Types of Electronic Literature
Hypertext Fiction: Fiction created using hypertext, or links within the main text to make a non-linear story. Hypertext fiction was the earliest form of “electronic literature’ and is created using programming code, or programs such as Storyspace or Twine. The Electronic Literature Organization has compiled a selection of hypertext fiction in two parts called the Electronic Literature Collection.(6)
Notable examples include:
Afternoon, A Story by Michael Joyce
Victory Garden by Stuart Moulthrop
Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson
My Body, A Wunderkammer by Shelley Jackson
Interactive Fiction: “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment’ Interactive fiction works can range from text adventure stories to video games.
Notable examples include:
Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) by Will Crowther
Zork (1979) by Infocom
Planetfall (1983) by Steve Meretzky of Infocom
Pry (2014) by Tender Claws(8)
Video Games as Literature: Video games are a modern addition to the electronic literature genre. So new that there are still current discussions and arguments whether or not they qualify under the category. Video games can be thought of as complex interactive fiction utilizing commands from the player to traverse a story that can be short or take over 100 hours to complete.
Notable examples include:
Final Fantasy (1987-present) by Square Enix
Chrono Trigger (1995) by Square Enix
Half-Life(1998) by Valve
Mass-Effect (2007) by Bioware
Journey (2012) by Thatgamecompany
Evolution Of A Genre
In 1877 spoken word recordings began with the invention of the phonograph.(1) In the 1930s the first “talking book’ recordings were made to hold short stories and book chapters. The 1970s were when the term “audiobook‘ became part of the vernacular as cassette tapes entered the public. (3) 1971 was the year officially accepted as the year of the first e-book. Although there were several contenders to the invention of an “electronic book” prior to this, Michael Hart, the founder of the Gutenberg Project, has been accepted as the official inventor of the e-book after creating a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence.
2.2 Early History
In 1975-76 Will Crowther programmed a text game named Colossal Cave Adventure. Considered one of the earlier computer adventure games, Adventure, was a story that had the reader make choices on which way to go. These choices could lead the reader to the end, or to his or her untimely death. This non-linear format was later mimicked by the text adventure game, Zork, created by a group of MIT students in 1977-79. These two games are considered to be the first examples of interactive fiction as well as some of the earliest video games.
The earliest pieces of electronic literature as thought of today were created using Storyspace, software developed by Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce in the 1980s.(2) They sold the software in 1990 to Eastgate Systems, a small software company that has maintained and updated the code in Storyspace up through the present.(5) Storyspace and other similar programs use hypertext to create links within text. Literature using hypertext is frequently referred to as hypertext fiction. Originally these stories were often disseminated on discs and later on CD. (4) Hypertext fiction is still being created today using not only Storyspace, but other programs such as Twine.
2.3 Modern Electronic Literature
While hypertext fiction is still being made and interactive fiction created with text stories and images, there is a discussion over the term, “literature’ being used to describe video games. Though Adventure and Zork are considered videogames, the advancements in technology up until now have evolved the video from text, to action and back to text again. More often than not video games are told as interactive literature where the player makes choices and alters the outcome of the story. Mass Effect’s story is entirely based around these choices. Mass Effect 3 is an even greater example. They change character interactions with the player character and how the game ends.
Other times the games are a story and the player exists to move the plot along. Journey, a game by Thatgamecompany was released in 2012 for the Playstation 3 is more story than game. The titular “journey’ is the trek from start to finish as a character with limited mobility and world interaction. While the player can play with one other player at a time on the network they cannot communicate through traditional means. With no actual words this game takes the player through a world from prologue to epilogue.
In Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, he defines, “ergodic literature’ as literature where, “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.’ (7) Using this definition hypertext fiction and interactive fiction can be considered ergodic literature, and under the umbrella of interactive fiction so can video games. Electronic literature is still evolving to this day. Whether or not videogames are considered Literature is an argument found across the internet, but as Arthur Krystal writes in his article, What is Literature,
“Although examples of imaginative writing arrive in all sizes and degrees of proficiency, literature with a capital L, even as its meaning swims in and out of focus, is absolutist in the sense that all serious writers aspire to it. Although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature’ or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level,’ as Edmund Wilson characterized the Sherlock Holmes stories, but one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature.’(7)
Whether or not video games are considered canonical Literature, they can still be considered literature. As technology evolves, so does electronic literature and the definition of Literature itself.
(1) Matthew Rubery, ed. (2011). “Introduction”. Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies. Routledge. pp. 1—21. ISBN 978-0-415-88352-8.
(2) Bolter, J. David and Michael Joyce (1987). “Hypertext and Creative Writing”, Proceedings of ACM Hypertext 1987, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States, pages 41-50.
(3) Virgil L. P. Blake (1990). “Something New Has Been Added: Aural Literacy and Libraries”.Information Literacies for the Twenty-First Century. G. K. Hall & Co. pp. 203—218. Retrieved March 5, 2014.
(4) Hayles, Katherine. “Electronic Literature: What Is It?” Electronic Literature: What Is It? 2 Jan. 2007. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <https://www.eliterature.org/pad/elp.html#sec2>.
(5) Barnet, Belinda. “Machine Enhanced (Re)minding: The Development of Storyspace.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly:. 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <https://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/2/000128/000128.html>.
(6) “Electronic Literature Collection Volume One.” Electronic Literature Collection Volume One. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <https://collection.eliterature.org/1/>.
(7) Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997
(8) Claws, Tender. “PRY.” PRY. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <https://prynovella.com/>.
(9) Krystal, Arthur. “What Is Literature?” Harpers Magazine. 1 Mar. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <https://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/what-is-literature/>.
When I read the current wikipedia article on electronic literature I was disappointed to find the history section not even about electronic literature. it talked about audiobooks, ebooks and blogs for no reason I can figure out, but it didn’t actually discuss the history of electronic literature. As whoever worked on the page previously stated in the Definitions section, electronic literature is “electronic literature, generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast ‘digital born,’ and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.’ But then it almost immediately throws that away in history to talk about books that were made digital. It’s not the same thing! Then it ends with this throwaway, “digital literature is dreams and thoughts! yay! Here’s a unicorn!’ What I tried to do was rewrite the history section to actually represent the varied history of electronic literature as it started and where it has gone. While we can focus on hypertext here or interactive fiction there, the history of the genre is the sum of its parts from Adventure to Bioshock Infinite (not mentioned in what I managed to get written.) As is, this section for the article is unfinished. As I dug around the internet for pieces of electronic literature I found a wealth of information that would require weeks if not months of curating for a proper Wikipedia edit. There are so many entries that could be added to that pathetic “list of authors/games/whatnot.’ E-lit is not just three pieces of hypertext fiction, it is programming, storytelling, CDs, User interfaces, games and more. I hope I did justice to a good start to a history because while e-lit has only been around for about 40 years it is a very dense history for such a short time.