Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star

Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star

Nick Montfort
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
John Hopkins University Press, 1997. 216pp. $45. $15.95 (paper).

Nick Montfort reviews Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext, which stakes out a post-hypertextual terrain for literary criticism and practice. Interactive excerpts from some of the cybertexts that Aarseth discusses are included.

the hypertext murder case

“Hypertext is dead - ” declared Markku Eskelinen at Digital Arts
and Culture ‘99 in Atlanta. “Cybertext killed it.”

No doubt, interesting hypertext poetry and fiction remains to be
written, but - if we consider hypertext as a category that defines a
special, valid space for authorship and criticism of computerized works
of writing - Eskelinen is clearly right. The hypertext corpus has been
produced; if it is to be resurrected, it will only be as part of a
patchwork that includes other types of literary machines.

One viable category today, perhaps the most interesting one to
consider, is that of “cybertext.” The word was first used in the
critical discourse by Espen Aarseth in
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic

The term denotes not all possible networks of lexia, but the
more general set of text machines. These machines are operated by
readers, and depending upon how they are operated they present different
outputs, different texts for reading. The cybertext category therefore
contains hypertext, which is operated by means of clicking and
traversing links, but it is much broader. Indeed, Aarseth’s chief
accomplishment in
was not to completely illuminate any particular interactive work
or form of computational writing, but to erase the stifling hypertext
boundary, and to redraw that boundary so that it demarcates a more
interesting territory of reader-influenced texts. The cybertext terrain
includes computational literary artifacts that are in some cases novel,
although yet to be thoroughly explored. In other cases, the cybertexts
included have some history, but one that is woefully neglected.

Notably absent from Aarseth’s definition of cybertext is mention
of the link, and this missing link - or, more specifically, this
replacement of the link with a more interesting feature of computational
literary interaction - frees the new category from the chains of a
critical-theory-influenced and essentially non-computational
perspective. The definition of computer hypertext given in George
Landow’s 1992
(a work that, like
Cybertext, took the category of literature under consideration as its
eponym) was drawn from Roland Barthes’s
S/Z. Landow describes the form as “text composed of blocks of words
(or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails
in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the
terms link, node, network, web, and path.” Landow also indicates here,
by his use of the term “computer hypertext,” that non-computer hypertext
- besides the hypertexts he describes as implicit, such as
- exists as well; Cort·zar’s
and Queneau’s “Story as You Like It” are in this category.
Oddly, the idea that hypertexts can appear in print has been a
contentious point for some critics, many of whom either see the
electronic digital computer as an essential element in defining a
category of interactive texts or consider all texts (which one can,
after all, skip around in) as hypertexts. Aarseth deftly disposes of
this issue by simply making his definition independent of the medium in
which the work is presented.

As appropriate as the hypertext category might be for Landow’s
topic (the embodiment of late 20th century critical theory in
interactive computer text forms), it includes only a subset of
electronic literary efforts. An extended analogy to the theory of
computation demonstrates this restricted scope, and explains why the old
collection called hypertext cannot continue to hold our interest as a
critical category or as a category describing what literary efforts
should be considered valid and worthy.

classes of computational power

There are four different classes of theoretical computers.
Since theoretical computers can compute the same sorts of algorithms as
can languages governed by formally-defined grammars, these four
computational classes map directly to four classes of formal language.
Only the first and fourth class will be considered at all here, but in
terms of increasing generality (i.e., ability to execute larger and
larger sets of algorithms to solve additional classes of problems) the
four classes are as follows, ranked in what is known as the Chomsky

1. Finite automata / Regular languages

2. Pushdown automata / Context-free languages

3. Linear bounded automata / Context-sensitive languages

4. Turing machines / Recursively enumerable languages

A computer in the first class, when given a string of inputs,
will indicate after each whether it accepts the input or not. Using the
alphabet of possible inputs (the alphabet “ab” is one, but any alphabet,
including ours, can be used) a finite automaton accomplishes useful
computational tasks by accepting certain strings and rejecting others.
Given that there are a finite number of words in the English language,
including their inflected forms, a finite automaton using the “a-z”
alphabet can be constructed to distinguish English words from other
strings of letters. A large amount of enumeration would be involved, but
the task could clearly be accomplished. Another automaton using the
alphabet “ab” could be constructed to distinguish all strings [ab]*
(which includes “abab” and “ababababab”), or b*[aaa]b* (which includes
“aaabbbbbbb” and “bbaaab”), or - as the Chomsky hierarchy above
indicates - any given “regular expression” of the sort Unix grep is used
to find. In fact, it is correct to conceptualize the use of the Unix
grep utility, or the Find dialog in Microsoft Word or one’s text editor
of choice, as a way of programming a finite automaton. The programming
is done so that strings in a regular language can be recognized; so the
expression can be found in the text that is used as input for this
simple computer. Of course, while the Find dialog is useful, it does not
constitute a very powerful computer, and certainly not a general-purpose
one. A finite automaton of this weakest class cannot even distinguish
strings such as “aaaabbbb” and “aaaaaabbbbbb” (N occurrences of “a”
followed by N occurrences of “b”) from those that do not fit this
pattern. For this, a computer of at least the second class is

Before leaving the finite automaton, however, it is important to
note that this simplest theoretical computer can be described in a
diagram that has nodes linked by transition rules. The diagram shown
here describes a finite automaton that accepts strings of the form
[b]*a[b]*a - any number of “b’s” (including 0) followed by “a” followed
by any number of “b’s”(including 0) followed by “a.”

Note that the possible paths through a static Web site with
five pages, each offering at most two sorts of link, can be
conceptualized with a very similar diagram - with the same diagram, in
fact, appropriately labeled. Hypertexts of the sort that typify the
category - whether crafted in HTML or various proprietary environments
such as the Microsoft Help Workshop or Eastgate’s Storyspace - present
lexia (pages) as nodes, and links as transition rules. Such hypertexts
are text machines of the first class, finite automata. Adding random
effects, revealing or concealing links based on the history of
interaction, or allowing the reader to jump to a node by name, will of
course move the hypertext beyond this simplest level of computational
complexity. But the essential definition of the form, a set of lexia
connected by links, most clearly relates to the lowest and simplest
level of the Chomsky hierarchy.

The computers sitting on our desks, stashed in our backpacks,
and integrated into our cars and microwaves are (except for the
non-theoretical fact that they have limited memory) Turing machines,
devices of the fourth computational class. These general-purpose
computing machines take input, provide output, and can solve any
computer-solvable problem. Given inputs from the keyboard in the form of
a string and allowing outputs to the monitor in the form of a string, a
Turing machine can run Quake III, display GRAMMATRON, or beat Garry
Kasparov in chess. Indeed, the computers that do these things are Turing
machines. Computers may be slower or faster, and they are all ultimately
constrained by disk space and RAM, but there is no known theoretical
computer more powerful than a Turing machine. Because of its ability to
compute any algorithmm that is computable at all, the Turing machine is
also called a universal computer.

The cybertext, according to Aarseth, is a machine for the
production of expression. It may model a world underneath the textual
surface (as is done in MUDs and text adventures), it may select
conversational responses based on the reader’s textual input (as
do), or it may (as in hypertext) offer additional lexia based on
the links that the reader follows. The defining characteristic of these
text machines - what distinguishes them from
Ulysses, for instance, however allusive and open to sampling that text
might be - is that they calculate. They do not,
essentially, have links. They essentially have computational ability.

The paradigm of the hypertext is the least powerful
computational machine, the finite automaton. The prototypical cybertext
is of the fourth and most powerful computational class - a Turing

hot, ergodic cybertext

“Ergodics” and “cybertext” provoke curiosity. Aarseth attracts
the reading eye by using one neologism each for title and subtitle. He
has also selected terms that sound somewhat similar to the words
“erotics” and “cybersex.” Cybertext is certainly a recent term, and new
to literary studies, but Aarseth was not the first to use it. A book by
science-fiction poet Bruce Boston, published in 1992, is titled
Cybertext. The term “ergodic” is used to denote a work that requires
labor from the reader to create a path. This is not in reference to a
traditional book that is difficult to read, of course. Aarseth is
careful not to get wrapped up in metaphorically applying the idea of
multiple paths, confusing reader response for influence over the
actually presented appearance of the text, or employing Barthian uses of
the term “writerly” to refer to someone who is not literally doing
writing. Calvino’s
If on a Winter’s Night a

is not an ergodic work by his definition, since, whatever
tortuous paths may be represented within it, there is only one course
through it that is actually presented for the reader to take. Cort·zar’s
is ergodic, by contrast, since the reader does choose a path -
even though only one choice is explicitly presented, so there are
actually only two explicit paths through the novel. “Ergodic” is
borrowed by Aarseth from the field of ergodic theory, where it means
something else entirely. The present use of the term is justified by the
etymological roots of the word, which are in the Greek words for “work”
and “path.”

The text that constitutes a cybertext is not “a chain of
signifiers” in the linguistic sense, Aarseth explains, but “a whole
range of phenomena, from short poems to complex computer programs and
databases.” Text includes natural human language, but also data
structures, functions, procedures, and programmatic objects. The
cybertext is considered as a machine, “not metaphorically but as a
mechanical device for the production and consumption of verbal signs.”
The text/machine operates on verbal signs, requires a medium (just as a
filmstrip requires a projector), and depends upon the action of a human
operator. These three elements are shown at the vertices of the
text/machine triangle. This division clarifies several confusions -
pointing out that we should attend to the medium as an important but
distinct aspect of cybertextual experience, and suggesting that
“operation” should be considered as fundamentally different than
“reading,” which of course it is.

text adventures and interactive fiction

there is examination of the aesthetics of hypertext, the
experience of MUDs (environments that have received a good deal of
attention from the perspective of cultural studies and computer mediated
communication), the semiotics of an arcade-style computer game (a form
seldom discussed even by game designers, which so far lacks even a
critical vocabulary), and the nature of the “cyborg author”
Katherine Hayles
reviews Diane Greco’s ‘Cyborg’

(representative of an underexplored form, but one that has
benefited from the examination and development done by Janet Murray).
These discussions are useful, although not strikingly insightful. The
chapter on MUDs, for instance, does not convincingly describe these
environments as mainly literary, mainly ludic, or even mainly dramatic,
rather than being essentially social. The discussion of
Dark Castle
effectively topples Peter B¯gh Anderson’s semiotic typology of
the computer video game, but leaves open the question of what typology
might work, or whether the perspective of distiguishing classes of signs
is a fruitful one at all. (Aarseth’s discussion of the typology of
texts, in which he distinguishes seven variables that apply to
cybertexts, is one positive contribution along these lines.) In
venturing into new territory, Aarseth points out areas of interest where
future work can profitably be done.

The chapter exploring Marc Blank’s
Deadline, a work of interactive fiction from 1982, is particularly
interesting - interesting to me, no doubt, because I work in this
particular form. Aside from that, the chapter is unusual in considering
interactive fiction in the context of literature. Such discussion has
been almost entirely neglected by academics since Mary Ann Buckles’s
1985 PhD thesis on
Adventure. Also interesting is that in this chapter, a cybertext with
evident narrative elements is explored, - not the case during the
discussion of MUDs and arcade games. These factors make it fruitful to
look at the “Intrigue and Discourse in the Adventure Game” chapter in
detail. The chapter also illustrates some of the practical difficulties
involved in broadening the category of acceptable electronic literature
to include other works, and reveals some of the benefits and insights
which can come from such broadening - insights which would have been
much harder to come by if critical discussion were restricted to

The publisher of
was the software development company Infocom (now a label of
Activision), which also published
Zork I-III
and two works that attraced some notice for their literary
merits, Brian Moriarity’s
and Steven Meretzky’s
A Mind Forever Voyaging, The
series, based on a mainframe implementation of
at MIT, became the most widely-known commercial text adventure
trilogy. It was strongly influenced by the earlier mainframe work

Interactive fiction of the text adventure sort accepts textual,
natural-language input from the individual formerly known as the reader.
(Aarseth more aptly labels this individual the “operator.” I and others
have used the term “interactor” in the past. Both terms suffice to show
that manipulation of the cybertext is done by this individual, not just
reading.) In response to this input, usually a command to the main
character in the story, actions and events transpire in a simulated
world and text is produced to indicate what has happened. Then, unless
the character has progressed to some conclusion of the story, the
operator is allowed to provide more input and the cycle continues.

The phrase “interactive fiction” is used almost exclusively
today among aficionados of this form (often it is abbreviated “IF”), but
this term can cause loud gnashing of teeth among hypertext authors. They
ask, “if these things are interactive fiction, what is my work - not
interactive?” (This complaint usually comes from the people who brought
you “serious hypertext,” a phrase that clearly suggests everything else
is not serious.) This would be a reasonable question in many cases, but
literary terms often employ adjectives that are not exclusively
descriptive of a single form. One could ask a similar question about
many other literary categories, after all: “If this is concrete poetry,
what is my poetry, abstract?” “If this is language poetry, what is my
poetry, not language?” “If this is a novel, what is my work, a passÈ?”
The term “interactive fiction” is not a claim that the form it describes
is the
fiction that is interactive in any way. It was simply coined
because interactivity and fiction are central features of this form,
which also has other distinguishing characteristics that do not lend
themselves to encapsulation in two words.

The other main argument against use of the term is brought up
by Aarseth, who correctly points out that the word “interactive” is a
commercial catchword that has been used to promise vague technological
enhancements and improvements. (Ironically, of course, Aarseth names his
own category of literature “cybertext” - as if the “cyber” prefix were
somehow less tainted by hype than is the word “interactive.”)
“Interactive” is certainly no longer constantly denuded of meaning in
the marketplace today, whatever false promises it may have once held
out. Historically, that word, by itself, has been used to distinguish
computer processes which reply to user input (just as interactive
fiction does) from batch processes, which run without any user
intervention. Used in that sense, of course, the term “interactive” is
very broad, and would apply to hypertext fiction as well as many other
programs. But the entire term “interactive fiction” has its own history.
It was used by Adventure International, and later Infocom, to designate
their works, referring to something of exactly the sort described above.
The term has also been used in the academic discourse, specifically to
refer to works similar to since the early 1980s.

There is another reason to prefer the term “interactive fiction”
over “text adventure.” Not all interactive fiction, and not even all
classic works in the form, are actually text adventures, simply because
not all of them are “adventures” - extraordinary explorations involving
danger. In fact,
is not a text adventure.
is a detective mystery, in contrast to the fantasy adventures in
series and the Infocom adventures that transpire in modern-day
settings, such as
by Michael Berlyn and Jerry Wolper and
by Berlyn. Although interviewing murder suspects may be unusual
for the interactor and may involve some danger to the protagonist, the
situation is a very ordinary one for this main character, a detective.
Most other famous interactive fiction works (including the very literary
by Robert Pinsky) are true text adventures, so it is not the
case that all text adventures are pulp and all other interactive fiction
works are artifacts of high culture. It is the case, however, that the
category “interactive fiction” is not synonymous with “text adventure,”
and the former term is the appropriate one to define the whole category.

Similar arguments can be made against other proposed terms,
namely “text adventure game” and “text game.” Some works of interactive
fiction, in addition to not being adventures, are not games - certainly,
they are no more games than are the least game-like hypertext fictions.
And there are all-text games, like
NetHack, which are not interactive fictions. The term “interactive
fiction,” most widely used by those who actually create and experience
these works, is the best descriptor for this category, and deserves to
be re-established as interest in this form is reawakened.

Discussion of terminology may appear to be useless quibbling,
but it is very important if new types of ergodic literature are to be
considered by hypertext authors and critics. It is very difficult for
individuals to take some alien subcategory of the cybertext set
seriously if they disagree vehemently about what that category should be
called. If they happen to strongly prefer a name that sounds
low-cultural and non-literary, it is all the more important to advance
solid arguments for the commonly used and most precise term.

meeting deadline

Aarseth examines “adventure game” interaction as exemplified by
the murder mystery
Deadline. In this interactive fiction cybertext, both story and game,
Mr. Robner has been found dead in his locked study and the operator must
direct the detective to investigate, walking around the house in which
the death occurred, examining things, and interviewing suspects. Aarseth
comes to the conclusion that the operator, who is ignorant of the proper
outcome and of what he or she is supposed to do, is actually not at all
a “wreader” with strong authorial power, a similar conclusion to that
which Buckles reached regarding
Adventure. Instead, the operator is what Aarseth calls an “intriguee,”
the target of an elaborate intrigue perpetrated by the designer of the
narrative world. This is a kinder interpretation than, but similar to,
one I made in
href="">Interactor’s Nightmare, an article on that was published during the same
came out. There, I suggested that the operator of an interactive
fiction usually is in the same situation as the protagonist of
Christopher Durang’s
Actor’s Nightmare
- thrust upon the stage without any warning, without having had
time to learn lines or even know what play is being enacted. Aarseth’s
concept of intrigue, discovered in his encounter with a work of
interactive fiction, applies to other cybertextual experiences as well.
It could be used to enlighten critical discussion of works such as John
Uncle Buddy’s Funhouse
and Rob Swigart’s
Portal, which present puzzling worlds that the operator must decipher.

Aarseth only touches on the ludic nature of
Deadline, though he at least makes mention of the game-like qualities of
this and other cybertexts. In a comment on one specific
interaction, Aarseth complains that some of the replies provided
are “pure nonsense,” giving the example of the work’s response to the
command “fingerprint me”: “Upon looking over and dusting the me you
notice there are no good fingerprints to be found.” Actually the
response, although unhelpful in the context of trying to win the game,
is sensible, amusing, and perfectly apropos. Aarseth no doubt wanted his
detective protagonist to perform an odd behavior: to stop, ink his
hands, and record his own fingerprints on paper in the middle of an
investigation. For the interactive fiction to parse his command
differently and come up with an even more odd interpretation is not
nonsense, but felicity.

In a 1984
Computer Games
article, Dan Gutman urges operators to have fun by prodding the
parser in similarly unusual ways: “after you’ve given up for the night
trying to find out who the murderer is in
The Witness, have some fun with the computer. Tell it a joke. Insult it.
Type in a sentence which makes no sense.” This sort of subversive
interaction is not particularly uncommon in any sort of gaming or play
situation, as children often use toys and software for purposes that are
different from or even contrary to those intended by the creators of
these products.

width="409" height="409">

[Click above, type something, and press
Enter to interact with this Deadline excerpt.]

In interactive fiction, this subversive typing is an interesting
way to interact, and has been recognized as such since early in the life
of the form.
creators David Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson mention
this mode as one of two interesting ones (the other being the
problem-solving mode of interaction) in their 1979 article in
IEEE Computer: “a great deal of the enjoyment of such games is derived by
probing their responses in a sort of informal Turing test: ‘I wonder
what it will say if I do this?’ The players (and designers) delight in
clever (or unexpected) responses to otherwise useless actions.” The
operator using the text/machine in this way is engaged, and enjoys the
text responses that are provided, but seems to be ignoring the
overriding interactive and narrative purposes for which the interactive
fiction was purportedly created. This mode, perhaps, offers the true
“play” that these “games” provide. Solving puzzles in order to advance
in the story is actually more work than play, related to mathematical
and logical challenge more than ludic enjoyment. The operator who solves
puzzles must labor to understand the author’s intentions and slog
forward, learning the correct operation of the text machine and then
operating it. The one who pokes at the interface to see what will happen
is actually being playful.

In this chapter, as elsewhere, when Aarseth is not making
strong original contributions, he is still practicing a basic standard
of scholarship often not met by other writers. He corrects publication
years given by previous authors; provides the names of actual
interactive fiction authors, so often omitted in lieu of simply naming
the publisher or pretending that the work sprang forth of its own
accord; and insists that critics attend to other details with the same
care they use in researching the citation of a printed text. That
Aarseth attends so closely to the works he discusses is not a
spectacular feature of the book, but such attention is necessary if
previously neglected cybertexts are to be discussed alongside other
works and treated with critical respect.

ghosts and the text/machine

The epigraph for
is from Italo Calvino’s provocative essay, “Cybernetics and
Ghosts.” It reminds the reader that

The literature machine[’s] poetic
result will be the particular effect of one of these permutations on a
man endowed with a consciousness and an unconscious, that is, an
empirical and historical man. It will be the shock that occurs only if
the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual
and his society.

These ghosts are not a major topic of discussion in
Cybertext. They flit outside of Aarseth’s text/machine triangle, without
connecting to it directly as its verticies (operator, verbal sign, and
medium) do. A moment of shock occurs during the encounter with any
provocative text, whether generated cybertextually or not, and this
moment is often profound and enigmatic. In the case of a cybertext, the
shock can come not only from reading (the encounter with a particular
permutation of verbal signs) but from reading in the specific context of
text/machine operation.

It is this particular moment that may first have been
experienced by Joseph Weizenbaum’s secretary, or perhaps one of the
other early operators of
Eliza, a computer character Weizenbaum developed to simulate a
psychotherapist. Operators of
type replies to questions in plain English. The text/machine
then issues a noncommittal response, sometimes excerpting from what the
operator has typed. Although Weizenbaum had been working on the program
for several months in the presence of his secretary (as he relates in
his 1976 book
Computer Power and Reason), one day as she operated the text/machine, via a teletype, she
asked him to leave the room so that she could converse in private.

A legend related by Janet Murray in talks after the release of
her book
Hamlet on the Holodeck
offers a more powerful twist on this story. Entering his office
one day, as the legend has it, Weizenbaum saw his secretary bowed before
the teletype, broken down in tears. A transcript of interaction with
was on the printout. “I’ve just had a breakthrough with my
analyst,” the secretary explained.

Clearly, reading through a transcript of the same text, or
clicking along links to read the doctor-patient dialog in a hypertext
would not have had the same effect on this cybertextual operator. The
operation of a cybertext such as
is not only interesting because it results in a particular,
provocative series of signifiers, but because it creates a context of
operation - which might involve exploration, writing, and witnessing the
reaction to what the operator has written, and engaging in other forms
of advanced computational exchange.

width="400" height="200">

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[Click in the box, type something, and
press Enter to interact with Eliza.]

Whatever the early cybertextual encounter of computer
psychotherapist and secretary was like - tearful or not - in it, this
shock of connection with individual and social ghosts was certainly
achieved. And this shock occurred about 35 years ago, as
was developed between 1964 and 1966. After this incident (and in
part as a result of it, if legend is to be believed), Weizenbaum, a
pioneer in artificial intelligence, denounced the field. He stopped his
research and drowned his book.

Cybertexts long ago demonstrated their potential to be
provocative, affecting, and powerful. Thanks to Aarseth’s book, a larger
literary category has been declared worthy of critical attention - a
category which includes
Eliza, MUDs, poetry that involves text morphing and motion in
response to input, interactive fiction, and other sorts of
non-hypertextual works. Additionally, thanks to
Cybertext, authors who create works in these forms are more likely to
find their efforts acknowledged as valid from a literary standpoint.
Critics may still prefer to examine hypertexts, if their tastes in
text/machine operation lead them to dwell on that set of cybertexts, but
they will find it increasingly difficult to consider other cybertexts -
with their more powerful computational abilities and their demonstrated
ability to affect the consciousness and unconsciousness of the operator
- as categorically less serious and worthwhile.

Works Cited

Buckles, Mary Ann.
Interactive Fiction: The Computer
Storygame ‘Adventure’
. PhD Dissertation, University of California San Diego, 1985.

Gutman, Dan. “Shoot Your Own Men! And Other Weird Ways to Play.”
Computer Games. Dac/Jan 1984.

Landow, George.
Hypertext: The Convergence of
Contemporary Literary Theory and Technology
. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Lebling, David P., Marc S. Blank, and Timothy A. Anderson.
“Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game.”
IEEE Computer., 12:4, 1979: 51-59.

programs included

Blank, Mark.
Deadline. (Excerpt allowing play for the first hour of game-time.)

Infocom, 1982. Excerpt created in 2000 by Nick Montfort using a
port of Deadline to the Inform language. Port to Inform by Volker Lanz,
1999. Inform by Graham Nelson, 1993-1999. Excerpt created and used with
permission of Activison, Inc.

Russotto, Matthew.
1996. Java interpreter for Z-code, used to run the
excerpt. Used with permission of Matthew Russotto.

Weizenbaum, Joseph.
1964-66. Java version created and made freely available by
Charles Hayden, based on a 1983 Macintosh version by Charles Hayden.