After including the GenLit Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. This second installment of four catalogs four major traits of digital narratives we found in play with the Generative Literature Project. Beyond building a catalogue of traits, we compare the Generative Literature Project to other new media texts and look ahead to what this project may look like and how future readers might perceive it.

Traits of the Digital Narrative

The codex form is far from a stable state, but is instead a part of the evolution of humans externalizing their thought. The book is part of humanity’s “becoming,” but we’ve reached a stage where technological revolution, information, and the digital have overflown the book’s border. We don’t imagine the total encyclopedic book anymore, but are becoming more open to the idea of a linked, international prosumer who reads/writes on the Internet. The ready connection and cohabitation of words, image, and sound on the computer too no doubt engendered our increased awareness of the limited expressive capacity of linguistic signs printed on a codex page. Geoffrey Brusatto argues that digital media has altered how the reader interacts with the text. Now the digital reader handles information non-linearly and actively searches for specific information (295). The reader defines his or her own path in the reading and so is less of a passive consumer. This takes the reader (assumed to function by moving linearly through a text) and turns him or her into a user who navigates more like one travels through a dictionary.  In fact, Ellen Lupton states that users want to feel “productive” rather than “contemplative” (295). This is an interesting binary. Are action and thinking then opposites? Perhaps we do both, and maybe a reading experience can exist on a sliding scale. Espen Aarseth has a sliding scale for narrative versus ludic features. Maybe we need to chart the novel based on reader action versus reader thought.

The most important stories are those that push back on us, ones that we don’t just passively experience. Like novels have long before, video games look into us, and videogames are able to do so using elements of game theory, immersive storytelling and media. That prompts a question: Have video games and interactive media become the new novel?

Video game developer Quantic Dream made Heavy Rain, a crime thriller game that seems to be more story than gameplay. Players of the game follow a plot in which a serial killer dubbed the Origami Killer has kidnapped Shaun Mars, Ethan Mars’ son. Throughout the course of the game, Players of the game follow a plot in which the identity of the killer and rescue Sean. The player’s actions influence the outcome of the game, which has a few different endings. From a storytelling perspective, video games in general have always offered immersion and allowed the player to “be” the character. Some of the most popular video game characters have little to no dialogue (Link from The Legend of Zelda, Mario from the Super Mario Brothers franchise, Jack from Bioshock, etc.), which allow the player to insert themselves into the avatar’s place. Against this trend, Heavy Rain‘s characters are defined and developed. In this sense, Heavy Rain behaves more as a film, making the player bear witness to the events instead of having a direct impact on the story. However, even though it plays the role of a film, the interactive qualities allow the immersion of a game. The way the two elements interact together with the multi-potential plot makes Heavy Rain a sort of visual hypertext even though it markets itself as a game.

If, as Julian Murphet argues, new technologies are transitional devices in literature, what traits are digital technologies bringing to the novel and narrative more broadly?  For example, the representation of time in narrative was already affected by the advent of modern transportation. Beyond further changes in the representation of linear time and space “…the new media’s greatest challenge to the novel is a sense of ‘simultaneousness,’ thanks to the unparalleled speed of transfers” (777). Surely including new technology and media do not threaten the novel. Rather they incorporate and become incorporated into the novel, transforming the genre for a new era.

Generative Creation and Individual Navigation

In generative literature and an age where the collaborative nature of novels allows them to be redefined and shared over the course of years (as is potentially possible with the Generative Literature Project), what changes can we expect to see in terms of the contexts and authorship of the works?  While we can perhaps trace the origins of an 18th-century French novel accurately to the people and events of 18th-century France, what about a novel written from 2014-2050 in over 30 countries?  How does generative literature serve differently or similarly as a timepiece of cultural and artistic perspectives? As authors we know that the written contributions we created during the Fall 2014 semester may or may not be used in any number or combination as the pieces are programmed into games or other narrative artifacts. Likewise, we, the originating writers, cannot predict the ultimate structure even of the very next step of the project, much less what it will become in future iterations and additions.

Even when we consider the reader rather than the writer’s experience, Haine Koskimaa addresses how any one digital reader could have read or encountered fewer or different parts of the story. “This, in its turn, takes us to the concept of dramatic irony, to a situation where a part of the audience is totally ignorant of something (the doubts the narrator casts on her own reliability) and reads the narration at face value, and another part of the audience does notice this modifier, and simultaneously gets a richer understanding of the text and of the narrator, but also gets the extra pleasure of knowing that there are also ignorant fellow readers who never did get it.” When the architecture of the story is not as transparent as a print codex can make it, one cannot be sure that all elements of the story were read.

With the Generative Literature Project stories, there are a multitude of potentially equally viable paths the reader can follow, and yet some threads will be cut, allowing some to flourish while others shrivel away.  In traditional print novels, most of the composition process involves identifying and refining a single narrative path. n this and other collaborative, generative texts, however, the composition process ensures that many independent narrative arcs will emerge to compete with one another. We find ourselves asking what will happen to the remaining stories and possibilities? How does one untangle the web of cross-pollination in plot lines/possibilities in generative, collaborative literature, and would doing so detract at all from the generative novel’s potential for becoming something new and different and emergent by forcing it to conform to familiar aesthetics we associate with the print form?

Connected and Collaborative Writing

As technological connectivity increases and the lines between the artist and the audience become less well-defined, the ideas that once used to reach thousands can now reach millions in a heart beat. Generative literature is made much more simply with the advent of the Internet and other similar new technologies. With an ease of communication and sharing information, several authors can collaborate at one time and we can even edit the same documents together. Simultaneity in the authorship reflect simultaneousness in the fictional world.

Clearly an interactive narrative experience offers another layer of understanding and storytelling that a closed and single-authored piece could not easily include. However, Isabell Klaiber argues that too often collaboratively written work in particular is still evaluated “in relation to the unitary aesthetics of the single-handed genius author” (125). For Klaiber, multi-authored pieces are more about the participatory process than the literary product. Because multi-authored pieces are inherently social, she argues that one cannot consider the literary narrative separately from the social narrative of its creation. She calls the story’s narrative the primary narrative and the chatter in the comments and author profiles of a collaboratively written piece the secondary narrative. Looking at both narratives allows critics and readers to understand how the authors balanced absolute freedom and narrative continuity. This seems to also become the reader’s experience, where s/he is immersed in the story and then is drawn out when s/he notices the story’s construction. While the successful Aristotelian narrative is a harmonious whole, real life and the secondary narrative of the construction of a collaborative piece of writing, is not guaranteed such finitude. Real life, like the secondary narrative, is “contingent and open-ended” (Klaiber 128). This cracks the surface of the primary narrative that still attempts unity.

We saw this process in action as we were working on the Generative Literature Project, with so many “authors” writing one single character. Everyone contributed pieces of a character with different perspectives and ideas fueling their submissions. If someone were to create a network solely for this character and link our submissions with hypertext, they would find several narratives hidden among the work. In addition, the navigation of these pieces would ultimately influence the reader’s interpretation of the character depending on what information they received and in what order they received it. Eventual readers, users, or players of the next stage of Generative Literature Project narrative artifacts may venture into our early compositions. Perhaps some will find the Tumblr account dedicated to chronicling the development of O Jorgensen, and that secondary narrative will play into their reading of the primary narrative.

Interactivity and Immersion

Interactivity has often served as a defining difference between print and digital literature, and what’s often considered most desirable in that interaction the digital’s ability to “break down the troublesome divide between writer and reader” (85). Allowing users to select sections of the text based on their interests does not appear to kill the narrative pleasure but rather enhance it as readers/users explore the labyrinth of information at their fingertips. While surely not the writer, the reader then becomes more than just a reader and actually pioneers the interpretation of the text with much more agency and a less passive disposition as the network makes possible an infinite number of stories that will unfold at the discretion of the reader. While the digital author sets the rules and provides the board so to speak, the reader puts the pieces into play and makes every move.

Attempting to imagine how programmers and game designers would later construct the digital novel and than how readers, users, or players would interact with the Generative Literature Project artifacts were were creating, often left the originating authors in Professor Takehana’s Experimental Writing class grasping at straws. Students were collaborating with someone in the future. This sparked some reservations on what should or should not be included at the first stage. Thinking about a character one individual creates as something another person will raise often felt disorienting, as though the character one person imagined never belonged to that creator. In fact several students confessed they did not feel ownership of their character — an almost ultimate rejection of the writerly text.

Perhaps that sense of ownership will switch to the reader/viewer/player/user. With a movie or book, the audience is merely a witness and has no control over where the plot goes. However, with a video game, the player has direct control over the direction the game will take. This adds to a sense of immersion, on top of a unique experience. The way one player works his or her way through a game is different from another. This creates a sense of personal connection. Each trajectory through the game is unique to each player.

Multimedia Narrative

Generative literature and writing in media expand our perceptions of writing beyond the text on the page and thus, allow us to explore alternative media in our narrative constructions. For example, Johnathan Jena found that the way he could tell his character’s story (who was a film composer) best was sometimes through sound, which is why he included two strictly auditory pieces. Perhaps the multimedia novel, whether it is gamifed or not, does so to accompany the changing times.

Daniel Punday opens his essay “From Synesthesia and Multimedia” by highlighting that while according to Marie-Laure Ryan, narrative media each have a “unique combination of features,” critics and practitioners too often privilege the “unique” at the cost of the idea of “combination.” New media often combines features of other media. In his call to re-legitimize the term “multimedia,” Punday cites that we must remember that the hardware that supports multimedia work — the game console and computer, are defined by their combination of media, not the distinction of itself as a proper medium. The computer is NOT a medium, but a technology that accommodates many different media.

With multimedia work, many have focused on the capacity to interact with the text as definitive of new media. This interaction includes reader immersion, ability to alter the narrative, and ability to alter the interface. This results in many versions of a story in part assembled by the computer rather than the human. The interactivity of new media challenges our understanding of narrative and its distinction from discourse. According to Punday “The narrativity of our experience in these spaces [computer games, specifically Star Wars] may thus not be so much a matter of a specific story that we string together through our actions but rather of stories glimpsed through spaces and objects familiar from film and print narrative” (30).

In Steve Tomasula’s TOC: A New Media Novel, the opening feels like a movie in the way that it builds text over music and spoken word.  It is what in movies would be considered a title screen, which like the paratext of an inner cover page, introduces the title of the piece. Though they both do this, in the electronic piece, the paratextual element of the title screen goes beyond reproducing its textual counterpart, but instead, succeeds it by setting an atmosphere and in the first 20 seconds (it is also important to note how electronic literature can sometimes only be measured by the duration of time rather than pages) giving us more than the title, but a precursor to the plot.  This is shown when the narrator says, “A distant world shines from another’s past that is simultaneously our future.  Is this a ripple in time—or in life?” This cinematic opening to the novel indulges the reader in the setting of the story, and perhaps increases the creative facility of the storyteller himself. The words are augmented by carnivalesque music and imagery of ripples. The filmic clip goes on like a trailer to describe the story of two brothers, Logos (logic) and Chronos (time), who were born at similar/different times due to the time zones.  Chronos insisted he was older, but Logos said he should have the throne because he was born at an earlier time.

While much of this is plot as we’d expect in both electronic literature and a print novel, the next stage in the novel allows the reader to interact albeit in a trivial way. The screen gives the reader an option to cast a stone in one of the pools, one for each brother as a “wager.” Both pools have different storylines, and thus we depart from a uni-linear structure so strongly associated with the print novel. This is important because thematically, in a story based off of a seeming paradoxical question (who is older: someone born first/or born earlier), it makes sense that the stories would depart from themselves.

Wolfgang Hallet, in her essay “The Rise of the Multimedia Novel: Generic Change and Its Narratological Implications” provides several examples of print novels that include multimedia elements that alter the narrative experience. These multimedia novels include artifacts that the narrator or characters make and share with the reader, giving the reader entry into the fictional world that isn’t mediated by language. In experiencing these artifacts, the reader can see the thought process of its narrator. For Hallet, these multimedia artifacts present in books like Leif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, let the reader more easily experience different versions of the fictional world. Some of that fictional world comes through in maps, photographs, doodles, annotations, tables, of embedded textual genres like emails or letters.

Introducing and leaning on non-verbal literacies for Hallet marks a divide where such works should be considered a subgenre of literature — a multisemiotic narrative (156). Certainly the narrative experience shifts when non-verbal communication carries strong narrative value. The world of that story, fictional or not, is no longer strongly controlled by the narrator. A considerable number of the non-verbal portions are artifacts of that world, but are frequently left to the interpretation of the reader. The narrator does not always dictate the meaning or context of artifacts, and thus cedes to the reader more autonomy within a fictional world. Unimodal written texts have translated the sensory experience of the world and its artifacts into language. However, in the multimodal text, some components slip passed the capacity of the written word.

Certainly changes to the novel and to literature more generally can be uncomfortable, like all changes in life, and in its early stages of coping with digital technologies as a supporting medium for its expression, some of its work will cycle through the awkward times of pubescence as it remediates. Life on Earth manifested some unfortunate looking creatures as it transitioned and adapted to new environments. Ichthyostega is a wonderful biological example of how transitional periods appear awkward at best.

Ichthyostega pencil drawing, digital coloring, based on reconstruction by Ahlberg, 2005
Ichthyostega pencil drawing, digital coloring, based on reconstruction by Ahlberg, 2005

The reservations with the multimodal novel could stem from a misguided view that literature is inherently conservative. Tradition and innovation make strange bedfellows, but they mingle in the moment of the now — that near-impossible time to capture.

Sure, the move to multimodal novels can seem as a smear on the print tradition or a rejection of the past. But in the moment of creating our portion of the Generative Literature Project, it felt like an dynamic, even intoxicating literary experience of making something — like literature’s own Maker’s Movement.

Working on the Generative Literature Project felt like creating a composition living in a constant now. Perhaps this came largely from not having a preconceived view of how the final product would be assembled and presented to its readers. Perhaps having fifteen different narrative lines colliding around our alumnus O Jorgenson left us on our toes about what potential connotations or contradictions each individual piece could bring to others’ writing. Much of the collective work was spontaneous and would spiral into further developments.

This lived experience of creating a digital literary text, brings to the fore a smaller but significant point in Wolfgang Hallet’s argument — the multimedia novel offers a deeper level of realism to 21st century readers already steeped in multiple literacies. “Regarding the multimodality of cognition and of all meaning making, the reader’s construction of the fictional world therefore imitates the multiplicity of modes that are involved in everyday cognitive processes and it therefore becomes part of the experience of reading narrative texts” (168). Perhaps Hallet’s essay taps into the core worry that the downfall of the print codex will also be the written word’s fall from dominance. We’ve heard these frustrations with the rise of film, television, and video games. We hear arguments that, the kids aren’t reading and thinking deeply. Hallet’s call to consider linguistic signs as one literacy whose interaction with other literacies, perhaps especially visual literacy, strikes fear in those who have invested in honing craft and analysis in a specific literacy in isolation. But we do not, nor have we ever, lived in a world of only words. Sure, the printing press made the written word most easily mass-produced and distributed, but now other media can easily travel just as well, if not faster today. Should we heed Hallet’s suggestions, we will reconsider writing and reading as a multi-literate act that requires we decode and comprehend various modes/signifiers within the narrative storyworld. We can then be self-critical of the role of language and it’s relationship with other symbolic language used.

While this second installment provided a catalog of digital narrative traits as they apply to the GenLit Project and related texts, the third of four installments moves on to explain how a digital rather than print-codex platform drastically shifts the paratextual meaning of a novel.

This article is the fourth in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.