January 10, 2008

Obsession of the moment: Protagonize.com


Of all the topics within the underground arts to become popular in the 1990s, one of the more fascinating ones in my opinion is the subject of "hyperfiction" -- or to put it in its most simple terms, the act of telling a story in a way other than a traditional three-act narrative one. It's been an interesting if not quirky and obscure subject among academic writers for half a century now, with the 1950 Kurosawa film Rashomon being one of the first mainstream examples of the format; with the birth of hyperlinks and websites in the '90s, though, suddenly "hyperfiction" went from a fun academic experiment into a legitimate option for any computer owner who could learn HTML (or at least buy a copy of Dreamweaver).

In fact, a lot of online hyperfiction has ended up taking on the only form of the medium to have gained a legitimate mainstream following among the general populace; the fun puzzle-solving form, that is, seen in the long-running children's series Choose Your Own Adventure (or CYOA). Known formally as "addventure" literature, CYOA books basically start with a genre stereotype at its core, explained within the first couple of pages: that you are a secret agent, for example, and that the crown jewels have been stolen. At the end of that introductory exposition, then, CYOA will actually give you as a reader a choice as to which direction the story will go next -- to follow the scenario I've already used, for example, perhaps you can either investigate the crime scene, in which case you would turn directly to page 4 of the paper book, or you can interview the only witness, in which case you would physically turn to page 6. As the story unfolds, then, each "branch" of the storyline just continues blossoming more and more, so that by the end of the novel you have something like 30 or 40 distinct endings, ranging from you getting killed in various gruesome ways to catching the criminals in various ingenious ways. And given the way that web pages work in relation to each other within a site, and the hyperlinks that take you from one page to the next, you can see why this CYOA format would be a natural fit for the various online hyperfiction projects that have been created in the last 15 years.

Ah, but what if you wanted to create an addventure that could be added to by multiple strangers at once? That's the premise behind the brand-new organization Protagonize; that since CYOA-style stories naturally "branch off" into a myriad of parallel universes, it is an ideal format for group literary collaboration without any of those people having to necessarily agree with each other or even know each other for the story to proactively proceed. This has always been one of the big hitches of group collaborative literary projects, after all, Protagonize's founders claim (and as a guy who sponsored a whole series of collaborative online literary projects in the '90s, let me whole-heartedly agree); that even if the technology has become like it now has, where it's virtually effortless for a group of strangers to actively create a group story at a central website in real time, it is still practically impossible to get even a group of three or four writer friends to all agree to every detail of a particular fictional environment, much less two dozen strangers scattered around the world. In an open-ended world like an addventure story, Protagnize's organizers argue, no one has to agree on anything for the project itself to be a wild success; if you want to make the main character more heroic and brave, then you go right ahead and do that on your own branch, while those who think the main character should be more introspective and meek can do so on their own branch. Then one group of people can work on one side, another on another, some on both branches at once, with a larger and larger reading audience that ultimately benefits from more and more content being there.

Protagonize stats page

The Protagonize website is slick, I have to admit, which far from being the usual Web 2.0 bells and whistles are actually important in this case for the experiment to work; the simple fact is that you need on-screen updating, RSS feeds, favoriting abilities and the like to keep up with such a snakelike literary format. That's probably what gives Protagonize a bigger chance of succeeding, frankly, than a lot of other literary experiments of this sort that have been started over the years; because the Protagonize site not only allows you to do the raw collaboration, but also runs a Digg-style voting system, a number-based rating system, a viewed-most-often "hot" system, and even an in-house recommendation system, results of which are all tidily gathered on the front page of the site, as well as the front page of each genre section found there. It effectively lets a person not only have a lot of power over creating and adding to stories, but also over organizing their reading and making sure that they're not missing anything.

JanePrime: An MMO love story

Of course, I couldn't do a feature on such a service and not add a little something myself; after all, hyperfiction was one of the formats I worked in the most myself when I was a writer in the '90s, a format I'm still a bit of a sucker for. I started up a brand-new story over at Protagonize, in fact, called "JanePrime: An MMO love story;" it's about two people who both play a popular Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) roleplaying game, kinda like "World of Warcraft" but in this case with a dystopian future setting, who learn one night that they both live in the same large physical city as well out in the "real world." Basically all I've done is set up the premise, leaving things at the point where they've agreed to meet up in "meatspace;" the woman in this story, who refers to her game avatar as "Jane0" and her physical self as "JanePrime," has basically invited our narrator to meet up either at a goth dance club, an internet cafe known as a meet-up space for hackers, or their unnamed city's museum of contemporary art, which then lead to the three parallel universes of this story that other writers will base their own chapters off of. Anyone who wants, then, can come by the Protagonize site and write up their own version of what happens on these three physical meet-ups; at the end of their own addition, they then come up with their own options, which branch off into their own universes, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Anyway, it's a fun idea and an awfully sharp site, both in look and feel, something just now getting off the ground and that could use a little extra publicity. I encourage you to stop by, to play a bit, to read a bit, and then to mention it in your own blog, and help spread the word about this intriguing new literary experiment.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:35 PM, January 10, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | Design | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |