Espen Aarseth is a scholar of electronic literature and video game studies who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Bergen, Germany. He co-founded the Department of Humanistic Informatics at the University of Bergen, and worked there until 2003. Currently, Aarseth is Principal Researcher at the Center of Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, and co-editor of Game Studies journal. He is one of the first authors to give "electronic literature" (including text-based games) treatment as a form of literature with its own media-based genres. He is strongly aligned with ludology, the study of games, and analyzes video games according to ludology (rather than narratology). Cybertext was his dissertation.
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature Edit
Cybertext, as a book, dedicates itself to exploring the aesthetic and textual dynamics of "cybertexts"--primarily digital texts and e-lit, but also paper-based varieties. In part, this book is emerges out of the rising (but still marginal) 1990s trend to read computer-mediated texts as objects of literature without re-assessing the limits of such comparisons. Alongside this trend is the alternative corollary: the read digital and print matter as wildly, fundamentally different. Aarseth insists that he will pursue no fundamental divide between digital and print texts, and that these differences must be understood in "functional, rather than material or historical, terms" (17). Aarseth also isn't much interested in material analyses: "The emerging new media technologies are not important in themselves, nor as alternatives to older media, but should be studies for what they can tell us about the principles and evolution of human communication" (17). Thus, the materiality of an object has no value in and of itself--rather its value lies in how it operates as a communication vessel. The goal of his book, then, is "to show what the functional differences and similarities among the various textual media imply about the theories and practices of literature" (17). His primary lenses are narratology and rhetoric, but he does ultimately believe literary theory to be incomplete in the study of ergodic literature. His interest in the "functional" produces multidimensional fields or graphs in Chapter 3. His breakdown of computer-based signs is structuralist in quality, attempting to typify all interactive and non-interactive components in excrutiating detail.
A cybertext is a neologistic term for cybernetic texts; cybernetic, derived from Norbert Weiner's writing, defines any system that contains an information feedback loop. Thus, a cybertext does not require a computer--one can create a paper-based cybertext (consider the I-Ching or Choose Your Own Adventure). For Aarseth, a study of cybertexts "focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange" (1). It is not a mode of textual production defined by a digital computer. For Aarseth, "cybertext" is a "perspective" for exploring the "communicational strategies of dynamic texts" (5). In this designation, the user also becomes a vital consideration, as the user is also a performer of the text in ways that "reading" cannot account for. Aarseth labels this ergodic, a term whose Greek origin means "work" and "path". Ergodic literature is that in which "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" (1).
Aarseth is writing during a time when few literary scholars had brokered with cybertexts and e-lit, and thus made the common mistake of confusing a text with variable expression and lost possibilities in non-linear form (a cybertext) with the semantic ambiguity of a linear text (generic literature). Unlike regular books, cybertexts demand an "investment of personal improvisation that can result in either intimacy or failure" (4). The struggle is beyond interpretation, and one of control over the direction and progression. Cybertexts are game-worlds, and should be distinguished not in terms of games vs. literature, but in terms of games vs. narrative (5). Aarseth highlights this misunderstanding through the trope of the labyrinth, which once had two forms: the unicursal (only one path, but it may double back and intertwine) and multicursal (multiple paths with multiple outcomes). For Aarseth, the mistake has been in understanding subversive narratives as multicursol texts rather than what they are--unicursal texts (many paths but one narrative). The only true multicursal text is the cybertext.
Aarseth also reminds his reader that cybertext does not constitute a genre; all they share is a "principle of calculated production" but not of aesthetics, themes, or technology. The middle 4 chapters of the book are organized according to local "type": Hypertexts, Adventure Games, Automated Poetics and MUDs. Aarseth notes that with digital cybertexts, the notion of "the text itself" is problematic as it is now divisible into interface and storage medium.
In chapter 4, Aarseth explores the genre of cybertexts, hyperfiction (the prime example being Michael Joyce's Afternoon: A Story. Here he casts back to Ted Nelson's work, in which a hypertext was defined as a new way of organizing text so it could be read in any sequence the reader wished. Storyspace was a program that allowed for hypertext-based stories, but only in the formations determined by the author (there was no free browsing). Thus, the hypertext is not an endless free-for-all, but a textual mode participating in different levels of freedom vs. limitation.
Adventure and DeadlineEdit
Aarseth's Chapter 4 summary of the text-based adventure game genre remains one of the earliest attempts to "think" these games as a genre. This chapter includes the now legion discussion of Crowther and Woods Adventure, and here he offers a sharp reading of the parser as part of the literary experience of the game. His analysis stays within the works of Infocom and he doesn't attempt to historicize the medium against parser-based games with images (Sierra, among others). Here Aarseth maps the four functional components of a generalized cybertext: the data, the processing engines, the interface (analysis of parser input and synthesis of engine output), and users. In this Chapter, he also provides an invaluable lit review of previous writings on such games, particularly through narratology. However, Aarseth shows that what was understood as a narrative device is rather part of the game's structure, not its narrative. To do a reading of the game Deadline, he developes the notion of the intrigue, the intrigant and the intriguee (111).
- intrigue is "a secret plot in which the user is the innocent, but voluntary, target, [...] with an outcome that is not yet decided" (112). Rather than the dramatic intrigue, the ergodic intrigue is directed against the user
- intrigant "the intrigue's alternative to the narrative's narrator [...] the architect of the intrigue [...] the implied author, the mastermind who is ultimately responsible" (114).
- intriguee the target of the intrigue, "parallel to the narratee, to the implied reader [...] as well as the main character.
Also of note is Aarseth's employment of the "autistic" tendancy of the adventure game.