Articles

Hypertext in digital storytelling

In Uncategorized on 2009-07-01 by Kyle Maxwell

Nonlinear storytelling presents entirely new sets of challenges that we’ve only recently begun to explore, after centuries of exploring the art of linear stories. Since the development of hypertext (and arguably since Ulysses in 1922), though, writers and storytellers have tried to figure out what sorts of stories work best with this medium and how so.

As an example, Norse mythology has a great deal of complexity, ambiguity, and shifting relationships. The creation and end-of-times myths, the development of the trickster Loki throughout the canon, and the growth of the All-Father Odin all provide examples of how complicated and allusive these stories can become. Not only do characters have odd and unfamiliar relationships, their weapons and objects have names and personalities and histories, and our fragmentary reconstruction from limited sources means that scholars don’t even fully agree on what we know about the mythology. So for understanding these myths, we should read them in a hyperlinked format, perhaps most notably via a wiki with its lack of imposed formal structure and support for densely-linked data.

We can generalize from this and suppose that repositories of cultural information in general (e.g. the theology of a particular belief system or traditions associated with a learning institution) work best when presented in a hypertext format rather than a linear narrative, because the story itself doesn’t come in the form of a straightforward arc. But they still have the essential components of stories and hold the same fascination for us, which is how we start looking at one Wikipedia article about a species of bird and end up becoming lay experts on the history of typesetting 3 hours later.

I’d like to see more stories develop like this, or at least families of stories. The ancient forms won’t disappear anytime soon, and eventually I don’t know that the two forms will really seem all that divergent. Just like scholarly versions of great works of the past rely heavily on footnotes, references, and bibliographies, hypertext versions (or similar) of future literature could help, maybe particularly for genre fiction like military thrillers or historical fiction. Think about the popularity of Pop-up Video when it first began and the growing ability of YouTube videos to include links, notes, and more.

What stories would you tell nonlinearly?

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