Misadventure: Future Fiction and the New Networks

Stuart Moulthrop
School of Communications Design
University of Baltimore


This article appeared in Style vol. 33 no. 2, pp. 184-203.

I. Scary new networks

On her way to the Pulitzer Prize for book reviewing, the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani took a memorable swipe at hypertext fiction, decreeing that the best things in this line amount to "Myst and Warcraft II as re-imagined by Robbe Grillet" (40). Given the generally dismissive context of the article, her remark seems intended as a desultory putdown: hypertext fictions are not really literary but belong to a lower order, the computer games. Having jumped up from their cultural station, these things seem not even to deserve proper mention:

One well known hyperfiction concerns a man who fears that his ex-wife and son have been killed in a car accident; another traces the adventures of a cyberpunk hero battling an evil kingdom. (40)

The first text so efficiently summarized here is Michael Joyce's afternoon; the second might be the adventure game Zork, though that featureless description could fit many other titles as well. The lack of specific reference is no doubt meaningful: since Kakutani believes that hypertexts defer too much to readers and thus abrogate the high mystery of authorship, the people who make such things might as well be nameless. Their work is all the same, or at least equally contemptible.

To test the dubiousness of this conceit, imagine the following, written a few decades from now by some scion of the house of Gates for a freshmen seminar at harvardOnline:

In the 20th century the novel was still a marginally popular form. One famous novel concerns a man obsessed with a woman who is socially above him. Another traces the struggles of a young person against an unjust society.

This lampoon is no doubt too hard on novelists, who generally do not deserve resentment. There might in fact be common cause here. After all, Kakutani's write-off damns by association Alain Robbe Grillet, arguably a very important (if suspiciously "new") novelist. One might wonder about this targeting. Who's afraid of Robbe Grillet, and why? Recent reports point to serious trouble in the market for books, especially mainstream fiction. The rate of growth in book sales has been falling steadily over the last seven years and the most recent figures available at this writing reflect not growth but decline (Carvajal). Have the prospects for commercial publishing become so dire lately that any departure from time-tested practices seems threatening?

Even if accurate, that view seems too narrow. Kakutani's dislike of unruly or experimental fiction in fact belongs to a larger cultural process whose implications touch more than a single industry. As Donna Haraway observed more than a decade ago:

we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system -- from all work to all play, a deadly game. ...from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new networks... (Simians, 161)

To be sure, Haraway's concern about the "new networks" differs notably from Kakutani's distaste for networked or polylinear writing. Here and in later essays Haraway worries cogently about the implications of an "informatics of domination" for social justice, even as she warily takes on hypertext as a metaphor (Modest_Witness, 125). Kakutani's concerns seem parochial or tribal, invested more in the unutterable Joyce (of all names) than the eponymous Intel or Microsoft. Both critics, however, express deep skepticism about the conjunction of networked information systems with systematic simulation or gaming; both find the notion of promiscuous sign-play inimical or "deadly," Kakutani to the aims of literature, Haraway to certain forms of liberal society.

Each may be right in her way, at least in some measure. Thirteen years after Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" first appeared, the informatics of domination has engendered rampant globalization of trade, obscene concentration of wealth, and lately an orgy of absurd stock speculation. Meanwhile in the narrower sphere of popular culture, game makers have brought forth a steady stream of sadistic kill-toys, from Doom and Quake to Duke Nukem and Mortal Kombat, products tagged as moral menaces in the wake of high school shooting sprees. The new networks are undeniably scary and our games look deadly indeed. It seems hard, especially for those who grew up in that comfortable, old "organic" society and now find themselves sunk well into middle age, to avoid an impulse toward maintenance or containment, a fundamentally conservative desire to uphold the past, interrogate the present, and fend off an onrushing future.

While it is useful to distinguish between traditional and emergent strains of culture (as I will do here, up to a point), that practice entails all the risks of generalization. It is important to remember differences, particulars, and even in this age of deconstruction, proper names. Such details reveal gaps and fissures in what might otherwise seem a monolithic Other. They may also suggest unexplored complexities within the traditional, and even paradoxical lines of affiliation between old and new. By exploring some of these cultural interstices -- beginning with the apparent gap between fiction and game -- I will try to describe a less ominous interface between "organic" and "information" culture, or at least suggest that something important and interesting may be taking place on that site.

The first of these cultural fissues opens, paradoxically, on common ground. There is after all some truth in what Kakutani says about electronic fictions and computer games: the best of this work is indeed something along the lines of Myst re-imagined by Robbe Grillet. One wonders, however, if the critic understood the implications of her insight. Far from being the coup de critique Kakutani intended, this dictum could be a blessing in disrespect's guise. For some people concerned about the future of stories, Myst a la Robbe Grillet might hold considerable interest. Though I am more inclined to think of contemporary writers -- of M.D. Coverley resurrecting Tomb Raider, Cathy Marshall retuning Grim Fandango, Ed Falco reforming Civilization, or John McDaid hacking Flight Simulator -- I believe the convergence of electronic fiction and computer games should be taken seriously indeed. This seems especially true if when we turn our attention to games, we choose not the run of the pixel mills but the visionary work of Rand and Robyn Miller -- Myst and its sequel Riven.

II. Misadventure

A brief adjustment for accuracy: Kakutani's actual synecdoche, "Myst and Warcraft II," is simply silly. Imagine glossing films of the 1970s as The Godfather and The Four Musketeers, or recent fiction in terms of The Satanic Verses and Return to Madison County. Like print products, computer games address a range of audiences, so their quality and sophistication may be expected to vary. Like literary texts, games also have meaningful affiliations and genealogies. The Warcraft series and its cousins derive from strategy games and tabletop war simulations. They generally have few features that could be called literary in a traditional sense. Such things may have some relevance to narrative -- the media theorist Espen Aarseth says some very interesting things about the tactical games Doom and Myth, for instance ("Aporia" 36) -- but to engage such productions as substantive texts demands a more generous understanding than critics like Kakutani generally allow. Warcraft II is pretty clearly a straw man.

Myst belongs to a different category, and one that lies much closer on the cultural map to the tradition of the book. Its genealogy may be traced in one line back to the role-playing fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, whose roots lie at least tenuously in Tolkien. On the digital side Myst can claim descent from Adventure, the textual exploration game created in the mid-1970s by Will Crowther and Don Woods (see Aarseth, Cybertext 111), which became the design model for the software house Infocom during the first years of the computer game market in the early 1980s. Infocom "text adventures" like Steve Maretzky's Mind Forever Voyaging and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the author's own thoughtful reworking of his novel) brought considerable sophistication and nuance to the form. Designed for early computer systems that could not display graphics, these games depended on prose descriptions delivered in response to commands typed by the reader.

Unlike these earlier productions, Myst was created for multimedia computers that support color images, sound, animation, and video in addition to text display. Instead of prose vignettes, Myst offers graphics that map the virtual world from particular points of view. Rather than typing "go north" or "look left," players click along the margins of the screen to shift angle of view, or at the midpoint to advance along the current line of sight. Sometimes objects within the scene may be manipulated by pointing and clicking as well, and at various moments the player may access written documents. Though different in appearance from the earlier text games, Myst is still recognizably related to Adventure and its kin. Players find themselves in an unknown space that presents logical puzzles (given visually instead of verbally) which must be solved in order to reach other regions of the world.

Though famously successful from a commercial point of view (it was at one point the best-selling computer game in history), Myst represents something more than purely market-driven entertainment. As Steven Jones points out, the Millers claim a literary model for their work, Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, and this is not the only way they affiliate or address themselves to Gutenberg culture (Jones). The plot and imagery of the game revolve around "linking books" that have the power to conjure up new worlds -- a concept which, Jones points out, seems fraught with anxiety about writing and textuality in a real world where quasi-magical books (CD-ROM games) and powerful "linking" structures (hypertexts) actually exist. As we will see, the architecture or cosmology of Myst, and especially that of the sequel, Riven, bear significantly upon the cultural situation of these works. The Millers' fantasy worlds are engrossing, but they also express carefully articulated themes. Woven around a saga of conflict and betrayal involving an arch-magician and his sons, Myst interrogates creative power in general and authorship in particular. In its universe the most consequential and problematic act is writing, on which may depend the fates of worlds. Riven opens, quite significantly, with an elaborate sequence in which we witness the magical inscription that writes us into the text.

None of this reverence for writing carried much weight with the critics, though. In his anatomy of "interface culture," Steven Johnson cites another Pulitzer laureate, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post, who gives Myst very low marks. According to this reviewer there isn't much prose to speak of, the dramatic sequences seem mawkish and crude, the quest-plot is "trite," and the characters are "ciphers" (Johnson, 219). This last point draws a significant response from Johnson, who sums up:

If there are no lifelike characters in Myst's fictional world, that is because the world itself is more important than the characters that [sic] populate it. Denouncing Myst for lack of character development is like finding fault with an office building for lack of emotional sophistication. We don't expect our architects to re-create the intensities of human consciousness -- why should we expect anything more from our interface designers? (219-20)

Johnson's reply to Dirda has several virtues. He rightly suggests that eminent book critics, steeped as they are in Gutenberg conventions, might not be the best judges of work in new media (though admittedly Myst's literary pretensions complicate that argument). More important, Johnson insists on the importance of interface, or the structured mediation of information, not as mere instrumentality but as a key constituent of the text. Myst is not a novel or a feature film, it is instead a different sort of creation whose nearest non-electronic relative may be diorama. Any approach to this work must take account of this fundamental difference from familiar forms. World matters more here than characters or conflict, and in Myst the world is suffused with, if not entirely given over to interface. Objects exist to orient us or point our way, or they present themselves, in the case of valves, switches, doors, and such, for active engagement. Unlike in print or cinema, successive presentations of the text are elicited through feedback (as in Aarseth's concept of "cybertext"), by selecting or manipulating an item in the current view.

Yet for all its valuable insights (to which this brief summary does not do justice) Johnson's commentary on Myst also represents a fairly obvious misreading. As will become apparent, I think this is a highly productive, or in Bloomian terms "strong" misreading, and I would not disclaim Johnson's way of understanding Myst, since it is very close to my own. Nonetheless, to say that the world matters more than the characters in Myst, though true enough, is to tell only part of the story.

Although they are clearly secondary to the world and its affordances, the characters in Myst are not trivial. The Millers clearly spent much time and effort, not to mention production budget, on the video sequences in which characters address the player directly. These sketchy figures are further developed through letters, diaries, and other documents players encounter as they move through the game. Though it is tempting to suggest that this attention to character was simply misguided, or that the Millers as pioneers of a new form did not fully understand its properties, such conclusions overlook an important fact. Like the world of objects that comprises its interface, the characters in Myst serve the primary motivation of the quest plot, or the object of the game. They are present in large measure to urge us on.

Johnson's account of Myst suggests that the game might be reduced completely to interface: that it could become, to adapt Haraway's terms, "all play," entirely disconnected from goals and outcomes, understood not as a dramatic stage governed by unity of time but as a persistent, stable environment open to leisurely exploration. I know that some people engage Myst on these terms, because like Johnson I am one of them. My first encounter with both Myst and Riven, taking in each case several weeks, began with aimless exploration, wholly driven by the fascinations of the interface. In each instance, though, I had on hand a Hints and Solutions book which could provide both help with particular puzzles and a general anatomy or "walkthrough" for the game. The presence of these revelatory texts puts another important wrinkle into the relationship of Myst and Riven to book culture. The solution book represents the linear reduction into which the game can always collapse, a kind of gravitational center for its various centrifugal energies. The attraction of this center can be very hard or ultimately impossible to resist. After many hours of dilatory play in which I solved occasional puzzles only in order to to reach unseen portions of the world, I finally succumbed to temporal economy and took the book tour. Life is linear and short, but computer art, alas, tends to be fractal.

Like all gifted designers of adventure games, the Miller brothers shaped their world to accommodate my unendlich style of play to a great extent. There is no immediate temporal necessity in Myst. In most cases the puzzles have no deadlines. There are no adversaries in hot pursuit or threats of messy death if one does not reach the next level. Yet Myst does have its quest plot, a sense that the world is out of joint, a condition the player must put right. Both Myst and Riven assign us to redeem prisoners (Atrus and Catherine) and in the sequel many other lives hang in the balance as well. In this regard Johnson's comparison of the game to an office building reveals perhaps more than he intended -- for like the office building, Myst is not designed to accommodate pure play: the structure implies or expects a certain performance as well. If we become all-players, fugitives from the absolute hierarchy of the solution book, our textual orbit must be defined partly by the pull of that antithetical object. The Johnsonian reader for whom everything comes down to interface violates the spirit of the game. If we are not losers exactly, neither are we winners. We wander through the premises in our pajamas, interrupting conferences, annoying the staff, rearranging the furniture, losing the way: miserable adventurers.

We misadventurers are not alone, however, and we come by our aimlessness honestly. For roughly the last century modernist writers and at least some of their successors have attempted to renegotiate conventions of 19th-century fiction, among these consistent or sequential chronology. In this respect it seems quite revealing that the Millers look back to Verne, who stands decidedly outside that movement; but this was to be expected. The pragmatic puzzles of Adventure and its kind are a very long way from the language games of Mrs. Dalloway, Nova Express, and even afternoon. Yet works of real creativity seem always to attract not the readers they expect but the misreaders they deserve. Here at century's end the idea of functional linearity seems inevitably to suggest dysfunction or at least complexity. The following moment might be taken as representative:

"This is some kind of plot, right?" Slothrop sucking saliva from velvet pile.

"Everything is some kind of a plot, man," Bodine laughing.

"And yes but, the arrows are pointing all different ways," Solange illustrating with a dance of hands, red-pointed fingervectors. Which is Slothrop's first news, out loud, that the Zone can sustain many other plots besides those polarized upon himself... that these are the els and busses of an enormous transit system here in the Raketenstadt, more tangled even than Boston's -- and that by riding each branch the proper distance, knowing when to transfer, keeping some state of minimum grace though it might often look like he's headed the wrong way, this network of all plots may yet carry him to freedom. (603)

This is one of many anti-climaxes that arrive toward the end of Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's famously inconclusive novel of prophecy. Tyrone Slothrop, dressed for the occasion in a plush pig costume, is about to vanish from the novel into indefinite obscurity, taking with him all plots "polarized upon himself," including the novel's ostensibly central quest. The prostitute "Solange" (actually the major character Leni Pökler) marks Slothrop's passage with a deeply meaningful massage. Slothrop goes out a loser, a "tanker and feeb" as Pynchon puts it (738), but in this outcome can be seen a certain "preterite" revolution -- if not victory, then at least a deconstruction of history and other hierarchical processes.

This peculiar narrative development has implications for literary (and quasi-literary) history as well. Pynchon's clandestine transit system may offer a better descriptive model for games like Myst and Riven than Johnson's office building, or the funhouses and theme parks he chooses not to invoke. Tracks, trains, and conveyances appear prominently in both games, but we should not be so literal in our understanding. The transit system is metaphor, not the clue to some empirical puzzle. It is necessary to think beyond the superficial aspect of the game: "Trains go on, and we grow old," Pynchon notes elsewhere (284). As we learn from Johnson's excellent misreading, the interface of Myst, the complexity and seductiveness of its world of objects, places limits on the centrality of its characters and their dramatic situation. Taking this insight a step further, we might suggest that interface in these games also militates against the demands of the quest plot and the gravitational attraction of the solution book. In the visual interface of the game everything is some kind of "plot" or linear vector, as Solange turns the term; but the arrows indeed point all different ways. The interface itself may represent a network of all plots that includes some not polarized on anyone or anything in particular -- trajectories that lead to something other than quest-adventures. If we can no longer summon enough sixties idealism to believe this network leads to "freedom," we might at least seek a finer understanding of networks, hierarchies, and virtual spaces.

III. Bugs in the system

Hollywood gave us the cinematic sequel, Silicon Valley the software upgrade. The logic of the former is usually more of the same while the latter runs simply to more. Such is the case with Riven, which though billed as "The Sequel to Myst" seems decidedly in the upgrade tradition. The second work is about five times larger than Myst in terms of data. There are more regions, more of which are visible at once thanks to a smarter scheme of arrangement (islands in an archipelago instead of discrete "ages"). The sequel features additional ways of circulating, more puzzles to solve, richer graphics and sound, and a heavier dependence on video and animation. But if Riven trumps its predecessor's virtues, it also necessarily intensifies the distractions of the earlier game. In Riven even more vectors point elliptically away from the central plot. If Myst offers some passing comfort to the minimally motivated adventurer, the sequel seems a veritable tanker-and-feeb's paradise.

Take the Riven beetles, for example. In conventional transits of the game, these large, scarab-like insects are first encountered in the Gate Room, an architectural puzzle that must be negotiated in order to move beyond the first island. A large bronze fixture in beetle form decorates each of five columns in the room.

Scarab fixtures in the Gate Room

Close inspection reveals a ring and chain below each fixture, and when these chains are pulled (clicked in virtual manipulation), the beetles' wing cases swing open to reveal peepholes. Each peephole gives access to a stained glass window showing key moments in local pre-history (for instance, the evil enchanter Gehn being cast into his bookbound imprisonment). Since stained glass windows usually denote a certain narrative seriousness, since the images also decorate the game's CD sleeves, and since five-part divisions seem essential to the game's topology, attentive players might regard the beetle windows as critical clues. To solve the Gate Room puzzle the player must rotate the cylindrical chamber so that one of its portals matches an opening in the outer wall. Perhaps analyzing the vignette behind each carving might help in the selection.

Or it might not. The window images can be helpful but not in any thematic or allusive way. The interior of the Gate Room is largely uniform, so the beetle windows help to distinguish each of the columns. Beyond this they have no direct consequence. Players can solve the chamber problem without ever discovering the spyholes concealed by the beetles' wings. Though many mechanical items in Myst and Riven act as binary switches whose states control access to other parts of the game, the beetle fixtures in the Gate Room do not function in this way. They are mainly decorative, worth examining but only tangentially. They add to atmosphere or context, filling in background, or what Hollywood calls back-story.

Such marginal details are of course essential to any maze or puzzle: there must be red herrings, false clues, and blind alleys for the game to pose any sort of challenge, and if such digressions add to our sense of overall context, so much the better. The beetle fixtures in the Gate Room serve this purpose well enough, but like most things in Riven, they are connected to other manifestations, deeply woven into the sign system of the game. The beetle occurs again, and in this case its function seems less a matter of simple imagineering. After passing through the Gate Room, players can find their way to another island, part of which is thickly forested. Approaching this forest for the first time, players will see a wild version of the Riven beetle -- that is, a photorealistic animation of a large insect making its way step-by-step along a tree trunk. The image is arresting in several senses: the lifelike quality of the animation tends to draw attention, especially if we recall the more limited graphics of Myst; and this can be a good thing, since we cannot change our viewpoint until the animation runs through.

In a few seconds the beetle completes its stroll up the tree trunk, at which point it opens its wing-cases, revs up flight muscles and takes off in a tour de force of three-dimensional rendering, its various parts and pieces behaving strikingly like those of a real insect. As the creature leaves the frame, the noise of its passage fades gracefully into an illusory distance, establishing an auditory signature we will hear again in other parts of the forest. This would seem to be a brilliant illustration of Johnson's point about the importance of environmental effects in the Millers' work. The beetle appears momentarily as figure and then fades into background or situation, enriching our illusory sense of complicated, three-dimensional surroundings. It would be easy to dismiss this moment as an exquisite grace note or atmospheric suggestion in the style of Spielberg or Disney; but though the episode is all these things, it is also part of a larger pattern whose meaning goes beyond the practical concerns of simulation.

For many players the beetle encounter is the first of several with Riven's totem animals. In each case the animated creature appears briefly and then flees, a pattern that marks these moments as privileged brushes with (simulated) nature. The programming of the game supports this impression: any appearance of the beetle sets a software pointer which bypasses the animation for a certain, probably random number of subsequent trials. Players who return repeatedly to the forest entrance will not see the beetle again for a long while, though if they are very persistent they can repeat the original experience. This arrangement reinforces a sense of the game-world as ecology, a system with its own rules, rhythms, and cycles.

However, not all time-based media elements in Riven are rendered animations. Some are video sequences involving human actors, shot against chroma-keyed backgrounds then digitally blended into the scene. Several such vignettes occur. A little girl appears at a crossroads in the woods. As players approach a collection of cliff dwellings, a sentinel cranks up a warning siren. The little girl, or someone like her, appears again along a path near a collection of cliff dwellings. If players knocks repeatedly at the door of one of the cliff houses, a spyhole opens to reveal an enigmatic face. A servant of the tyrant Gehn appears twice, once climbing into a tram car and a second time running down a passageway in a subterranean space.

In addition to these short video sequences the game contains several extended scenes, including an opening interview with Atrus and several possible endgames. However, the brief human and animal encounters seem to stand on their own as variations on a common theme: sudden appearances punctuated by flight or withdrawal. The little girl runs away along one fork of the crossroad. The sentinel ducks out of sight and does not reappear; players who make their way to the watchtower find it empty. The second child is scooped up and carried away by an anxious parent. The cliff house resident shuts the spyhole almost immediately. Gehn's assistant is always a few steps ahead. In each case the figure who so strongly engages players' attention moves quickly out of the frame -- and since the game freezes players in place while this movement unfolds, they cannot intervene.

These effects might be explained to some extent on purely pragmatic grounds. Limitations of home computers, storage systems, and compression techniques circa 1997 imposed significant constraints on video and animation. Player input had to be suspended because time-based media make heavy demands on processors, and because animations with branch points would have required alternative content streams, hence considerably more storage. In order to save room for the longer, cinematic sequences, incidental encounters had to be kept short. Having the character fly, run, or otherwise exit the frame supplies simple visual punctuation. If the Riven beetle is on some level an environmental grace note, each character sequence seems likewise a cinematic tease, a variation on the childhood game of hide and seek. Perhaps we should treat these elements simply as embellishments or diversions, not inconsequential in their way. Even if they are always running away, the furtive figures at least suggest a human presence that was lacking in Myst, and thus a partial answer to critics like Dirda.

But again, simple pragmatism will not fully account for the conceptual impact of the character sequences. If these encounters enrich our sense of the world, they also vex and disrupt. In these sequences, presence collapses frustratingly into absence: the game of hide and seek never ends. These moments are paradoxical, not simply constitutive, arousing tension and uncertainty even as they draw us into the game. No pragmatic explanation can fully account for their significance any more than the need for red herrings or atmospheric effects rationalizes the Riven beetles. The fugitive animals and people point to a more complex process at work in the virtual world, and one which the game engineers perhaps did not include in their designs. Diversions after all divert us from something, and we might ask what.

If the shy totem animals and fugitive people of Riven are aspects of its interface, as a Johnsonian reading would suggest, then they mediate between the player and a body of information that is radically inaccessible. As it happens, Riven can tell us nothing further about the child on the pathway and relatively little about the people of the cliff houses, beyond the fact that Gehn has terrorized them for many years. They have no names and do not figure in the quest plot except as potential victims of catastrophe should the player-hero fail to save the world. These persons are in every sense extras: characters brought on for secondary effect who quickly move outside the scene. Yet they do not serve the same purpose as extras in conventional films. When they dash away, these figures leave behind a wake or vacuum that demands investigation, if not interpretation. To some extent this impulse feeds the purposes of the game: it keeps players moving through the world, encountering situations in which they may discover clues. But by the same token it also complicates our relationship to the quest, for the more we attend to these extravagant or extra-vagrant persons, the more we become aware not merely of sites unseen but of lives and communities beyond the game. To focus upon these imaginary spaces is to find oneself no longer "the adventurer" (the term by which Infocom formally defined its players). It is to become something more like a social historian, an ethnographer -- or maybe just a visitor passing through.

IV. Being Riven

Taking this analysis narrowly, in the manner of our reviewer-laureates, we might find Riven simply deficient -- too elliptical in its tendencies to constitute a proper adventure game, too heavily invested in surface and interface to deliver the intensive experience of novel or film. This product seems to fall outside generic categories, tumbling into a conceptual gulf between narrative work and interface play, between the hierarchy of quest-imperative and the disquieting networks of world-making. In what one reader calls deficiency, however, another may find genius. Critical authorities notwithstanding, the narrow view will not suffice, if only because the Millers seem to have incorporated the terms of its critique into the cosmology of their epic. Myst begins with an animation in which a man holding a book tumbles into a fissure in the fabric of the universe which is both symbol and literal product of the saga's primary catastrophe. Man and book separate ("the book would not be destroyed as I had planned," the narrator says with famous double meaning) but the fall into darkness resolves into the stabilizing image of the book, the first object readers must engage in order to enter the game.

Yet the fissure cannot be annealed or annulled even by the player's successful completion of the first game. Shortly after entering Riven the player sees in the middle distance a large brass instrument. Investigation reveals this device to be a highly unusual telescope whose lens is pointed not up at the heavens but down toward a shielded window that may be opened to reveal a starry sky.

The Riven telescope

In fact this is not the sky (at least not the one we are used to) but the same fissure into which Atrus makes his epic fall at the beginning of the first game. As the name suggests, the world of Riven is built quite literally upon this rift, and we know from our initial briefing that the construction is unstable; the world will soon collapse into its underlying void. Riven continually confronts us with evidence of conflict and instability (for instance, the local enforcer who snatches our linking book away upon arrival, only to be done in by a blowgun-packing guerrilla), and also with visual echoes of its name, such as the giant dagger thrust into the landscape at one point, or the plate-tectonic fracturing of islands out of an implied unity, or even the bifurcate wing cases of the aptly named Riven beetles.

Like all good foundational metaphors, Riven's rifts point "all different ways," as Solange might say: toward the doom-sense of quaking California, toward the tenuous economic bubble of the Long Boom whose surface tension supports the computer game industry, and above all to the cultural situation of Rand and Robyn Miller, masters of an art we have yet to understand, much less culturally accredit. "The book would not be destroyed," Atrus tells us at the start of the first game. As Steven Jones explains the latent content of this line, while games like Myst and Riven hardly spell the end of books, they do represent the creation of something new in literary space (Jones). That fresh invention opens a vast rift between hierarchical and network sensibilities, story and interface, work and play -- the very fault line along which the quest plot of the Millers' epic may crumble, in the minds of some readers at least. Yet this apocalypse can be as much revelation as cataclysm, for if it removes Myst and Riven from the well-ordered company of epic, novel, and drama, it suggests alternative links to ode, dream-vision, prophecy, and other forms of crisis poetry -- forms in which paradox and inconsistency represent not flaws but heroic virtues. Myst's and Riven's interesting problems may even mark these games as the beginning of a distinctive project particularly attuned to the themes of interface culture.

The book will not be destroyed, and to place the Millers' work properly in context it is necessary to turn back to books; though not books by Robbe Grillet, Burroughs, Pynchon, Rushdie, or even Kathy Acker (even if the last comes very close). In a world founded on a cosmic rift, telescopes work only when inverted, pointed at strange openings and apertures instead of the dissimulating sky. Like games, the books that matter most in this regard generally fall beneath the notice of the literary referees. Consider if you will the comic book:

 
Watchmen chapter IX, page 6, panel 6

This panel comes from another anomalous work or crisis poem, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comics series Watchmen (1986-87), which like Myst and Riven both defines and interrogates the boundaries of its form. Though this project deserves much more extensive treatment than a single citation can supply, the panel given above does show some crucial themes and features of the work. The statuesque blue fellow is Moore and Gibbons' satiric revision of the superhero -- a nuclear physicist accidentally turned into a superman and rechristened comically (in every sense) "Dr. Manhattan." The hands that frame the viewpoint belong to Laurie Juspeczyk, the character's estranged second wife, who unlike her husband remains all too human. Thus Dr. Manhattan's remark about the structure of time: having transcended the clockwork state of ordinary humanity, he perceives time as a matrix or prism and is frustrated by his wife's inability to perceive more than a single facet of the "jewel." Typically, he can go further only by apparent non sequitur, asking Laurie to leap back as far as she can in time and memory.

Such insights were hardly new to narrative in the late 1980s. Dr. Manhattan's prismatic vision of time might call to mind Proust, Mann, Borges, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, or any number of high modernists including the numinous Robbe Grillet. In a more popular vein, it might conjure up Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, who comes similarly "unstuck in time" (23). Arguably, though, Moore and Gibbons' invocation of jewel-time differs in a crucial respect from similar conceptions in mainstream literary tradition, and this difference makes this text highly relevant to Myst, Riven, and the cultural strain they represent.

Watchmen is composed of overlapping, tangled, and intersecting narrative lines, including double lives, nefarious plots, stories within stories, and texts within texts. The architecture of the work seems very close to Dr. Manhattan's image of time, "an intricately structured jewel" -- though like Laurie we are unable to perceive the design as a whole and until the final chapter can only guess at linkages and relationships. The authors promote this uncertainty by intercutting panels and sequences from different narrative lines and often from distant points in time, future as well as past, so that readers must work hard to construct continuity. Such challenges to conventional sequence are of course a hallmark of modernist fiction, but in comics the effect is inevitably connected to something beyond the single dimension of prose syntax. In the complex temporality of Watchmen, the medium becomes, to evoke McLuhan and Pynchon in a single image, very much the massage:

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 104, panels 5-7

These panels come from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a highly revealing treatise on this singularly misunderstood form of "sequential art" -- and a discussion that operates, significantly, within its subject medium. Here McCloud identifies as a general property what Moore and Gibbons present thematically: the time sense in comics is inherently complex because this form demands both sequence and simultaneity. In the dominant form of sequential graphic art (cinema) discrete images occupy the field of vision one frame at a time and are processed by the brain into an illusion of continuous motion or development, an effect called persistence of vision. Comics operate on a radically different model in which successive images (panels, not frames) are presented in two-dimensional arrays, rather than a singular, mechanized stream.

As McCloud sees it, comics bring a different mental faculty into play, something called "visual closure," which is our tendency to infer spatial context on the basis of partial or fragmentary visual data (63). Like persistence of vision, this mechanism emphasizes causal relationships and sequential continuity; but unlike our response to cinema, the work of pattern completion in comics does not depend on mechanical projection and thus is not limited to a single axis of connection. Though we have been habituated to the traditional succession of panels from top left to bottom right, our eyes remain free to scan the page along multiple lines of sight; and since we must understand each component panel itself as a simultaneous visual field, we are in a sense encouraged to look along more than a single track. According to McCloud, any sense of ordinary sequence imposed in comics always implies a supplementary awareness of other, unconventional relationships, or at least a background impression of the page as a whole. If films trick the eye with persistence of vision, comics instead challenge the eye through an extension of vision.

Though this insight about the structure and meaning of comics might help us put the dualistic dynamics of Myst and Riven into larger perspective, our foray into pulp fiction may seem something of a misadventure, if not a misreading. On first consideration, adventure games may appear to have more in common with cinema than with comics. [1] After all, each local graphic in these games holds the screen until the player calls up a transition, rather like a frozen frame -- a variation on persistence of vision, but closely analogous. There are no visible boundaries or "gutters" as in comics. The game world is designed for immersion, not episodic seriality. The continuous sound track, animations, and cinematic set pieces all contribute to the strong family resemblance to cinema.

Ironically, though, the last element contains the strongest case for understanding Myst and Riven as something radically different from film, or at least from narrative film in the mass-entertainment mode. As we have seen, at least some of the video sequences in Riven do more than present exposition, fill in back story, or advance the plot. In the hide-and-seek episodes characters and creatures run out of the frame, calling our attention strongly to the literal boundaries of the scene -- to those invisible gutters, as it were -- and thus also to the conceptual margins of the text, the implied or unseen universe that falls outside the quest plot. These moments reminds us that Myst and Riven do share one crucial feature with comics: reading or play is not constrained to a single train of visual development. In fact players of graphical adventure games are actively enjoined to explore, circulate, and browse. As Steven Johnson notes, we should not expect "intensities of human consciousness" from adventure games (at least not in the conventional, novelistic sense) because these constructions are fundamentally and paradoxically extensive, fundamentally riven, like their players, between one path and its alternatives, between saga and interface, hierarchy and network.

V. Interstitial fictions

Perhaps some will think, however, that this recognition makes the critical misadventure worse, not better. Why adduce comic books, of all things? This move would seem to ratify Dirda's opinion of Myst as sub-literature and Kakutani's claim that hypertext and experimental fictions belong at the periphery of serious culture along with blood sports, war games, hyperkinetic chases, muscleman fantasies, and other childish things. It is tempting to reply to such charges in kind. One could point out that numerically speaking most of the objects called novels are mediocre genre pieces, increasingly tied in to movies, TV series, and yes even games (Myst has spun off several novelizations). One might note likewise that every Reservoir Dogs implies a hundred slash-and-splatter films unredeemed even by style. In terms of the preceding analysis, this argument seems duly extensive -- call it a flanking maneuver -- an attempt to map the networks that surround particular hierarchies. But while this way of thinking may pose a useful response to the textual puritans, it is not the most enlightening answer.

The flanking argument attempts to expand the frame of discussion, but perhaps its emphasis is misplaced. Extensiveness after all does not necessarily imply unity, and the frame may not be as important as its limits. It may be more productive to dwell for a moment on if not in the gutter -- by which I mean both the division between components in sequential art and by analogy any boundary that separates cultural domains. In phenomena like comics and adventure games, or for that matter in imaginative cybertexts and unconventional novels and films, we may be seeing the emergence of a fictive sensibility more finely attuned to gaps, inconsistencies, tensions, and fissures than to unbroken traditional lines. The name Riven (and the crisis-text it designates) might reflect our moment very truly indeed.

It may be time to give these emergent, extensive fictions another name as well. In the early days some used the letters IF to stand for interactive fiction, a designation doomed by the limits of its first term -- as Michael Joyce used to say, the only truly interactive system he could think of was the cardiac pacemaker (135). [2] I propose a new and certainly no less controversial reading for the old initials: interstitial fiction, an extension of storytelling into and across various gaps and fault lines. Some of these interstices separate intensity from extensiveness, as we have now seen at length. Others represent the unmapped spaces between familiar forms, as in the case of comics, which borrow something from prose fiction (comics as over-illustrated stories) and other elements from cinema (comics as runaway storyboards, or movies with exceedingly low frame counts) but really belong to neither of these major domains. Adventure games by the same token have their cinematic elements (Rand Miller seems to have turned to screenwriting) but in some respects seem more like architecture, or to speak the truth Steven Johnson suppresses, like amusement parks. Yet again, they do not match any of these well understood models in any final or satisfying sense.

Our taxonomic uncertainty suggests that we must try to understand these odd cultural objects according to their departures from established forms, the mediations and affordances they offer which might be understood as novel, if not new. In taking up these features we come to a second and perhaps more important reading of the intersitial: a commitment to the project of mapping across networks, riding the trams and subways of our strangely prosperous Zone if not to "freedom" then to some engagement with sign systems and their contingencies that might be better expressed by Riven, say, than A Man in Full. This project could be one of the more important consequences of Haraway's perceived shift from hierarchies to networks; or as Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen put it: "When depth gives way to surface, under-standing becomes inter-standing. To comprehend is no longer to grasp what lies beneath but to glimpse what lies between" ("Interstanding," 1). Interstitial fictions -- games and stories meaningfully and essentially Riven -- operate as much along the extensible fabric of interface as in the stable circuit of signified and signifier. As such they seem particularly appropriate to what one might call an object-oriented culture, representing first approaches to a very new thing indeed:

...digital storytelling which proceeds not through the use of conventional narrative, but rather, in interactions with the world to be taken as real. Not the pale, poly-agonal representation of the real supported by VR, although the attractiveness of immersive worlds is suggestive of the search for textual transcendence. And not the circumscribed interactions and dislocated knowledge of presentational game environments: Tomb Raider is just Zork with a GUI. Rather, if I am correct, the future fiction will comprise arrays of artifacts, in whose selection, manufacture, and deployment will be manifested the art and artifice of a new kind of narrative. (40)

This is the writer John McDaid's thumbnail sketch of a project he calls "artifactual fiction," [3] which at the moment seems a subclass of the interstitial but may some day become its parent branch -- the hierarchies grow increasingly tangled in these belated early days. While it is impossible to define the "new kind of narrative" with full precision, McDaid's emphasis on discrete objects or "arrays of artifacts" does suggest good reason to persist in unnameable practices and keep probing the interstices of story. If comprehension now lies as fully in "interstanding" as understanding, as much along the unseen gutters as among the stars beneath our feet, then we need to assess what arrays and networks can tell us about our situation. Myst a la Robbe Grillet -- or Riven in fact -- may mark a crucial phase in the much larger instauration of interface culture. Even "Zork with a GUI" might have a certain claim.

It remains to be seen whether these interstitial fictions prove "deadly," in either Haraway's sense or that of the current Congress, or whether some might have value. To put this another way, if games are at root diversions, from what does our play along the interface divert us, and to what alternative destinations do we come by following scattered fingervectors? Perhaps a world-game meant "to be taken as real" could prove as ominous as any "pale, poly-agonal" figment of the corporate holosuite. Just as possibly, by intervening in the process of seamless mediation by which we construct our empires of signs, interstitial fiction might place a formidable check on "textual transcendence." Both outcomes are possible and no doubt likely, just as traditional narrative in words and images yields both excellence and dross. The emerging interface culture needs better ways to make and argue such distinctions. Certainly we are not well served by those who would amalgamate Myst and Riven with print products, or lump everything electronic into the same easy target of abuse. At least some computer games deserve to be taken much more seriously, as does the notion of interstitial play; and though the results may often look like error or misreading, these new texts may teach us a few things about the glory of misadventure.


Notes

  1. For an alternative view (albeit concerned with hypertext, not games, see Adrian Miles, "Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext," in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 13(2): 217-25. Miles's insights about cybertext and cinema are not, I think, totally at odds with my argument here, but they do treat the matter rather differently. [Back]

  2. As any reader of Of Two Minds will recognize, "interstitial" has been an important term of art for Michael Joyce for many years now. My use of this concept, and to some extent my argument here, owes much to his emphasis on spaces-between. [Back]

  3. In addition to his SIGWeb essay, see Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (Eastgate, 1994), McDaid's attempt to put these notions into creative practice. [Back]

Works Cited

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Aarseth, Espen.
"Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and The Speaking Clock." In Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan. Indiana University Press, 1999. 31-40.

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"Never-Ending Saga." New York Times Magazine 28 September, 1997. 40-41.

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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Tundra Press, 1993.

McDaid, John.
"Halting, Sphexishness, and Analysis Terminable and Interminable." SIGWeb 8.1 (February, 1999): 33-40.

Miller, Rand and Robyn Miller. Myst. Cyan Software, 1993.

Miller, Rand and Robyn Miller. Riven: The Sequel to Myst. Cyan Software, 1997.

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons.
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Pynchon, Thomas.
Gravity's Rainbow. Viking, 1973.

Taylor, Mark and Esa Saarinen.
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Copyright © 1999 by Stuart Moulthrop.