Combinatory Digital Poetics, CYOA Books and Their Limitations

As I read through Scott Rettburg’s description of procedural and syntactic poetry in Electronic Literature, I found myself comparing a lot of similarities between this genre and CYOA books. 

Rettburg points out that with procedure and syntactic poetry, “they typically involve elements of chance and surprise, constraint and variability, and explore the poetic and narrative potentialities of text machines” (38). The chance and surprise that Rettburg notes here is evident in the two pieces we looked at today – Jason Nelson’s This is how you will die and Nick Montfrot’s Taroko Gorge. In Nelson’s piece, each spin produces a new narrative of various death scenarios. The randomness of the stories one reads based off of the slot machine and the surprise of various videos, and short poems that Nelson implements in his game showcases the elements of chance and surprise. Not only that in Montfort’s piece, there is an endlessly scrolling poem and when I refreshed it each time, it started out with a different line. There are many different possibilities and surprises embedded within Montfort’s work, especially because there are so many different combinations. The surprise and chance that is shown in Nelson’s and Montfrot’s piece reminds me of the CYOA maps and books we explored. Depending on which choice a reader made, the storyline could also alter. Rettburg also mentions that “running the program multiple times and analyzing output from the same generator allows us to consider and decipher the program’s structure” (42). This is exactly what we did when we mapped out our CYOA books – we saw which choices were “prioritized” and how the choices of the reader dictated the endings. Both of these genres show that language and storytelling does not have to be stagnant and restrictive, rather it can be used as a tool to generate different possibilities. 

As I was going through the two pieces assigned for class today, I was also thinking about the question that was posed in class: What is critical to understanding these pieces? I discussed with my classmates that the source material was vital, especially because it dictates the narrative that is told. The user, whether they know it or not, is limited by the choices of the author. This was seen in the game Travesty which is described by Rettburg as “a text generator in the form of procedural operation by the program on any given text” (38). The user is able to select the source material and Travesty generates text using the source vocabulary and substituting elements of the text (38). In the example that is given, this generator preserves the style of the original text and that not only speaks to the sourcing material, but also the programming itself. Because the text generator uses the original source to create its new piece and the way this piece is programmed, it makes sense that the new text is similar to the source. When we looked at 100 Billion Poems and created sonnets from the base poems, the “new” poems could differ vastly from the base poems, but we were still limited to those poems.

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