by L.B. Jeffries

27 October 2009


Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext is one of the first, and arguably strongest, books to outline how games work as their own artistic medium. Written from 1989 to 1997, it details a wide range of textual interactions that attempt to identify the interactive component of electronic media: the act of traversing and controlling a text. He defines a cybertext as “a machine for the production of a variety of expressions” (3). This does not have to be just a computer interaction. The oldest example of a cybertext is the I-Ching: “the Chinese book of oracular wisdom that is used (rather than simply read) in a ritual that involves writing down a question, manipulating coins or yarrow stalks to produce a path (out of 4,096 possible paths) through the text, and consulting certain of the book’s 64 fragments to reach an answer to the question”(66). Interacting with a system in a way that makes the experience unique to the individual is the distinguishing element from a traditional book or film. A user is not just reacting to embedded meaning like they do when they read a book, they are exploring and configuring it based on its interaction model.

Part of the context of the book is that Aarseth is arguing against the post-structuralist conception of video games as meaning play, a group who “tried to show the inner contradictions of concepts such as sign, structure, work, and author in order to foreground the metaphysical nature of these innocent-looking terms” (83). Post-structuralism is the theory that two people can sit down, read the same book, and have two different understandings of its meaning because of their personal backgrounds and varying attention spans. Your desires and personality will dictate your understanding of a book. To the post-structuralist, gameplay is just an extension of that concept. What Aarseth points out is that portions of a cybertext will be cut off and will never be seen depending on your actions. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (41).

Accepting that there are connections between literature and games is still important, and Aarseth goes to great lengths to explain that there is a specific type of literature that games overlap with. He borrows research from Penelope Reed Doob to highlight this distinction. There are two models for a book: “the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually towards a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices, or bivia” (6). What happened in literature was that people started to move away from the unicursal idea of a book and started pushing for a multicursal model. It’s the difference between just reading something in a linear progression and having a book that you’re meant to hop around and absorb in a disjointed fashion. For example, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a long poem with numerous optional footnotes that tell their own independent story while commenting on the poem. You can still read it and understand it without looking at any of these footnotes but reading them enhances and nuances the narrative. The more popular example would be a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, which Aarseth declares is also a cybtertext. He explains, “a cybertext must contain some kind of information feedback loop. In one sense, this holds true for any textual situation, granted that the ‘text’ is something more than just marks upon a surface. A reader peruses a string of words, and depending on the reader’s subsequent actions, the significance of those words may be changed, if only imperceptibly.” (19)

Like myself and other writers discussing video games, one approach to games breaks the gaming experience into a triangle of player, design, and narrative but Aarseth opts instead for operator, verbal sign, and medium (21). Aarseth tears into the concept of analyzing just the narrative of a game by pointing out that the expressive component of a book or picture in terms of the audience is at best trivial. You can read the book aloud and modulate. You can string together a bunch of pictures to create a movie. Yet the transition from source to expression is still minimal; the act of expressing a text or picture can only be minorly adjusted through that expression. Aarseth notes, “To write is not the same as to speak; listening and reading are different activities, with different positions in the communicative topology” (163). Instead, he believes that between player and game “the relationship might be termed arbitrary, because the internal, coded level can of course be fully experienced by way of the external, expressive level.” There are multiple layers of meaning occurring in a game that go far beyond the surface and instead come from the ludic elements that the narrative is built upon.

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

To Aarseth, that’s the problem with the post-structuralist stance: “identical signifiers do not guarantee identical meanings.” (83) Being at full health at one point in the game is not the same thing as being at full health in another. Their theories do

provide interesting insights into the more advanced possibilities for meaning in games, but they don’t really address the mechanical issues at work. Using Roland Barthes own argument Aarseth writes, “Tmesis, claims Barthes, is not a figure of the text but a figure (at the time) of reading: the author ‘cannot choose to write what will not be read’ (47). The validity of the assertions that Aarseth makes depends on what type of game you’re talking about as well. Everyone who has played Half-Life 2 went through the game in roughly the same manner so that the missed details are trivial or minor. Where it becomes more interesting is in the more emergent games that have variable outcomes besides “Die or Progress”. He writes, “The important lesson to be learned from discontinuous and forking texts is that when two readers approach a text they do not have to encounter the same words and sentences in order to agree that it probably was the same text” (74).

How then do the relationships between player, designer, and machine pan out? Since you have no control over the final text of a game as the player, can it actually even be said you have written something in the Aristotelian sense? (84). Aarseth argues that the player engages in a contract with the cybertext. Discussing interactive fiction he explains, “The contract between user and text in ‘interactive fiction’ is not merely a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ but a willing suspension of one’s normal capacity for language, physical aptness, and social interaction as well” (117). But if you’re not really authoring anything, what is the player’s role in a game? The book muses, “When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader, where, and what, am ‘I’? Am I the sender or the receiver? I am certainly part of the medium, so perhaps I am the message…just as the game becomes a text for the user at the time of playing, so, it can be argued, does the user become a text for the game, since they exchange and react to each other’s messages according to a set of codes. The game plays the user just as the user plays the game, and there is no message apart from the play” (162).



Ultimately, accepting that a video game’s meaning comes from the interplay between user, ludic design, and plot requires abandoning an absolute emphasis on one particular element. Rather than think of narrative as the grand structure of everything, “the story of an event is not necessarily the same as the event itself, and stories can be told about things other than stories” (94). The concept of ergodic design, traversing a space and controlling the narrative instead of absorbing it “must have more than one explicit outcome and cannot, therefore, be successful or unsuccessful; this attribute here depends on the player” (113). Ultimately, the three elements collapse into one another to form a unique whole: “the user assumes the role of the main character and, therefore, will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself” (113). The three elements are still distinct at key moments though, such as when you die without intending to in a game, so that there is still a distinct player who is learning to play and improve. Aarseth makes the same argument that people still have to make today, “To achieve interesting and worthwhile computer-generated literature, it is necessary to dispose of the poetics of narrative literature and to use the computer’s potential for combination and world simulation in order to develop new genres that can be valued and used on their own terms” (140).

Looking back at the now almost ten year old book, I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of these ideas and principles are now considered self-evident. Aarseth himself admits in the last chapter that the book will probably date rapidly as technology advances, but what’s remarkable about his work is how much of it is still true today. Even if most people are willing to accept that a game emphasizing just plot or design is not as compelling as when the two are merged skillfully, the process of how to do that has hardly been answered. Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul are all grappling with the techniques of that combination in their own way. Aarseth, struggling to make sense of the medium in the mid-1990s before video games were even totally acceptable amongst my own generation, is mostly concerned about the gap forming between people who are engaging with the technology and people who are not. In the final chapter, he ponders the flaws of a growing group of people who are familiar and engaged with the medium. Doing so, “reduces our possibility to empathize with those who are not using the same technology as we, be they our less well-endowed colleagues or our historical predecessors, the texts’ creators or their contemporary readers” (169). As the generation gap widens and the staggering complexity of things like video games continues to grow, what is probably the most worrisome is that those who continue to dismiss them are ultimately just going to be left behind.

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