Note: DO NOT TAKE THESE NOTES TOO SERIOUSLY. MY IDEAS HAVE BECOME SIGNIFICANTLY REFINED SINCE I WROTE THIS. For more updated ideas, look at the page for my lecture on "Tragedy in Electronic Literature".
In preparation for next week's panel on Tragedy (1:30pm, Wednesday) at the 2007 Hypertext Conference, and to address some ideas raised in an exchange between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein(1)(2)(3)(4), I offer the following bits of commentary.
Issue One: Overlap between IF and Hypertext
In her first essay, Short narrates a little dialogue between IF practitioners and Hypertext writers. She draws distinctions between the technology and then suggests that hypertext authors (and implicitly, hypertexts and their underlying technology) prefer static works in which "the reader/user should not have any real agency"-- while IF on the other hand, if it doesn't give the reader/user agency, at least must always "teach the player how to interact".
This last statement is a useful distinction, and Short uses it as a jumping-off point to talk about agency and protagonists in tragedy and electronic works-- a very good and interesting discussion. But the dichotomy between Hypertext as static and IF as dynamic is a bit facile. When we ask our questions in a panel of IF and hypertext people, we have to do more than identify basic differences: we must understand the common ground which can provide opportunity for mutually constructive discussion.
It's easy to get lost in these discussions. We use a word like "agency", and the conversation becomes based on a confusion of terms. In this case, "agency" can mean many things which are not easily compatible, and I think this is one area which deserves further scrutiny.
A related area of common ground is the question of "who"-- questions about the characters, the writer, and the audience. This area is very thorny and complex, because it's so close to the heart of every creative work. Most writings of any kind differ on this point, which makes it a good common ground, since the possibilities vary enough to offer us many chances to learn from disparate works.
How do they differ? Let us consider for example, the question, "What is the narrator?", or "what is supplying us with the substance of the work?". In a film, it might be a camera, the editor, or a narrator character. It might be a narrator in a play, such as Chorus in "Henry V". In electronic works, the narrator might be the user interface, or perhaps a voice within that interface. In novels and poems, the narrator question has provided many PhD and book opportunities, most notably Booth's excellent book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. or one of my personal favourites, a work on using narrators for world-modeling in the novel, Langland's Society in The Novel.
Narrators change. They have varying relations to individual characters' thoughts. They sometimes deceive. They are sometimes deceived, even self-deceived, as Emma (and the Emma-narrator) is about her feelings for Knightely. Readers experience different kinds of affinity with these narrators. Some people, for example, find Coetzee's Disgrace disturbing because it not only invites the reader to associate with a rapist, but it also presents him to the reader as he does to himself-- as a nice, well-meaning erudite guy.
Within this issue of narrators, we can find common ground with the question, "How do authors signal the nature of the narrator?" Text-based interactive fiction, which sometimes doesn't bother with design, often distinguishes narrators using the techniques of stream-of-conciousness writers: by emphasizing changes in style at the natural breaks in the text (paragraphs, the command prompt). Instant Message poems use design elements to distinguish narrators and speakers. Hypertexts, whether spatial, transclusionary, or interlinked, are also design-rich and can tend to rely on design or the strong boundaries' of lexia to distinguish narrators (this incidentally, is where Short falls, well, short. She sees the challenge of organising large sets of links, but hasn't identified the complexities in hypertext of montage, design, UI, graphcs, etc, which many IF systems dispense with).
How does this provide common ground, and what does this have to do with Tragedy? If, for example, we agree that a certain relationship with the narrator is useful to a kind of Tragedy, we are then free to think about how that relationship can be established using the toolset available to each type of electronic work. The next section will provide an example of this.
Issue Two: Play the Protagonist or Ride Shotgun?
Aristotelian tragedy can't work if the player is the tragic character (Emily's Protagonist, Mark's Hero). It's just not possible. This kind of tragedy requires the reader/audience to realize that the tragic character is doomed before the character does. If you're going to have a tragic character and are trying to create this kind of effect, the reader must expect the tragic character to have a mind of his/her/its own.
Again, hypertext and IF present different potentials in relation to Tragic plays. In a tragic play, you often get lots of dialogue. Most of Oedipus Tyrannus consists of Oedipus angrily arguing with people as he completely fails or fears to understand the implications of what he hears. How might this work in electronic literature?
- You could do this as a puzzle-based work. You're trying to discover what happened. You, the player discover information, go back to Oedipus, argue with him, then go off to find the next bit of information. But Aristotle's warning applies -- too much delay, and the story ceases to be about Oedipus.
- In both Hypertext and IF, you need to have an NPC that presents the reader with a reasonable expectation that he can be convinced of things by argument. And then you need to have that NPC completely ignore reason.
- In IF, it's tougher, because NPCs are hard to write, and because we expect them to be stupid. We run into the challenge "to teach the player how to interact". But it's somewhat possible, as Emily demonstrated in "Galatea". Also, the reader cannot use sophisticated argumentation, so IF loses some of the effect created by contrasts between the heightened style of court vs the language of nurses, shepherds, and housekeepers.
- Hypertext makes dialogue easier for the reader, because the author writes all the dialogue. I can easily imagine a version of Oedipus Tyrannus in which the reader controls the speeches of the messengers, Jocasta, Creon, Tereisias--no. I would make the reader Oedipus's secretary/advisor, screening the messengers, advising them on what to say, and watching/listening to them bring news or argue. This would preserve the ability of messengers to lie, doublecross, etc, without the reader anticipating. The technology would be simple, the writing very possible.
The Aristotelian model of "plot" and its relation to audience knowledge isn't the only kind of tragedy. Some theories highlight the role of suffering and reader empathy in tragedy, which is most notably discussed in Eagleton's Sweet Violence (too bad he can't be at the conference, though he's a prof at Manchester; I hope he was, at least, invited). Getting readers to feel sorrow is a difficult task, but the sufferer must be distant for us to wish to hold them close. Player death is frustrating, but it is not sorrowful if we have saved our game. Tragic violence and tragic suffering aren't about endings; they're about the challenges of going on. Thus, this kind of tragedy cannot put the player in the role of the sufferer.
The Death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII and the death of Floyd in Planetfall are two examples of subsidiary characters whose deaths have evoked strong emotion. In both cases, the hero character has a responsibility toward the NPC-- but the works themselves are not primarily tragedy.
Sufferers fit nicely into popular understandings of Hegelian tragedy-- where different kinds of moral right are put in opposition. An electronic version of Philoctetes, I suspect, would make a very, very good hypertext or IF; it reminds me of a lot of the moral quandaries found in the very excellent Avernum series (which are a wonderful combination of hypertext and gameplay, and which manage player ignorance deftly). It would actually be possible to play Neaptolimus in an interactive version of Philoctetes, which itself is a story questioning the nature of objectives and quest.
Hamartia and Comedy
Mark and Emily got into a discussion of Hamartia, the fatal flaw, the sin, the error, the missing of the mark, and the relationship between Tragedy and other forms, such as Comedy. I hope, (for Mark especially), that this brief note is helpful.
Michael Bywater has a handy rule of thumb which is not entirely precise, but is quite handy. It goes something like this:
In the context of this question, Mark asks, "What would James Bond do, or wily Ulysses? They'd do something briliant, totally unexpected, something nobody would have thought of." Emily appropriately responds by noting that Bond and Ulysses are heroes, and that Mark is now out of bounds of the Tragedy question. She's partly right.
But we do know what Ulysses would do in a tragedy-- at least according to Sophocles. In Philoctetes, this hero is the villain, the person who, like the heroes of many videogames, is willing to cause suffering for others in order to achieve the objective given him by the gods. Tragedy often dwells on the fringes, in the aftermath, on the jilted, and on the suffering.
Philoctetes presents a classic videogame situation. The hero is asked to obtain an object to defeat the boss at the end. But the play presents a moral dilemma: the object is needed by the suffering Philoctetes if he is to survive. As an extra twist, it Philoctetes is marooned on an abandoned island-- not beacuse the game designers wanted an island stage, but because Ulysses's opportunism seems to have resulted in Philoctetes becoming stranded.
That's what happens to heroes in Tragedy.
Tragedy and The Happy Ending
For those of you who have not studied literature, it should be noted that tragedy is not reliant on whether the ending is "happy" or not. Some tragedies have no deaths at all.
Alienation Effects, Happening Effects, and The Screen
Brecht's ideas are interesting in electronic works, which sometimes attempt to be immersive. There is a tendency, I think it's fair to say, for IF to seek an immersive quality, but hypertexts rarely tend even toward realism. IFs tend to use commands like "Go North", wherease hypertext works tend to provide incomprehensible links, such as Dylan Kinnett's wonderful first options "Rock", "Paper", "Scissors" which are notable precisely for how much they remind the reader of an inability to control. Later options, such as "Win" and "Lose" retain this irony, reminding the reader that there is no way to escape the situation.
This varying affinity to the world of the story, which is connected to the reader's consciousness of the artifice of the story, is addressed in Peter Brook's paraphrase of Brecht:
For Brecht, a necessary theatre could never for one moment take its sights off the society it was serving. There was no fourth wall between actors and audience-- the actor's unique aim was to create a precise response in an audience for whom he had total respect. It was out of respect for the audience that Brecht introduced the idea of alienation, for alienation is a call to halt: alienation is cutting, interrupting, holding something up to the light, making us look again [....]
The alienation effect and the happening effect are similar and opposite: the happening shock is there to smash through all the barriers set up by our reason, alienation is to shock us into bringing the best of our reason into play. Alienation works in many ways in many keys. A normal stage action will apear real to us if it is convincing and so we are apt to take it, temporarily, as objective truth. A girl, raped, walks on to a stage in tears- and if her acting touches us sufficiently, we automatically accept the implied conclusion that she is a victim and an unfortunate one. But suppose a clown were to follow her, mimicking her tears, and suppose by his talent he succeeds in making us laugh. His mockery destroys our first response. Then where do our sympathies go? [....] If carried far enough, such a series of events can suddenly make us confront our shifting views of right and wrong."
I included this long quotation because the visibility and questioning of artifice is a very important theoretical, writerly, and technical issue within both electronic literature and tragedy. It is one of those areas of common ground which is expressed differently in different works. In Hypertext, the Happening effect can be achieved visually, through photos, footage, and fonts. In IF this is a bit harder. However, the alienation effect is easier, I think for IF writers, who must, as Emily noted teach their readers how to play.
Time Locks and Option Locks
This one came from a discussion with Michael Bywater. In many tragedies, things must happen at the right time, or time is short, or options begin to narrow. Time is usually one major factor which turns small mistakes into precipices, into Hamartia. Electronic literature offers interesting opportunities for restricting readers' options, but also a lot of challenges.
This question is thus very interesting, but I will leave it to further discussion, after quoting a wonderfully relevant fable by Kafka:
The Quest Model
A lot of stories and games create the illusion of player agency by using a quest model. Instead of proceeding linearly through prescribed Acts and Scenes, the reader concurrently completes a set of prescribed quests and subquests. How can this be employed for the purposes of Tragedy?
Mark misses something about IF in his comments about the IF author having to be there before the reader. He says, "you rack your brains. And you come up with something incredibly clever, unexpected and far-fetched. Something perfect! But I'm just a writer, not a her: have I thought of your incredibly clever stratagem? If I have, you're deflated: it's not heroic after all, it was just a puzzle and you've supplied the correct answer".
Emily dismisses the deflation issue, but there's another misconception here: the idea that the author has to be there before you. In world modeling, just as in Card Sharp/Thespis, the author can be surprised by logical possibilities they have not considered. Each new rule, each new lexia increases the possibility for unexpected cleverness in readers. Also: Mark also makes the assumption here that IF is intrinsically puzzle-centred, which is not necessarily the case.
The question of puzzles in IF is interesting, and I think it could be fruitfully considered in relation to Brecht's ideas about alienation effects.
Education, Tragedy, and Brecht
Emily makes a very fascinating comment about IF in "IF In the ACM literature, Part Three":
Emily goes on to call this idea a "harsh puritanical" one, which I find odd, given the highly moralistic nature of Greek tragedy, which is still artistically satisfying, despite the fact that no matter how complicated and ambiguous it presented moral questions, it was still there to serve the state and prop up some kind of religious establishment. When I think "harsh puritanical" actions, I think about 17th century censorship, not about ideological creativity.
But that's only a minor point. I'm much much more intrigued by the following statement:
"is it still a game, or is it more of an electronic Socrates, sticking us with more and more contrived questions to make us see the holes in our thinking"
First, as I mentioned before, Tragedy sometimes sticks us with more and more contrived questions to make us see the holes in the tragic character's thinking. But also: it should be rather obvious that dialogue is not always Socratic. The question of what it is when it's not Socratic, especially when used in electronic literature, would seem to me to be something Ms. Short should be rather familiar with, especially given the somewhat moral nature of Galatea-- if you treat Galatea like she's a slut, she will respond to you like the perv you acting to be.
- Progress in many videogames is regulated by subquests. This allows certain freedom within the game world, while permitting certain actions to have a predefined, large influence on the state of the game. The accomplishing of the quest thus has more importance in some cases than the killing of a person. In Time in Greek Tragedy, De Romilly talks about "moments of crisis" in Tragedy-- points at which choices and information have greater importance. How well do these "moments of crisis" map onto game quests? Is this an opportunity or a hindrance for tragedy in Electronic literature (my instinct is that it's a hindrance, at least if the reader is the tragic character).
- Characters in tragedy often operate under constraints. C.f. time locks and option locks. Electronic works, according to Janet Murray, tend to be encyclopedic. Readers tend to follow every link, look at every component in a montage, explore every sub-cavern. Is exploration OK? Or does it undermine tragedy? How can this be managed in electronic literature? IF springs immediately to mind, but that's because IF presents the easiest solutions. How do you manage this in hypertext? (Avernum, as a hybrid system, might be helpful here)
- The encyclopedic tendencies of electronic literature can be used effectively, I suspect, in Tragedy, since critical ignorance is important to Tragedy. How?
- A related issue is The Desire to Stay in the Game. In both Hypertext and IF, there seems to be a tendency to want to stay in the game as long as possible, to keep reading as long as possible. "Premature endings" are losing situations. But death in Tragedy is a satisfactory, if not satisfying ending. How do we present possibilities of varying lengths without creating a hierarchy of outcomes?
- Electronic works can be huge. How do we make works with the potential for tragedy which legitimately present the tragic ending as a satisfactory one rather than "GAME OVER"? Or alternatively: should electronic tragedy have endings? Or, like Dylan Kinnett's "To Win, Simply Play", should we give them no ending at all, banish the reader to go over and over and over the tragic past like the traumatized sometimes go over our own tragic memories?
- How can we properly create a sense of loss in electronic literature?
- If we take a Hegelian position that Tragedy is about conflicting codes which resolve through the destruction of one or the fusion of both, can these "codes" be implemented in software, or should they just be expressed in the language of the work?
- Can more visual/geometric forms of electronic literature be tragic? Is it possible to have a tragic spatial hypertext? Or does the form preclude the possibility? In other words, is some kind of realism necessary for tragedy?