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SubStance 33.3 (2004) 80-107

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Involvement, Interruption, and Inevitability:

Melancholy as an Aesthetic Principle in Game Narratives

Purdue University Calumet

Of all of the possibilities suggested by the nascent genre of electronic writing, the idea that online or electronic media may provide a new way of telling stories has met with the most interest and suspicion. When artists, critics, and program developers debate the potential for electronic media to transcend the narrow appeal of quick-response ("twitch") video games or the pragmatic search features of a CD-ROM-based encyclopedia, they ask whether our experience of these media can become rich and involved enough to become aesthetic. Such aesthetic hopes for these new media need not, of course, focus on narrative. Some of the most successful uses of electronic media have sought the aesthetic not in narrative but in the lyric possibilities of the word on the screen. Indeed, some of the most robust styles emerging in electronic literature rightly locate themselves in the tradition of concrete poetry and modernist experimentation with the ways that words can be brought into relationship on the page—or, in this case, screen.1

Despite the fact that poetry may have had a smoother transition into the electronic medium, the success of electronic narrative is likely to determine the widespread acceptance of electronic writing. Indeed, the possibility of immersion into a story has been one of the most consistent appeals of electronic media. After the first flash of Pong and Space Invaders style video games, text-based adventure and mystery stories emerged in the early 1980s as one of the most successful and popular types of computer games. More recently, although some of the most popular games are relatively non-narrative first-person shooting, fighting, and driving games, there is a constant counter-pressure within the industry, embodied in games like Myst, that seek to tell stories or that try to integrate storytelling into the more visceral pleasures associated with video games. Likewise, works of hypertext fiction with more explicitly literary aspirations developed on the web or through stand-alone programs like Eastgate's Storyspace system have focused not so much on the visual presentation of text as on the methods of narrative linking. The future of electronic literature in this sense depends on the possibility of creating [End Page 80] worlds in which readers or players can feel narratively immersed and emotionally involved. As Janet Murray asks at the end of Hamlet on the Holodeck, "Will the stories brought to us by the new representational technologies 'mean anything' in the same way that Shakespeare's plays mean something. . .? [C]an [we] hope to capture in cyberdrama something as true to the human condition, and as beautifully expressed, as the life that Shakespeare captured on the Elizabethan stage?" (273-74).

Although many issues about how we can construct and analyze electronic narrative remain to be settled, it is clear, then, that a central concern will be the ability of these game narratives to create the emotional impact inherent in our involvement in a story. Emotional involvement is especially important for the interactive text because the user must be prompted to act and move through the text to a degree not required by more traditional reading. In this essay, I would like to consider how electronic narratives balance interactivity and emotional force. Doing so means thinking about emotional involvement and its relation to narrative teleology, as well as its tolerance for interruption by everything from writerly asides to interactive play. To investigate this, I will draw not only on hypertext and computer games but also on American metafiction, which I will show confronts the same problems of emotional force within interactive or game-like patterns.

Gameplay and Narrative Force

All current forms of interactive narrative involve fixed textual elements and some method of accessing them. Most hypertext fiction, for example, is comprised of relatively brief narrative units—often called, following Barthes's S/Z, lexias—which in turn contain links to other units. Although early hypertext manifestoes proclaimed the freedom...