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Down Time Interactive: A hypertext fiction
Robert Swigart
Institute for the Future
2744 Sand Hill Road
Menlo Park, CA 94025 (650) 233-9583
(650) 854-7850 (FAX)

Down Time consists of a set of twenty-one fables named for, and metaphorically based on, computer jargon. In these stories a couple of dozen characters from many walks of life in a mythical Silicon Valley move and interact in complex ways through one another's lives. Although structurally the project may present similarities with some of the films of Robert Altman, notably Nashville, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter, in Down Time the effect is a mosaic portrait of a subculture, not a linear narrative, and the readers may generate other stories.

The Down Time stories (the title story based on what it is called when computers fail) are each relatively brief (around 2000 words), and depict a small incident or set of incidents, covering everything from manufacturing accidents to the seductive lure of databases. Because a character may appear at one time as the protagonist in a story, at another only briefly as a supporting figure, it is possible to create other slices through the narrative. For example, the reader/user may follow a character instead of an incident, or an image or motif.

Down Time Interactive allows this to happen. Some years ago I created a project for Activision called Portal, an interactive novel using a set of databases as the conceit. It was apparent even in the mid 1980s that most people grew impatient reading too much on the screen. At that time we were limited to files of 4K, or approximately six screens of text. This was, perhaps, a manageable amount of on-screen reading, but my intuition told me (and still tells me) that reading on a screen is not particularly enjoyable.

I have decided (in part because it seems to work well in products like Cinema Volta from Voyager) to offer the text in audio form as well. Music composed and recorded by electro-acoustic composer Allen Strange is an integral part of the narrative structure, mood, tonal shading, and rhythm. Voice, electronically altered in some cases, insinuates into the multimedia experience. Reading on-screen is only a small part of the Down Time experience. Visual imagery, sound, motion and text all have their place, and in fact may change depending on user's choices. Down Time was, at first, a limited project. True multimedia game design was not among the criteria, nor was what I would consider a high level of interactivity.

Because the stories were already intertwined, and created the kind of mosaic portrait of a place, a time and a cultural context, the interactivity seemed fairly simple: allow the user to pick a theme and create new stories out of the parts. Furthermore, the stories were already written in many small sections, from a sentence to several paragraphs. It required very little work to reduce the amount of text per section to a screen or less, which work very much like stanzas in poetry. These are what I call NITs, narrative units, and derive from my work on Portal. (A dramatic unit, or DRIT, would be a short segment of video, preferably of a dramatic nature, lasting no more than 30-40 seconds. These can be surprisingly effective, but I don't plan to create any for Down Time..) There is no set order in which to experience the stories. One could read through them all in the order in which they are presented, although the Table of Contents menu is in three columns, which may suggest either a linear order across line by line, or a column order down the three columns. Or perhaps a title looks attractive, and a reader would prefer a random or intuitive order. Each story, if read as a story, is self contained.

Down Time was originally scripted in Hypercard; later it was moved to Oracle Media Objects. Since the demise of OMO, Down Time is currently being programmed in Director 6, which finally has text-handling capabilities equal to the task. You enter Down Time through a Table of Contents screen, which simulates the occupant marquee in a high-tech office building, a black felt background with white plastic letters, all in a polished chrome frame. Each story title represents a room or office. Click on the name and you enter the first "page" (NIT) of that story. Some features are available to the reader:

These stories are particularly interesting semantically, as every NIT in the new story will contain that word. Character names or recurrent images are especially effective; the effect approaches a linguistic simulation of real life, where associations create mental connections between and among NITS. The effects of user choices are subtle, and include such factors as verbal association, imagery, rhythm, and imaginative space--what has been called the dynamics of reader response, that sphere where the written (or heard) text interacts with the reader's (or listener's) mental world, the memories and knowledge and emotions brought to the work. Naturally this varies from reader to reader, but it is a subtle domain that interests me.

Approached in the right way, rereading the stories in fragmented and reassembled form creates an entirely new experience. Some annotations are embedded in the final version of the narrative, including Quicktime movies, images, and text glosses. Such annotations may be illustrations, observations, footnotes, further references, amplifications, or other hypertextual referents. Much of the effect of this kind of hypertext fiction comes from the cloud of associative material around the core narrative.

A substantial portion of the artwork for Down Time was created with KPT Bryce, a landscape generation program from HSC software, the people who produce Kai's Power Tools. Bryce allowed me to control landscape shape and texture, create structures using three-dimensional primitives, manage lighting, time of day or night, fog, haze and clouds, alter ambient light, and map two dimensional patterns onto three dimensional objects. Everything from naturalistic to very surreal landscapes are possible, all ray-traced and rendered. Scenes for Down Time, include futuristic cityscapes and desert and jungle pyramids. A one-minute opening title sequence used many Bryce images in Adobe Premiere, cut to Allen's music. Text and animation were created in Premiere as well. For a short hang gliding movie I used Scenery Animator with the USGS data for the San Francisco Bay Area to create a flyby from Angel Island near Marin across the Golden Gate and down the Peninsula.

We plan music to accompany the stories. At the moment it is unclear whether the music will be recorded on disk or done in MIDI form, played through Quicktime. The latter is more efficient with memory, but creates licensing problems for the sampled instruments Allen wants to use. I wrote the stories of Down Time over the past decade, and have published a two in print journals (New England Quarterly, Fiction). It wasn't until the summer of 1994 that it seemed possible for one, or at most a few people, to produce a hypertext version that offered a different user experience from linear books. The challenges for a writer to create and render artwork, functionality, interface and sound were previously too great.

Storyspace, an authoring tool from Eastgate Systems, allows one person to create hypertext fictions but does not support scripting, limiting the fiction to a simple node and link architecture. There are many effective examples of this structure, but the possibility of greater interactivity on the user's part was what interested me. User stories based on the choice of the audience (a personal, idiosyncratic decision) suggested an extension of narrative unavailable in other hypertext environments, creating semantic connections between story elements.

I originally used Hypercard because I had done another project with it, using very simple scripting, transition effects, and the node and link structure and simple sounds and graphics ("Directions," Eastgate Quarterly #4, May, 1995). That project came out of a course I taught in the English Department at San Jose State University between 1988 and 1991. Down Time, however, proved more ambitious than my scripting skills could meet, particularly in the user story creation. (Essentially the script searches all the text fields in the stack for the word the user enters, creates a list of all cards containing that word, and resets the navigation buttons so that forward and back arrows "page" through that story instead of mine.) I called on my friend Howard Bornstein to script for me. Consequently Down Time is a collaborative project involving several people--myself, Howard, Allen Strange and finally Dan Shafer, who took over scripting, first in Oracle Media Objects and now in Director. Down Time was finally finished in January, 1999, and will be published by Eastgate Systems in the summer.

I'm starting a new project and am interested in three main things:

1) How can one tell a good story within the non-linear nature of hypertext; how can one keep unities of place and time, a strong emotional curve and a sense of suspense, climax and resolution?

2) What is the role of other media--sound, video, still pictures--and design elements in the over-all effect of a piece? How can we move from multimedia to some kind of inter-media, where all the modes are well integrated, mutually reenforcing and 'inevitable?'

3) What are the design constraints on a fiction project destined to find its way onto multiple platforms--CDROM, the web, paper, etc.?

In my opinion these questions, which I was struggling with 15 years ago with Portal, are even more essential today. I hope we can address them.