intention or even the entire plotline of the works, because I wasn’t meant to. However, this uncertainty or lack of knowledge only served to add to the uncanniness of Campbell’s texts.

I don’t watch horror movies, but I do read horror novels, mostly Stephen King’s, and one of the tactics that King uses to instill the reader with fear is his descriptions…or rather, his lack of descriptions. It is a writing technique that I have noticed in other genres as well, but it seems to be most effective in horror stories. When the author purposefully dances around describing a supernatural being or strange person, it adds to our sense of uncanniness rather than detracts from it, because the imagination is limitless, and our brains begin to conjure up ideas that become worse and worse — perhaps even worse than the author themselves imagined.

His breath stopped in a gasp. An almost drowsy terror stole through his veins. Yes. Yes. There was something in here with him, some awful thing the Overlook had saved for just such a chance as this. Maybe a huge spider that had burrowed down under the dead leaves, or a rat… or maybe the corpse of some little kid that had died here on the playground. Had that ever happened? At the far end of the concrete ring, Danny heard the stealthy crackle of dead leaves, as something came for him on its hands and knees. (The Shining, Stephen King)

The above quote is an example of a passage where the author plays on the reader’s imagination in order to create more fear. The hedge animals passage in The Shining is so scary precisely because you don’t know exactly what’s going on. Is it simply a figment of Danny’s imagination or are the hedge animals really alive and coming to kill him?

Andy Campbell’s works, Changed and Dim O’Gauble, while not exactly being horror novels, use the same technique to create the uncanny sense the reader feels while exploring the texts. Changed especially made me uneasy because I didn’t know what traumatic event the protagonist had gone through, but it was obviously bad, and this not knowing made it worse.  It might not be quite as uncanny as some of the creations in the Uncanny Valley, but Campbell’s works provide a unique platform combining text and moving images to make the reader feel uneasy.

Screenshot of the description of “Changed” after you go through the work; I hoped it would provide some insight into what traumatic event the girl experienced, but it retains its mystery. (Source)

“Dakota”: Digital Literature That Breaks Its Own Rules

When I first opened the link to Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ Dakota, my immediate reaction was confusion. Was the page broken? Why was it blank? Then, the thrumming drum beat began in sync with the page color lightening gradually to white, and the first words of introductory text, a countdown from ten to one, flashed onto the screen, disappearing as quickly as they’d materialized. No less confused, I focused all of my attention onto the words appearing in front of me and braced myself for a reading experience different from anything I’d read before. And in this aspect, Dakota definitely did not disappoint.

As I got further along into the story, I grew increasingly frustrated. Some of the text flashed by in less than a second, much too quickly for me, or any reader, to be able to comprehend. What’s the point of having this part of the text if you can’t read it? I wondered. But, as I learned from Jessica Pressman’s “Speed Reading,” removing interactivity from the equation was exactly the authors’ intention.

As we mentioned in class this past week, one of the five elements of digital literature is interaction, or a lack of it. There are no buttons in Dakota to allow the reader to stop, pause, or slow down the rate at which the text appears (or even to pause the music), and this is precisely the point. As quoted in Jessica Pressman’s “Speed Reading,” Young-Hae Chang has said, “My Web art tries to express the essence of the Internet: information. Strip away the interactivity, the graphics, the design, the photos, the banners, the colors, the fonts and the rest, and what’s left? The text” (81-82).  This is a very bare-bones approach to digital literature as we know it.

The YouTube video above, though one could argue is convenient, blatantly defeats the purpose of the work by reintroducing interactivity into the work. This is because, due to the way YouTube as a platform functions, the audience is able to pause, rewind, and fast-forward through the text at will. To someone who hadn’t gone through the original text on Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ website and had simply watched the above video instead, the experience and its impact on the reader would be dramatically reduced. This only further serves to emphasize how radically different Dakota truly is from other forms of digital literature.

Artist Statement: “Concept: People-Watching”

For my Tracery project, I decided to combine the concept of people-watching with the added fantasy element of mythical creatures in order to create a pleasant sense of magical realism. While it lacks a social commentary or satirical attitude, I wanted to create something that was both a possible source of inspiration for creating art (such as character generators), and was simply entertaining for its own sake. To add to this dreamlike effect, I altered the font and background colors of the style.css coding to reflect soft pastel colors and make for a more pleasing aesthetic and reading experience. The three texts I chose to examine in conjunction with my Tracery project are Hamlet on the Holodeck, “The Death of the Author,” and “The Many Forms of Interactivity.”

In Chapter 3 of Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray argues that digital environments are procedural (execute a series of rules), participatory (respond to human input), spatial (represent navigable space), and encyclopedic (comprehensive in terms of information). She concludes with the statement that digital media has evolved and will continue evolving over time as it becomes more and more complex and offers more truths about our world. However, Murray wrote her text in 1997, so the technology it examines is rather outdated. In today’s world of virtual reality and smartphone technology, how do we define a digital environment? Must such a definition change in order to account for our ever-increasing leaps forward in technology?

Furthermore, my project fulfills the first of Murray’s essential properties of digital environments by virtue of being a procedural text generator. It is participatory because it requires human interaction in order for the text to change, and spatial because it occupies a single webpage in the masses of the Internet. Finally, my project is encyclopedic because because it contains different hyperlinks leading to other websites, such as Kate Compton’s Tracery site.

In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Barthes argues that in writing, we look to the author to explain the “true meaning” of a text, when in reality, “it is language which speaks, not the author” (143). The “true place” of the writing is reading; the person we should be focused on when discussing the different ways a work can be interpreted is the reader. All the author does is produce the work, not explain it, and besides, we cannot know exactly what the writer’s intentions were. Every piece of literature has multiple meanings; therefore, readers must separate the author from the work in order to free the text from interpretive oppression. This explains why the intentional fallacy is problematic. But this argument nevertheless brings forth some questions: does this mean that any given piece of literature has no one true meaning? If the author of a work cannot explain what their writing means, who can? Are there as many potential interpretations for texts as there are readers?

Barthes writes, “a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue … but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author” (148). This relates to my project because once I uploaded it publicly to my domain, my interpretation of my work was no longer the most important; rather, putting any text in the public domain leaves it open and available to the varied interpretations of your audience.

Marie-Laure Ryan’s text, “The Many Forms of Interactivity,” names and explains each of the different types of interactivity. The first distinction is between internal and external interactivity, and each of those categories is further subdivided into two further categories, exploratory and ontological interactivity. It then goes on to delineate the different narrative structures that an interactive text can have, and ends with a description of all the possible levels of interactivity for a work. One example that Ryan fails to mention, however, is media other than story-based video games, such as online card or board games. These are obviously interactive as well, but they do not fit neatly into the categories she has created.

My project fits the parameters that Ryan’s work illustrates because it is an example of the internal-exploratory type of interactivity. The reader is viewing the situation from within the text’s world, but it is not a full-fledged text-based RPG, for example, and there are no choices to be made, items to pick up, or different endings to experience.

Overall, this project was an interesting way to relate the concepts we’ve studied to our own first-hand experience, and it definitely gave me a newfound appreciation for procedurally-generated text of all kinds.

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text, Hill and Wang, New York, NY, pp. 142–148.

Murray, Janet H. “Chapter 3.” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997, pp. 65–94.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “The Many Forms of Interactivity.” Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2015, pp. 160–185.

 

The Intentional Fallacy, Authorship, and the Twitter Bot

The intentional fallacy, as we learned in our last class, refers to the fallacy in literary theory of putting more worth in the author’s intention regarding a work than in the reader’s interpretation. But how is this idea of the author’s intention defined when a work has no clear author?

One such example is the case of the Twitter bots we examined in class. The authorship of these programs usually involved one person both writing the text the bot would work with and programming the bot to post the text, but as we know already, a computer program randomly arranges the text and posts it according to a set time increment. This muddies the waters when thinking about authorship or who the true author is, especially in cases where the text being modified was written by a third person. @poem_exe is an example that contains three possible “authors,” or even four if you add in the creator of the technique used to produce its poems.

Randomness, in the case of AIs or Twitter bots, is what upsets our seemingly static notions of authorship or owning rights to works of art. Inserting a computer program that automatically randomizes text into the mix only serves to blur the already-foggy definitions of originality, authorship, and who really owns a work. Robert Hart’s article in Quartz Media explains that currently, “AIs in the US can not be awarded copyright for something they have created.” Despite there being no formal requirement for human authorship in the US Copyright Act, “the courts have always assumed that authorship is a human phenomenon” (Hart). It remains to be seen whether AIs will be able to claim ownership of their creations in the future, but for now, humanity has not yet begun debating the question of AI rights.

A psychedelic art piece created with Google’s DeepDream algorithm (click image for source). Last year, two such pieces sold for $8,000, and the money went to the artists who claimed to own the images.