A History of Hyperlinked Texts

While watching a recent Idea Channel episode looking at the relationship between technology and television, I started thinking about my early experiments with interactive fiction. Because this is how my brain works some days…

Like so many adventure-loving kids in the eighties, I read my fair share of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books. I loved being able to decide how a story was going to go. After several rounds of dying across several of the more popular CYOA books of the period, I got over it…right up until a G.I. Joe-themed CYOA series was released. They weren’t any better, and I moved on from the genre all together.

When I first started playing with interactive fiction as a writer and curriculum designer, I was looking at a way to build one in LiveJournal, coding in links between the different pieces. But my knowledge of HTML was too limited, and I couldn’t find a way to mask paths through the story that didn’t feel like they were revealing where a player was headed. That was always one of my main complaints with CYOA books as a kid. If a choice suddenly forced me backwards, I knew I wasn’t going to survive the book. And it got me thinking about the similarities between the interactive fiction form and hyperlinked texts.

Well, it turns out that wasn’t the craziest association to make.

HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol, was first established in 1991, but hypertext itself was established in 1965. Hypertext uses a bit of code to allows you to link documents together. We often use it to link web pages together, or as a quick address method when we want to share web pages with other people, although there are also offline uses.

The first CYOA was written in the early 70’s by a computer programmer. He had become fascinated by the unique storytelling approach offered by then-new tabletop RPGs that were coming out. Inspired, he started playing with the idea behind hypertext, creating stories where the different scenes were linked together in such a way that the reader could pick different paths through the story. Each story was self-contained in a book. The storyform was so unusual that he couldn’t find a publisher until Bantam finally agreed to take a chance on him in the late 70’s.

CYOA gave rise to a computer-based storytelling form originally called hypertext fiction for the code it relied on to connect the various scenes of the story. Zork, released in 1980, is generally regarded as the first hypertext fiction. The form continued to grow and find popularity and uses. These days, storytellers call the form interactive fiction, which incorporates not only the linked scenes and choices, but some rather robust puzzles and nonplayer characters (NPCs) to interact with. Game designers and curriculum designers call this form branched storytelling, relying more on linked scenes and iterative paths through a story, allowing you to revisit a scene with different material and results.

So, a piece of code that we take for granted has become a storytelling tool that continues to innovate and serve a variety of purposes and uses. That’s kind of cool.

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