Word Circuits


Forepaper by Nick Traenkner
for Messenger Morphs the Media 99

Concerns and Conventions in Off-Center

One of my greatest concerns as a hypertext writer lies in the propensity for readers to lose focus of what is happening. This concern has led me to the structure of my work in progress Off-Center. Off Center is presented in (at this point) four scenes. Each scene is built from three sequences of four lexia, each linked differently, the source of another concern regarding two linking strategies. The first and fourth scenes use anchors differently, and it is the use of anchors which also concerns me (to the point where the anchors in the fourth scene have been excluded from the main body of the text. The use of anchors in scenes two and three are highly suspect.

Keeping The Story Together: Acts in Jean-Luc Godard's film "Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux"

Graham Nelson in his guide The Craft of Adventure: Five articles on the design of adventure games explains that "Just as most (films) are three act plays... Most games have a prologue, a middle game and an end game, usually quite closed off from each other... the (reader) is always going 'further up, and further in'". While the three act structure is the emphasis of Nelson's insight, the idea of breaking a hypertext into acts (or scenes) really grabbed me after watching Godard's "Vivre Sa Vie" (My Life To Live). The structure gave me a surprisingly comfortable constraint in which to work.

In "Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux" (My Life To Live: A film in twelve scenes) a somewhat fragmented narrative is collected into twelve scenes, each which contain from one to four scenes. Preceding each act, a title frame is presented, on which a brief synopsis of the act is written. The synopses are divided into a few short phrases. In the example below, act eight is synopsized. Act eight consists of scenes of Nana, a young woman entering the world of prostitution, asking questions about the day-to-day issues a prostitute faces, being answered by her pimp. The questions and answers are asked in a very matter-of-fact mood, like an employee on their first day asking about company policies and procedures. The title page translates to "the afternoon - money - the sinks - pleasure - hotels" and the film follows with images of each, not particularly in sequence (as the others) narrated with Nana's questions and Raoul's answers. Time between acts is unknown, it is sometimes suggested that months or years have passed, in other acts, no reference to time is given- and the space might be as short as a night, or hours.

The scene title in scene 8 of Vivre Sa

figure 1

These short descriptions serve many functions, and reflect back to silent film, where scenes were synopsized, ordering the events about to take place, giving the audience a frame of reference- where the following scenes fit into the story. I decided to use similar frames for just this reason, to provide points of reference to the following lexia. However, I felt while watching Vivre Sa Vie something else related to these titles. Often, after reading a title frame, the meaning of what I had just read changed, as the context "caught up" with the synopsis. It felt as if the film gained another dimension. What was happening is something that I believe occurs during the reading of a hypertext. Expectation merged with meaning. While I expected, for example, act eight to have something to do with the above "items", when I watched the scenes, the meaning of them- the purpose they occur with one another became much more meaningful. This is not as well illustrated in the above example than in the final act of the film (encore le jeune homme - le portrait ovale - Raoul revend Nana translated: Again, the young man - the oval portrait, Raoul trades Nana). In the final act of the film, the young man with whom Nana decides to run away with and quit Raoul, reads a poem by Edgar Allan Poe about a portrait of a woman with whom he is obsessed. Nana, called by Raoul, is hurried into an automobile, and taken to be traded for a sum of money. When the deal goes wrong, Raoul takes back Nana, using her as a human shield while the men he traded with pull out guns and shoot her. As Nana desperately staggers toward Raoul, he pulls out a gun and shoots her, leaving her in the street to die.

With "Expectation merged with meaning" in mind, I decided to experiment with this particular "format" of Godard's title sequences, by making anchors out of each phrase (scene) of a synopsis. Titles were also added to further group the synopses into a single "act" or scene. The current title screens are still a bit cryptic, and will soon be rewritten in interest of communicating the relationship of each scene to the story.

The Scenes in Off-Center, And my Respective Concerns

The first scene of Off-Center is suspiciously akin to the first scene of "Vivre Sa Vie", with a demure, heavy-smoking grayscale "heroine" preparing to leave her lover. The heroine, Rachel is disturbed by a memory which cannot be revealed, otherwise she dies. She looks within herself for strength. She firmly believes that free will does not exist. Peter Steadman, present only in part one is the closet thing Rachel has to a lover. He watches her sitting on the windowsill in his apartment, from his bed in the dark. Peter is steady and boring. She sits on the windowsill and smokes. Each lexia contains anchors related to light, darkness and total darkness. By selecting these anchors, the reader is taken to lexia with "full light", "street-light" or total darkness. Peter turns on the lights at the control of the reader, only to find Rachel still remains motionless, turned away from him. Only in complete darkness- when Peter closes his eyes- or if the reading begins with the blinds drawn (a predicament with no escape) does Peter hear her breath- and her true feelings. Between parts one and two there is a possible transition. From total darkness, Rachel suddenly turns the light on, shocking Peter, as her hazy form hovers above him one last time. Or, if the reader reaches the last lexia where Peter has turned the lights off- Rachel turns them off (and leaves him) so suddenly that the forms from the room remain on his eyes- accompanied by strange static shapes. My concern here is how well control of the lighting is communicated to the reader, and how it might be done smoothly without intruding on the narrative.

In part two, we meet Zero, the victim of a freak accident who suffers complete and re-curing amnesia. Rachel knows Zero, and Zero knew Rachel. However, in part two Zero walks down a street with his video glasses, watching the street with one eye, while observing the strange effects a passing vehicle has on the video recorder. This whole episode shifts between eyes and video- if so read, and the effects both experiences have on Zero's tabula rasa. Memories come to him only in the form of desires in part two. A third possibility is present. If the reader from the beginning chooses to "defy the laws of physics"- Zero is trapped in a fisheye view of the sky- doomed to remember nothing but breathing, which he can place neither as his nor another's. Again, I am concerned with the reader understanding that they are shifting between these two views of the same street. Should the reader know this? Does the title page reveal enough?

Part three serves as an intersection between Zero and Rachel. Zero inspects a photograph which triggers a chain of memories. Rachel, after leaving Peter, considers her new lot. Rachel's eyes fall upon her own shadow and she begins to remember something dangerous. Her fear materializes as a luminous box of static in the corner- threatening her, and pushing her to thoughts of murder and suicide. She comes very close. The third voice in part three, which throughout parts one and two have revealed so much, only presents static, and a confused voice, trying to make out sounds, shapes and feelings. The third voice is a combination of Zeros struggle to remember and Rachel's struggle to forget. The episode ends with both in tears- at precisely the same moment. This is the first coincidence between Rachel and Zero (the walls where Rachel begins to break down reflect the streets Zero encountered in part two). The anchors in the last lexia of Rachel's sequence were very straightforward. I'm not sure about the rest.

Part four is a break from the tensions of partthree giving a little comic relief in the first section "Places where people have lost their balance and fell ". A map of Village F (where the story takes place) is annotated with the numbers one through four. Three views of the village are presented along the common ground of accidents. The first set is written as an interview report, giving location, speaker and the person who fell (ages are given where victim and witness were able or willing to report them). The second set in the episode deals with chance meetings between Rachel and Zero, and are compiled at different times (many before Zero's amnesia). We begin to see the relationship between he and Rachel, but things are not quite clear. Zero's narration only occurs in the past, and Rachel denies everything. The third set (keeping with the old tradition of car crashes) lists a series of collisions in relation to the times of other accidents (in the red section). The reader will probably not pick up on the fact that the collisions occurred simultaneously- this giving a clue to when the minor falling accidents (which are not, ironically, minor) occurred. Here, the anchors proved quite troublesome- having written the lexia before deciding how the lexia would relate to one another vertically.

figure showing a constrained link

figure showing a link structure with greater
                  constraint, but more freedom for investigation

figure 2

figure 3

Freedom Versus Flow: Two possible linking structures in part four.

While writing part four, I encountered an interesting problem in linking strategy. I wanted the lexia to vary between sequences. I didn't want a reader to fly through one sequence (the crash sequence for instance) and not read the others. I found that adopting a linking strategy (as illustrated in figure 2) which allowed only forward motion (as opposed to the lateral motion encouraged in figure 3) to a lexia along a different sequence than the last. However, while this structure forces variance, it allows for no independent investigation of the sequences, which needs such an investigation if there is to be any hope of a reader understanding the temporal relationships between the collisions and falls. I wanted to keep the reader along a forward path, so I adopted the structure illustrated in figure 3. Investigative reading, coupled with a need to keep the narrative moving has only added to my difficulties with choosing clear anchors to facilitate this movement.

These are my principle concerns with this piece, although I am sure to encounter more, and perhaps attain a degree of insight on these as time progresses toward the workshop.

Nick Traenkner
Kent, Ohio January 13, 1999



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