Towards a canon of “hypertext literature / interactive fiction / digital narrative”

09 January 2013

Kim asked on Twitter:

“Is there a canon for digital narratives / interactive stories / hypertext literature yet? A list of accepted classics and forms?”

What followed was a lot of us going “we don’t know”. And I wasn’t exactly helpful, by pointing out that those three things are (in some ways) completely different.

But. Nobody got anywhere but not being helpful, and to do so, I’m going to express (a bit) of an opinion, and hopefully something a little absolute. I hate list posts, but let’s put something down for people to argue about.

So, specifically: if I had to draw up a Canon – a canon of the interactive-story-thingies (we all know what they are – “things that the reader/audience interpret differently by interacting” is my best explanation) what would I include?

The rough goals were: not necessarily the best, but important pillars; no bias to high- or low- brow; trying to cover all media appropriately; interpret the question as broadly as you would like; don’t take too long over it. Here’s where I am:

Things I wanted represented: pre-digital works; early, web-based hyperfiction; text-based IF, both classic and modern; things that are clearly videogames; an ARG (and the Beast still, in many ways, feels like the best); tabletop roleplaying; mechanical storytelling; a selection of Infocom writers (Moriarty, Meretzky).

I am not always picking things I like the most, nor things that are the “first” – so, for instance, Sleep No More probably is the most refined Punchdrunk work, and thus worth sharing here, but I’d swap it for one of their others easily.

What’s missing at the moment but shouldn’t be: the 1970s; more traditional hyperfiction (about which I don’t know enough); some big chronological gaps; boardgames/cardgames that touch on this (eg Once Upon A Time); anything pre-20th century; David Cage (I’m still not sure if I’d include him or not); no visual novels; no JRPGs (which are fascinating games, but there are few I’d include on this list); no Japanese adventure games (9/9/9 springs to mind, for instance).

There’s a bunch of thought that connects these; it’s not arbitrary, and like I said, not about favourites. Some things you might think to be obviously missing (especially: things from the world of videogames) are sometimes deliberate omissions (and sometimes accidental ones).

There’s definitely a particular thread I wanted to start stitching together, and these are the places I’d begin. Most items on this list are picked as representatives of categories; not as absolutes. This is definitely not the “n best interactive narratives list“.

Clearly a work in progress. But: if I had to teach this, or start writing some kind of giant thesis, I could do worse than begin here.

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