II. Interactive narratives
First, we must take a more specific look at the concept of 'interactive narration'. Narrative fiction in general can be described with a three-level model: 1) the Text describes how; 2) the narrator tells what; 3) the characters do/perceive (Tammi 1992). The notion of 'text' with regard to hypertext is problematic, as is demonstrated in numerous treatises. The main argument in (almost) all of them is that there are no fixed boundaries for hypertext. This is an argument which works in two different modes: as Roland Barthes--and many after him--has shown, the reader's activity in any reading causes the Text to diffuse to an infinite number of other (cultural) Texts. On another level, hypertext links 'concretize' the former model, bringing hypertext into relation with numerous other Texts. While the first sense of the openness of Texts is true of hyperfiction Texts also, the latter one is valid only when dealing with 'real hypertexts,' that is, with hypertexts using external links in addition to internal links. But the hyperfictions I'm dealing with here DO NOT use external links, which radically undermines the claim of unfixed borders for these Texts. To say Afternoon, Victory Garden, or Patchwork Girl are limitless and thus infinite, is acceptable only in the sense that all Texts (printed as well as electronic) are unfixed. So in this paper I do not find the notion of 'text' any more problematic than it is with printed fiction. And because these hypertexts as a whole are created by their authors, who, in addition to providing the reader with text lexias and links between them, can also program different kinds of restrictions to links thus controlling the readers' possibilities; it is obvious that interaction cannot occur at the level of 'Text'.
The lexias provide the reader with characters and actions, that is, the level of 'what characters do/ perceive.' It is true that these actions can be interpreted in quite different ways, depending on the order of reading the lexias--a phenomenon described by Jane Y. Douglas in her introduction to Victory Garden. Thus the reader's choices do affect the level of the fictional, represented world, but only in a limited manner. Using the distinction made by Russian formalists, the effects on the level of fabula (the story as a chronological chain of events) are caused by choices made on the level of sjuzet (the story as told). This distinction between fabula and sjuzet has seen many redefinitions--the most significant of which is the introduction of a third level, narration (the things connected to the narrator and to the narration as an act)--and also criticism. The most powerful criticism against this distinction is the claim that there is no pre-existing fabula (represented world), but it is created only after, and depending on, the sjuzet/ narration.>2 This last remark is most important when dealing with hyperfiction; Jay David Bolter for example has claimed of Afternoon: "We could say that there is no story at all; there are only readings" (Bolter 1990, 124). In effect, what Bolter is saying about hyperfiction is, there is no story (fabula), but only plots (sjuzets).
Since the structure of hyperfiction Text is pre-defined, the reader's choices have the effect of: 1) determining what lexias (parts of story/ stories) are read--which, since the existing hyperfictions are limited to a moderate number of lexias, in practice collapses into, 2) determining the order in which the lexias are read. So if we use the three-level model--story, plot, narration--in which plot is understood somewhat simplistically, as the order of telling the events, the reader's interaction occurs at the level of plot, but in addition he/she has a significant task in making decisions about the narrative voice. And as mentioned earlier, the decisions made at the level of plot do affect the level of story. To sum up, the reader's choices have effects on all three levels, story, plot, narration, but the concrete interaction occurs at the level of plot.>3
Each lexia has a narrative voice, and actually, each lexia in isolation functions according to the general narratological models. As Landow puts it, "Although conventional reading habits apply within each lexia, once one leaves the shadowy bounds of any text unit, new rules and new experience apply" (1992, 4). With hyperfiction narratives, the most prominent problem is identifying the narrator or focaliser in each lexia; closely linked to this is the problem of the temporal dimension. There are at least three temporal levels involved when reading fiction: story time, narration time, and reading time. Trying to establish the place of each lexia in relation to story time, and also in relation to narration time, as well as the identity of narrator/ focaliser, functions in hyperfiction reading very much the same way as in printed fiction--the main difference being the intentional vagueness of many hyperfiction lexias (a practice not unfamiliar to modern and postmodern printed narratives as well). By this method the reader is 'empowered.'
A reader of interactive hyperfiction mainly has control over the order of story events. There are different ways to establish this possibility, but usually the reader's primary decision is whether to follow the 'default' story line or chooses an alternative one. The intentionality of choice is usually heavily restricted, making the choosing seem quite random to the reader. This randomness is denied by the instructions to Victory Garden, which claim that "links are complex and subtle, but never random." From the viewpoint of the hyperfiction author this is obviously true, but for the reader it is not as obvious. George Landow and Paul Delany have described the rhetorical devices of hypertexts, stating that each link should provide the reader with adequate information about the link, e.g., departure and arrival information (1993, 19). This of course cannot be applied as such to hyperfiction, but it has some relevance for it, too. For as long as the reader doesn't know the effects of his/her choices, the interaction seems random. Randomness naturally has its own role in aesthetics, (and can be used intentionally to some degree).>4 But if a reader cannot forsee the consequences of the choices he or she is presented with, the interaction collapses into mere guessing. One of the possible solutions to this problem is the use of visual navigating devices for the reader--which Landow sees as one of the most efficient devices for the intellectual mapping of hypertext (Landow 1994, 85; cf. Slatin 1994, 165). These navigating tools are my main focus here and the 'visual' in my title should be restricted to this meaning: visuals as aid to interface.
Every computer needs some kind of interface. Brenda Laurel has
developed a theory of interfaces based on the model of theater
in which she states that the aim for interface designs should
be to create a representational context in which people can participate
as agents, stripped of the 'metacontext' of the interface as a
discrete concern (9). One of Laurel's theses is that using an
interface should already establish a shift from the 'user as audience'
to the 'user as actor on stage' (17). There is one small but significant
part in the hyperfiction that establishes the user's (reader's)
presence in the representational world: the cursor-arrow, with
which he/she controls the hypertext. But Laurel's account in itself
is not enough to handle hyperfiction, since for her the 'representational
world' is the interface itself, which in the case of hyperfiction
is the level of text on the screen.>5 But since the text on screen exists in order to produce another
(possibly multilevelled) representational world, that is, the
fictional world, the matter gets complicated. The cursor does
not mark the reader's presence in that world. Because the textual-fictional
world is the center of interest for hyperfiction authors as well
as readers, it is understandable that hyperfiction interfaces
are constructed to draw as little attention to themselves (to
the metacontext as Laurel says) as possible. On the other hand,
the more interactivity (or even proactivity) the hyperfiction
aspires to, the greater the distance from the fictional world;
in other words, high interactivity makes the 'willing suspension
of disbelief' required in experiencing fiction more difficult.
It is in this sense that I understand Michael Joyce's comment
that one of the stories of hyperfiction is always the story of
its own telling (Joyce 1996, 160). There are, though, ways to
use interfaces so that the fictional illusion is not badly disturbed.>6
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