In A Literatura Cibernética 2: Um Sintetizador de Narrativas [Cybernetic Literature 2: A Narrative Synthesizer] (1980), Pedro Barbosa advocates the same analytical perspective of literary machines, which he had begun in the first volume. Influenced by Max Bense and Abraham Moles, the author develops the idea of “artificial text,” which would be later challenged by E. M. de Melo e Castro (1987), in the sense that Castro’s transmedia stance considers that all texts, produced over time with the aid of various technological tools, are always artificial.
Remember those chain emails your most obscure contacts would send you during the wee hours of the night that read something like “IF U DON’T FWD DIS A CREEPY CRAWLY GHOST OF A GIRL WILL COME OUT OF DA CLOSET AND KILL U” ?
Well they’re back. And they’re coming to get you for not forwarding all those emails.
Slightly modifying the “cut-up” technique of Dadaist and Modernist writers in her digital work, “Blue Hyacinth,” Pauline Masurel encourages her readers not to destroy the original four poems, but rather jumble them together, stir them up, and weave them in a way that shares in the creative process of generating an individualized text. By presenting “Blue Hyacinth” as a stir-fry work (using Jim Andrews’ “Stir Fry Texts” framework) that allows readers to reflect on the original poems, Masurel is changing the author-reader relationship. Masurel ensures that readers become extensions of herself by encouraging readers to manipulate her writings and fashion a text that becomes less a traditional example of poetry and more a collaborative piece shared between individual reader and writer. With “Blue Hyacinth,” Masurel crafts a space where traditional print culture roles fade and are replaced by their mutable digital counterparts. Never once just a reader or an author, those that encounter “Blue Hyacinth” are able to exercise a semblance of autonomy that is novel to texts within the digital medium.
This webyarn takes us on a journey through the mind of the speaker triggered by ingredients while he explores his kitchen. The speaker makes a bizarre connection between seven ingredients (flour, pepper, sugar, salt, olive oil, vinegar, thyme) and his romantic relationship with a woman who has abandoned him. It is structured as a linear narrative that follows the same pattern with each kitchen ingredient: the revealing of the ingredient, the explanation its historical significance or its use in both positive and negative ways, a video is incorporated as a companion, and finally the connection between the ingredient, the speaker, and his relationship.
Similarly to another one of Bigelow’s works, “In a World Without Electricity,” the speaker of “The Seven Wonders” reconstructs past events in order to make sense of them. In the earlier work, the speaker reminisces over the death of someone close to him, while in “The Seven Wonders” the speaker examines his seemingly finalized amorous relationship with a long gone woman in the hopes of finding closure.
Each ingredient serves a purpose. The speaker is comparing each one to romantic relationship and its components. By doing so, in sixteen days the speaker comes to terms with the apparent end of his relationship. The flour represents the foundation any relationship should have, and without which it can crumble. Pepper is the most traded spice in the World which the speaker compares to how people use superficial love to spice up a burgeoning relationship. The speaker is implying that “love” has been cheapened and commercialized the same way pepper has. Next comes sugar and so on with the remaining ingredients. The photos of the ingredients are in close, macroscopic scale, comparable to the way the speaker is analyzing his relationship, and also evoking the monumental Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The GIFs represent the journey the absent lover is taking starting at the Niagara Falls and ending…
Well that’s for you to discover, dear reader.
A thrilling courtroom drama delivered through a medium which blurs the line between visual and textual narratives, Ace Attorney, whose first release in 2001 proved unexpectedly popular in the West, can be counted among the works most responsible for bringing the visual novel paradigm to the mainstream. It, along with selected others which can be strictly categorized as true “visual novels”, such as:
…are most easily described as text-based adventure games which require minimal player input, since visual novels are formally labelled as ‘computer games’ by society at large. In practice, however, they are essentially a novel-length narrative retold through text and animation.
Nanette Wylde’s Storyland (2002) is a digital work that produces recombinant narratives within a frame that seeks to evoke the ethos of a circus performance. Each story within Storyland opens with a black screen, the title of the work lighting up in a randomized configuration of multi-coloured letters to a shortened subsection of of Louis-Philippe Laurendeau’s ‘Thunder and Blazes’ (1910), a small-band reworking of Julius Fučík’s Opus 68 march, ‘The Entrance of the Gladiators’ (1897). The stories within Storyland follow a basic six paragraph template, and are refreshed each time the user presses the ‘new story’ button. Each time this button is pushed, the page refreshes by playing its music again and produces elements in a new combination in order to tell the user a different narrative, seemingly depicting a whole new performance, although elements of the previous tale are displaced and repeated within each new tale.
The Play Creatividad Editions are more than illustrated editions of Edgar Allan Poe’s texts. The reader can interact with the illustrations to discover what lies beneath (and, Poe being Poe, what lies beneath is generally a nasty surprise). The tales have been supplied with sound and music. But not with the kind of music that one would expect of a repetitive video game: each text has its own piece with a mood and rhythm that complements it perfectly. It is a labor that requires ideas, but also talent and love.
If we take “The Oval Portrait,” for example, the music is sweet and haunting, ultimately sad. The opening of the story, which describes the “chateau” in which the narrator will discover the oval portrait, is set over a grey scene on the background of which is the mansion, illuminated by the moon and surrounded by grey pine trees. In many of the illustrations, the movement of the device causes them to shift their angle. When we least expect it, the howl of the wolf merges with the melody.
As we advance in the tale, we discover that some of the phrases of the story are emphasized by using a darker and larger font. Eventually, the candlelight, allows us to illuminate the oval portrait, just after the narrator has discovered it.
The degree to which “The Oval Portrait” achieves the merging of the interactive features and multimedia elements with the original text goes beyond what the reader would expect. In a print edition, for example, we read:
And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice: ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!
This could be modified with clever design, but in iPoe, we have a story presented with skilled subtlety. In one screen we have:
And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice:
The typography of the last phrases bold and increasing in size (in the iPhone version, the iPad has the same size through that paragraph, as it can be seen in the image above) perhaps referring to the state of excitement exhibited by the character. In the next page we have the portrait, covering blurry letters.
The reader is forced to move the portrait out of place to discover the dead woman and the text above the corpse: “‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”
The wonder is of iPoe’s “The Oval Portrait” is that it can enhance the reader’s experience. This is not just Poe’s text in a new edition, it is Poe for the 21st century reader. I, for one, will never teach Poe from print again.
In the next few weeks, a series of entries will appear here that will concern themselves with the notion of a digital rebirth, a sort of digital reincarnation of printed texts. These entries will not refer to merely digitized versions of classic texts. Instead, they will highlight digital publications that present printed texts in a completely new light and that share with born-digital literature the need to be read in specialized devices.
In March last year, my attention was caught by iPoe, an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories specifically designed for mobile devices. In turn, this sparked my interest in other similar publications and my involvement in the CantApp, an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales conceived for reading in mobile phones and tablets which will be published this year. This reimagining of classical texts for modern multimedia devices is what I refer to as born-again digital literature.
10:01 is a hypertext novel set in a movie theater during the ten minutes running up to the screening of the film. The text was published in 2005 in The Iowa Review Web. It consists of the image of a darkened cinema where black silhouettes sit in various rows. This image serves as one of the possible ways to navigate the text. By clicking on a figure, we read from one to five texts, each of them advancing the narrative. The text can also be navigated by using the time bar, but the reader does not feel constrained to read it chronologically. Each of the characters has its own story, which is told by an omniscient narrator that has access to their innermost feelings, hopes, fears and desires.
Even though critics like Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin and Hans Rustad describe it as a “Web-based version of Olsen’s print Novel” (Analyzing Digital Fiction, Routledge 2014), the authors state in the credits that: “A print version of 10:01 that complements rather than reiterates this hypermedial version is available from Chiasmus Press.”
The novel is built using a combination of HTML and Flash, which allows video and sound when required by the story. The sounds represent a particularly significant contribution to this work, by setting both tone and pace. The text also presents hyperlinks (although some of them are broken) which alternatively illuminate or complicate it. The brilliancy of this work resides in the shifting tone, from harsh and critical to satirical and funny. If you would like to know how a real shrunken head ends up in a cinema in the Mall of the Americas, you should read it. You might also discover that “America… is a land of excellent pies.”
Featured in The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1.
Rob Wittig’s 1999 digital text The Fall of the Site of Marsha chronicles the changes to the website of the narrative’s protagonist, Marsha, through the spring, summer and fall of 1998. The narrative opens with three narrative threads, each of which corresponds to the state of the website during the season indicated. The reader can click on each thread in order to view the website during that phase, and navigate it as one would have conventionally navigated any website’s homepage. Marsha’s website focuses on Throne Angels, a subclass of Angels that are conventionally associated with the Throne of God and therefore linked to divine justice and authority. Marsha’s original intent in creating the website is to produce these angels as beautiful and protective, asking people to share angel stories and linking these angels to her own performance of spiritual renewal. She intends to use the website to cheer herself after having been depressed due to the loss of her job and the death of her father. However, as time passes, Marsha’s website is vandalized repeatedly in order to reveal the unsaid buried beneath Marsha’s statements, and this vandalism is ascribed to the Throne Angels and their thirst for justice and divine retribution. Marsha’s invitation to the Angels to play on her website results in its vandalism and in Marsha’s own descent into depression and madness upon having to confront the events they reference or reveal.
As is characteristic of the gothic genre, Wittig’s tale plays upon the pervasive fears of one’s current society; that is, The Fall of the Site of Marsha reveals the societal horrors associated with current aging middle-class women – that of alienation, depression, affairs, and family secrets revealed. Wittig’s modern gothic tale allows for the reader to read the events chronologically and note the changes made to the website’s homepage and its various links as these reveal the larger narrative in play; i.e. Marsha’s complicated relationship with her father, her husband’s affair with her best friend, Elizabeth or “Bits”, and Marsha’s own depression and issues with self-perception. Playing with conventions of terror, unheimlich or the uncanny, death and the supernatural to advance its narrative, Marsha’s presumption of Angels being protective and nurturing is revealed to be false. Instead, they are shown to be vengeful and unrelenting in their pursuit of what they feel to be the “truth”. Yet despite the fact that these acts of vandalism are ascribed to vengeful Angels seeking justice, this claim cannot be verified and the reader remains aware that this vandalism could very easily be the work of Marsha’s husband, Mike, or an unknown hacker. However, given that the vandal is aware of events that are otherwise unknown by anyone other than Marsha, the events continue to seem uncanny and inexplicable, and linked to the supernatural.
The website moves from a relatively clear, ornate interface to one that is darker, largely unreadable, and has numerous additions that are then marked as strike-throughs, misspellings, and cut up or manipulated pictures. This movement of the website from seeming innocence to decay and ruin creates the gloomy and frightening scenery that is conventionally associated with the gothic genre. The image of the changed website thus not only recalls its origin as clean and thriving, but displays its downfall as the result of the hidden secrets that lay under its façade.
Featured in: Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1