Text, spaces, labyrinths

proposal for an analytic model for the study of hyperstructural narratives of fiction

Danish Masters dissertation (approx. 30.000 words) by Lisbeth Klastrup, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Copenhagen, June 1999.


The objective of this dissertation is to develop a reasoned analytic model which could be used as an analytic tool opening up "hyperstructural narratives of fiction", by which is understood various texts (in the broad sense of this word) based on the computer medium.

The dissertation is divided into six parts: an introduction, which presents the project; a concept clarification; a discussion of the concept and history of the labyrinth and its applicability in this context; outline of an "interview guide"; an exemplary analysis of the Danish computer game-narrative Blackout and a conclusion putting the subject matter into perspective.

The introduction focuses on the user's experience of the hypertext, motivating the use of the concept of labyrinth as a means of examining the user's desire or "directionality" guided towards on one hand completing the fiction-game successfully; on the other hand towards a repetition of this with the aim of mapping the gameworld in detail.

The second chapter tries to clarify some of the many concepts applied in the hypertext- and game theoretics; the concept of "interaction" is especially subject to close scrutiny. Opposing an ideologically fused understanding of the concept as something particularly liberating and desirable (the more interaction, the better), I (inspired by Janet Murrays terminology) conceive of interaction as a term which refers to the user's scope of agency, which may be small or large and differently motivated in the individual texts. Especially considering hyperstructural fiction, contrary to hyperstructural non-fictions, a high degree of interaction should not be considered as a criterion of quality as such. I stress the fact that the computer(programme)s ability to register the user's behaviour - and according to this registration to adopt the gaming options to the user's personality - makes room for a unparalelled monitoring of the user, not feasible in "ordinary" fiction. The programme and the user have each their hierachically defined mode of influence, respectively authorship and agency, where the latter unfolds within the boundaries defined by the former. In order to make use of the concept of agency, I then propose a differentation (on a continuum) between superficial agency and structural agency; "superficial" agency is present when "interaction" is limited to chosing from a menu and structural agency is present when the user has the possibility of changing integral components in the fictional world or game. Finally, I discuss the relation between hypertext narratives and narrative games. I argue that every time a user winds her way through a game/hypernarrative, a basic kind of linearity is established (the experience of reading takes place in chronological time) and hence the reading experience will not be a chaotic as it is often presented as being, when these kinds of texts are in question. In relation to this discussion, I propose a differentiation between 3 types of narrative "endings": the traditional ending (predetermined end of story), the exhaustion (a feeling of having explored all options, which might occur after several readings) and finally the choice-ending (chosing between two or more existing exits). Thus, I conclude that a hyperstructural fiction and/or narrative game, if not laid out as a traditional narrative, still remain a narrative experience at heart.

In chapter three, I argue that fictions of the aforementioned narrative nature with benefit may be understood and analysed in labyrinthine terms. I distinguish between three types of relations between fictions and labyrinths: the labyrinth may be a figure in the fiction; it may be a structural principle or it may be a thematical image or principle. In the dissertation at hand, only the second type is dealt with: the labyrinth as designating the achitecture of "links". The classical distinction between the unicursal and multicursal labyrinth is supplemented with a third type of labyrint (bordering on not being a labyrinth at all): the rhizomatic "network" labyrint (as defined and introduced by Umberto Eco and Deleuze/Guattari) - in this labyrinth every state of fixity never stabilises, but constantly changes. In this connection, I point to the fact that there is no inherent relation between agency and complexity (the user may come across a fairly complex labyrinth which she holds no agency over) - the two features are autonome variables. A reading of the labyrinth as a structural principle in modern literature leads to a recognition of a labyrinthic rhetorics: ways of verbally creating a labyrinthine "feel". A distinction between four basic situations in the labyrint is made: the turn; the micro-decision (between roads to follow); the turning around, when confronted with a dead end; and the return to a place already visited.

The distinctions made in the previous chapters are gathered in chapter four and laid out as various dimensions characterising a given fiction. Hence this brief chapter mainly consists of an "interview guide", which poses a number of important questions, one should ask a hyperstrutural narrative: which objectives defines the user's "sense of direction" (mentally as well as geographically) - i.e. to find an exit and construct a fabula? Does the text hold a center? Which possible patterns of movement exist: uni- or multicursal travelling, cyclic/acyclic; number of exits? The transparence of the labyrinthic traversal should be considered: are explicit maps or landmaps provided as a means of guiding the user? Thematically, one might furthermore ask: is the labyrinthic journey through the labyrinth also a rite of initiation (as proposed by Jacques Attali, whose theories is put forward in chapter three)? and if: to what or which world is the user being initiated?

The exemplary analysis performed in chapter five asks some of the questions listed in the "interview guide". The analysis deals with the Danish computer game/narrative Blackout, published in 1998. The labyrinthic quest in this work is of a both geographical and psychological nature: find your way though the labyrinth of the Blackout-town and your way through the darkened mind of the protagonist Gabriel. The gathering of information, essential to a computergame of this kind, takes place through dialogic conversations with other characters in the game (a choice between at least two questions or answers is usually provided). The user's "movement space" is large, however the choices of action is conditioned by the choices made by the user earlier on (consequently, an aggressive dialogic attitude leads to an aggressive ending). Some kind of set narrative remains, in that a number of events occur in every playing through of the game: like the discovery of the fact that the body without head found in the introductory scene has been produced during the take of a snuff-movue, and the realisation that it is Gabriel, who has removed and hidden the head.

The "blackout" (in the shape of a non-stopable video-clip) is a reappearing feature, and it is defined as a automated movement (the user as the avatar Gabriel experiences a blackout and "wakes up" in a new setting); this movement "mode" is supplemented by three other types of movements possible: the directed movement (go to this place, says character Y), the motivated movement (you are informed that if you go to place X you might find out about Z) and the unrestricted explorative movement (looking for clues and characters everywhere possible). 3 maps of actual played-through games illustrates the typical shift between movements modes during the playing of the game; however, on an overall level these movements are structured by a number of narrative "bottlenecks", which must be passed through in order to reach the next stage of the narrative.

A labyrinthine rhetorics is observable in that the game contains a number of blind alleys (in the Blackout-town, the choices presented). A basic opacity of the traversal is maintained as the user is never informed of the fact, that his choices predetermines the concluding choices (or lack of these). In general, a combination of opacity and a high degree of directed determination guiding the user's way through more open spaces thus characterises Blackout as a labyrinth.

Finally, I conclude that a consideration of labyrinthine elements in a hyperstructured narrative-game is fruitful as a method of analysis. It would be interesting to try out this form of analysis on narratives such as Marjorie Luesebrink's Califia (melding facts and fictions and various narrative strands) or a ever-changing narrative as Judy Malloy's The Roar of Destiny emanating from the refridgerator. A subject which should be engaged with in future hypernarrative theory is the discussion of which traits in particular makes a hypertext aesthetically pleasing.

If you would like to read the full-text version of this dissertation (available in Danish only), please contact me at klastrup@itu.dk.