Hypertext Problems and Comparisons

Zack Boyle

Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? Surely you read them as a youngster -- it was pulp hypertext fiction, a pleasure to read. Certain people had their own styles of reading them. Sometimes I would feel reckless and turn pages without a care, but sadly, in most cases I was the kid who used my fingers to save important "links." After a time all ten of my digits were used up (even my thumbs), and I would have to give up one saved place. This irritated me to no end. Sometimes I'd even use bits of paper to save places instead, but it just made for confusing situations.

The point I'm making is that this is an unavoidable flaw (unless you use storyspace or the "open in new window" command compulsively) of hypertext. Often in Patchwork Girl I would follow a new link with trepidation--a dead end, or a viable path? Did I miss an important passage on the way?

After a while of reading, though, I realized that it was planned that way. Jackson's intention was to make a free-standing book that would not inpire such fears in her readers. It can be read in no particular order except for the necessary rudimentary knowledge gleaned in the beginning. This is the ideal of hypertext: a rough starting point, various paths, and no regrets about choosing a particular link over another.

A couple years ago some filmmakers tried out a new sort of slighty hypertextual film style in which the audience would "vote" for what direction the plot would turn at certain times during the movie (these experiments have probably been happening for years, though). In any case, I'd feel the same unsatisfied feeling in watching the film. Perhaps this is the point of the inventors of the film style: viewers who passed up one path of the plot would return to watch the film to attempt to turn the plot in a different direction than before. Given the system of voting and the predictable behavior of the viewers, it would probably result in a few people getting pissed.

If the hypertext document doesn't have the power of Shelley Jackson's planned-from-the-ground-up text, another circular structure could also be possible. You also might remember (or be old enough to have grown out of the books by then) that another popular series following Choose Your Own Adventure was the Time Machine series. Instead of having "dead end" links, you could always save yourself from an untimely fate and "jump" to safety. In short, the book caused you to go in circles until you found the right link to the happy ending. Even me, the most paranoid of hypertext novel readers could "go reckless" with the Time Machine series...but it was a bit irritating because my naturally bad choices led to repetitive circular movement.

Shelly's hyperfiction didn't seem to have any dead ends. Instead, most links progressed steadily toward a goal of some sort. Opening it up in Storyspace revealed this fact. Is this true hypertext? Is a text like "Time Machine" in which there is a definitive beginning and end a true example of hypertext? Or is a more powerfully linked collection of interlinked documents, with no start and finish, true hypertext?

Another possible problem with hypertext is, again, the defined ending point. If the story is truly nonlinear, where does it end? For example, back to Choose Your Own Adventures... Being slightly obsessive compulsive, a book wasn't done for me until every page was used. I swear, some of those authors put pages in those books that were just for tease little lonely "islands" that had no bridge to the others in the chain. Sometimes I'd write down the page number and then flip through the book, finding the link in reverse direction.

Of course, this was my own definition of completing a book. Another may have a different opinion, just as one might differ on the "true" definition of hypertext. In any case, the jump from book pages to the computer screen has made browsing easier. Windows can be kept on hand with the handy "Window" menu, without fingers having to laboriously do the work. However, it's safe to say that there are still a few drawbacks with hypertext, most dealing with the linear movement of stories, games and other media that people have grown so accustomed to.

Discussion of Patchwork Girl Overview Screen for Website Body and Self