Twists in the digital tale

By Editor on May 25, 2009 10:06 am

Fascinating and cutting-edge though the evolution of non-linear narratives is, digital interactive fiction has not really taken off commercially. Dr James Pope interacted with 36 readers of hypertext to find out what cut their pleasure short.

REMEMBER THOSE choose-your-own-adventure books? They were kids’ stories which offered the reader a chance on almost every page to choose the direction they wanted the hero to take. ‘Take the mountain pass — go to page 25′, or ‘Take the forest path — page 26′. That kind of thing. Modern-day digital narratives are of course more sophisticated and can be highly complex: the internet and the PC, with an array of multimedia elements, allow much more varied choices for the reader in controlling aspects of the narrative.

For example, a piece such as Of Day, Of Night by Megan Heyward (2004) comes on a nicely packaged CD and asks the ‘reader’ to move around an interactive map, find hidden objects, watch video, and read text, investigating with the main character why she can no longer dream. Because of the range of choices, the reader will effectively create his or her own order of reading: for example, I might initially go to the area called ‘before’, whilst another reader might click on the link ‘realise’. Thus narrative structure, and the reader’s experience of learning about the main character and her story, can vary considerably.

Fascinating and cutting-edge though this evolution of storytelling sounds, these digital interactive fictions have not really taken off commercially, and there are some very good reasons why, as my research with readers discovered. I observed, questionnaired and spoke with 36 readers about their experiences of ‘reading’ a selection of interactive — hypertext — fictions, and armed with my data I would argue that reading interactive fiction can be enjoyable in many ways.

But I also found clear evidence that the experience of non-linear narratives combined with user-unfriendly interfaces can break the significant balance of effort and reward, a relationship which has been identified by such researchers as Nell (1988) and Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 2002) as being essential to reading pleasure.


Reading was typically seen as a relatively passive, relaxing, comfortable activity, across the 36 participants, even those who were more specialised in the use of interactive media. Hypertext reading however was often seen as work, compared to reading for pleasure.

This reaction might well be generated by a reader-response study of ‘difficult’ print fiction, but interactive fiction has its own particular difficulties, not found in, for example, Modernist novels. The reaction that interactive fiction is hard work came about partly because of the need to learn a new medium and its interface, because of the need to interact, and because of the new kind of narrative structures. A comment from reader ‘KC’ was typical:

“It was so disjointed and I spent so much time trying to work out where I was in the ‘book’ that I didn’t actually take the story in.”

The extra demands of making sense of a very non-linear narrative, plus the need to fathom out the interface (because each interactive fiction comes with its unique visual designs) lead to a cognitive overloading, a phenomenon noted by Jeff Conklin as far back as 1987, when hypertext was very new. Thus reading becomes a challenge unlike anything readers will have encountered before.

A clear ‘exception’ in my study was The Virtual Disappearance of Miriam (Bedford & Campbell 2000), which uses a tightly scripted linear structure and thus can be ‘read’ in an almost conventional way, alongside the hyper-linking possibilities. Interestingly, a more recent example not included in my study, Inanimate Alice (Pullinger & Joseph 2006), also uses a ‘conventional’ narrative structure to pleasing effect.

Another interesting factor mentioned by some readers was that they typically read for much longer periods when reading a book, than they did with the hypertext. Technical issues are influential (eg, screen resolutions and brightness), but there is the strong indication that reading long sequences of text on a computer screen is not what readers want to do, or perhaps more significantly, are accustomed to do from their familiar use of the computer for browsing.

Book versus computer

Interactive fiction has often been discussed as if it is simply the book transferred to a computer screen, but it is much more than that, and therefore challenges readers’ expectations powerfully.

Reader responses often revolve around expectations based on experience of and familiarity with previously read narratives brought from previously encountered media, not just books. Schema theory (see Douglas & Hargadon 2001, and Iser 1976) is useful to understand this aspect of the reading process: audiences will unconsciously look for event or narrative patterns they recognise from their previous experience of reading, viewing, listening, and behaving. For example, in a film, when a creaky door opens and a misshapen butler answers it, the audience apply their schemas from their experience of watching horror films and thus expect something frightening to follow.

Readers do feel enthusiastic about interacting with the story, as ‘CA’ told me: “I do quite like the idea of exploring the medium in terms of creating an experience.” But, in much interactive fiction, narrative schemas mix with medium schemas and interface schemas to create a potential for confusion and frustration, which my readers registered in regard to afternoon, a story (Joyce 1987), l0ve0ne (Molloy 1994), and These Waves of Girls (Fisher 2001), where no schema seemed to fit the bill. The gamers will be thinking in terms of game-play narrative and functionality conventions, the keen book-readers will be looking for print conventions, the regular web-browsers will apply their own information-seeking habits to the activity. So readers are all attempting to see which schema might fit for reading activity, for narrative structure and plot conventions, and for interactivity, all combined in challenging ways.

Hypertext has not developed its own conventions to help readers through the mass of links and narrative multi-structures (Murray 1997): The Virtual Disappearance of Miriam appears to succeed relatively well because it uses familiar elements from web and interactivity to enable ease of usability, and it also uses visual and verbal elements which are familiar from graphics and print. The key to ‘success’ would seem to be a balance of newness and familiarity.

Narrative structures

The arguments of Brooks (1984) and others for the essential human need for narrative order, meaning and completion (see also James 1934, Richards 1924, Turner 1996) are clearly supported in readers’ reactions to the hypertexts examined. Although almost every reader involved expressed an interest in a reading challenge, the strong overall response was that the hypertexts sampled largely confused and frustrated in terms of delivering a coherent and satisfying narrative.

Hypertext enthusiasts often cite the idea, deriving from Vannevar Bush (1945) that human thinking is associative, rather than linear; afternoon, a story, These Waves of Girls (Fisher 2001), and Amelie (Ansutegui 2006) offered varying degrees of associative reader-oriented structuring via links on words or images. They were all largely seen as narrative failures.

There were some positive reactions: Of Day,Of Night operates in such a way that associative sequences can quite easily be created by readers as they follow visual links and choose objects to find out about. Some of the readers for this piece did enjoy the exploration, and did see beauty in the writing and visual elements, but for others overall the lack of a strong narrative was frustrating.

Overall, my data suggest that those advocates who argue that hypertext fiction offers a more satisfying experience because it offers associative, non-linear and therefore more true-to-life structures, may have to concede that even ‘informed’ computer-literate readers do not enjoy reading challenge upon narrative challenge upon operational challenge. This is not to agree with critics such as Miall (1999) or Ryan (2006) that hypertexts may never provide satisfying narrative structures, but the conclusion from this data set must be that the lack of clear narrative structural markers is a problem, blocking full enjoyment of the reading experience.

Of the seven hypertexts studied, only The Virtual Disappearance of Miriam met with near-unanimous approval from its study group. It offers little choice in the realm of structure-by-association: in other words, its narrative structure is highly pre-determined by the author. Its interactivity and multimedia elements make it very different from a narrative in print, but its narrative is clear, easy to discern, and it generated comments such as this from ‘PD’: “I thought it was a very interesting way of telling a story… you’ve got the sound and the design… you get drawn into it.” Interactivity and coherent narrative structure can combine.

I have previously argued (Pope 2006) that hypertext authors may well need to abandon or restrain their radical experiments with narrative structure in favour of more Aristotelian forms, at least for a while, if they are to ease readers into a zone of comfort with hypertext fiction. At this stage in hypertext’s development, and given the preconceptions, abilities and preferences of the potential audience, a beginning, middle and end would seem to be much more likely to engender reader involvement and eventual aesthetic pleasure.

For interactive fiction generally, we can say that that fractured structures along with the demands of interactivity can impede imaginative enjoyment, but that this need not be the case. Interactive fiction can offer up enjoyable narratives alongside meaningful and entertaining interactivity, if it encourages a purposeful process of enigma to resolution: i.e., a conceptual (ideas, themes) and operational (interface) challenge leading to a rewarding narrative journey.

Read Part 2: Designing the digital tale

Dr James Pope is an author and lecturer at the Media School, Bournemouth University. He can be reached at


Ansutegui, Izaro (2005), Amelie, unpublished

Bedford, Martyn and Campbell, Andy (2000), The Virtual Disappearance of Miriam,

Brooks, Peter (1984), Reading for the Plot, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Bush, Vanevar (1991), As We May Think, in Nyce, James, and Kahn, Paul (eds), From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine, San Diego, Academic Press

Conklin, Jeff (1987), Hypertext: An Introduction and Survey, in IEEE Computer, Volume 2 number 9, September 1987, p17-41

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihali (1975), Beyond Boredom And Anxiety, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihali (2002), Flow, London, Rider

Doughlas, Jane Yellowlees and Hargodon, Andrew (2001), The Pleasures of Immersion and Engagement: Schemas, Scripts and the Fifth Business, Digital Creativity, Volume 12, Number 3, pp153-166

Fisher, Caitlin, These Waves of Girls, site launch February 2001,

Heyward, Megan (2004), Of Day, Of Night, Watertown: Eastgate Systems

Iser, Wolfang (1976), The Act of Reading, (English translation cited 1978, London; Routledge and Kegan Paul)

James, Henry (1934), The Art of the Novel, ed R P Backmur, New York, Scribner’s

Joyce, Michael (1987), afternoon, a story, USA, Eastgate Systems

Miall, David S (1999), Trivializing or Liberating? The Limitations of Hypertext Theorizing, in Mosaic,Volume 32 Issue 2, pp157-172,

Malloy, Judy (1994), l0ve0ne,

Murray, Janet H (1997), Hamlet on the Holodeck, Cambridge Mass, MIT Press

Nell, Victor (1988), Lost in a Book – The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, New Haven, Yale University Press

Pope, James (2006), A Future For Hypertext Fiction, in Convergence, Volume 12, Number 4, November

Pullinger, Kate and Joseph, Chris (2006) Inanimate Alice,

Richards, I A (1924), Principles of Literary Criticism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Ryan, Marie-Laure (2006), Avatars of Story, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

Turner, Mark (1996), The Literary Mind, New York, Oxford University Press

Your Thoughts (2 Comments)

May 27th, 2009 11:59 pm by Mark Bernstein

How many of your readers report that they “enjoyed” or “were enthusiastic about” Ulysses, or Endgame, or If On A Winter Night A Traveller…. ? This seems a central question in knowing how to regard their reaction!

A difficulty with studying 36 readers, without knowing more about those 36 people, is that different readers like and expect so many different things. It’s not only true in literature; I expect that 36 college students, for example, might well prefer Alma-Tadema to Turner, or might like Andrew Wyeth better than Mark Rothko, or think they enjoyed a performance of The Man Of La Mancha more than they enjoyed No Exit.

We’re also assuming, implicitly, that “enjoyment” is the right thing to measure here. I’m not sure it is, either in terms of the author’s intentions or in terms of the work’s lasting influence.

June 10th, 2009 1:41 pm by Jim Pope

Hi Mark,

The first thing to say here is that I didn’t just speak to students – I spoke with amateur writers, avid readers of fiction of all kinds, literature teachers, and school students. Also, I know that 36 readers aren’t speaking for everyone, but there is a good tradition of working with small groups of readers to glean rich data about the experience of reading (eg Holland’s ’5 Reader Reading’, and Nell”s work in ‘Lost in a Book’). Remember also that my readers didn’t only read the obviously ‘literary’ material – I selected a range of hyper-fiction, in order to get some sense of the range of responses that hyper-narrative might provoke.

I don’t think either that someone who enjoys ‘Ulysses’ would necessarily enjoy a hyper-novel: there’s no inevitable correlation between the non-linearity of Modernist novels, for example, and the non-linearity of hyper-literature. Hyper-literature can be anything it wants to be, but at the moment almost all hyper-fiction is ‘difficult’ for readers. I absolutely wouldn’t want that ‘difficult’ stuff to disappear -obviously we need and want the experimental, the challenging, and the awkward, or nothing new would ever emerge in the arts (or the sciences). But it isn’t a situation that enhances the form’s chances of continuing or developing, if it stays only ‘difficult’, and elitist. It may well satisfy some academics that it is THE thing, but it will become a museum piece. I’d like to have avant garde hyper-fiction, difficult hyper-fiction, hyper-fiction for kids, hyper-fiction for lazy reading. Why not have whatever the form can bring?

Also, of course, I’m not using enjoyment as a measure of quality or longevity – what I’m interested in is finding out what might be done to open hyper-fiction out to a wider community of writers and readers than currently. For example, through my reading and empirical studies, I’ve been able to better understand some of the issues writers need to consider when designing hyper-narratives, so that readers can access the story that the writer had in mind – that might not be a project you would consider important, but I suspect that Megan Heyward had something to say when she created ‘Of Day, of Night’ and I expect she hoped her readers would ‘get’ it.

I think the value of my work is shown in a writing project I ran in Dorset recently: when I took my ideas to a local secondary school, and offered a group of 14-year-olds the chance to make their own interactive narratives (using Flash on laptops), I saw the lovely, creative results of making the form ‘easier’ to grasp. I hope that is not too far away from what you and Michael were thinking of when you developed Storyspace (for which, thank you, because without Storyspace I might never have read ‘afternoon’ or ‘Patchwork Girl’).

let’s talk further!
Jim Pope
PS apologies for spelling mistakes- I can’t see them on this screen.

Submit Comment

Why we exist

To facilitate knowledge-exchange between media and academia

To enable interaction between and across newspeople and scholars

To comment on issues related to media and the academic study of media

To examine media coverage and academic analysis of key issues

To present political perspectives on media issues

And more...

Our interests

Conflict | Terrorism | Globalisation | Identity Politics | Development | Media Effects | Media Education | Online

Copyright InterJunction. All Rights Reserved.

Advisory panel

Professor Allen Tullos

Emory University

Professor Barry Richards

Bournemouth University

Bertrand Pecquerie

World Editors Forum

C Rammanohar Reddy

Economic and Political Weekly

Kelly Toughill

University of King's College

Professor Steve Jones

University of Illinois-Chicago

Stephen Jukes

Bournemouth University

Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Copyright InterJunction. All Rights Reserved.