For all the much-vaunted promise of non-linear hypertextual narratives (well, in 1996 anyway), the sequential simplicity of a single stream of text won out. I have to say in David Gelernter’s defense, Lifestreams wasn’t so far off the mark in positing a searchable time-ordered stream of self-documents; he just never got around to implementing it.
I am, however, happy that hypertext theory has finally met with interactive fiction, thanks chiefly to the efforts of Nick Montfort, who must have coerced Stuart Moulthrop into co-writing a paper [PDF] on Adam Cadre’s Varicella. Go Nick!
The essay spends a good deal of time explaining the nature of the beast itself, but if it spawns 100 academic flowers of interactive fiction, that can’t be a bad thing. Unfortunately, the sheer difficulty and unwinnability of Varicella will probably send most hypertext theorists running for the hills. A close friend who’s a professional computer programmer and all-around technical expert claims that she still can’t get the “hang” of interactive fiction games.
Montfort has also written Twisty Little Passages, a historical overview of the genre that I haven’t read. The chapter titles indicate that he shies away from too much theorizing (ironic given the amount of work in the genre, which dwarves that of self-proclaimed hypertext fictions).
I have to think that the same things my friend mentioned will probably keep it in the margines. The restricted degrees of freedom offered by IF have provided for some brilliant moments within their context, meaning that familiarity with the genre is pretty much a prerequisite for appreciating any of the more experimental work going on in the field. I suspect it will have to transmute into something quite different to transcend that limitation.