The Many Ends of Network Fictions: Gamebooks, Hypertexts, Visual Novels, Games and Beyond

Abstract (in English): 

This paper presents a digital humanities structural approach to branching stories across several media forms and genres over the past six decades – with special attention to patterns of endings in different narrative networks, as well as meta-patterns that mark the beginnings and endings of genres of branching literature.

Studies of hypertext fiction have long been preoccupied with endings in two distinct senses: on the one hand, narrative endings (a multiplicity or absence of ends); on the other hand, the immanent ends of genres (with hypertext fiction either challenging genres that came before or succumbing to genres that came after). It is in this first sense of the shape of stories that J. Yellowlees Douglas asked “How Do I Stop this Thing?” (1994). The title of her “The End of Books--or Books Without End?” (1999) plays on both senses of hypertext as genre-disruptive and unusually structured -- while at the same time riffing on Robert Coover’s 1992 New York Times editorial on hypertext “The End of Books.” However, the same year that Yellowlees was riffing on the genre-ending power of hypertext, Markku Eskelinen stated at Digital Arts and Culture 1999 that it had itself been ended: “Hypertext is dead -- Cybertext killed it”, a proclamation that Montfort took this up in his 2000 review “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star.” And, as we suspected (and new craze for branching path fictional forms in recent years has confirmed), the reports of hypertext fiction's death were greatly exaggerated.

These are not notes on a debate, but rather observations that hypertext fiction (and electronic literature more broadly) has always been ending – ending other genres and forms, and ending in itself. So too it has always held within its structure the immanent promise and threat of too many narrative endings, or too few, or indeed no endings at all.

Indeed, these two senses of an ending for branching stories – narrative structural novelty and genre novelty – are deeply connected. If we wish to think about the genre novelty or ephemerality of hypertext, structure matters. From this observation the paper proceeds into a data driven structural survey of the specific narrative shapes of many individual branching stories across many genres – programmed instruction texts since the 1950s, “Choose Your own Adventure” gamebooks since the 1970s, hypertext fiction since the 1980s, and several more recent genres, including interactive plot-branching comics, Visual Novels, and Twine indie games / e-lit. Using network database representations of the shapes of large collections of interactive stories gives us a unique insight into the many ways that genres of branching narrative do and do not end as the change across electronic (and non-electronic) literary forms. What emerges is not a cybertextual typology, but rather a complex taxonomy of the shapes of stories, shapes which are always ending yet never end. The presentation will briefly address digital humanities techniques for modeling electronic literature, including graph databases such as Neo4j and information visualizations implemented with software tools such as yEd and Gephi. Data sources include the Deena Larsen Collection at MITH and the Demian Katz Gamebook Archive at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

(Source: ELO 2015 Conference Catalog)

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Hannah Ackermans