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"I know what it was. You know what it was": Second-Person Narration in Hypertext Fiction

From: Narrative
Volume 19, Number 3, October 2011
pp. 311-329 | 10.1353/nar.2011.0020

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Introduction

Digital fiction is fiction, written for and read on a computer screen, that pursues its verbal, discursive, and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium (Bell et al.). Hypertext fiction is a specific form of digital fiction in which fragments of electronic text, known as lexias, are connected by hyperlinks. When reading a hypertext, the reader can click the "Enter" key on her keyboard to follow a default path through the text. Alternatively, she can follow hyperlinks that lead him or her to other parts of the text. Since the emergence of Storyspace hypertext fiction in the late 1980s, the study of digital fiction has undergone a significant paradigm shift. Recent research has moved from a "first wave" of pure theoretical debate to a "second wave" of narratological, stylistic, and semiotic analysis. While the theoretical intricacies of second-wave digital fiction theory have been well debated (see Ciccoricco; Ensslin; Ensslin and Bell, "Introduction"; Bell, Possible Worlds), the discipline and practice of analyzing digital fiction require a more systematic engagement and understanding than offered by much previous scholarship. With this critical need in mind, the Digital Fiction International Network (DFIN) has been exploring new avenues of defining and implementing approaches to analyzing digital fiction, with the tripartite trajectory of: developing a range of tools and associated terminology for digital fiction analysis; providing a body of analyses based on the close reading of texts, which are substantiated by robust theoretical and terminological conclusions; and fostering a collaborative network of academics working on interrelated projects. The details of this remit have been laid down in DFIN's recent "[S]creed for Digital Fiction" (Bell et al.).

In seeking to exemplify DFIN's overall agenda, this article offers an analysis of two Storyspace hypertexts, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden and Richard Holeton's Figurski at Findhorn on Acid. The article has a specific focus on how the text implements second-person narration and other forms of the textual "you" (Herman, Story Logic) in juxtaposition with other narrative perspectives. We aim to explore the extent to which print-based narratological theories of the textual "you" apply to the texts under investigation and suggest theoretical tenets and taxonomic modifications arising from the way in which the reader is involved in textual construction. More specifically we will show first how second-person narration can be used in digital fiction to endow the reader with certain properties so that she is maneuvered into the position of "you." We will then show how second-person narration can be used to presuppose knowledge about the reader so as to predict her relationship to "you." In both cases we will show that some instances of second-person narration in digital fiction require additional theoretical categories for their analysis. Of particular interest is the way in which the reader and her role in the "cybernetic feedback loop" (Aarseth) are constructed textually and interactionally.

The "You" in Digital, Interactive Texts

The textual "you" features widely across digital, interactive texts. Interactive Fiction (IF) perhaps constitutes the most obvious narrative form employing the second-person throughout. Using present tense and imperatives (e.g., Zork's "You are standing in an open field. . . "), they create the illusion of being present in a storyworld that is constructed by the reader in creative collaboration with the programmed text. In IFs, the textual "you" informs the reader about the basic building blocks of the game world and allows her to co-construct this domain by inputting text commands in the hope of receiving more textual information (cf. Walker). In IFs, the textual "you" is the main character, role-played by the reader (Douglass 129). As Marie-Laure Ryan puts it, "IF is one of the rare narrative forms where the use of 'you' enters into a truly dialogical rather than merely rhetorical relation with an Other, and where 'present' denotes narrow coincidence between the time of the narrated events and the time of the narration" (519). Similarly, the feeling of virtual "presence" has become increasingly stronger with the development of IFs, such as Jon Ingold's All Roads, that follow considerably...



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