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Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein: hypertext research

Last Build Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2017 13:00:26 -0500


The Nether: A Play

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 12:52:11 -0500

I’ve been interested of late in some moral questions raised by immersive fictions. For example, in Hamlet on the Star Trek holodeck, can one marry Ophelia? Can Holodeck Ophelia possibly give her consent?

Haley’s 2013 play, The Nether, explores an older vision of immersive fiction. She imagines a world in which Second Life has become a widespread escape from ecological and spiritual disaster, and place to which damaged people retreat for solace or to indulge their darker fantasies. It’s an AOL chat room gone mad. Yet, after all, it’s all just imaginary. No one is harmed, everyone has chosen to be where they are. The blood isn’t real, and the tears — well, what do tears signify in a construct?

It’s an intriguing inquisitorial drama, expertly propelled by the propulsive force of interrogation. It also does a superb job of handling a problem that drove me up the wall in Those Trojan Girls: how do we approach a story in which unspeakable things may happen to children? We could choose not to imagine such things, to be sure, but that’s untrue — and it betrays all those on whom such harms are, in fact, inflicted.

To some extent, Haley’s problem is Plato’s: since fiction is a lie, what is to prevent us from simply telling ourselves stories that make us feel good? Might those stories keep us from actually doing things that are necessary if we are to make a better world? I’m more concerned, I think, with our impact on the imagined world: does acting badly in a story make you a bad person? Sometimes, I think, it might.

Something Wicked

Fri, 8 Dec 2017 11:03:54 -0500

(Adapted from section 8 of “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative”)

The Haggadah annually reminds us of the Wicked Child, which is to say the child who holds himself aloof from and superior to the story, the child who asks “what is this computational narrative of yours?”

John Gardner famously chided writers who treat their own characters inhumanely; is it not equally wanton for us to maltreat computational worlds and their denizens? If so, blame is due not only to the thoughtless interactor but also to the writer who led her into error. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story famously begins by tempting the reader with Satan’s question: “Do you want to hear about it?” We could not refuse an acquaintance who asked this, but we might be tempted to deny Peter who is, after all, a program in a plastic box. If we do, though, afternoon acknowledges the temptation and gently steers us toward righteousness.

Writers of chatbots and of Interactive Fiction are particularly plagued by wicked children, for the freedom to type anything into the parser inevitably invites people to tell the computer to “fuck off.” It’s tempting in Dwarf Fortress, say, to experiment with odd conditions that interest you, even though your dwarves will not enjoy them. Tabletop role-playing games address the wicked child problem through social sanctions: if you’re tasteless, you’re unlikely to be invited back. New media remediates social storytelling to make the story yours, but requires a new mechanism to discourage a cynical or unthinking stance.

Speak To The Yet Unknowing World

Wed, 6 Dec 2017 16:34:54 -0500

(Adapted from section 7 of “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative”)

The essence of hypertext fiction is multilinearity: as Oz’s Scarecrow once told us, some go this way, others that way, and some prefer to go both ways. Multilinearity offers important opportunities, but has also evoked plentiful anxiety lest coherence or authorial intention (if it exists) be compromised.

Hypertext’s threat to coherence has always been more a symptom of resentment of Critical Theory than a practical concern, but a related moral hazard has not been widely remarked: free and knowing navigation ought to be constrained by our duty. An important innovation in Seneca’s version of The Trojan Women—a play composed some five centuries after Euripides’—is the sacrifice of Polyxena, a young girl assigned by the victorious Greeks to be the bride of the dead Achilles and who is therefore to be sent to his shade in Hades. In my hypertextual school story Those Trojan Girls, Polly Xena is the head girl of a private boarding school, situated in a recently occupied third-world country. Like Polyxena, Polly is not the hero of the tale but her trial and execution are a fulcrum around which much revolves and a crucial reminder that school, to kids, is deadly serious. The matter requires care: we are, after all, imagining the judicial murder of a child. In the hypertext, the episode might be approached by different readers through differing paths. It might be dramatized in various ways or reported by various messengers. But attention must be paid; it is not the structural center of the story but, in decency, we cannot simply omit it.

Master and Commander

Tue, 5 Dec 2017 12:25:58 -0500

Mark Anderson lent me the superb audiobook reading by Robert Hardy, an fine performance of an intelligent abridgment. Yet, naturally, that led to rereading the whole wonderful story. If you have missed these, do not persist.

A Fault To Nature

Tue, 5 Dec 2017 12:26:13 -0500

(Adapted from section 3 of “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative”)

Is Juliet of age in the jurisdiction through which your holodeck is passing? Is Romeo? In fair Verona, Romeo’s behavior entailed criminal neglect of Mr. Capulet’s rights. In Boston today, we might excuse the young lovers, but what if one of the lovers is twenty-five or fifty years old? Even Train, a performance game about the Holocaust, must deceive its players into complicity by withholding information that its historical figures knew.

Some interactive fictions lure or compel the player to commit crimes in order to understand the criminal, just as some novels relate the point of view of unreliable or criminal characters. In other tales, the offense is incidental, or merely a precipitating incident that sets the story in motion. Romeo and Juliet is not about statutory rape, or even about romantic love: it explores the difference between youth and age, prudence and passion. Yet on the holodeck, to get things started, I may need to initiate a sexual relationship that, if I am old but my character young, must disquiet me.

To witness the (performance of the) sexual relationship might also disquiet some, but that is something else. Walk along the quais of Paris or the streets of San Francisco and you may encounter young people whose behavior you may not entirely approve. They have not asked your opinion. To know that others do things that you might not is to understand that the world is large and people various; to do those things yourself is perhaps another matter. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but it’s not our fault: on the holodeck, it is.

A Legacy Of Spies

Mon, 4 Dec 2017 11:41:45 -0500

Peter Guillam, no longer young, is summoned from retirement to the new offices of the old Circus. British intelligence, is seems, is being sued by the heirs of agents and officers, long dead, and soon we are back with Alex Leamas, Toby Esterhase, the young Connie Sachs, and George Smiley. This might have been merely a pleasant final bow, but it’s not: a thoughtful and sensitive re-evaluation of a war that, suddenly, seems very distant.

Moral Of The Story

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 10:20:27 -0500

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Last week in Madeira, I spoke at the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling about “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative” occasioned by the 20th anniversary of Janet Murray’s influential Hamlet On The Holodeck. Murray imagines a future medium in which the player-protagonist is immersed in a realistic simulation, an alternate reality, and her vision has been widely embraced as the end toward which new media naturally strives.

What, on the holodeck, are we to do about Ophelia? She is an enigmatic character, one whom the 19th century found more fascinating than the 21st. Polonius speculates that Hamlet loves her; Laertes views a sexual relationship as a threat. If, as interactor, we have meaningful choice, might some combination of choices lead us to propose to marry Ophelia? To kiss her? To have sex with her?

All these choices are problematic. Can a simulated character marry? Specifically, can she consent? The presentation of meaningful choice within the fictive world leads us to the very threshold of the Turing Test, for the characters must necessarily be sufficiently convincing as to invite suspension of disbelief . The choices, moreover, are ours and the performance is ours as well: it is one thing to witness theatrical events that you cannot affect and that harm no one; it is another thing entirely to perform yourself what might be a crime. In the playhouse, Ophelia drowns every night and twice on Saturday whether we purchase a ticket or not; on the ho- lodeck, Ophelia drowns only if we fail to prevent it. And if tonight we want to see her drown, who have we become?


Mon, 13 Nov 2017 21:17:38 -0500


The first restaurant I ever visited based on a Facebook recommendation. It’s Monday night — a low Monday in newly-offseason Madeira— and I’m looking for an early dinner after missing lunch. Mula’s all about mussels and all about good, informal, multilingual service with discretely communal tables and a real effort to make tourists feel welcome without making them feel like marks.

Nifty decor with lots of fresh concrete. Some nifty Portuguese wines, and an unusual effort to make a case for beer pairings.

Smoked cod is really nice, and the anchovies were good. The mussels were dandy, too.